On the stage of First Baptist Church of Glenarden International, Bishop T. D. Jakes didn’t spend much time preaching from the lectern at center stage of the megachurch.
Instead, the televangelist walked back and forth in his dark suit and striped tie, switching a handheld microphone from his left to his right hand, sometimes facing the predominantly Black congregation of thousands gathered for an annual revival at the start of the year, other times turned toward the clergy and the choir members sitting on the large stage.
“The Holy Spirit sent me all the way to the DMV to tell you this is your year to pivot,” the Dallas-based Pentecostal minister said to cheers and applause from the Washington, DC-area crowd, many on their feet on January 5. “You have to surround yourself with people who can pivot because they’re following who you used to be. Now they’ve got to follow who you have become.”
As he expounded on the biblical story of Joshua succeeding Moses, it was not readily apparent that two weeks before, rumors of the kind that might have led to his own succession had gone viral on social media. While some of his many ministries and businesses issued statements in response, Jakes appeared to be treating the rumors as a bit of turbulence rather than lasting turmoil.
The prosperity gospel preacher, entertainment executive, and ministry entrepreneur has grown exponentially since his early days as a storefront pastor in West Virginia. Jakes moved to the Dallas area in 1996 and founded The Potter’s House, now a nondenominational megachurch with multiple locations and more than 30,000 members, according to the Dallas Morning News.
In 2001, Time magazine featured the traveling evangelist on its cover, asking, “Is This Man The Next Billy Graham?” He now sits at the helm of numerous ministries and businesses and keeps the company of high-powered executives and A-list celebrities.
But those connections have spawned criticism and prompted salacious rumors.
In May, University of Pennsylvania religious studies chair Anthea Butler used her MSNBC column to question Jakes’s new 10-year partnership with Wells Fargo & Company that he has said aims to reduce food deserts and increase affordable housing in Atlanta and other cities.
“(I)n working with a financial institution that’s been repeatedly accused of racist lending practices, Jakes will likely be hurting a Black community he says he wants to help,” Butler wrote shortly after the partnership was announced. “Indeed, his partnership with Wells Fargo is tantamount to his working with the fox to raid the henhouse.”
Kelley Cornish, who became the CEO of the T. D. Jakes Foundation in April after serving as an executive overseeing DEI at Wells Fargo, said the foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization separate from Jakes’s church, is hoping to build 300 affordable homes as part of a new development with retail stores and schools at the former site of Fort McPherson in Atlanta in addition to helping bring a grocery store to an area outside the city that has none.
“I would say organizations that want to come together for good, let it happen,” she said in a Thursday interview with Religion News Service in response to Butler’s assessment. “The past is the past, but at some point, you have to figure out how do you course correct, and so our partnerships, a lot, are about course correction. And we’re excited about that. We have access to the community that they want to serve or serve better.”
More recently, unverified allegations of sexual misconduct at parties hosted by hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs have put Jakes in headlines. In December, a TikTok and YouTube video alleged that Jakes engaged in gay sex at Combs’s parties. Separately, a talk-show host accused Jakes of improper behavior with a young male.
Jakes, 66, was not available for an interview at the time of the early January revival but appeared to deny the claims during his Christmas Eve sermon.
“I will not use his sacred day and this sacred pulpit to address a lie when I have a chance to preach a truth,” he said. “I will stand straight up, head up, back straight, and preach the unadulterated, infallible word of God because that is what the pulpit is for. But there will be a time.”
His ministry responded more directly when asked for a statement.
“Recent claims circulating on pockets of social media about Bishop T. D. Jakes are unequivocally false and baseless, said Jordan A. Hora, executive director of PR & communications for T. D. Jakes Group, T. D. Jakes Ministries, and The Potter’s House in a statement.
“It’s disheartening to witness the proliferation of numerous deepfake photos and the distortion of words through false, sensationalized misrepresentations, encapsulating purported statements to falsely speculate and attack others, including Bishop Jakes. … Chairman Jakes, undeterred by false, perverse, ignorant, and conspiratorial speculations, will persevere in his continued dedication to create meaningful change for millions around the globe guided by the timeless principles of compassion, service, and ministry.”
Derrick Williams, executive vice president of T. D. Jakes Entertainment, added a statement related specifically to Jakes’s connections to Combs, who chaired REVOLT Media & TV, a Black-owned media company that announced in 2021 it would feature a sermon series hosted by Jakes.
“As a filmmaker, executive producer and one of the pioneers of value-based movies, Bishop Jakes, in his role as CEO of T. D. Jakes Entertainment, paid respect to the former Chairman of Revolt during the celebration of his birthday,” Williams stated. “We both greeted the family, Bishop Jakes recorded a brief celebratory birthday video and left immediately to take our other scheduled meetings. Any accusation to the contrary is wholly unsubstantiated, unverified and false.”
While some of the companies Jakes leads or works with, including his foundation, did not respond to requests for comment about the rumors, a number of his collaborators were quick to express their support for him.
“Bishop Jakes is too smart to do something that these people are accusing him of,” said Pastor John K. Jenkins Sr. of First Baptist Glenarden and board chair of the National Association of Evangelicals, who cohosted the January revival with leaders of D.C.’s Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church. “I don’t subscribe to just embracing accusations like that.”
Values Partnerships CEO Joshua DuBois, who most recently worked with Jakes on mental health campaigns for Black men, Hispanic men, and faith leaders, described Jakes as a leader focused on eternal truths, “not sort of short-term, cultural conversations and innuendo,” in a January interview with RNS.
Pray.com CEO Steve Gatena, who in November launched a “Sleep Psalms” prayer and meditation podcast featuring Jakes’s deep voice at the beginning of episodes, told RNS that working with Jakes has been an “incredible experience” and that the two hope to continue the partnership. “We love making a difference in the lives of millions of people together,” Gatena said in a statement.
Just as with the Christmas Eve congregation, Jakes told the revival audience early in his time on stage that he could sense their care for him.
“I love you back,” he said, as people filling the 4,000-seat suburban Maryland sanctuary welcomed him back to the revival where he had been a guest speaker for more than 30 years. “I feel your love. I feel your prayers. I’m thankful to God for them.”
The Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor emerita of African American studies and sociology at Colby College, said she was “not surprised at all” to hear how the revival’s congregation welcomed and responded to Jakes so soon after the rumors appeared. She describes Jakes as a Black leader who has long represented “the unusual combination of giftedness in preaching and giftedness in administration.”
She expects his preaching—which has occurred at national gatherings, including the annual conference of Black ministers at Hampton University, and occasions of national crisis, such as his Washington National Cathedral sermon after Hurricane Katrina—will continue “as long as the Lord keeps him healthy.”
Jakes in 2017 told RNS just before his 60th birthday: “I doubt seriously that retirement any time soon is in my purview.”
He casually mentioned his plans to keep on preaching as he ended his more than 100 minutes on the revival’s stage and urged his congregation for the evening to reject naysayers and focus on what they believe God has envisioned for them.
“If you would do this for the next 365 days,” he predicted, “when I come back next year you will be a completely different person.”
Yolanda Thomas, who has attended the revival for several years, said she had no hesitation about attending this year after allegations surfaced about Jakes.
“To me the work that he’s done, along with his character, has superseded the allegations,” said Thomas, 49, of Bethesda, Maryland.
“I recognize he’s a messenger,” she added. “He’s not God himself.”