Bishop T.D. Jakes, the most revered and influential Pentecostal clergyman in the world, talked to me recently about how he keeps his ministry scandal-free. It's pretty simple. First of all, the ministry’s books are audited every year. You’d think that would be a no-brainer for any large church organization, but you’d be wrong, especially in holy-roller circles.
Second, he has a rather formidable accountability partner.
"I have a wife who beats me with a whip if I don't do what I'm supposed to do,” Jakes said. “And she's right behind you."
I turned around. There was Serita Jakes, his wife. She winked.
(Please excuse the unfortunate whipping image, given the content of recent columns.)
So there you have it in a nutshell, the Jakes Plan for maintaining ministerial integrity. It presumes that one has an intention of living a godly life in the first place, but that's what Pentecostals are all about. That's what they used to be about, anyway.
This is a column about accountability and openness, and I can’t help but think that Pastor Sherman Allen’s denomination, the Church of God in Christ, would do well to follow the example of their Pentecostal brother Bishop Jakes.
Before I go any further, allow me to make a disclosure. I used to hold Church of God in Christ credentials, and my husband was ordained as an elder in COGIC. We cherished our association with COGIC, as do the vast majority of COGIC members, who are justifiably proud of their denomination’s extremely important role in the history of the Pentecostal-holiness faith tradition.
We didn’t leave COGIC because of bitterness or disgruntlement. Our pastor, who also held COGIC credentials but chartered his church independently, withdrew from the small COGIC jurisdiction we were in, and my husband and I followed. Our church still maintains a friendly relationship with our former bishop, whose name I’m not going to divulge here, because I don’t want him taking any flak on account of me. I will say this: I’ve only known him to be a godly, honorable man.
Since I began working on the Sherman Allen story in February, I have spoken in depth with quite a few COGIC members, clergy and otherwise, as well as other black Pentecostals from smaller organizations who look up to COGIC because of its status as one of the most successful Pentecostal bodies in the world.
If there has been a thread of continuity in our conversations, it is this: The typical decent, hard-working, God-fearing church members are disgusted and dismayed by the morally corrupt lives of some of their leaders, and they’ve been waiting a long time for a godly man or woman in a position of responsibility to take a stand.
But, they ask, would anyone listen?
Two nights ago I sat in the office of a local holiness church, listening while a woman talked about her encounter with a young Sherman Allen. It’s the same woman whose horrific story is told in “This Is What God Told Me to Do to You,” an earlier column; she claims that in 1983 Allen beat her and raped her anally and vaginally with a three-foot club, causing internal injuries that she believes have kept her from having children. Allen was arrested for aggravated sexual abuse in connection with the incident, but the charge was later dropped. The woman says it’s because she refused to testify.
This was the first time I’d actually spoken to the woman. I won’t go into her story in detail here, other than to say it was 100 percent consistent with what I heard her say in a taped interview in February. It will make for extraordinarily powerful testimony if, as lawyer Stan Broome expects, she files suit against Allen as a Jane Doe in the coming months.
During our conversation we were joined by three women from her church, including an evangelist and an 83-year-old church mother. (In the black Pentecostal tradition, “mother” is a term of reverence and respect for a mature woman who has proven her godly character over many years of faithful service in the church.) These ladies reminded me why I’d called the Pentecostal church home 17 years ago. I guess I’d describe them as salt of the earth -- in the most biblical sense. They were women who believed in the power of prayer, who’d embraced the discipline of fasting and interceding for their "brothers" and "sisters." They dressed simply and modestly; in the old days, before Pentecostals had attained a share of respectability in the religious world, one’s attire was never meant to call undue attention to oneself. The evangelist and the mother wept quietly, dabbing their eyes with rumpled white tissues while the woman described the alleged attack in bluntly graphic terms.
These older women had heard the story before, but it still pierced their hearts.
These were the kind of people who built the black holiness churches. Hard-working, full of compassion because they’d suffered long themselves, without pretension or high position, these are men and women who've never tasted of the finery and frills that prominent Pentecostal leaders consider their rightful portion today.
The evangelist grew steely and fierce at one point. She dared little Sherman Allen to set foot in her church. To paraphrase her words: “I’m not afraid of him, because I’m not afraid of no devil.”
I asked them if they’d ever heard anything like the Sherman Allen allegations in their many years in church. No, they said. That made an impression on me, especially coming from an 83-year-old. Hang around the Pentecostal church for some years, and you’ll think you’ve seen it all.
Then along comes Sherman Allen.
I spoke with several current and former COGIC members as well, from pastors to "missionaries" -- a leadership position for women that corresponds to minister or evangelist -- to lay people. They, too, expressed their disappointment with the ungodly behavior that's often tolerated among the leadership. What happened to COGIC's revered teachings on sanctification and Spirit-filled living, on moral probity?
I was a little shocked that Allen was still in the pulpit at Shiloh Institutional Church of God in Christ, the Fort Worth congregation he founded. Several women -- including one who's sued -- have made extremely serious allegations of physical and sexual abuse against Allen spanning more than 20 years. Allen's alleged predilection for "spanking" young women, in fact, is one of the worst-kept secrets in the local black Pentecostal scene. ("Spanking" sounds like a mild form of chastisement, but we're talking about brutal beatings that supposedly caused bleeding, bruising and scars.) In most denominational organizations, you'd think the accused would be placed on some form of paid administrative leave until the situation was resolved. Not so here. Allen preached from the pulpit as recently as two Sundays ago. (Update: I'm told by another source this isn't true. He was in the pulpit, but he didn't preach. Can anyone clear that up for me?)
Then I talked to another pastor I know well. He told me of another world that barely intersects with that of the common, decent local congregation member just holdin' on to the Word, praying for the "saints" and lifting up the name of Jesus. When he first got involved in COGIC and attended a meeting for men and women in the ministerial ranks, a missionary sized him up and adjudged him supremely naïve. She asked: Don't you know what happens at these meetings? And, no, the answer was not preaching, praising and digging into the Word of God.
Folks come here to hook up, she explained. There are district missionaries who make it their mission to bag a bishop. There are bishops and district superintendents who make it their mission to bag a missionary. There's drinking, there's cussing, all kinds of stuff the members are taught never, ever to engage in.
Boy, you don't belong here.
In the upper echelon, the missionary explained, there's a different game going on. And it's been covered up for years by what another pastor called the "COGIC code of silence."
No, not everyone's involved. Probably just a small minority. But too many of the men and women of integrity in COGIC respond by shaking their heads and wringing their hands.
"COGIC is like a family," the pastor told me. "We keep our business to ourselves, but everyone in the family knows what's going on."
By now I've already outraged scores of upright COGIC members and clergy who really are trying to serve the Lord with all their heart. Some of these people hold national positions, and they hate the mess they continually hear about. And I say go on and be outraged. Someone needs to be outraged. Someone, in fact, needs to do a King Josiah and start swinging a holy hatchet in the high places, smashing idols and pulling down false prophets.
Yes, go on and get angry. Just do more than fricassee the messenger.
As I delved deeper into the Sherman Allen story, people started contacting me with allegations involving COGIC leaders. They offered the information as a means of explaining why no one dared touch Allen, who travels throughout the country preaching at conferences and in leading COGIC churches. I told one pastor that I'd heard the name of a certain bishop's longtime mistress.
I heard deep laughter on the other end of the line.
"A mistress," the pastor said, chortling for a long time. "A mistress."
I got the drift: Silly little Virginia, you think he has just one mistress? And you think that's all he's involved in?
Soon enough, I began fielding allegations far more serious than an extramarital affair involving consenting adults. Let's just say that the Sherman Allen case is a ticking time bomb for COGIC.
It's not if it's gonna blow, it's when it's gonna blow.
Because folks are fed up. The COGIC code of silence is cracking. Read the comment board on this blog and see for yourself.
And, by the way, I'm not remotely finished with my reporting. Other media outlets will soon weigh in on the Allen story. I'm getting new leads just about every day, and I'm going to follow them as far as they go.
Wherever they go. --Julie Lyons