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Writing 180 books over four decades keeps a man busy. Jerry B. Jenkins, co-author of the best-selling Left Behind novels and one of today’s busiest Christian authors, has sold over 70 million copies of his novels and nonfiction works. He has also co-authored several children’s adventure series and helped Billy Graham, Bill Gaither, and Luis Palau write autobiographies. A former vice president of publishing at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Jenkins now volunteers as chairman of the school’s board of trustees.
In recent years, Jenkins has also enjoyed playing poker, sometimes with friends in the privacy of his home, and sometimes in casino poker tournaments that require buy-ins of hundreds of dollars.
WORLD came across Jenkins’ name on GlobalPokerIndex.com, a website that compiles poker tournament results submitted by casinos and creates public profiles of players who cash in. When I called Jenkins to ask if the Global Poker Index profile was of him, he confirmed that it was.
“I don’t play for what I would consider significant amounts of money. And I wouldn’t gamble, either. I mean, I don’t play slots,” he said. “I consider poker a skill game.”
According to the Global Poker Index data, Jenkins has won $8,065 at two casinos, including $4,580 at Commerce Casino near Los Angeles during the 2008 California State Poker Championship, where the buy-in was $1,500 (plus an $80 fee to the casino). He also had poker tournament winnings from 2010 and 2012 at Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Ind., a 30-minute drive from downtown Chicago. Global Poker Index does not list tournament losses, said Alexandre Dreyfus, the CEO of Zokay Entertainment, which operates the index.
Jenkins claims his wins and losses have been about even overall: “I’m just a recreational player. … It’s not something I make money at or lose money at, really. … I realize that people have issue with it.”
The admission from Jenkins comes after the board of trustees he chairs established, in August, a new Moody employee policy that permits gambling, tobacco use, and the consumption of alcohol while off duty. Brian Regnerus, a spokesman for the school, said, “No Board member’s personal preference or activity had any impact on the decision to review the previous employee standards.”
Under the old policy, employees were supposed to eschew such activities even in private. The policy change came after a year of study and reflected a desire “to require no more and no less than what the Bible requires,” while leaving other issues to an individual’s conscience, said spokesman Regnerus. Both the policy change and Jenkins’ poker hobby suggest that—as toward smoking and drinking—evangelical attitudes may be softening toward a formerly frowned-upon or forbidden activity.
As an unpaid trustee, Jenkins is not required to submit to Moody’s employee guidelines. But Jenkins said the school expects trustees to be professing Christians and to “exhibit the biblical characteristics of an elder.”
Rules for Moody’s students are much stricter: They are not permitted to smoke, drink, or gamble, according to the school’s “Student Life Guide,” even while at home on Christmas and summer breaks. The school has 3,800 students, including distance learners and those on campuses in Chicago, Michigan, and Washington state. Asked whether Jenkins’ hobby might send a mixed message to students, Regnerus said the school expected students to recognize matters of Christian liberty, while abiding by rules meant to accommodate families and churches with stricter convictions.
“Moody is aware that Jerry Jenkins participates in poker, which is not prohibited in Scripture,” Regnerus said. He added the school does not have an official position that would clarify whether it considers poker to be gambling.
Jenkins began playing poker less than 10 years ago, and said that within the past year he had decided to play in Hammond no longer: “It’s too close to Chicago. I serve on the board of Moody, so I wouldn’t want to cause any embarrassment to anybody if they had a problem with that. … I live in Colorado, so if I play it’s outside the Midwest.”
Besides writing books, Jenkins owns Jenkins Entertainment, a filmmaking enterprise, and the Christian Writers Guild, a group that provides conferences, critiques, and long-distance writing courses for aspiring authors (I’m a former student). According to director Janice Mitchell, the Guild currently has 550 members.
Jenkins, 64, declined to state his income on the record, but said he is a “high-income person” and has enjoyed a few “pretty flush years with the Left Behind series. … You can do the math. I’ve sold 70 million books. So to break even making $8,000 playing poker, it’s kind of pocket change for me.” He gives most of his income away, he said.
Jenkins’ latest book, I, Saul, an adult thriller that delves into the life of the biblical Paul, went on sale in August. His co-author, James MacDonald, is the senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, a church with seven campuses in the Chicago suburbs. Beyond co-writing a novel, Jenkins said he and MacDonald have also played poker together in the past, although MacDonald no longer plays.
In a sermon in November 2012, MacDonald told his congregation he began playing poker with friends several years ago, sometimes in his basement and sometimes “in public places.” When the Harvest elder board informed him some people in the church were offended by his practice, MacDonald said he wrestled over the subject for a period of time before deciding to give up poker both in public and in private.
“Up until June 2012, Pastor James played Texas Hold ’em poker with friends and on the rarest of occasions in a casino, but stopped at the request of our current elder board chairman,” said Harvest spokeswoman Sharon Kostal in a statement to WORLD. “He considers recreational games for very small amounts of money to be a matter of Christian liberty. However, he has publicly committed to having given up his personal liberty in this matter, in view of the increasingly public nature of his pastoral ministry.”
Jenkins’ son Dallas, a filmmaker who joined Harvest’s staff as media director in 2010, once told Christian novelist C.J. Darlington in an interview about his participation in tournament poker. In an email to me, Dallas called poker his “hobby” but declined to discuss it.
“Because poker is a game of skill, Dallas has studied and practiced and managed to do quite well,” said Jenkins. He identified a Global Poker Index profile belonging to Dallas that listed his lifetime earnings at $57,396, including $30,725 won during a single Los Angeles tournament in 2007. He did not speak of his son’s losses but said Dallas had been “profitable.”
Jenkins said many evangelicals have relaxed opposition to poker: “Easily half the people I play with in home games are fellow believers.” He said his entire family plays poker, and he sometimes plays at Golden Gates Casino in Black Hawk, Colo., where his youngest son, Michael, works as a dealer. The novelist said he doesn’t hide his identity: “I am known where I play, and people know I am a Christian. I share my faith. I sign and give away books.”
Jenkins declined to say how often he plays in homes or publicly, and how much money he typically spends. His own practice, Jenkins said, might not be relevant to others, and “might not be healthy to someone with an addiction or money problem. … No hobby should become an obsession.”
Of course, the Bible has no explicit “Thou shalt not play poker” commandment. Poker is not the same as playing the slot machines: It does involve skill (although the cards are dealt randomly). Players bet chips and win them by forming the best five-card hand possible, and attempt to mislead opponents into believing their hand is better or worse than it really is. Experienced players learn to read the subtle eye movements or nervous facial expressions of opponents who may be bluffing. Although it’s not necessary to play for money, high stakes heighten suspense. (Disclosure: I once played for Skittles and have played bingo for dimes.)
Some evangelicals see no problem in playing for small amounts of cash. Others have tended to avoid poker because of its association with gambling. From the Westminster Larger Catechism in the 1640s (which criticizes “wasteful gaming” in its question 142) to the present, many have seen gambling as a violation of the 8th commandment, “You shalt not steal”—but debates about what is wasteful, what is gambling, and what is stealing have also raged. Does a particular game create hardship to losers and their families? What is the motivation involved? What is moralism and what contributes to human flourishing or diminishing?
Asked whether it was a problem that some poker players lose so others can win, Jenkins said the same dynamic was true of sports like basketball and softball. “I would respectfully challenge anyone to find biblical justification for prohibiting playing poker for money (in moderation at amounts they can afford) while allowing spending the same amounts to play golf or engage in fantasy sports leagues,” Jenkins said in an emailed response to follow-up questions.
Tournament poker opponents would point out that while Jenkins may be able to afford the money he risks at poker, his opponents may not be able to. Barrett Duke, vice president of public policy and research at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says gambling is different from other forms of entertainment: “You are basically trying to win other people’s money, and risking the money that the Lord has entrusted to you. Plus, you’re also engaging in activity that has destroyed millions of lives.” (Duke believes poker qualifies as gambling because “the turn of the card determines who wins.”)
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, 2 to 3 percent of U.S. adults are “problem gamblers” whose habits are disrupting their lives, such as by causing loss of sleep or financial issues. The National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention officially oppose gambling, and last year opposed a bill that would have expanded online poker. In a 1997 resolution the SBC called on Christians to “exercise their influence by refusing to participate in any form of gambling or its promotion.”
“A few friends gathered around a table, playing for a few dollars over the course of a few hours isn’t the kinds of gambling we’re certainly most concerned about,” Duke said. “But even that poses a certain level of risk for people who maybe enjoy that small thrill of a win and decide to test their luck at other forms of gambling.”
Jenkins says poker is a social hobby and home games have given him opportunities to meet new people and pray with or counsel them. One family he met during a home poker game later came to live with Jenkins and his wife Dianna for several weeks after their home burned during last year’s wildfires. The wife in that family was recently baptized, he said: “Frankly, were it not for poker, we would hardly ever rub shoulders with unsaved people.”
Thousands of kids and adults crowded the Boomers baseball stadium in Schaumburg, Ill., on Sept. 21, but no one was watching baseball. Instead, they had gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Harvest Bible Chapel, a church with an attendance of around 13,000 at seven campuses in Chicago and its suburbs and nearly 100 church plants worldwide through Harvest Bible Fellowship.
Congregants took their children to inflatable funhouses set up for the event and sat in the grandstand with nachos, soft drinks, and fries as they waited for a band to begin playing modern worship songs like “10,000 Reasons.”
After they sang, James MacDonald, senior pastor of Harvest, took to the stage and spoke of the lordship of Jesus Christ: “He took your sin, your regret, your failure, your disappointment.” Like his imposing figure, MacDonald’s preaching style is big and bold: He shouts for emphasis, and listeners often feel challenged. His audience long ago expanded beyond Chicago through the church’s Walk in the Word radio ministry, broadcast throughout the United States.
But as MacDonald and Harvest celebrate 25 years of ministry, they face a barrage of criticism from former elders, pastors, and staff who say the church leadership has operated in recent years with too little transparency and accountability.
Megachurches often have naysayers, but the situation at Harvest is unusual because of the large number of former elders who have spoken publicly, mainly on a blog called The Elephant’s Debt, run by two former Harvest attendees. By early October, at least a dozen former elders, pastors, or staff members, including the former elder board chairman, had added their names or written statements to the website to affirm their concerns about Harvest. Among the allegations are that the church has run a “puppet elder board” and left a trail of broken relationships.
The dissent has grown louder since June, when three Harvest elders resigned after fellow elders dismissed their claim that a “culture of fear and intimidation” and a lack of transparency existed at the church. The current elder board consists of 32 men, including James MacDonald and two staff members.
The three elders—Daniel Marquardt, Scott Phelps, and Barry Slabaugh—complain that although the full elder board is responsible for approving the church budget, they don’t actually have access to a detailed, line-item budget, and are not allowed to know MacDonald’s salary, expense accounts, or income from honorariums or book royalties.
“When we asked for a line-item budget … we were denied and rebuked. And we were told that even making such a request could get you removed from the elder board,” Phelps told me, adding it reflected a larger problem of the elders having little input into decisions made by executive staff.
Budget details are important for the church, given its $56.8 million debt—the result of a 2005-2007 construction campaign that went awry and doubled in costs, and of a defaulted loan at the church’s campus in Crystal Lake, Ill. The church said it plans to pay off the debt by 2020. However, the church’s most recent financial statement indicates that total contributions dropped 14 percent between 2011 and 2012, to $45.4 million.
The rebukes have gotten worse for Phelps and Slabaugh, who had remained Harvest members after resigning from the board: In September, the remaining elders announced church discipline against the two men in a video played at Harvest’s seven campuses and posted to the church website for several days. In it, they censured and excommunicated Phelps and Slabaugh, apparently for their part in signing a letter, along with six other former elders, that was critical of James MacDonald. Harvest declined to comment when I asked for details about the excommunication.
The letter, sent to the Harvest elder board, has not been publicly released. But several of the former elders who signed it told me they want MacDonald to take a sabbatical from his position in order to focus on character and spiritual growth. They said they stand behind the integrity of Phelps and Slabaugh.
The present Harvest elder board dismisses the notion of a sabbatical. “Pastor James MacDonald is a man under the full authority of our elder board. We remain highly confident in his leadership,” Harvest elder Randy Williams told me in a statement he read over the phone. The church declined to arrange a phone interview with MacDonald.
In a sermon he preached in November 2012, MacDonald admitted he had struggled with verbal outbursts of anger that have damaged relationships. “I’m too intense, for sure. Can anyone honestly say that that completely shocks them?” he said, eliciting laughter. At the time he made efforts to reconcile broken relationships, at the request of the elder board. This September the current elders said they were “completely satisfied with Pastor James’ growth in grace.”
The church has also taken steps toward financial transparency, by posting financial statements and a debt reduction plan online. In late September, the church became accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
Harvest has restructured its elder board twice in the past four years. The first change came in 2009 when the board transitioned from a model of about 8-10 men to a larger one that eventually grew to around 30 individuals. The second change occurred this year, around April, when the church created an “elder leadership team” consisting of about eight elders, including MacDonald and the assistant senior pastor.
Marquardt, Phelps, and Slabaugh had complained the board rearrangement violated the church constitution. Asked about the elder leadership team, Harvest told me in a statement it had been functioning on a “trial” basis and would “likely be adopted permanently in some measure, including the needed change to our constitution.”
According to a proposed change to the church’s constitution that Harvest announced in September, the team will have “final authority in all matters relating to the church including compensation, buying or selling property and accountability of Senior Staff.”