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Spreading The Word

By Shari Scales Finnell, St. Louis Woman Magazine 

The evangelist is passionate as she addresses an audience—showing no signs of the ordeal she endured during a mud-splattered trip along the dirt roads of Kwikila, Papua New Guinea, to get to her destination.

The delivery is classic Joyce Meyer-style—no-holds barred, straightforward, animated and accented with a blunt voice that points to her St. Louis origins.

A staff member for St. Louis-based Joyce Meyer Ministries looks on, quietly marveling as one of the United States’ most visible ministers pours out her heart to the people in the Pacific island nation. It doesn’t matter that the audience consists of about only 30 people in a tiny church, says Ginger Stache.

“She brought it,” says Ginger, who normally sees Joyce speaking to crowds ranging from 10,000 to 400,000. “She preached and gave everything she had to that small group of people. When she was done, I looked at her and said, “I’m so proud of you.’

“It doesn’t matter who she’s preaching to,” adds Ginger, chief media officer. “It’s the message that matters. It’s beautiful.”

That message has made its way into the hearts of millions of people worldwide for more than 30 years—via books, radio and TV programs and, of course, face-to-face speaking engagements with groups both large and small, as in Papua New Guinea.

It would be an understatement to say Joyce’s message gets around. Her program Enjoying Everyday Life broadcasts nearly every day on ABC, WGN Superstation, Trinity Broadcasting Network, Pax and numerous other TV and radio stations.

The St. Louis resident is a prolific writer, having published more than 80 books with titles like Never Give Up!, Starting Your Day Right and How to Succeed at Being Yourself. Her publications have been translated into more than 80 languages, including Tok Pisin, the vernacular of Papua New Guinea, and Kyrgyz, the tongue of Kyrgyzstan. Many have made The New York Times best-sellers list.

In 2005, Joyce made Time Magazine’s list of the top 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America. She was one of four women recognized. She has been interviewed by the host of CNN’s Larry King Live, and scrutinized, along with other televangelists, by local and national media outlets.

Through it all, Joyce remains focused on preaching a message of hope to millions of people around the globe.

Painful beginnings

As she grew up in St. Louis, Joyce wasn’t thinking much about hope—much less encouraging other people to overcome the challenges in their lives.

Her ambitions didn’t come anywhere close.

The other thing on her mind at age 18, Joyce recalls, was getting out of her childhood home as fast as possible. In her case, that meant latching on to the first guy who came up with a reasonable offer—a ring in marriage—to help her make that escape.

“I had a 12th-grade education,” recalls Joyce, who graduated from O’Fallon Technical High School. “My teachers wanted me to go get a scholarship for journalism, but all I wanted to do was get a job to get away from my dad.”

As she has shared openly with audiences, Joyce says her childhood was marked by the painful abuse at the hands of her father.

“My father was a very angry, violent and abusive man,” says Joyce, who recalls him molesting her as early as the age of 5. “As I got older, he proceeded to other things. It was a regular thing.”

Normally, he would take his anger out on her mother, Joyce says.

“He would slap her and beat her up.”

As a young girl, Joyce often wondered why her mother didn’t leave him. It wasn’t until years later that her mother admitted feeling hopeless about changing her situation.

“She married him when she was 17,” Joyce explains. “She didn’t have the confidence that she would be able to take care of herself if she left him.”

And issues like incest, domestic violence and child abuse weren’t openly discussed at the time—whether among friends and family or in the media, Joyce points out.

“She told me later, although she knew what he was doing, she didn’t know how to face the scandal. So, she didn’t do anything. She had a lot of different issues in her life,” Joyce adds.

As for her father, Joyce notes, he grew up in a home where physical beatings were the norm. It was a cycle, she says. “My father continued that abuse.”

In an attempt to escape the dysfunctional home, Joyce says, she left her family—which also included a younger brother—as soon as she turned 18. “I thought I was getting away from the problem,” she says.

Yet the marriage was a disaster, Joyce says matter-of-factly. She says her new husband orchestrated con schemes for them, and their relationship was filled with strife.

At 22, after suffering a previous miscarriage, Joyce gave birth to her first son, David, who is now CEO of Hand of Hope, the missions arm of Joyce Meyer Ministries.

Troubled by the problems in her marriage, which included abandonment and infidelity, Joyce says, she decided to file for a divorce.

At the same time, she says, she constantly struggled with feelings of self-loathing.

“When you’ve been abused or mistreated, sometimes you feel like something is wrong with you that caused that to happen,” she says. “I had spent most of my life wondering, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I didn’t like who I was.”

On the inside, she was angry, fearful and insecure—feelings she tried to mask by acting bold— “almost obnoxiously so,” she recalls.


Second chances

During the years that followed, Joyce took a couple of detours that eventually led her to a road of healing.

The first was meeting Dave Meyer, who noticed Joyce washing a car in the driveway of a two-story flat owned by her parents. As it happened, one of Dave’s friends lived on the upper level of the building.

He teased Joyce by saying, “When you finish washing that car, you want to wash mine?”

Joyce was quick in her retort: “If you want your car washed, buddy, wash it yourself!”

“I didn’t trust guys,” Joyce recalls with a laugh.

Undaunted, Dave pursued Joyce until she relented. By their fifth date, he was convinced she was the woman he wanted to marry, and he popped the question.

They exchanged vows the next year. Three additional children resulted from that union: Laura (Holtzmann), Sandra (McCollom), and Daniel.

Joyce, who recently celebrated her 43rd anniversary, says she found in Dave the qualities she didn’t think would be possible to find in a man. “It was miraculous. He was somebody who showed me the love of God, yet he would confront me when I needed it.”

Their oldest son, David, says they balance each other out.

“He’s been the absolute perfect mate and partner for my mother in so many ways,” David says. “He has no ego issues. He’s one of the most secure human beings you’d ever want to meet. He’s there in the audience every time she speaks, laughing though he’s heard the same stories a million times. He’s always been there for her.”


The start of a growing ministry

Though Joyce attempted the life of a devout Christian, she still felt haunted by inner turmoil—including insecurities, depression and anger. Those feelings spilled over into her relationship with Dave. They frequently argued during the early years of their marriage.

Joyce was faced with the question of why she was still so unhappy.

“I told myself, I have a good husband, great kids. We didn’t have major illnesses. There was no reason to be unhappy,” Joyce recalls. “Yet I had all this unhappiness inside me. I didn’t like myself.”

She tried to find answers.

“I was trying to feel right with God through my works, but we’re saved by grace. I was trying to earn what he had already given to me as a free gift.”

The transforming moment arrived in 1976, she recalls.

“I was praying to God… Here I am. I’m following all the rules, but…” recalls Joyce, pausing before going on. “It was then that I realized I was more focused on religion and not a serious relationship with God. After that, I started really studying the Word.

“I realized I had a lot of issues,” she says. “I was pretty much blaming everything on everyone else.”

As she grew passionate about what she learned, Joyce was inspired to start a small Bible study group with several women from Isis Seafood Co., where she worked as office manager.

Several years later, she joined the ministry team at Life Christian Center. From there, her ministry blossomed—expanding to radio stations and, later, TV stations at the suggestion of Dave.

Looking back, Joyce says the transitions just happened.

“Nobody knew me anywhere. The crowds just started to grow and grow,” she says. “The thing is, I would have never tried to do anything had I not felt I was supposed to do it. It’s there so strong—something in your heart that you feel like you have to try it.

“Another part of me was thinking, Am I crazy? What makes me think I can do these things?” adds Joyce, who later received a Ph.D. in theology from Life Christian University and honorary doctorates from Oral Roberts University and Grand Canyon University.

“It was a real step of faith.”

Joyce’s straightforward approach was among the qualities that attracted Charlotte Reifschneider to one of her Bible studies 25 years ago.

“I was a fearful person in the early days,” says Charlotte, who is now a division manager for JMM. “I was fearful of everything. I lacked confidence in myself. Anything that came my way, I had fears. Joyce’s teachings helped me break free of that. I needed that practical delivery.”

Through the years, Charlottes says, Joyce continues to be “real.”

“When you get to know her in person, she’s the same person on stage as she is off stage.”

After Charlotte joined the JMM staff, she recalls, she still was a person who suffered from anxiety and fear.

One day, Joyce called her into her office. “I was trembling about that,” Charlotte says.

“She told me, ‘We believe in you, but we don’t think you believe in you,’” Charlotte says. “I had to evaluate that. Knowing who she is and that she believes that there’s something worthwhile in me was major. It is one of my best memories of her.”


In the public eye

As Joyce’s ministry rapidly expanded, she and her family increasingly became exposed to the public—often by design.

Joyce says her philosophy is to share the struggles she and her family face—conflicts and all—to go against the often-held perception that religious leaders should have it all together.

“So many leaders don’t share the reality of their daily lives. No one has a victory without going through a lot of messy stuff to get there,” Joyce says.

“Yes, I’ll tell them I had a fight with my husband and this is how we got over it. Life is life, and stuff happens. It’s messy business,” Joyce adds. “People need to see someone who has had problems and made it, realizing the promises that God has made.”

At times, it seemed as if the family was living in a fishbowl—which didn’t always make it easy growing up in the Meyer household, oldest son David says.

“Growing up as a Meyer, if something happened that would normally be a private situation in most families, you would hear it preached about that night or the next week on TV,” he says. “There’s always an adjustment to it. Maybe you wanted to keep something private. But later you realize allowing that information to be used could help other people.

“We have opened up our lives as a family—the good, bad and ugly, in order for the rest of the world to realize we’re no different than they are,” he adds.


Facing the critics

Joyce’s meteoric rise into the public eye has come along with its difficult moments.

As many people who applaud Joyce’s ministry—her unapologetic speeches and her outreach to the disadvantaged both locally and abroad—there are those who are critical of her message and her comfortable lifestyle. (As president of JMM, Joyce receives salary and fringe benefits compensation of $250,000, a housing allowance and contributions to a retirement plan).

Joyce recalls stopping at a local Starbucks and seeing her face plastered on the front of a newspaper. “It was one of the hardest things I went through,” she says.

“It’s painful when people write unkind things—when they want to judge you for what you have,” she says. “They don’t have any idea what it took to get where you’re at. It’s hard, because they’re saying things about you, but they don’t know you.

“There’s always two sides to everything,” she adds. “You have no recourse but to trust God and believe people who love you know better than that.”

In addition to previous negative media reports, Joyce Meyer Ministries recently has been in the headlines after its former security chief was charged with murdering his wife and two sons. A hearing was expected to be scheduled to determine whether Meyer would be added as a defendant in a civil case, based on the family’s allegation that the ministry didn’t investigate anonymous threats against the family.

From the media scrutiny to personal criticisms, David says, his mother has handled it all with a lot of grace.

“There were days that were harder for her than others. As human beings, our natural tendency is to defend or lash out when people are going against you,” David says. “We’ve learned to put our trust in God.”


Looking ahead

Though Joyce plans to celebrate her 67th birthday in June, she’s showing no signs of slowing down. She and her husband fit in an exercise routine at least three days a week to maintain their stamina for a heavy travel schedule and the demands of the ministry.

They’re also excited about the pending birth of their 10th grandchild.

There are days, Joyce says, that she finds it hard to believe the extent of the ministry’s outreach—which began in the basement of their former Fenton home with a couple of dozen people.

“It’s been a long journey,” she says. “We just kept moving to a bigger space, a bigger space and a bigger space. We worked hard and we went through a lot of things and a lot of tests.

“There was no reason I could think back then that I could do what I’m doing. The number of people God is allowing us to help is pretty phenomenal,” says Joyce, referring to the ministry and its humanitarian efforts by JMM, including the building of orphanages and water wells in Third World countries and helping the homeless and disadvantaged people in the area surrounding The Dream Center, an inner-city church run by JMM.

“I lived long enough to realize to be unhappy is to be selfish. I’ve tried a lot of different ways of living,” Joyce says.

“I just discovered happiness is not found in what you get, but what you give for other people. It makes me happy to make someone else’s life better.”

 

 
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