Three years ago I moved from North Carolina to Baton Rouge to begin a job as Webmaster for Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. I did not know much about the ministry, but I needed a job and the idea of working for a ministry seemed appealing. The Swaggart’s seemed nice enough at first, but I was soon to find out that this kindness was only offered in exchange for my complete loyalty and subjection to totalitarian-like control.
In the days and weeks after moving to Baton Rouge, I was perplexed at the oddity of my everyday encounters with ministry employees. People seemed burdened and stressed. When smiles were given, they were the stiff and sterile kind, not the kind that invades your face, and crinkles your eyes. In my mind it should have been the most joy filled environment in the world to work in and the lack of levity concerned me. People seemed guarded and paranoid, and never spoke of the Swaggarts without lowering their voice and quickly looking around to see who might be listening. People seemed particularly fearful of Frances. I remember it was at times like this that I would defend her. “Oh really”, I would gush, “she is really the nicest person and has been so kind to me”. They would stare back at me unblinking, with cold, dead eyes. I could see I was not convincing them. I could also see that it was not up for discussion.
I still remember someone entering my office and commencing to talk to me in a barely audible voice. I laughed and said, “What, do you think it’s bugged”? They looked at me dead serious and said, “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time”. I wondered then, just who, or what, I had become involved in.
The three years I spent there were three of the hardest years of my life. My sentence came to an abrupt end when I was fired unceremoniously along with four other people. The only thing that tied all four of us together was an unsolicited email that had been sent to my work address which outlined some highly offensive material that was being printed in the ministry’s print shop. Being masters of the sweep, it was important for them to silence the voice of anyone that knew, lest they infect others with the truth. At Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, it seems that being righteous is not nearly as important as looking righteous.
In the days that followed, the print-shop worker who had been so outraged over what he had been asked to print decided to talk to Jimmy. He was still under the impression that Jimmy did not know. He believed, as I had for so long, that somehow there was a rogue element loose in the ministry perpetrating these things without Swaggart’s knowledge. I felt compassion for him as I knew that when the acid of truth ate through his wall of denial, it would be particularly painful. It was.
If I could count the number of people who said to me in my three years there that there was something not right. There was too much secrecy, too much control of information. By controlling the information an individual has, they limit the person’s ability to think for themselves. Individuality is not prized at JSM and is targeted for special treatment. This special treatment involves isolation, shunning, and coercive persuasion. It is a process designed to break a person’s individuality and replace it with their cloned group-think. If a person still does not bend, then an artfully crafted piece of gossip is skillfully inserted into the grapevine to destroy the person’s character. They have it down to an art form. I watched it happen to others, and I experienced the pain, frustration, and humiliation of it, when it happened to me.
Most people cave in and conform. Faced with forces they feel unable to escape from, they adapt. They learn to anticipate problems and manipulate events to avoid self-incrimination. It is hard to even realize it is happening to you when you don’t know who your enemy is. Your enemy seems like they are your very best friend and advocate and only have your very best interests at heart.
At Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, people come to expect humiliation, isolation, ostracism and punishment, because they can never live up to the ideal. Since they set themselves up to be the ultimate judge of good and evil, their employees live in a state of constant fear of failure, fear of being fired, and constant guilt and shame over perceived wrongs they may have committed against the organization. It does not help that the rules seem to constantly change or that there are two sets of rules.
On more than one occasion when I was being given a particularly coercive talk about my absence from church, Frances remarked that she knew me better than I knew myself. Odd, since scripture clearly states that no one but God can know the heart of man. She was setting herself up to be Holy Spirit to me, to lead me and guide me in the ways she deemed righteous. It did not seem to matter to her that attending church there was never made a condition of my employment, nor did it matter that there were many people employed there who did not go to church at all, including members of her own extended family. When I told Frances that there were many “unsaved” people who worked there she looked at me coldly and said, “Well that is different, they are unsaved and they don’t go to church anywhere.” Clearly in her eyes it was better to be unsaved than to be saved and not go to their church.
After my own experience, I began to search through online material and books to see what others had experienced. I knew that the mistreatment of those in their employ had to be a pattern. In some ways, what I found was therapeutic. Reading the experiences of others and knowing that I was not alone, that many others had experienced similar mistreatment, was somehow affirming. For obvious reasons, one of the first sources I looked at was award-winning investigative journalist John Camp. Although certainly not the focus of his investigations, he describes some instances that to those of us who have been at the receiving end, seem all too familiar.
In his book, Odyssey of a Derelict Gunslinger, John B. Camp describes how he initially became interested in digging deeper into Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. He describes what he refers to as a “sad-faced truck driver” showing up at his office who complained that he and his wife had been fired unjustly.
“The man drove one of the eighteen-wheeler rigs that transported television production equipment, gospel recordings and a variety of religious merchandise to Swaggart’s twice-monthly crusades.
The couple had relocated from the Midwest for the specific purpose of becoming helpmates of Jimmy and Jesus. She worked in the warehouse that processed the ministry’s huge mail-order business. However, she was labeled a trouble-maker after complaining of sexual harassment by a supervisor, and the couple was fired.”
Not long after, Camp had a mid-level manger arrive at his office who complained about “Jimmy’s arbitrary and unchristian-like treatment.” He gave Camp a stack of internal memoranda that suggested that “the ministry’s top three executives- Jimmy, his wife Frances and their son, Donnie, were overbearing micro-managers consumed with minutiae.”
Camp goes on to explain that initially he was not interested in doing a piece on what amounted in his mind to, “internal whining”, but also did not want to overlook a story that had essentially been handed to him.
“I started to contact other disaffected former employees. The complaints were much the same- people disillusioned by the perceived arrogance of Brother Jimmy and his family.”
Camp was still not satisfied that he had a story worth pursuing until he met George Jernigan, Swaggart’s former Director of Finance. Not surprisingly, Jernigan had been fired for urging Swaggart to be frank in his fund-raising appeals. The controversy primarily involved Swaggarts misappropriation of funds gathered through emotional appeals in which pictures of emaciated African children were shown to garner the empathy (and cold hard cash) of his Christian viewers. According to Jernigan, contributions were not going to the Children’s Fund but were being siphoned into the general account. Only pennies on the dollar were actually being spent in the feeding of starving children.
In, Odyssey of a Derelict Gunslinger, Camp describes his encounter with Jernigan.
“George Jernigan was not the kind of guy to maliciously spread gossip. Tall and slender with a rounded beard sans mustache, his posture and deliberate manner gave him the appearance of a stern Amish farmer. He remained almost reverently subdued in criticizing his former employer, once interrupting my questioning to pray for guidance before answering. …. After prayerful meditation, Jernigan told me of the ministry’s extravagant spending, and explained how contributions of jewelry and other goods were converted for personal use by the Swaggart family. His biggest criticism was directed at a fund-raising gimmick called the ‘Children’s fund.’”
When Jernigan complained to Swaggart about the misrepresentations, he was unceremoniously fired. In speaking at a tape-recorded staff meeting not long after the firing of Jernigan, Swaggart had this to say.
“Some of the Brothers here have questioned my judgment. Let me set the record straight. I have forgotten more about administration and organization and business than most of you will ever learn. I know what I’m doing. I probably know more about what I am doing than any man you’ve ever laid eyes on in your life. Don’t ever think I don’t know what I am doing. Somebody talks about the chain of command and you’re looking at the whole chain, every link in it.”
Camp also describes an encounter with the ministry’s former Director of Spiritual Counseling, Noble Scroggins. Scroggins recounted an incident involving an elderly woman who wrote that she and her sisters had fallen on hard times and were barely existing on their meager social security checks.
“The sisters were contributors to fundraising appeals to feed starving children. But facing hard times, they were unable to fulfill pledges. The letter asked if it would be sinful to commit suicide so that proceeds of their life insurance policies could go to the Children’s Fund.”
Scroggins ran to Swaggart’s office expecting him to immediately call the woman and dissuade her from any suicidal ideation. Instead, Swaggart casually set the letter aside. Scroggins resigned.
In an article that appeared in the December 1986 edition of Spin magazine, a Swaggart executive described scores of ministry employees being subjected to lie detector tests when it was suspected that someone was leaking information to John Camp. If the ministry had nothing to hide, why take such extreme and invasive measures against employees. If a person has nothing to hide then generally, they hide nothing. What were they afraid was going to be exposed? The truth?
According to a ministry executive who took the test, passed, but later resigned, overweight ministry employees were subjected to mandatory weight loss programs in order to keep their jobs.
“Frances got on this kick,” he said, “that everybody was too fat, so she made everybody go on this mandatory weight-loss program. The incentive was, you got to keep your job- so many people took it very seriously and got very upset.”
He got the message that Frances Swaggart thought it was un-Christian to look fat. He adds, “Frances had been rubbing elbows with the jet set for such a long time that she felt that everybody needed to shape up.” Spin Magazine, December 1986 edition.
Interestingly enough, in the book, Swaggart: The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist by Ann Rowe Seaman, the incident is also mentioned.
“In early 1985 she [Frances] instituted a weight policy explaining that it has something to do with insurance rates. Everybody had to go down the basement and stand in line to be weighed once a month. There were departmental competitions and individual “losers” were recognized in chapel; big losers got to travel with Jimmy and Frances to the next crusade.
The explanation about insurance rates appeared to be a fiction when the Bible college students were also pressured to lose weight. And of course there was favoritism said Larry Thomas- “If a four-dollar-an-hour employee got fat, there was pressure to lose weight. If a family member or a very, very valuable employee got fat there was no pressure.”
I believe when Frances hires someone she truly believes she owns them, all of them; from the thoughts in their head to the flesh on their bones.
In Seaman’s book she describes an incident in which a long time producer is fired by Frances after being seen shaking the hand of a former JSM pastor who had started a rival church. When a television engineer dared to question the unfair termination, he too was fired. A group of employees then went to Frances to protest the terminations.
“Jimmy…. heard the ruckus and came through the [connecting] door,” said an ex-television cameraman for the ministry. He pointed to one of the employees and asked if the ministry had ever done anything to hurt her. Yes she said.
“You’re fired!” said Jimmy. Then he turned to another and asked him the same question. The answer was yes. “You’re fired!” said Jimmy. Frances honor had to be protected. “She was still his wife,” said the ex-cameraman. “Love or hate he had to take up for her.” Swaggart: The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist, Ann Rowe Seaman
An interesting book to peruse should you be fortunate enough to find a copy, is Jimmy Swaggart, Dead Man Rising, by the late Barbara Nauer. The book is out of print and copies on Ebay or Amazon are cost prohibitive to say the least. I tracked down a copy at the Louisiana State Library and although not able to withdraw the book, I was able to photocopy it. Because I realize that most readers will not be sufficiently interested enough to stand in a downtown library and stuff quarters into a copy machine, I have extracted a few items of interest.
Barbara Nauer worked as Jimmy’s editor for several years. Her book is well written, easy to read, and clearly illustrates the ministry’s cavalier attitude towards its underlings. In the incident that follows, she describes the dissolution of a successful ministry outreach and the subsequent ill-treatment of its faithful employees.
“The bus ministry had been for several years the impressive spiritual work of several of Swaggart’s “young lions”. These were bright young ministers, graduates of Jimmy Swaggart’s Bible College, who with their wives and girlfriends, young women just as committed as they were, had designed and put into operation the bus ministry’s impressive program of games, skits, meals, musicals, outings and preachings for the disadvantaged kids.
Of late the young ministers had been running a parallel mid-week ministry to the parents of their regular weekend kids. They had the Academy schoolteachers volunteering to teach reading and writing to those ghetto parents who wished to learn these skills……Anyone familiar with this youth-driven charitable outreach was faintly in awe of it.
….As one pair of middle-aged chaperones for the buses put it, the mere fact that, week after week, the ghetto children sat still for hours, listening to preachings and watching Christian morality plays, “could make you believe in God”.
Nauer then goes on to say that it was suddenly and inexplicable over. In a single weekend the bus ministry was wiped out, the fleet of buses sold, and the Tucker Building, which had housed the bus ministry, rented out.
She further explains how the morale among employees plummeted as they realized that without warning, these young ministers were turned out into an impossibly tight job market. Nauer was further distressed to find out that the ministry had no intentions of giving the suddenly unemployed young ministers letters of reference. Thinking this must surely be an oversight, she went to Frances and offered to draft a form letter on her lunch hour which could be issued in Frances name. This way, at least the young men would be armed with a job reference in their formidable search for employment. Baton Rouge was known to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation at that time, and the job market was virtually impenetrable.
“Even as I spoke, I could tell that Jimmy’s wife was at a loss to imagine why such an exercise as I was describing might be called for. At length, Mrs. Swaggart flicked a hand as if brushing a fly away from her eyes. “Oh Barbara, that’s not important. Go back to what you were doing.”
Frances was clearly unconcerned. Not surprising for any of us that have had more than a fleeting encounter with her.
Quite honestly, I can say from my own personal experience that I have seen more people fired in my three years at JSM than I have in all my working years, and in all my jobs combined. The turnover rate is astronomical. It is not required by law in Louisiana to give a reason for dismissal and at JSM, reasons are seldom given. One would think they would aspire to ascribe to a higher law, but in their minds they are the law. Employee’s questions are simply met with, “you know why you are being fired” or “I don’t have to tell you.”
In the corporate world people are nearly always terminated for justifiable and measurable reasons. It would be unfathomable for a major corporation to refuse an employee a reason for dismissal. They do this for the development of the person they are firing! Several warnings, both oral and written are given well in advance of the termination and employees are never left to guess what the terminable offence might have been. How much more would we expect fairness from a “Christian” organization?
The day I was terminated I sat while Frances read the “confidentiality” agreement to a fellow employee. When I asked why I was being fired she stated “I don’t have to tell you” in a sing-song voice then smiled like the Cheshire cat, a smug little smile. It was literally the response a spoiled five-year old child would have given. She did not give a reason because there wasn’t one; at least not one that would have been justifiable in anyone’s eyes but hers. At JSM, terminable offences were rarely performance based but rather based on paranoia and a maniacal need for control and unbridled loyalty. That loyalty includes covering up the things they do. Sorry, but my loyalty ends there. My soul is not for sale.
Since the ministry is a non-profit organization they are not required to participate in the unemployment insurance program. Nor, might I add, do they pay into any benefits for their employees. Terminated employees are left completely without a means to provide for themselves or their families. A significant portion of ministry employees, live on ministry grounds in the Bluebonnet Towers. The Towers are owned by the ministry, but rooms and apartment units are also rented to the general public. Many employees are terminated only to come home and find that they have also been evicted. There are no leases at Bluebonnet Towers and rentals are month to month. Precisely, I presume, in order to exercise this kind of control. Evicted tenants are given thirty days to vacate legally, but stories abound of instances where tenants have been given a day or less.
It is criminal in my mind that an organization that purports to care so much about saving the lost, cares so little about the found. It is unimaginable how they could fire someone and evict them in the same day. How would they even hope to secure alternate living arrangements? Who would rent an apartment to an unemployed person? Many who have come from out of State to work, are left abandoned, and in desperate straits. There most certainly will not be any help for these unfortunate souls from Family Worship Center. The shunning and dis- fellowshipping of former employees is openly encouraged and the ministry is most certainly not known for its charity.
I have always had a heart for the homeless. Within months of arriving in Baton Rouge, I remember reading that the city’s homeless shelter was in desperate need of sheets. I went to Frances and asked if we could put this need in the bulletin. Surely there were people in the congregation that would donate sheets to the shelter. I assured her that I would collect the sheets and take them to the shelter on behalf of the church. She looked at me with a disgusted and almost incredulous look. “Uhh”, she spat out hatefully, “those people just need to get jobs”.
No, there is certainly no charity at Jimmy Swaggart Ministries.
Recently, I spoke to a young man, Danny Wright, who had worked in donor services, attended the Bible College, and played drums for the Crossfire Worship Band. His mother had recently passed in a tragic accident and he was struggling both spiritually and emotionally. He went to a friend’s house where he consumed alcohol. Three months later he was suddenly called to account for it. He was expelled from the college, ousted from the band, and fired from his job. Had he been unfortunate enough to live at Bluebonnet Towers, he would have been evicted too. The ironic thing is that a very high proportion of the students go to the bars, drink and party. A fact that is well-known by most who work there. When the young man brought this up to his accusers, Gabriel Swaggart himself admitted that yes, there was a great deal of that occurring, but they were there to discuss him. Danny further stated to Gabriel that if the ministry were to pursue everyone in this manner, they would literally have to fire everyone under the age of thirty, save two.
When he recounted his story to me he paused, lowered his head and said, “Maybe if I had been caught with a prostitute they would have had grace for me. Maybe then I could have been forgiven”. He then looked up and added. “You would think that they, of all people, would know a little something about grace and forgiveness”. I will never forget that conversation.
Another eye-opening and gut wrenching first hand account of employee abuse comes from former band member Kerry Rhys. Kerry and his wife Allison-Collins Rhys were both employed by the music department at Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. While I do not know them personally, I am familiar with their story. In a personal blog entry entitled, “For those who have written and asked why”, Kerry describes how both he and his wife were terminated from the ministry.
“One day a surprise meeting for the entire music department was called, mandatory attendance for all employees. As we (about 25 employees) sat waiting to see what it was about, Frances Swaggart walked in and proceeded to interrogate us about things that someone told her were being said. Allison was not mentioned during this time. At the end, Robin stood up and said pretty unexpectedly “Allison you’ve made some very bad decisions”. A little confused as Allison and I had no clue to what was going on, Robin said “a married couple here has been coming to me on a regular basis telling me you are saying things about the ministry. It’s happening often and I think where there is smoke there is fire”. We wouldn’t find out what he was talking about until two years later.
A week after the group meeting with Frances and Robin’s cryptic statement, Allison got a phone call and was read a memo over the phone by Nikki Tracy that she had been terminated from JSM. I was fired by association with no explanation. Allison was five months pregnant at this time, we had no idea what we would do for money.”
He goes on to explain how his wife was later called in to Frances office and told that it was all a misunderstanding. She was instead placed on suspension without pay which lasted seven months. Debts were mounting as they continued to assure her week after week that it would soon be worked out and she would be hired back.
“At this time Swaggart insisted she meet with Robin, that she would only be hired back if Robin approved. She met with Robin, he told her he did not want her back but she managed to grovel, cry, and beg enough to get her job back. Upon returning to work she was told that the salary which she was initially offered would no longer be paid. At this point she was paid less than half of what many others were paid. A huge cut in salary. I was hired back full-time a few months later, also for half of my former salary. Our take home pay was now below the poverty level for just one individual, much less two adults supporting three children.”
Their debts continued to mount until they found themselves faced with the final notice for legal foreclosure on their home. They were given ten days before their home would be sold at a sheriff’s auction and needed to come up with two months mortgage plus legal costs. Desperate for money, Allison agreed to sing with her husband, Bob Henderson, and Jeremy Downey at a local club. When Frances found out, Kerry and Allyson were fired. While I understand that they had agreed to not sing secular music while working for the ministry, it was common knowledge that others had been doing the very same for a very long time while the Swaggart’s looked the other way.
Before I woke up the next morning Allison had received a call that she was terminated from the ministry. Bob and Jeremy were also said to have been fired by Robin. When I woke up Jeremy was already over at our house. While sitting on our couch Robin called Jeremy and I listened on the speaker phone when Robin told Jeremy that he and Bob would not be fired….only Allison.
…….We’ve had people tell us they have approached Frances to ask what happened to Allison and her answer was “Allison decided she wanted to go do her own thing”. The truth is she was fired after being set up by people in the church, suspended for seven months without pay, then hired back for a fraction of her original salary. Then fired after she sang two songs with other church musicians that were kept on at the ministry.
Recently I had the privilege of taking at great length with Tareva Henderson about her experiences at the ministry. Someone had sent me a link to a letter she had written to a website that had been openly critical of her. She was warm and unpretentious. Her experiences there were all too familiar; the isolation and shunning, the brainwashing, it was like hearing my own experiences through someone else’s lips.
I went there years ago after the downfall around 2003 only to help my brother because he told me the music department was in a mess and falling apart. I had plans to move to Florida so I offered to sub part-time and do some tunes to help because I never get to see my brother. They offered me a huge salary to take a full-time leadership position over the stage. I declined because my Florida plans were in place and the longer I hung around to sub I just saw too much that broke my heart. …..
The place was empty and sad and a spirit of oppression ran across the building because no one trusted each another or anyone else. Workers were miserable and were constantly asking me “how do you get out of here”?? It blew me away at first because they made it sound like a prison. As time went by I saw it was…………i.e. people’s jobs and families were threatened if they didn’t go along with all the games…..
Once I tried to help a girl with a newborn that was stranded in BR because she came in from out-of-town to a camp meeting and her car broke down. I took her over to the dorms and they said “send her to the salvation army we run this like a business not a ministry”. I ended up paying for her a room that night. I looked everywhere in the place to find something that felt “Christ Like” but it was nowhere.
The dooms about divorce was always preached then Donnie’s “second” marriage is to a girl that’s been divorced five times, and the married couples working there cheating on one another with other employees; Families turning against one another like enemies of war over money and who is right…
…People often ask me, “Why don’t you work there”? They play me often on their radio and TV shows to raise big money. At the time I was there, I didn’t even know I was being recorded, then I later talked to other singers who encountered the same experience.
…I don’t believe in selling salvation, then or now or ever. Tareva Henderson
Tareva related to me that when she was first asked to work for the music department she told Jimmy Swaggart that she did not believe as he did, as she was a Unitarian. He looked at her and said, “Well, we are willing to look the other way on that.” Later in the conversation she related an incident that had left her shaken. She had a book on the seat in her car that was perhaps not the type of spiritual material that the ministry would have approved of. Although I did not ask, I would imagine that it was a book that might be more in line with her beliefs. Beliefs I might add, that she made plain to the ministry before she was hired. One of the ministry spies (and there are always multitudes jockeying for this position), happened to see the book in Tareva’s car and went to Frances. Frances in turn called Tareva in, and started questioning her about the types of books she liked to read. Initially she did not know what the inquiry was about and seemed confused as to why Frances would be so interested in her choice of reading material. Slowly it dawned on her that someone must have spied the book on the seat of her car. Frances asked her to bring her the book and Tareva complied by retrieving the book and handing it over. Frances then demanded that Tareva go home and retrieve any and all such books and bring them to her so they could be destroyed.
This kind of maniacal control is legendary and quite mind bending if you happen to be on the receiving end of it. I was, on more than one occasion, asked to remove things from my own website. The first time occurred after someone had written something non-complimentary about the Swaggarts on my forum. I had at that time defended the Swaggarts but left the comment intact. I had never made it a practice to remove posts from my forum whether I agreed with them or not. That was the whole idea of a having a forum! Frances called me to her office and told me to remove it. I complied. It was crystal clear to me early on, that refusal was not an option.
The second time occurred after I posted an article to my website that she did not agree with. Ironically enough, it had been written by a JSM minister under an anonymous name. She not only demanded I remove it, but also demanded I give her the name of the person who wrote it. I refused. I knew full well that she knew who it was. The game seemed pointless to me. She knew who it was, I knew she knew, but still she pressed. I refused on principle alone, but did remove the article. What choice did I have?
It has taken these two months since my departure to get over the feeling of being under constant surveillance. It was fascinating to me to read in Nauer’s book that others had remarked about this very same thing. When I came here, the ministry had one paltry and disjointed website. Their web presence was virtually non-existent. In my three years under their employ, I created and maintained six ministry websites, effectively establishing their online presence and catapulting them into prominence in the search engines. In return, I was fired without cause, with no severance pay, no ability to collect unemployment insurance, and certainly no letter of reference. This has placed me in a precarious situation since I am alone in Baton Rouge, my closest family residing in Canada. Regardless, there has only been one inquiry by anyone associated with the ministry since my departure. Of one thing I am certain, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries is and never was, my provider. I serve a loving God, whose Grace is sufficient, and His provisions astounding. Selah.