How Joyce Meyer Built a Worldwide Following

By telling darkest secrets, Meyer built world audience and lucrative ministry.

April 12, 2010, 5:54 PM

April 13, 2010 — -- At 66, Joyce Meyer is as close as it gets to being a Christian rock star. But she herself -- abused as a child, divorced young, a woman who admits to stealing from her boss -- says she is an unlikely success story.

People, women in particular, flock to Meyer's conferences on Christianity, which are peppered with down-home advice on how to live, love and work with God in your life.

"I tell people, and it's the truth, I could sit in my garage for a week and it won't make me a car," Meyer said. "And you can sit in church till your bottom is flat and that won't make you a servant of Christ."

Meyer's ministry has attracted millions of devoted followers through a successful TV show, a Web site, a radio show and Meyer's books. Her 80th title, "Eat the Cookie ... Buy the Shoes: Giving Yourself Permission to Lighten Up," is coming out today. She said she has sold in excess of 20 million books. Her headquarters in a sprawling complex outside St Louis was paid for with cash, she said.

It is in large part Meyer's honesty about her struggles that makes her so appealing to so many.

"I was in a terrible mess in my childhood," said Meyer, who calls herself a Bible teacher. "Just had so many devastating things happen to me; sexual abuse, verbal abuse, abandonment, just one mess after another. So let's just say by the time I was a young adult, I was really messed up."

The sexual abuse Meyer suffered at the hands of her father is part of her preaching, part of what defines her.

"The abuse started, I guess, around the time I was 5," Meyer said. "As I got older, it turned into, you know, him actually having sex with me. My own father raped me. ... I know it happened at least 200 times, so for me to stand here and say I'm of sound mind, I'm whole emotionally, I've been married to the same man for 44 years, I have four wonderful children, almost 10 grandchildren, and I'm being able to help people all over the world, God has done a lot for me."

One question that arises from Meyer's life narrative is whether we'd be talking about a Joyce Meyer Ministry without her horrible childhood, without the continual rape.

"I'm not sure we would be," Meyer said. "And I can tell you something even crazier. ... I used to say, of course I wish that would've never happened to me. But, and one day I just thought, you know, I can't even really say that anymore. Because of the deep need in my life, because of what had happened to me, I had to find help with God, no one else was going to help me. And the things that I've been through, and even being in this public position, the judgment, the criticism, the potshots that people throw at you, I mean other than my immediate family, I've had to find a way to go on in God."

Meyer said she believes her candor is a large part of her appeal, which she displays not just at conferences but also on her global television show.

"I think it's my transparency, you know people ask me about that and it's not something I do on purpose, it's just the way I am," she said. "It's what you get, you're not going to see me in my private life and find me very much different than right here talking to you. ... I don't have anything to hide, it's like, why not tell the truth?"

Joyce Meyer Admits to Stealing, Facelift

Judging by Meyer's past sermons, she means what she says about transparency, to a point that some audience members might find cringe-inducing. In one sermon, Meyer talked about having worked in a company where she was involved in stealing money.

"That was just so important to me, because that was a secret that would have always made me fearful of someday being caught had I not brought that out in the open," Meyer said. "God wanted to use me in ministry, but that was something I needed, that was something I could go back and make right, he wanted me to go back and make that right. I was petrified. ... I was like, 'What if they arrest me,, what if I go to jail, what if, what if?' ... But I really felt like it was what God was prompting me to do, that I needed to go make that right, that I didn't have to have that between me and God."

Meyer decided to go to the owners of the company and confess. She paid back the money she had stolen.

The preacher has also been honest about having had a facelift.

"God doesn't love me anymore or less because I had some work done on my face," she said. "You know, I prayed about it a long, long, long, long, long time, because there again, I wouldn't want to do anything that I felt was going to be offensive to God. ... But I just felt like he finally just came to my heart, you know, it's your face, do what you want to. ... It was a really good thing that I did for me. It made me feel good. ... And you know, when you're in front of millions of people every day, you want to look your best."

Meyer said she didn't think it was a religious matter.

"I want to look my best for God," she said. "So many people have the attitude that if you're a Christian you've got to dress bad, wear an old color, not do anything to your hair, have nothing. It's no wonder that Christianity is not very attractive. I mean, how many people do you know in a Western culture that's going to go, 'Yeah, give me some of that'?"

It Takes Money to Help People

What people do seem to want in on is Meyer's offer to help them prosper by giving to her. She is an effective fundraiser. Her ministry brings in more than $100 million a year.

Is she a prosperity preacher?

"That whole thing is just so totally ridiculous," Meyer said. "First of all, what is a prosperity preacher? It's just this term that people have come up with. Do I believe that God wants to bless us? Yes. The word prosper is in the Bible. ... I just love God, and I'm just trying to help people with the word of God."

People would get back money by giving it, Meyer added, "because the Bible says give and it should be given unto you. You see, giving is a major part of the whole Christian doctrine.

"Most people doing what I'm doing, working at it as long as I have, would be way beyond that, so I am not robbing the ministry," Meyer said. "When I ask people to give, I can't be on television if they don't, I can't help people, if I don't -- I mean, it takes money."

We asked Meyer about the private plane she uses to travel on ministry business.

Nightline: Talk for one minute about the plane, because there are a lot of people who go, look, yes she flies a lot, but she could fly commercial. A 22-seat jet?

Meyer: I really could not fly commercial at this stage of my life and do what I'm doing. I could not endure it physically if I had to do that. Do you know how hard it is to fly commercial now? I used to be so tired when I'd come back from our conferences that I would be almost sick for two to three days. And I finally just told David, I just can't, I can't do this like this anymore. I said, it just -- because I work hard, I mean I put my whole heart and soul into this...

Nightline: So you don't think it looks unseemly for a person preaching the word of God to have a private jet?

Meyer: I don't. ... Why would it be OK for a business executive but not OK for someone like me? Why is it that people think if you "work for God" that that always means that you cannot have anything? It seems to me, if you read the Bible, it's pretty clear that God wants to bless his children.

Nightline: Because, I think people think, OK, Jesus' example of sackcloth-and-ashes, where he ... lives in the simplest way, gives up his sandals, and they want to know--

Meyer: I went through all that. I did every bit of that. I gave up everything, I -- you know.

Nightline: So if Jesus were here, he'd have a corporate jet?

Meyer: He might today, they weren't available then, so.

Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

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