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.
Debbie Pugh said she never felt comfortable visiting with Jolley. But her husband insisted they go. He felt obligated—after all, Jolley had helped them.
“The first thing I said to Debbie was, ‘We at least owe it to go over and visit,’” said Mike Pugh. “That’s how he gets you in.”
Before long, the Pughs were regulars at the Gathering’s Saturday meetings at Jolley’s home, where the preacher dispenses a mix of prosperity gospel teachings and high-pressure spiritual counsel from an oversized recliner.
Many of his sermons are drawn from the life of the prophet Elijah in the book of 1 Kings. In that Old Testament book, the queen Jezebel and her husband, Ahab, have taken over Israel and led the people into idol worship. Only Elijah stands in her way.
America, says Jolley in a sermon entitled “The Spirit of Jezebel Part I,” is in the same boat. The country and most of its churches are under the sway of an evil demon named Jezebel. That demon has led America astray and keeps Christians from experiencing God’s blessing.
Among the demon’s most effective strategies: church boards that question the power of their pastors. Any church with a board is under the sway of Jezebel, says Jolley, and has lost God’s blessings and power.
“They are being controlled by a demon and all the while, singing, ‘O how I love Jesus,’” said Jolley in the sermon.
The only way to fight Jezebel is with the help of a man of God or prophet, who follows in Elijah’s footsteps, said Jolley. Such a person acts as a spiritual father to other Christians, discerning God’s will for their lives and telling them to be free of Jezebel.
Jolley’s followers are asked to make a lifelong covenant with him and God, where they pledge their obedience and financial support to him as their spiritual father. In exchange, he pledges to pass on God’s messages and blessings.
This brand of spiritual fathering is based in part on the shepherding movement popular in charismatic circles in the 1970s and 1980s. That movement taught that every Christian needs a personal pastor or mentor, said S. David Moore of The King’s University in Modesto, California.
Moore, author of The Shepherding Movement, said those mentors were often called spiritual fathers. Members in the movement voluntarily submitted to their mentor.
Unfortunately, he said, some of the mentors became authoritarian and demanded obedience from their followers, which led to the movement’s demise.
“If you treat someone like a king for too long, they’ll start to act like one,” he said.
Jolley’s followers, who call him “Pop” (his wife, Linda, is “Mom”), are taught that only the prophet can really discern the will of God. Without a prophet’s help, they will be lost. The best way to get close to God, he tells them, is to get close to Mom and Pop.
In one of his sermons, Jolley mocks his followers for their lack of faith, especially if they say to him, “Pop, you just don’t understand,” after he’s been up all night talking to God about them.
“It’s at that point where I’d like to grab someone and wring their jaws like a dinner bell,” he said. “It frustrates me to no end.”
While Jolley is willing to put up with devoted, if wayward, followers, he won’t tolerate any challenge to his authority. Anyone who questions the prophet is under the control of a demon. Anyone who breaks their covenant with Jolley and leaves the Gathering is cursed.
“It is only a matter of time until judgment comes,” he told his followers in the sermon on Jezebel. “And that judgment will fall and fall hard up on that person.”
The second part of Jolley’s teaching is what he calls the “order of fathers and sons,” which combines spiritual fathering with a form of prosperity gospel teaching. Any gift that’s given to a spiritual father—in this case Jolley—will be repaid by God in the form of a double blessing.
So Jolley’s followers tithe their 10 percent to his ministry and then give additional offerings in order to get God’s blessings.
Pugh said the idea of Jolley being his spiritual father was very powerful. “I’ve always had a bad relationship with my dad. So to have somebody who says, ‘Hey, I’m your daddy, and I’m going to take care of you,’ is a very engaging thing,” he said.
Pugh, like Cash, was eventually named one of Jolley’s “Men of Iron,” or chief lieutenants. Their job was to be at Jolley’s beck and call, to help lead the Saturday services, or fill in if Jolley couldn’t be there.
Then there was the money. First Pugh gave a 10-percent tithe. Then 20 percent, along with special offerings for Jolley’s ministry.
Jolley also asked for more and more control of the Pughs’ lives. The Pughs said he told them and other followers to cut ties with friends and family members who were outside of the group. He also asked for the passwords on their personal computers so he could keep an eye on them to make sure they were acting holy.
If they were going to miss a Saturday evening meeting, the Pughs had to call in and report to Linda Chapman, Jolley’s live-in assistant.
Debbie Pugh said the breaking point for her came during a meeting in 2012 with Jolley and some of the Men of Iron and their wives. At the time, she had become increasingly critical of Jolley. Jolley told her husband that she was possessed.
Then Jolley laid down the law. “There are women in this room that think your husband will leave me for you, but they won’t,” she says Jolley announced. “They’ll leave you for me.”
In the car after the meeting, Debbie Pugh was furious. “Mike, he just spoke against our marital vows,” she told her husband. “I don’t understand that.”
Soon she’d vowed never to go back to the Gathering. And just as Jolley predicted, Mike left her and moved into a condo owned by Jolley. At the time, the Pughs had been married for more than 30 years.
Jolley told Mike the couple’s marital woes weren’t his fault—even though he’d been a bad husband at times and been unfaithful to his wife early in their marriage. That didn’t matter. Debbie Pugh was still to blame, according to Jolley.
“And that was easy for me to hear because it let me off the hook,” Mike Pugh said. “You can’t say nothing about it. Pop said you can’t say nothing about any man of God.”
The Pughs reunited after a year with the help of Shelly Sullivan, a former pastor and longtime friend. A breakthrough came when Sullivan challenged Mike Pugh’s unwavering faith in Jolley. He told Pugh that Jolley's actions were unbiblical and just wrong.
“I don’t know of any pastor who’d ask a man to abandon his family for the sake of that pastor or their ministry,” Sullivan told CT.
Sullivan, it turns out, had run into Jolley a numbers of times over the years. In the 1970s, Sullivan was pastor of the Church of God of Prophecy in Wilmington, Illinois, a Pentecostal congregation. His predecessor was Jolley, who was a divisive figure.
“People either loved him or hated him,” said Sullivan. “There was no in-between.”
Back in the 1970s, there was no sign of any serious trouble with Jolley, said Sullivan, adding that Jolley soon left the pastorate to become a traveling evangelist.
Cut Off from Daughters
Other former members of the Gathering who contacted CT tell similar stories. Their stories follow a pattern. They met Jolley at a time of weakness, or when they were seeking God. Soon they found themselves increasingly isolated from friends and family and under Jolley’s sway.
Some of the early teachings seemed biblical, but the appeals for money seemed off, said Patricia Gill, who has 19 family members in the Gathering, including 3 adult daughters. Many pastors have altar calls when they invite people to accept Christ as their Savior, she said. Jolley’s meetings end with an altar call for more donations.
“He would tell them to give an offering over and above the tithe, according to how much they loved God,” she said. “That was the first red flag.”
Gill and her husband, Frank, a former preacher, attended the Gathering for a time. But they say that when they asked too many questions at a late night gathering at the Jolleys’ home, they were labeled as having a Jezebel spirit and were cut off from their family. Their daughters were ordered to have no contact with their parents.
Jolley uses the story of Patricia and Frank as a warning to his followers. Even a preacher can be possessed by Jezebel, he said in a sermon on Jezebel.
“That individual is leading his own children into hell,” he told followers. “You need to hear me—leading them into hell. It’s that simple. Leading his children into hell. It’s that simple. Leading his own children to hell and felt totally justified. That’s how Jezebel operates.”
Patricia thought things would blow over in a few weeks. Eight years later, they are still cut off from their daughters.
The Gills, who have been married for 61 years and have 9 grown children, say their daughters were lured into the group by Jolley’s promises that they’d become wealthy. Frank believes that they stay in the group out of fear.
One of the first questions that Jolley asks newcomers, Frank said, is “What is the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life?” He then uses their secrets as a kind of spiritual blackmail.
“He’s got that to hold over their heads,” he said. “If you walk out, he’ll expose you.”
Glenn and Rebecca Chambers of Charlotte, North Carolina, also lost contact with their daughter, Madeleine, because of her ties to the Gathering.
The Chambers had been worried when Madeleine decided to attend Belmont University in Nashville. She’d had some struggles in the past, and they were concerned about her being far from home. So they asked Scott Cash, Ed’s brother and a family friend, to keep an eye out for Madeleine.
Rebecca Chambers’ father is a good friend of Ed and Scott’s father, Steady Cash, a longtime Charlotte businessman and a member of Young Life’s national board of directors. (Steady Cash declined to be interviewed for this story.)
While at Belmont, Madeleine began to babysit for Scott Cash’s family and to attend the Gathering. When they’d come to town, her parents visited the Gathering and felt uncomfortable with what they heard.
After graduation, Madeleine began to distance herself from her parents. That’s normal for new graduates, but she seemed increasingly under Jolley’s sway. Then came the news in 2012 that she had met someone from the group and wanted to get married.
As the wedding approached however, things began to go wrong. First, Madeleine and her fiancé postponed the wedding. They cut off contact with her parents, communicating only through Jolley and the Cashes. This led to more tension between Madeleine’s parents and Jolley, which worsened over the months that followed.
Then in May 2014, the Chambers got an email from their daughter’s fiancé with news that the couple had gotten married. That led to more angry emails.
Finally, Madeleine’s new husband laid out the terms for any reconciliation between his new wife and her parents: “We want restoration and relationship but only under one mandatory condition,” he wrote. “The two of you repent of the damage, manipulation, and guilt you have inflicted on your daughter.”
As proof of the Chambers’ wrongdoing, he attached recordings of their voice mail messages and copies of emails criticizing Jolley. (Madeleine and her husband declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Rebecca Chambers believes her daughter wants to follow God. But she also may be trapped in the Gathering and fearful to leave, she said, because of Jolley’s warning that she’d be cursed if she breaks from the group.
“She was in a very precarious situation. It was either get rid of them or get rid of us,” she said. “And she got rid of us.”
A Worldwide Ministry No One Has Heard Of
Heather Asbell, a former employee of Wayne Jolley Ministries and ex-member of the Gathering, came to work for Jolley in 2007 after getting downsized from her job. She started attending the Gathering with a friend.
At that time, the group had moved to a 6,000-square foot, million-dollar home on the outskirts of Franklin that Jolley purchased in 2005. The property was later deeded over to the ministry, which paid off the mortgage and performed extensive renovations.
Saturday meetings are invitation-only. The house is surrounded by a fence and the entrance to the driveway is gated. Jolley often preaches from his recliner in a basement space that was renovated for meetings. About 30 to 40 people attend.
Asbell felt welcome at first. When Jolley offered her a job, it felt like an answer to prayer. But that feeling didn’t last long. Soon she found herself working late nights and weekends, with Jolley not allowing her to leave until he found her work satisfactory, said Asbell.
“Once I started working for him, it was hard to get out,” she said.
Asbell also found Jolley increasingly trying to take control of her life. She was required to donate to the ministry, and told to quit her other church and only attend the Gathering. Jolley would berate her for the smallest mistake, often in front of other Gathering members.
Things came to a head when Asbell wanted to skip a Gathering meeting to go out of town for a family funeral. Jolley disapproved, she said, and fired her when she got home.
Getting fired was a relief. Asbell said she felt terrified of Jolley most of the time she worked for him. Jolley, she and other ex-employees say, has an explosive temper. He’s also got an extensive gun collection and is almost always armed.
“He told me once, ‘You have no idea what I am capable of,’” Asbell said.
While working in Jolley’s office, Asbell began to ask questions about where the ministry’s money was going. At the time, Jolley claimed to have a worldwide radio ministry called “Power for Living.”
“We now reach a total of 107 countries and 4.5 billion people day in and day out with the Gospel of Jesus Christ” the Jolleys wrote in a 2008 fundraising letter. “We are watching God make the impossible possible every hour as Muslims are being born again, lives are being changed, and, in Africa, entire villages are being brought to their knees before Jesus Christ.”
Yet Asbell saw no signs of a major radio show being produced, aside from Jolley’s sermons being recorded. No indications of any money being sent overseas for ministry. No signs of all the miraculous events that Jolley was claiming had occurred.
“You are reaching 4.5 billion people around the world and yet nobody knows who you are,” she said. “How can that be?”
A review of Jolley’s tax returns show that the ministry took in $442,052 in 2008 and spent $20,724 on radio broadcast time. By comparison, David Jeremiah’s Turning Point for God ministry, which claims to reach 480 million people, spent $9.7 million on its radio broadcasts.
Over a 9-year period, Jolley’s ministry took in $9.08 million in revenue, and spent $114,709 on broadcasts—or less than 2 percent of its income.
Few of Jolley’s followers ever get a look at his ministry’s finances, at least while they remain part of the Gathering. When they leave, they are shocked at what they find from looking at the ministry’s tax returns.
Unlike a church, which exists as an organization apart from the pastor, the congregation at the Gathering has no legal standing. It doesn’t exist, except as part of Wayne Jolley Ministries. Jolley, in his sermons, warns his followers that asking questions about money is a sin.
Yet every year, Jolley files a tax return with the IRS, which lists Wayne and Linda Jolley as the sole board members. Having a board that small is a violation of Tennessee law, which requires every nonprofit to have at least three board members.
Much of the nonprofit’s money is used for Jolley’s benefit. Those tax returns show that, for the Jolleys, meeting the members of the Gathering was like winning the lottery. In 2004, the ministry was floundering with $6,064 in the bank, about $33,000 in assets (including a house in Ringgold, Georgia), and a $15,000 budget deficit.
That year, the Jolleys began visiting with members of the Gathering in Franklin. The group had been started by a few couples—including Cash and his wife—who met on Saturdays to pray and study the Bible. They’d been looking for someone to teach the class, and one of the couples, who had been visiting Jolley for counseling, brought his name up. He was invited to teach the group one Saturday, and soon was making regular trips to Franklin on the weekends.
Jolley would teach the class on Saturday night and spend the rest of the time doing counseling with group members at the Hampton Inn in Franklin.
Soon Jolley was installed as the group’s leader and money began to roll in. Within a year, Wayne Jolley Ministries had collected $1.56 million in donations and other revenue and had $742,862 in the bank.
From 2005 to 2013, Wayne Jolley Ministries took in $9.08 million in donations from the Gathering and other donors. By the end of 2013, the last year for which tax returns are available, the ministry had $2.5 million in assets. Among those assets: Jolley’s million-dollar home.
The circumstances around the house’s purchase remain murky. Jolley and his wife, Linda, originally bought the house in November 2005 for $1.07 million. The house was in their name, but within a few months, the house—and its debt—was transferred to Wayne Jolley Ministries.
Those details are hidden from followers. Instead, Jolley boasts that God gave him the house. “The Lord showed us this house and said, ‘It’s yours,’” Jolley told his followers in a recording of a sermon from December 2014. Jolley claims he bought the house without having money for the down payment, which later appeared courtesy of a last-minute donation. Since acquiring the house, Jolley has spent more than $400,000 on improvements, which is used as his primary residence.
During the past nine years, the ministry, which claims to be changing lives all over the world, has sent no money overseas. (Federal law requires nonprofits to disclose funds sent overseas). During that same period, the ministry spend $5,875 on missions and more than $25,000 on landscaping. The only sign of ministry outside of Nashville is a second, small Gathering in North Carolina.
Since arriving in Franklin, the Jolleys have also voted themselves substantial raises. In 2003, they earned a total of $17,620 in salary at the ministry, along with an $8,200 expense account. In 2004, that jumped to $41,200, with a $32,500 expense account. By 2013, the latest year available, the Jolleys earned $161,540. The ministry’s tax returns also list a $20,250 housing allowance.
The couple also has $17,000 in outstanding loans due to the ministry. Those loans violate Tennessee law, which bans loans to nonprofit board members.
Chief Backer and Worship Leader
The ministry’s fortunes began to rise at the same time that Ed Cash’s did. In 2004, he had a major breakthrough as co-writer and producer on “How Great Is Our God,” which won him a Dove Award as producer of the year in 2004 from the Gospel Music Association. (Cash has since won that producer award six additional times).
That song remains immensely popular. As of November 2015, it was No. 8 on the top 25 list compiled by Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI).
Cash went on to co-write other hit songs with Chris Tomlin, including “God of Angel Armies” (No. 20) and “Jesus Messiah” (No. 25). All told, Cash has more than 350 credits on the CCLI list.
More recently, Cash has begun sharing songwriting credits with Jolley and Tomlin. The three are listed as co-writers on “The Table” and “The Roar,” both of which appear on Tomlin’s Love Ran Red collection.
In a statement, Tomlin said that he has no direct ties to Jolley and has never collaborated directly with him.
“I’ve never met Wayne Jolley, and I am not affiliated in any way with Wayne Jolley or The Gathering International,” he told CT in a statement. “The only songwriting that I’ve shared with Wayne Jolley has been with Ed Cash and his desire to give a portion of his songwriting to Wayne. Obviously I have no way of knowing if any of the allegations here are true, but my highest priority is truth and justice—not just in Wayne’s case but for all of us.”
Cash has gone on to work with some of the biggest names in Christian music: Steven Curtis Chapman, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Nicole C. Mullen, David Crowder, and others.
Most Saturday nights, he leads worship during the Gathering’s meetings.
Cash and his brother Scott both agreed to be interviewed by CT, then canceled their interview. Cash later wrote and recorded a song to CT explaining why he backed out.
According to ex-members of the group, both Ed and Scott Cash serve as part of Jolley’s Men of Iron. Ex-members also say that Ed Cash has boasted of his financial support for Jolley, claiming that he gives the ministry 10 percent of his personal income, and then 10 percent of his business income.
According to tax returns, Cash’s family have been substantial backers of Jolley. In 2010, the now shuttered Cash Family Foundation, based in North Carolina, gave $219,720 to Wayne Jolley Ministries. The foundation also gave Jolley additional, smaller donations in 2011 and 2012.
The Cash brothers’ ties to Jolley have caused them problems. The two had often been featured musicians at Young Life conferences. That ended after Young Life became aware of their involvement with Jolley, according to emails obtained by CT.
Young Life would not comment on whether it has severed ties with Ed and Scott Cash. But any involvement with Young Life was not an endorsement of their church, Young Life said in a statement.
“Members of the Cash family are among many independent musicians who faithfully serve Young Life by performing at or producing music for Young Life events,” Young Life’s national office said. “In all cases, the content of their performances is determined by Young Life and is consistent with our beliefs and values. We are grateful for the talent of each of these artists, but do not otherwise evaluate or endorse their chosen church affiliation.”
Stories of Sexual Abuse
The recent success of Jolley’s ministry baffles Debbie Morrison, director of Serenity Pointe, a nonprofit based in Dunlap, Tennessee. She thought that his ministry had been shut down after a scandal more than a dozen years ago.
Morrison, who was then a prominent real estate agent in Chattanooga, heard him preach at a church revival in the early 2000s and was impressed. At the time, Jolley was a traveling evangelist based in nearby Ringgold, Georgia.
“Our nephew, who had been out of church for years and years, got saved during that revival,” she said.
Soon Morrison decided to start giving to Jolley’s ministry. First she wrote a $5,000 check and then a second for about $25,000. She thought she was doing God’s will by donating to the ministry.
During that time, Morrison also got to know Jolley’s then teenaged stepdaughter, Marjorie Tellez. Marjorie’s mom is Linda Jolley, Wayne’s third wife.
One afternoon, Morrison met the Jolleys for lunch and learned that Tellez had left home. Something about that bothered her. When pressed for detail, Morrison felt the Jolleys were hiding something.
“Something was not right,” she told CT. She decided to track down Tellez and find out what happened. Morrison called her pastor and eventually tracked down Tellez through her grandmother.
What she learned horrified her. Tellez told her about years of sexual abuse, starting when she was eight. Wayne Jolley would come into the bathroom and watch her shower, and then make her sit on his lap naked or just wrapped in a towel. Later he would go to her bedroom at night and lay down on her.
Tellez, who now lives in South Carolina, confirmed Debbie Morrisson’s account. “He told me that’s the way that a father and daughter should be,” she said.
Along with the sexual abuse, Tellez said she was repeatedly beaten by Jolley while growing up. The slightest offense would often lead to violence.
Things got a bit better when several other young women joined the ministry in Ringgold, she said.
Jolley called them “his girls” and would often walk into their rooms when they were dressing. But the other girls tried to shield Tellez from the worst of the physical abuse, so she wasn’t alone.
Sheralee Schneider lived with the Jolleys for years in Ringgold. Her mother and stepfather were longtime followers of Jolley and had moved from their home in Pennsylvania to be with him. Schneider and her sister came along with them.
Eventually she worked for the ministry, where she said Jolley began to harass her sexually as well. She was older, just out of high school, and he asked her to sit on his lap while he caressed her.
Schneider said she felt trapped. She had little money, as Jolley only paid her a small monthly stipend. When money was tight, she didn’t get paid at all. Her parents were devoted followers of Jolley, who would never question him or disobey his directions.
“There was no one there to protect me,” she said.
Besides, Schneider said, she had no friends outside the ministry. She was either on the road with Jolley or working in his office. Eventually, Jolley arranged for her to marry a young man from the ministry.
She said she lived in constant fear while in Jolley’s presence. “When he’s mad, you just pray that he hits something and not you,” she said.
While working for Jolley, Schneider said she also began to see that much of his ministry was a hoax. Jolley, for example, claimed to have a doctorate and other advanced degrees. The doctorate, however, was granted to Jolley by his brother, Donald, who ran an non-accredited, online only school. (Jolley now runs a similar unaccredited online institution known as Logos Theological Seminary.)
Jolley also ran an unaccredited Christian homeschool program from which Schneider and some of the other girls graduated.
“My diploma is worthless,” she said.
She and her husband eventually left Jolley while the ministry was still in Ringgold. Schneider said she hasn’t spoken to her mother since 2009.
These days, Schneider, who is going through a divorce, is trying to rebuild her life, far away from Jolley.
“No one has watched out for me,” she said. “I’m the only one who can watch out for me.”
Ashley Wheeler, who lived with the Jolleys from 2000 to 2002, said she knew something was wrong with the way that Jolley treated Tellez.
Her bedroom was next to Tellez’s, and she recalls hearing Jolley slip into Tellez’s room at night. She didn’t know the details at first, until Tellez confided in her.
“I would hear him walk down the hall,” she told CT. “He’d go in her room. It would be 10 or 30 minutes and then he’d walk out.”
Wheeler said she saw other forms of abuse firsthand.
If she or one of the other girls made a mistake, Jolley would scream at them or hit them with a switch. Sometimes he made them strip down to their underwear before hitting them, she said.
Before she left, two of the other girls—Tellez and Sheralee Schneider—had taken in a stray kitten as a pet. The kitten annoyed Jolley, so he took it outside and shot it with his shotgun, said Wheeler.
Wheeler had joined the ministry after hearing Jolley preach at her church. Jolley told the congregation that they should give something that would prove how much they loved God.
She was only 16 at the time, and during the collection after that first sermon, she gave Jolley the keys to her car.
“That car was the biggest thing I owned,” she said.
After that revival, Wheeler said she felt called to go to work with Jolley. So her parents drove her to Ringgold and let her join the ministry.
Working for Jolley became a nightmare. As soon as she learned the details of the abuse, she and Tellez plotted to leave. They snuck into the office belonging to Jolley’s longtime assistant and called Wheeler’s parents.
Her dad agreed to come pick her up, telling Jolley that Wheeler was only going home for the weekend. She never returned. Tellez escaped a few nights later.
Praying for a Family Reunion
For the past eight years, the Gills have prayed that their children would leave Jolley. Every Christmas, Patricia decorates the house, in hopes that her daughters will come home.
“Maybe they’ll be home this year,” she said.
The refrigerator and cabinets in the Gills’ kitchen are covered with photos of their family. Among Frank Gill’s most prized possessions: a journal his children gave him in 2001 for his 70th birthday.
He read from it during a recent interview with CT at their home. On the table beside the journal was a coffee cup with a verse from 1 Corinthians 13: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Frank’s eyes filled with tears as he read a note from his now-estranged daughter, Joy.
“Thank you for being faithful to Mom and giving us the legacy of a loving marriage, instead of a heartache of a broken family,” she wrote.
The Gills say they aren’t angry with their daughters. They believe their daughters want to honor God but have been deceived by Jolley. They hope that soon he will be exposed as a fraud.
Among the photos on the Gills’ fridge is one of Ed Cash and his family. Frank Gill, who still runs an active prison ministry at 84, says he has no bitterness towards Cash and often prays for him too.
“We love them,” he said. “They’ve been deceived like everyone else.”
After eight years, the Gills say they haven’t given up hope. They believe their daughters will be free soon.
“It’s going to be a lot better when this is over,” he said. “We’re going to be closer to them. They are going to be closer to us. We are going to be closer to each other than ever before. God is going to do a miracle.”
Bob Smietana is senior news editor of Christianity Today.