Special Reports

After losing his building, Pastor Jerry Johnston starts over

The Rev. Jerry Johnston in 2007.
The Rev. Jerry Johnston in 2007.

Inside the hollow of one of Johnson County’s most massive churches, where thousands had dwindled to hundreds, no collection plates were passed.

No one walked up the aisle to be saved.

Last Sunday, it was just Pastor Jerry standing alone at the altar, in the light-colored summer suit he had worn two days earlier at his daughter’s beach-front wedding, convincing his followers it would be OK.

The bank would come in, he told them, take their building and everything in it — the cribs and chairs, playground equipment and pulpit — yet together, they would conquer this trial.

They’d come out even stronger.

“God is good. Say it with me,” the Rev. Jerry Johnston urged his First Family congregation, which was gathering for the last time inside the 118,000-square-foot Overland Park church complex he began building 10 years ago. “Great things are ahead.

“Say it with me.”

For decades, Johnston was on top of the evangelical world. First, as the drug-using teen turned young electric evangelist traveling the country with families lining up to hear him. Then, as the founder and leader of one of the fastest-growing megachurches in the country. Even the late Rev. Jerry Falwell said Johnston’s church was “destined to impact the world.”

And then came the fall — authored, critics say, by Johnston himself.

First, the scrutiny. The accusations that he misused church money, lived a lavish lifestyle while insisting his congregation sacrifice and loaded his staff with highly paid family members. Promises he made fell short.

The church has denied such allegations, saying it was being attacked for standing against the forces of darkness.

But the empire started to crumble.

Today, at Olathe East High School, he’ll be back where he started. No brick-and-mortar church home. A bare-bones staff. Preaching in a rented auditorium.

It’s the beginning of New Day Church Kansas City, the end of First Family, and another chapter in Johnston’s storied history in Johnson County.

So can he do it again? Rebuild his robust congregation, bring back the many millions the church would bring in each year and regain the national spotlight where he often was a guest on “The Today Show,” “World News Tonight” and CNN?

“Jerry is the same gifted leader he’s been,” said megachurch expert John Vaughan, who thinks the foreclosure could be a good thing for Johnston and his congregation. “It’ll give them a fresh slate.”

Still, it’s a striking reversal for a man who just a few years ago dreamed of satellite churches, a national talk show and a Christian Academy that would rival Johnson County’s best schools.

Little by little, Johnston saw many of his visions and much of what he built whittled away. This past year may have been the roughest for the pastor.

In January, Regions Bank filed foreclosure papers on the $20 million church and its 51-acre campus, claiming the church hadn’t made good on its mortgage. Followers continued to leave. Board members started to drop off. Even his son-in-law, a popular associate pastor at First Family, left with Johnston’s daughter to start their own church.

Johnston and his wife, Christie, put their home on the market for just under $900,000, and when it didn’t sell, recently lowered the price to $775,000.

The saga is being watched both locally and nationally by those who say Johnston is a preacher of prodigious gifts but also filled with very human flaws. He himself told his congregation that church leaders are paying attention to the dissolution of First Family because so many churches are going through tough economic times.

Some would like to see Johnston face consequences for what they say are years of misleading his flock. And they worry that a new church means more controversy.

“My concern is that he will take advantage of a whole new group of people,” said Anne Balmer, who with her husband taught a Sunday School class at First Family but left in 2006 after they were pressured to give money to a new children’s building.

“My question was, is he trying to build God’s Kingdom or the Johnston Family Kingdom?”

Yet even some of Johnston’s harshest critics won’t dismiss the pastor’s power from the pulpit. His command of Scripture, and how he relates it to everyday life, earned him the respect of some of Christianity’s most recognized leaders.

It’s the same charisma and charm he relied on last Sunday as they said goodbye to First Family.

“When it comes time for us to leave this physical campus and walk out these doors, we will walk out these doors with our head held high,” he said. “Realize that God has something far greater for us than what we can even understand today.”

‘Freak to a Christian’

The Johnson County teen stood out at the mid-Missouri camp for youth in the early 1970s.

Scrawny. Uninterested. A long-haired loner with a marijuana patch sewn on the back pocket of his blue jeans.

Not what you’d typically see at a gathering of Christian teens inside the Windermere Baptist Conference Center. The Rev. Robert Werner, who spoke at the camp, would later say that the 14-year-old made an impression on him.

And Johnston — the loner who went to the camp only because his dad bribed him with a foosball table — says the same about the reverend.

Johnston would later recall Werner speaking about hell, telling them that hell is real. It got the teen’s attention, “because we used to smoke joints, laugh at Billy Graham and tell people they were going to hell.”

By the end of the camp, Werner would bring Jerry to Christ.

“I went from a freak to a Christian,” Johnston later said.

Johnston didn’t respond to requests for an interview for this story. But he has said that once he turned to God, he turned away from drugs.

“I wasn’t a mainlining heroin addict,” he told The Star in a 1985 interview. “I was into pot and downers, and I was hospitalized twice. I was a 68-pound burnout on a liquid diet at one point. I wasn’t the worst drug addict there was, but I was in it enough to know.”

Things got so bad at one point, Johnston said, that he contemplated suicide by swallowing Valium. But he grabbed the phone and called his father for help. His dad rushed home from work and took him to the hospital, Johnston said, where he was treated for depression.

But church camp changed all that. Two months after returning from it, Johnston dedicated his life to full-time ministry. He began spreading the gospel, started a Bible study at his school and — according to his biography — spoke an average of 25 times a week to clubs and organizations through his high school years.

At 17, he became an ordained minister.

Dropping out of high school, Johnston attended a Bible institute and traveled as an evangelist. He later earned a general education diploma and in recent years obtained college degrees.

In October 1978, he preached in Zeeland, Mich. He met Christie Jo Huf, a hometown girl, and they fell in love.

“I was so struck by his passion for his life call,” she said in a church publication. “I felt something going on in my heart and I needed to be guided.”

They were married five months later — on a Tuesday because Johnston was on the road so much that it was the only day available.

The following month, when Johnston was still 19, he founded Jerry Johnston Ministries Association and began making a living as a traveling evangelist. He soon gained national prominence by going on speaking tours and sponsoring evangelical crusades, campaigning against cults and targeting middle and high school students with “LIFE School Assemblies” — lectures on drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.

“They stood in line to have Jerry Johnston speak to them,” said Vaughan, founder of Church Growth Today, who lives in Bolivar, Mo. “He was reinforcing biblical values for the family He had a very good name among the larger church pastors.”

Chuck Millhuff, a longtime local evangelist, was a seminary student when he first heard Johnston speak.

“Jerry had it. He was anointed,” Millhuff said. “He was cut from a whole different cloth than others, by far. If you closed your eyes, for some reason, though he grew up around here, you would think he was a young Billy Graham, a distinct North Carolina sound to it.”

Johnston ended his suicide lectures with an actual tape recording of a despondent teenager who repeats that he “can’t think,” then later says, “I’m signing off.” The tape ends with a gun blast.

The lectures even caught the attention of President Ronald Reagan, who called Johnston’s assemblies “one of the most promising signs that America is awakening” to the harm of drug and alcohol abuse.

But some mental health professionals and educators criticized Johnston’s tactics, questioning whether he had the training to deal with such sensitive issues.

In 1985, Johnston gave a suicide prevention talk to 250 students at a junior high in Akron, Ohio. Two hours later, a troubled 12-year-old boy who had been in the audience went home, tied a belt around his neck and hanged himself in his bedroom closet. A police report said the boy left a suicide note that echoed portions of the tape recording of a teen suicide that Johnston had played at his lecture.

Johnston defended his approach and said he was not to blame for the suicide.

He also began writing books about teen suicide, sex and Satanism. In the 1980s, one of his Kansas City crusades drew 12,000 people at Municipal Auditorium.

Johnston was successful as a traveling evangelist. Annual disclosure reports filed with the Kansas Secretary of State show that in 1984, the ministry’s assets were $206,000. By 1990, the assets had grown to $383,000. But that year, Johnston sent out a mass mailing to supporters, warning that his ministry was on the edge of a “financial abyss” after support dwindled.

“Satan is trying to shut me up and shut down this ministry,” he said in one letter. The devil was opposing him, he said, because his 1989 book, “Edge of Evil,” exposed Satanism.

The plea soon brought in $100,000.

But questions soon would be raised about how the Johnstons solicited and used donations.

Former employees and board members told The Star in 2007 that the Johnstons used Jerry Johnston Ministries as their personal piggy bank.

For example, they said, when money came in for buying a new van for the ministry or establishing a national suicide-prevention hotline, it wasn’t always used for those purposes.

In another instance, a large corporation sent a $50,000 donation designated for launching broadcast programs for the ministry and then accidentally sent another check for the same amount.

When contacted, the corporation said the ministry could keep the extra $50,000, but a former accountant for the ministry said the Johnstons put most of the excess into their personal account.

The Johnstons in 2007 strongly denied such allegations through their attorney, saying a review by a certified public accountant found no wrongdoing.

Building a church

One night in 1996, Johnston was jogging on the track at The Barstow School near his house at Hallbrook Farms, an upscale Leawood neighborhood.

As he ran, God spoke to him, according to a video on the church’s website that is narrated by his son, Jeremy Johnston:

“God met Pastor Jerry on that track in the spring of 1996 and said, ‘Jerry, all I’ve used you to do for these past 20 years has been fantastic. Hundreds of thousands saved, many led back to me. All of that was to prepare you for the work I’m calling you to now. I want you to sacrifice everything so that I can use you to build something great.’ ”

Johnston said God wanted him to start a church. So the young evangelist, and father of three, invited thousands to join him for a prayer meeting and talk about his plan.

Few showed up.

Johnston decided he needed seed money to start the church, so he sold the assets of Jerry Johnston Ministries “and sacrificially gave all the proceeds to the church startup, because that is what God had told him to do,” according to the video.

Johnston also needed a congregation, and he stepped on some toes trying to build one.

For example, Johnston used the auditorium of a large Johnson County church for a “Pizza Bash” where he would speak to local teens. Afterward, he had the teens fill out cards with their contact information, Millhuff said.

When it came time to open First Family, Johnston sent invitations to those teens and their families to come to his new church, Millhuff said.

“I feel he used that event to glean names for his church,” he said. “He did lure some families away. I don’t know how many.”

Johnston launched First Family Church on Sept. 22, 1996, in the Performing Arts Center at Shawnee Mission South High School. About 600 attended the service, held on the same day the Kansas City Chiefs played the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium. Over the next several years, the church met in numerous locations, including the Glenwood Theatre and Rockhurst High School.

Johnston’s knack for relating Scripture to modern day experiences helped pack them in. On Easter 1998, he conducted seven services to accommodate the crowds at the theater.

When the theater was demolished, the church moved to Rockhurst High School. And then to Leawood Middle School.

“We had grown to the point where we literally took almost every room in the school,” Jeremy Johnston said on the video.

His dad dreamed of something bigger.

First Family bought a large chunk of land on a hill near 143rd Street and Metcalf Avenue in southern Johnson County for $7.2 million, and the new building opened in April 2001. The 50,000-square-foot structure featured a “Heavenly Bucks” coffee shop, a $500,000 sound system and a 1,500-seat sanctuary.

Johnston attracted new members by bringing in celebrities, such as rapper MC Hammer, Miss America, singer Smokey Robinson and boxers Evander Holyfield and Tommy Morrison.

“Jerry has good instincts to bring in people to build up his own people,” Vaughan said. “He wants to build his people.”

Through the years, he’s continued that. Even now, his director of music ministry is Phil Stacey, a former American Idol finalist.

While some religious leaders shy away from the political arena, Johnston took a different approach. He stepped out front, even on the most controversial issues, including same-sex marriage and abortion.

He made himself a public figure and received national media attention. Among the programs he has appeared on: “The O’Reilly Factor,” CNN’s “Crossfire” and ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

He also attracted attention within the Christian community. Several years ago, he ordained the son of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.

In September 2004, Johnston brought in the Rev. Jerry Falwell — a longtime friend and mentor — to rally the Christian faithful to support men and women of God when they went to the polls that November. Falwell, who died in 2007, criticized wimpy pastors who were afraid to get involved.

“These pastors who won’t step on ants and who won’t talk about abortion and about same-sex marriage and urge their people to become a part of the solution,” Falwell said. “They don’t deserve to live in a free country like this.”

By the end of 2004, membership had soared to about 4,000, and First Family needed more space.

The church raised more than $5 million to construct children and youth buildings. The $9 million buildings were finished in 2006, adding another 69,000 square feet to the First Family campus.

By then, the church was considered one of the country’s fastest-growing congregations.

“I just think he’s in tune,” Arlene Krings said last week. Krings and her husband Gary left First Family on what she calls good terms to attend another church.

“He’s taught the Bible,” she said. “He could break it down and make the complex simple I know he’s saved lives because we know people who were at the verge of committing suicide.”

Johnston placed a heavy emphasis on radio and television, with his sermons even broadcast around the world. People could watch or hear him almost daily in Kansas City.

“In the last year or two, our growth has literally gone off the charts,” Johnston said in an October 2005 sermon. “I believe our church right now is on the threshold of something that none of us in this room could even begin to imagine. God is going to expand our territory. He’s going to bless us in ways that are going to shock you in the next year.”

Grand plans

As the church grew, so did Johnston’s dreams.

In August 2005, he announced plans to build a “megachurch” in Lawrence, the first step in establishing satellite churches throughout the Kansas City area. The plan was to build a church on 40 to 50 acres and attract 450 members by the end of the first year and, eventually, thousands.

Services began Aug. 20, 2005, in a building on the University of Kansas campus, then moved to Lawrence High School. According to the Lawrence Journal-World, the church drew 275 visitors at its first two services, but some had been recruited from First Family’s Overland Park campus.

It wasn’t long before Johnston pulled the plug without offering an explanation.

He also vowed to put other satellite churches in the metro area, including Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit, western Wyandotte County and the Country Club Plaza. None has materialized.

Some of Johnston’s other projects also failed to reach full fruition.

In 2007, The Kansas City Star detailed several of them in a story that reported that hundreds of members had left First Family Church in previous years over concerns about financial accountability and what they called broken promises:

In October 2000, the church launched the “Cornerstone Campaign” to furnish and equip its new building, promising donors their names would be engraved in large type on a 1½-ton stone shaped like the Star of Bethlehem.

The drive raised $750,000, but a considerably scaled-down monument wasn’t erected until six years later after questions were raised.

Johnston said the church had followed through although a board member said at the time that the monument could have been built sooner.

In late 2005, Johnston announced that someone had donated more than 200 acres in Linn County, Kan., for a new youth camp. He even envisioned chalets on the property for families to use as retreats.

But real estate records showed that two months later, Johnston’s son, Jeremy, signed a $400,000 mortgage on the “donated” property in the church’s name — something church members were not told.

The land sat idle, and the church eventually sold it for $390,000. A church spokesman said the camp wouldn’t be completed because of the economy.

Johnston would not discuss the transaction but the board chairman at the time, Robert Ulrich, said a significant portion of the land had been donated.

In late 2005, Johnston raised millions for the new children’s building that was to house the Christian Academy.

A booklet said the church planned to launch grades K-5 in August of 2006, with the addition of the middle school and high school in August of 2007.

But the school didn’t open that fall. Instead, Johnston announced that the church was postponing its launch of the Christian Academy in order to build a 5,000-seat “sanctinasium.”

The school eventually opened in August 2007 for kindergarten through second grade and closed its doors after two years. The gigantic sanctuary plan died as well.

Ulrich said the church had kept its promises that the school would be constructed.

In 2007 the Kansas attorney general launched an investigation into the finances of Johnston and the church. The investigation was later closed, an attorney general spokesman said, because it found no activity that violated the Kansas Consumer Protection Act.

Complaints also were filed with the Internal Revenue Service. In 2008, the IRS attached tax liens to the church property, citing more than $107,000 in unpaid payroll taxes from 2007. The church quickly settled, and the lien was released.

Former member Krings said she knew a lot of people felt certain things were misrepresented over the years.

“I would always try to say Jerry has a lot of grand dreams and sometimes, for many reasons, they didn’t work out,” she said.

Question of style

Critics, including former church members and employees, said Johnston’s failure to follow through on his promises turned some people off. So did the family’s lifestyle, they said.

For example, Johnston referred to himself as “Dr. Jerry” for years until questions were raised, and the title was prominently displayed on a large sign at First Family Church’s entrance. It was an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree he received from Falwell’s Liberty University in 1998 when he was the speaker for a baccalaureate service.

(In the past four years, however, Johnston and his wife have received their bachelor’s and master’s degrees and are currently pursuing doctorates at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada.)

Johnston’s son, Jeremy, also is working on a doctorate, a fact heavily promoted by Johnston and on the church website. In July, Johnston passed out brochures to the congregation and asked members to help “underwrite” Jeremy Johnston’s college costs.

Critics offer other examples, but few are willing to go on the record anymore about Johnston. They say they’re afraid of coming out against him. At least one former member received a letter from a church attorney warning that if he continued to publicly criticize the church and its leaders, he could face legal action.

But he and other critics have complained that the Johnstons lived in nice homes, went on expensive trips and used an elite black credit card. Known as the Centurion card, it is offered only to “a small but affluent group of card members for whom individual attention and access to previously unavailable elite travel benefits was of great interest,” according to American Express.

Some have said Johnston’s use of volunteer bodyguards sent the wrong message. The men in black suits and headphones traveled with Johnston like Secret Service agents protecting a president or dignitary, they said.

But Johnston’s son, Jeremy, told worshipers in October 2006 that his father’s life had been threatened.

“I can’t tell you how many hits my dad’s taken for the stance that he’s taken,” he said. “I’ve had to change my dad’s cellphone three times in the last 12 months because of different death threats he’s received. He never shares that with you.”

The use of bodyguards has dropped off in the past few years.

Another practice that chafed some members was when Johnston invited certain people to dine with him prior to the Wednesday night service. While the rest of the members paid for a meal of Boston Market or Big Bubba’s barbecue, those selected by Johnston dined in a separate area, sometimes on a special meal requested by Pastor Jerry.

“We were invited one Wednesday night to have dinner with Pastor,” Balmer said. “It was like an audience with the Pope The whole time, Jerry’s just treated like royalty.”

Neither Johnston nor the church board has ever revealed his compensation. But a February court filing by Regions Bank related to the foreclosure put Johnston’s annual salary as of August 2010 at $400,000; his son, Jeremy, at $210,000; and son-in-law Christian Newsome at $180,000. Johnston’s wife, Christie, made $60,000, the document said, and his daughters, Danielle Newsome and Jenilee Johnston, earned $40,000 and $25,000. That totals $915,000.

In response to the filing, the church said through its attorney in February that the salary figures were inaccurate and that the only three family members on the church payroll were Jerry, Jeremy and Danielle Newsome. Their annual gross salaries, the attorney said, totaled $316,800.

The church filed a motion saying that the salaries “have been cut drastically in recent months.” It wasn’t clear, though, whether the salaries were cut before or after August 2010.

Johnston has put his home up for sale in southern Johnson County. The house, listed earlier this year for $899,000 and reduced by $125,000 last month, is described as “a one-of-a-kind property in exclusive setting.”

The 5,500-square-foot house on 2.5 acres has 15 rooms and six bathrooms.

“Stunning home for the discerning buyer in tranquil, prestigious setting,” the listing says. “Luxurious newer inground heated gunnite pool with hot tub and generous outdoor entertaining area. Gorgeous hardwood flooring throughout home. All the bells and whistles including extensive security system, plantation shutters, backup generator, 4 fps (fireplaces), enormous master suite.”

Johnston’s excessive spending contradicts his teaching, critics say.

David Pinson, a former member who taught Sunday School and sang in the choir, said it bothered him that Johnston put such a large emphasis on money.

“There was zero accountability for how that money was expended,” he said. “That’s the troubling part about it.”

In a series of sermons in 1999 entitled “The Principle$ of Pro$perity,” Johnston talked about spending money wisely.

“I truly believe that the way we respond to money, the way we use money, the way either money has a hold of us or doesn’t have a hold of us, is one of the clearest indications of where we are at spiritually,” he said.

Rough year

In recent months, several First Family board members have resigned.

Among them are chairman Robert Ulrich, a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri and retired appellate judge for the Missouri Court of Appeals. Ulrich, who was on First Family’s board for more than a decade, has been a staunch advocate for Johnston in the past. But when contacted on Monday, he said he had stepped down.

“I’m not on that board,” he said. When asked why, he said, “The key here is that I don’t go to that church. I’m in North Carolina or Virginia or on the East Coast usually and I don’t get back there.”

The names of two other board members also were removed from the church website in the past week, and two more dropped off earlier this year, including the CEO/CFO of the church.

Ulrich said he had no idea why other board members had recently resigned.

“They’re starting a new church, a new entity,” he said. “I don’t know much about it.”

Besides Ulrich, none of the board members responded to requests for an interview. The wife of one, however, said that her husband had resigned “a while ago” and was frustrated that his name had remained for so long on the church website after he’d asked that it be removed.

Still listed on the board are three members of the Johnston family and five other members.

Several pastors also are no longer with the church — including Johnston’s son-in-law.

Christian Newsome, who was senior associate pastor at First Family, and his wife, Danielle, who led the church’s music ministry, have started their own church in Lee’s Summit. Their church, Journey Church International, is holding its grand opening today as well.

The Newsomes recently sold their $383,000 home in southern Overland Park, which was on the same cul-de-sac as Johnston’s son, Jeremy, and downsized to a smaller house in Lee’s Summit.

In his church’s promotional materials, Newsome says he was on staff at another church for 11 years but does not mention his connection to Jerry Johnston or First Family Church.

Newsome declined to comment about First Family, saying he was busy preparing for his own church’s opening. Jeremy Johnston did not respond to requests for comment.

As for the foreclosure, recent months at the church have been filled with confusion, pleas for money and disappointment.

On July 17, Johnston made a tearful announcement.

“Today is one of the greatest days in the history of our church,” he said. “I’m thrilled to tell you that as of Friday, July 14, at 4 p.m., First Family Church has reached a signed agreement and come to a very attractive settlement with our bank. And we will close this transaction on Aug. 15, 2011. And it is over. Glory to God.”

The congregation erupted into applause at the joyful news.

Johnston told followers that the action “leaves First Family in the best financial position since we entered these buildings in April of 2001.”

“I will also say this. That I have learned many lessons during these days. And I thank God for the privilege that he has humbled me.”

Johnston said the bank had requested a “good faith deposit” of $200,000 before closing.

“Fifty thousand every Monday,” he said. “One of our members heard about that Friday and wired $50,000 instantly to our church ... So be sensitive in your giving, and everybody in here pray that that remaining $150,000 will be met. We are back in business, we are moving forward, and to God be the glory, great things he has done. Amen!”

Two weeks later, Johnston told followers that they had experienced a “tremendous miracle.”

“And each Monday, we’ve been making that $50,000 wire, moving right to closing,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the $150,000 Johnston said the bank needed was related to a deal he made that same month to sell hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of dirt on the south edge of the property for $150,000 to a local construction company.

An agreement dated July 22 between the contractor and First Family shows the church sold the dirt for $150,000. The contractor intended to use the dirt for a highway project.

The payments, however, didn’t go to First Family. The document says that “payment shall be made by wire transfer to Regions Bank for credit to the owner as follows: $50,000 on July 25, 2011; $50,000 on Aug. 1, 2011; and $50,000 on Aug. 8, 2011.”

Those were the same amounts — on the same dates — that Johnston said the money being raised by the congregation was to be wired to the bank.

It is clear that on Sept. 4, seven weeks after Johnston said the church had been saved, the First Family board of elders issued a statement saying the bank was taking control of the church property.

Last Sunday, on the church’s final day at First Family, Johnston told the congregation that he had just returned from his daughter’s wedding in Florida. He said Regions Bank “showed so little respect for our church and that particular ceremony that a couple of hours before that wedding they even tried in Johnson County to install a receiver over our church.”

“Of course,” Johnston continued, “our attorneys patently defeated that.”

Yet, according to court documents, Johnson County District Court Judge Kevin Moriarty on Monday signed an order appointing a receiver to oversee the property.

The receiver’s duties include ensuring that no items, which now belong to the bank, are taken from the property.

Evelyn Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Alabama-based Regions Bank, said she could not comment on any aspect of the foreclosure.

A ‘New Day’

Johnston felt at peace.

That’s what he told his congregation last Sunday as he stood before them, confident and determined.

“We have great memories in this facility and we thank God for every one of them,” he said. “Men and women, the church has never been about brick and mortar. It has been about changing lives. Look over the 15 years at the scores of people that have been saved.”

He told them that he had prayed for guidance and read Scripture about facing adversity and coming out on top. And he assured the faithful that as they go back to where they started, in a high school auditorium, the trials that have crippled them for so long will soon be over.

“I feel such strength, and I know where we’re going,” he said. “I don’t have any doubt, I don’t have any regret, and I have been feeling that every single day this week as we have continued to work with a bank that has shown nothing but belligerence.”

Johnston then dived into a pep rally of sorts, telling people that his sermons would be on television again. “It won’t be very long and we’ll be broadcasting right from that school all over our city and all over the country.”

The new church won’t cut any ministries, he said, and may even add new ones. And he, as their pastor, will dedicate more time and energy to the ministry.

For years, he said, he and church elders and legal counsel spent time on conference calls and attending to church business.

“I have become released from that and it is going to release me to move back to the ministry like I haven’t been for 17 years,” Johnston said. “Does anybody want to say amen?”

Johnston drew another round of applause when he told members how his business philosophy had changed.

“The Lord said, ‘When you leave this campus, Jerry, you will go on a no-debt premise from this day forward,’ ” the pastor said. “And whatever we do we will be cash, cash and only cash. We will not need the banks any more.”

Ushers didn’t take up a collection, which might have gone to the bank.

“For many reasons, we will wait and receive our offering next Sunday at Olathe East High School so that those resources can be used for our new church,” Johnston said.

He also said he needs church members’ help. Because the bank wanted everything inside the church, they would have to replace some of the items, he said.

The children’s ministry registered at Babies R Us and Wal-Mart so people could purchase things for the nursery. The registry includes everything from diaper wipes and strollers to high chairs and animal crackers.

“We are going to be extremely ethical and not take anything from our church,” Johnston said.

Those who know Pastor Jerry, who have seen his meteoric rise before, have no doubt people will see it again. The man is too determined a leader to linger in the shadows long, they say.

Some don’t think he’ll be preaching inside Olathe East High for long.

“There are enough people in Johnson County who have never heard of him,” Millhuff said. “Never seen him. And when they do see him, they’ll be starstruck.

“Then, he’ll bring in a Kansas City Chiefs player or some celebrity. He’ll tell the brothers of all the persecution this has caused, how (the media) was out to get him, and lookey there, he’ll be off to the races.”

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