By Pam Lambert
Updated November 09, 1998 12:00 PM

Striding to the aquarium in front of the jam-packed sanctuary, Bishop T.D. Jakes seizes a net and scoops up a single fish. As 3,000 worshippers watch raptly, the tiny body wriggles, splashing Jakes’s brown suit. “The fish cannot be outside this environment,” intones Jakes, 41, pointing to the water. “He’s still alive, but he can’t be out here for long. He’ll get into trouble.” The crowd becomes visibly excited. “Christ came to put us back in the water,” Jakes continues. His audience is on its feet. Shouts of “That’s right!” and “Glory!” ring out from around the room. And then the bishop’s voice booms, “Tell somebody, ‘I’m back in the tank now!’ ”

A slightly unusual religious metaphor—but there’s no doubt that Thomas Dexter Jakes is in his element. All it takes is a glance around The Potter’s House, the south Dallas megachurch he founded two years ago. Now there are 200 employees and more than 16,000 members (ranging from the homeless to celebrities like Dallas Cowboys Deion Sanders and Emmitt Smith). And The Potter’s House is just the flagship of the flamboyant Pentecostal pastor’s flourishing empire, which includes 12 Christian bestsellers, the weekly TV show Get Ready with T.D. Jakes, inspirational CDs and projected sales this year of 1.5 million videotapes and 1.8 million audiotapes preaching his gospel of empowerment.

“When T.D. Jakes opens his mouth, what comes out is liquid fire,” says Rev. John Hagee, a national TV and radio evangelist. “It impacts your life with a message that doesn’t stop when you walk out of there.” That was certainly the case with NFL star Sanders. Introduced to Jakes last year by his now ex-wife, he became enough of a believer to donate a million dollars. “I’ve had two fathers, my biological father and my stepfather,” says Sanders, 31. “But this is the first man I’ve ever called Daddy.”

If Jakes strikes such an emotional chord in many of his followers, it may be due to his sympathetic approach to such timely and thorny issues as AIDS, single motherhood and abusive relationships. “I’ve been called the shepherd of the shattered,” Jakes says. “I think that’s a fairly adept description.” Jakes himself is no stranger to heartache. Growing up in Charleston, W.Va., he was the youngest of three children of Ernest, who ran a janitorial service, and Odith, now 72, a home economics teacher. When T.D. was 10, already singing in the church choir and selling greens from his mother’s garden for $1 a bag, his father developed kidney disease. For the next six years, Jakes helped nurse him as Ernest wasted away. “I think it is my camaraderie with people who have endured tragedy that makes my ministry what it is,” he says.

That and the ability to bring down the house with his powerful preaching, a talent honed through early years of organizing revivals and pastoring in a succession of coal-mining towns. It was during a guest sermon in her hometown of Beckley, W.Va., that Serita Ann Jamison became, she says, “enthralled by the man;” they soon met, and married six months later. Today, Serita, 43, serves as director of personnel at the church and oversees the women’s ministry, as well as care of the couple’s five children (twins Jamar and Jermaine, 18; Cora, 11; Sarah, 10; and T. Dexter Jr., 4). “My idea of having a good time is sitting around with the kids acting crazy,” Bishop Jakes says. “You know, stuff you could do if you was broke.”

Jakes also savors more expensive pleasures. His family lives in a $1.7 million home “my father would have bragged about cleaning.” He gave himself a blue convertible BMW for his 40th birthday and indulges his appetite for colorful, mostly tailor-made clothes. “I enjoy all of it,” Jakes says. “I’m a lavish person, and I earned that.”

Jakes says that giving his followers the tools to emulate his success is an important part of his mission. In fact, that’s the goal of the ambitious Project 2000, to which Sanders made his contribution. “When completed, it’s slated to include a community center providing job and computer training, a women’s shelter and a substance abuse program. “When we get through worshipping and shouting and clapping and singing, we need jobs,” Jakes says. “I’m not here for me, because I got mine. But I can’t go to bed until they have theirs.”

Pam Lambert

Michelle McCalope in Dallas