For the past decade, “How Great Is Our God” has been one of the most popular worship songs in the United States.
The song’s success helped to make Chris Tomlin the world’s top worship leader, and turned his co-writer Ed Cash into one of the most sought-after Christian music producers in Nashville.
It also helped launch what former members are calling a cult.
Cash is a leading member of The Gathering International, a small group of followers devoted to Wayne “Pops” Jolley, a prosperity gospel preacher with a history of alleged spiritual and sexual abuse.
Jolley’s followers, including Cash, call him a prophet and their spiritual father. They answer his sermons with “Yes, sir” and shower him with gifts and tithes in exchange for his blessing. They also submit the details of their lives—where to work, where to live, and who to associate with—for his approval.
According to former followers, no one is allowed to question Jolley’s decisions.
“Correction upward is always rebellion,” he often tells his followers.
His critics, he says, are controlled by demons. And congregations that are run by a church board—rather than a pastor—are controlled by demons, too.
“That’s why we don’t have boards,” he told his followers in a sermon posted to the Gathering’s website. “We just don’t. … I am criticized for that. I am looked down upon for that. And I am called a cult leader. I really don’t care.”
A growing number of Jolley’s former followers do care. They turned to Jolley for pastoral care in a time of need, believing he was a man of God with a worldwide ministry. In return, they claim, he took their money and tried to ruin their families. They also claim that Jolley’s ministry has covered up serious accusations of past physical and sexual abuse.
Jolley—who has had serious health problems in recent months—and Cash, along with other current members of the Gathering, declined to be interviewed for this story. But interviews with former members, former employees, and families of current members—along with reviews of Jolley’s sermons and the tax returns of Wayne Jolley Ministries Inc.—paint a disturbing picture.
Here are a few of their stories.
Splitting Up Couples
For Mike Pugh and his wife, Debbie, joining the Gathering was a godsend.
They’d first met Jolley back in the 1980s, when he was a traveling evangelist in the Cleveland, Tennessee-based Church of God, but had lost touch. Then in 2005, Jolley called. He was looking to buy a new set of pots and pans from Pugh, a self-employed salesman for Townecraft cookware. The two met, and afterwards, Jolley invited Pugh to the Gathering.
The group had just started meeting on Saturday evenings for prayer, worship, and Bible study. It was a small group, with a few couples meeting in Franklin, Tennessee, just south of Nashville.
At the time, things weren’t going well for the Pughs. Debbie had suffered two heart attacks and was struggling to recover. Pugh’s business had hit a rough patch and money was tight. Jolley offered to help, first with a listening ear and later with some acts of kindness, such as a Walmart gift card for groceries.
Then came what Jolley called “couch time”—pastoral counseling sessions with Jolley that lasted for hours. The Pughs say Jolley wanted to know about their marital struggles. He was also keenly interested in their finances.