For Jenny, the wedding felt like a divorce. She was reminded of how much she missed her family—at the rehearsal dinner, they told stories that she wasn’t a part of, laughed at jokes she didn’t get. A romantic, she had dreamed of marrying someone she passionately loved. Now she was marrying a ministry.
After the wedding, John and Jenny continued directing their sector as well as the church’s burgeoning youth ministry. They led the same Bible studies that Ericka had taken Jenny through. Like Ericka, Jenny scolded her disciples for their sins. She baptized them and met with them regularly to talk through their issues and challenge them to perform spiritually.
Jenny felt she’d finally arrived. An overachiever since boarding school, she had the makings of the perfect missionary. She got up early every morning to do her Bible study and prayer. At the grocery, she walked the aisles searching for shoppers to invite to services.
Her youth helped her relate to college students and young professionals. After night services, she stayed late working with those struggling spiritually. On occasions when she was called out in church meetings for an alleged sin, she searched within herself and prayed for hours, asking God to reveal her flaws.
Her pride made her competitive—the study groups she organized grew more than any other in the church—but it also made her vulnerable. Paul puffed her up in services, touting her work as a model. In private, he and Denise blasted Jenny for her arrogance, forcing her to confess her pride on her knees until she broke down.
At staff meetings, Jenny was surprised when the singing and “good news” sharing was overshadowed by talk of the church’s growth. A statistics sheet—a grid 27 columns wide by 37 rows deep—included detailed figures on baptisms, visitors, Bible-study participants, and people who had left the church or were missing. The emphasis was clear: Success in ministry meant retaining members and recruiting new ones. Paul upbraided leaders of flagging groups. Staff rushed recruits to baptism and discouraged members from moving away—anything to improve the numbers.
Jenny initially enjoyed the evangelism. She wanted to tell others about the church and God. But as the emphasis turned to the church’s growth, she began to feel like a salesman with a quota, not a messenger with life-changing news.
After Jenny and John had led their own sector for several years, Paul assigned them to head all of the sectors in their region. Finally, when Paul split the San Francisco church in two, he asked Jenny and John to lead the West Bay branch, made up of some 1,200 people. They managed 30 or so staffers. Each night they ran a meeting, and they regularly preached at services. To Mike Kelly’s chagrin, Jean went to hear her daughter preach while on a trip to California. She was bowled over by her daughter’s confidence and passion.
With each new responsibility, Jenny worked harder and faced more scrutiny and abuse from Paul. Several times, weary from late-night Bible studies, she pulled her car onto the side of the road and slept. Once she awoke to a police officer tapping on the window. During daily prayer walks, she talked to God and fought to keep her love for her flock at the heart of her work. Even if the church was flawed, she said to herself, she would do good.
But doubts plagued her. She was afraid of Paul and Denise. Now 30, Jenny also was afraid of leaving the only life she had known since graduating from college and joining the “real world.” She was afraid, too, of the repercussions of admitting she’d been wrong.
In January 2001, Jenny gave birth to a daughter, Bailey. Denise refused Jenny’s request to take some time off, and five days later Jenny spoke at the church’s midweek service. From the podium where she delivered her message—her breasts leaking and her body aching—she saw others playing with Bailey in the back of the room. She heard coughing and worried that her daughter would get sick.
“Could you all please stop touching my baby?” she shouted from the stage. The room grew still. Denise later dressed her down for the outburst.
Not long after Bailey’s birth, John’s mother died. Denise insisted they take a babysitter from the church with them to the funeral in North Carolina, a girl Denise had selected. Jenny and John refused; they didn’t want to take a stranger to an intimate family event.
Upon their return, Denise convened a staff meeting in which she and Paul berated the couple for hours. Jenny and John had disobeyed their orders. Why were they so stubborn?
John and Jenny were in charge of their own staff meeting the next day. But Paul took over. In the talk, he graphically described John’s mother burning in hell. John and Jenny wept.
Jenny tried to forget the incident, but for the next six months when she thought back, she fumed. One day she set out on a run, determined not to come back until she had worked through her anger. She ran a long time—so long that she had to walk.
For years, Paul and Denise had criticized virtually everything she’d done. If something was wrong, they blamed hidden sin in Jenny’s life. She wasn’t praying hard enough or doing enough witnessing.
Now for the first time, she understood that Paul and Denise, her self-appointed models of virtue, were sinners, too. She said it out loud: “What Paul and Denise did was wrong.” And with those words, a piece of the old Jenny—the smart, rebellious Jenny—awoke in her.
She wrestled over what to do with this insight. She couldn’t tell John; he might turn her in. She carried it around for months until it got too heavy.
During a staff retreat at a hotel, Jenny finally opened up to John. In a heated polemic, she said she couldn’t go through the motions anymore—she wanted out.
The biggest fight of their marriage followed. John was uncomfortable with the church, but he wasn’t ready to leave. This was the only life he’d really known, and now he had a family to provide for. He accused her of stealing his dream of a life in ministry.
The two left the retreat early. That night at home, Jenny pored over her Bible, trying to interpret its words for herself. She knew that if she left, the church would say she was leaving God. Paul, Denise, and the others would blame her departure on hidden sin and slander her. But by morning, after staying awake all night, she knew that to be faithful to God she had to leave.
She prayed for God to bring John to the same conclusion. But when her husband heard her decision, he stormed out of the house. He returned almost immediately, looking dazed, then collapsed in a spasm in the doorway. Jenny lay on top of him, trying to stop his shaking. She called 911, and an ambulance took him to the hospital. Doctors told Jenny he’d had a seizure. They were running tests to check for brain tumors.
At home that night, Jenny got a phone call from Denise and told her about John’s episode. Denise blamed his seizure on Jenny and the fact that she and John had left the retreat early.
“What did you just say?” Jenny asked.