It didn’t quite hit him—that he was the third consecutive pastor in the Dennis lineage—until Jonathan Dennis read his grandfather’s journal.
Jonathan was in his first job out of college as a family ministries director at a church in Pennsylvania. His father, Jim Dennis, was visiting him, and he came with a gift: a journal from his own father, James Dennis, written while on a five-church preaching tour in Toronto one year before he died.
Jonathan had never met his grandfather. He’d died of a heart attack at age 51 while diving in Hawaii, leaving earth the way he lived—fully, and full of secrets. Jonathan knew his grandfather was a pastor. He knew he was a gravitational center of faith around which his family orbited until his sudden death sent everyone into a spiritual tailspin. But he didn’t know much else about his grandfather’s faith until he sat in his office and slowly read that journal over a couple of days.
In one entry, his grandfather wrote about how much he missed his wife while traveling. In another, he wrote about how God had changed the lives of the people he met, his words brimming with an enthusiasm that put a smile on Jonathan’s face.
But they also left Jonathan with questions: How did his grandfather, who showed clear signs of posttraumatic stress disorder from his service in World War II, respond when he first heard the gospel? Why did he feel called to be a pastor so soon after conversion? What did he learn in ministry? What were his struggles? What did he overcome?
So many untold and unfinished stories. Yet reading his grandfather’s words was also like remembering a stranger who felt, in some ways, strangely familiar. He recognized his father and himself in his grandfather’s passion for introducing people to Christ, and his all-consuming work of sermon preparation.
Wow, this is really cool, Jonathan remembers thinking. This is legitimately an unbroken line of three men in my family joining the ministry, despite all our trauma. This is a direct lineage of spiritual legacy.
Even now, as he shares that moment, he tears up. It was an awesome reminder that, no matter the pain and brokenness in a family, God remains faithful from generation to generation. “And if this is true for me in three generations,” he adds, “how much more of this truth and legacy do we have access to as Christians, if we really go looking for it?”
There is something about the third generation that has long inspired myths. In the business world, conventional wisdom has held that most family businesses do not survive beyond three generations. First-generation entrepreneurs pioneer their way from rags to riches, the thinking goes, and leaders of the second generation faithfully steward their parents’ enterprise. But the grandchildren, far removed from the vision and example of the founders, reliably squander their hard-earned inheritance.
There’s not much evidence that this curse of the third generation is a real thing. The Harvard Business Review has tried to debunk it. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the large majority of businesses do not last past a decade—that is, few businesses even make it out of the first generation, let alone into the third.
Still, the notion that things fall apart in the third generation persists among pundits and business advisers. And it has been applied to other family phenomena, such as inherited wealth.
In churches, many sermons have mapped the third-generation curse to faith. A Google search for “third-generation Christian” will yield the general idea: New converts burn with fire and zeal; they give and sacrifice everything to God. The second generation grows up in that faith-saturated culture and might continue to attend church, but their passion for God dims. The thirds? They drift away completely.
Pastors have found biblical examples. They point to Moses and Joshua as the first generation that led the Israelites to Canaan, but by the period of the judges, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25, ESV). They point to David, a great leader and “a man after God’s own heart,” but whose grandson, Rehoboam, steered the nation into moral and spiritual decay. Third-generation Christians are warned about their predisposition to decline.
As in the business realm, the case for a spiritual third-generation curse is shaky. It ignores, for instance, that David himself set the family curse in motion through his predation of Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12).
Even if these myths fail to hold up as a rule, however, they may contain some truth about the multigenerational nature of discipleship. Western evangelicals tend to individualize their faith, often expressing it as a personal experience and relationship with God. They may speak of gratitude toward devout parents who raised them in a “Christian home,” but far less emphasis is given to the testimonies of forefathers. Evangelicalism has always been a breakaway movement, prizing independence over remembrance.
But the Bible is full of references to the importance of identifying our spiritual heritage and roots. “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past,” exhorts Deuteronomy 32:7. When God calls Moses from the burning bush, he introduces himself as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”—more than 400 years after all three patriarchs died (Ex. 3:6). The apostle Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1, “I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience,” then reminds Timothy to consider the legacy of his grandmother Lois and mother Eunice (vv. 3–5).
That is exactly what Jonathan Dennis did the day he opened his grandfather’s journal. It was the missing piece in a saga of three generations of pastors, each from a different denomination, each displaying different parenting styles, and each with its own pain and trauma.
It is a story about not just the faithfulness of men, but the faithfulness of God.
In his 51 years on earth, James Henley Dennis lived many lives. He was an active-duty service member during WWII, a pastor, and a prison and hospital chaplain. He was a father of five. People remember him as a beloved and gifted preacher who made the gospel come alive.
He was also complicated.
Jim, 68, and his brother Mike, 73, have both lived longer than their father. But James’s presence still casts a long shadow over them. They loved him as fiercely as boys in awe of their father could. But their dad was an enigma, a puzzle with odd missing pieces.
Mike, the oldest, remembers a fun, boyish man who flew stick-and-paper airplanes with him. But he also remembers an angry drunk who would whoosh out his belt at the slightest mistake or mischief. He remembers his father’s liquor-laced breath huffing and heaving until his rage switched off as swiftly as it had clicked on, leaving a man standing in a daze of confusion and shame. Mike called it “The Demon.” Looking back, he now sees clear signs of PTSD.
Jim, the third child, remembers a man radically saved. This dad opened the door one afternoon to a new Baptist pastor in town and, that very day, knelt to give his life to Christ. Within a year, he’d finished seminary and uprooted his family from Portland, Oregon, to pastor a small Baptist church in Haines, a rural city in the eastern part of the state with a population of 300. Later he pastored a Conservative Baptist church in Dayton, Washington, and then another in Walla Walla. The Demon reared its head every now and then, but it eventually retreated into hibernation.
Jim and Mike often marvel at the different versions of their father they experienced, and at how little they still know about him.
As gregarious and charismatic as their father was in the community, James was a quiet, private man at home, cradling his memories behind his breastbone. They knew he served in WWII and spoke fluent German, but he refused to share war stories.
Mike spent a decade researching his father’s past. “I wasn’t just interested. I was obsessed,” he said. After multiple thwarted attempts to procure his father’s service records, Mike said the Department of Defense informed him the records are sealed until 2045. The family believes James helped hunt down Nazis after the war. As a youth, Mike remembers seeing terror on the faces of German-speaking immigrants when they met James at restaurants or grocery stores. The family also believes James survived two assassination attempts. He never explained how he got some crater-like scars on his back.
There’s also a sweet picture of James holding up a one-year-old Mike by his armpits. Mike does know the story behind it. They’re picnicking by Lake Whatcom in western Washington, smiling and squinting into the sun. As Mike’s mother snapped that picture, James gestured at his firstborn and said, “I don’t know what to do with this.”
But does anyone know? When it came to parenting, James kept things simple with three rules: Be on time for dinner, don’t come home with the cops, and whatever you did, don’t tell Mom. That freestyle upbringing carried over to their religious education. Dad didn’t preach to his kids. There were no family devotions, no recitations of Scripture or catechisms. They rarely dined together as a family—dinner was a “blow in, blow out” affair, Mike recalled.
If there was any intentional religious teaching, James relied on osmosis, letting his kids observe the way he lived out the gospel. As a pastor of a rural church in the early 1960s, James barely earned $300 a month. The family lived in a poorly insulated parsonage where, in the winters, their bedrooms sometimes felt chillier than the tundra outside.
But Dad was rich in relationships, so his family felt rich. People he counseled invited them to fish in their private lakes, pick whole cows from their ranches, fill their pantry with root vegetables from their farms. Such social wealth followed them wherever they moved. In every new town, within a month Dad would have knocked on dozens of doors and counseled dozens of souls.
There was “an implied education,” Jim noted, that “how you treat people is more important than what you believe in, because it reflects what you actually believe.” James wasn’t just pastor of a Baptist church, Jim said; he was pastor to all, from the high and mighty in elite social circles to the sodden and downtrodden at the local taverns and rodeos.
Maybe that’s just nostalgia talking. But similar refrains echoed through conversations with several other families of third- and fourth-generation missionaries and ministry leaders interviewed for this story.
“Grandpa never stopped being a pastor. It was just who he was,” said Gretchen Ronnevik, a writer and ministry leader whose grandparents were missionaries to Japan.
“I didn’t see one person in church and another person at home. My father was the same everywhere,” said Pavlo Tokarchuk, a fourth-generation Baptist pastor in Ukraine.
“I have a doctorate and two master’s degrees…and what guides me more is my grandmother’s example of a lived-out faith,” said Rob Hoskins, the president of a global Christian ministry, whose family tree includes pastors and missionaries spanning four generations.
Studies suggest that authentic practice of faith inside the home increases the odds of intergenerational religious transmission. The father who prays and writes sermons in his room every morning. The grandfather who prays blessings over his children and grandchildren whenever they visit. The missionary-kid grandmother who tells childhood stories from Africa and still evangelizes to the servers at Denny’s.
Data also shows that parents who directly and explicitly talk about faith with their children—what they believe, what that means, why it matters, how it relates to other areas in life—are much more likely to cultivate spiritual longevity in their children’s lives. So too are parents who are warm, affectionate, and affirming while setting clear standards and consequences.
Parents who are too permissive, authoritarian, or distracted are much less successful in passing down their faith. The late sociologist Vern Bengtson argued that emotional closeness with fathers, in particular, has a greater impact on religious transmission than emotional closeness with mothers.
But salvation is no guaranteed birthright, even in ministry dynasties. In a 2013 Barna survey, 40 percent of pastors said their children went through a period of significant faith crisis. About a third said their children were no longer active in the church. And 7 percent said their children no longer consider themselves Christians.
In many ways, James Dennis was the Abraham in his family—the first believer and the first to be called to ministry. When he responded, his family walked with him into a new land, through no choice of their own.
But when he died, his wife and all five of his children drifted away.
By the time he lost his father, Jim had already been wandering from his childhood faith. He saw people who sang piously on Sunday act very differently on Monday, and he wanted nothing to do with them. His dad’s premature departure was just one more reason to turn away from God.
Jim was 27 then, living in Denver and making big bucks doing telemetry intelligence analysis—basically, collecting information on foreign missiles—for Lockheed Corporation, one of the nation’s largest defense contractors. He had a colleague who reminded him of his father, a man all his coworkers despised simply because he was openly Christian and refused to drink with them. Jim watched this man show kindness even to those who mistreated him and thought, Dad lived his life like that.
It was a “reality check,” he said, that “there are people who take their faith seriously.” He befriended that colleague, and one day, after hearing the gospel once again at that man’s coffee table, professed faith in Christ. He began attending a Southern Baptist church and joined the choir.
Two years later, while volunteering at a Christian education conference in Detroit, he met Cheri Hartman, a children’s pastor from Ohio with a childlike faith who came from a devout line of Assemblies of God ministers. Jim asked her to lunch. Not realizing it was a date, she showed up with three girlfriends. He paid for lunch. She was impressed. He wrote her; she wrote back. Six months later, they were married.
A few days after he proposed to Cheri, on his flight back to Denver from Ohio, Jim imagined life as a husband and father. He didn’t want to drag his future family into his career, which involved a lot of secrecy and covert operations. At the time, he was volunteering in the music and children’s ministries at a Nazarene church. He loved studying and talking about Scripture. By the time his plane landed in Denver, his mind was clear. The next day, he quit his high-paying job and soon became a pastor.
“I never dreamed I’d be a pastor,” Jim told me. But the change didn’t feel strange or shocking. It just felt right.
Every church where Jim and Cheri subsequently served became their second home. On Sunday, their family was often the first to arrive and the last to leave. So when they were kicked out of one church, they didn’t lose just their job and income—they lost their community.
Jim was an assistant pastor at an Assemblies of God church in Cleveland, Ohio, when he began to computerize the church’s handwritten ledgers. While going through the financial records, he discovered that the church owned a nine-hole golf course and had been diverting earnings into the church’s mission fund for years without paying income tax—accruing, by Jim’s calculations, roughly $5.5 million in unpaid taxes and penalties. Jim brought his discovery to the church board.
The next Sunday, the senior pastor announced from the pulpit that Jim and Cheri would be leaving the church to accept “ministry opportunities elsewhere.” At the time, Cheri was upstairs managing Sunday school while Jim stood at the back of the sanctuary. Heads turned toward him in the pews. He looked as stunned as they did.
There was no “ministry opportunity elsewhere.” For the next three years, neither Jim nor Cheri could find a stable job. They exhausted their savings and relied on food stamps to feed their two children. To make ends meet, Cheri cleaned houses, Jim accepted odd jobs, and 13-year-old Jonathan worked part time at a deli. Meanwhile, they watched the church they had served for four years crumble like stale wafers as more people left it.
In the midst of their struggles, Cheri was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. One doctor told them, “I’ve never seen a tumor that big. You better get ready.”
Each Dennis talks about that period differently. Jonathan calls it “church trauma.” Jim just remembers trying to survive day by day.
For Cheri, the memory of her own father’s faith served as a lamp through the dark valley of what she says was a season of growth.
When her mother died of a brain aneurysm when Cheri was 17, Cheri’s father, with tears in his eyes, uttered, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be his name.” Cheri never forgot that moment. She held on to it during chemotherapy and when she had to cut her children’s jeans into shorts because the family couldn’t afford summer clothes. “I just really had peace from the Lord that everything was going to work out,” she said.
What Jim remembers most is the fear of losing his wife and becoming a single dad. He still remembers the rage, shock, and pain of betrayal from people he once called brothers and friends.
After a stint as interim pastor for another church, Jim stopped seeking church jobs, though his wife still works as a children’s pastor and he never stopped doing ministry. Until health issues forced an early retirement, Jim worked as a hospital chaplain for seven years, where he was the happiest ministering to people who didn’t hide their sickness. Today he works with the youth at his church in Arizona and occasionally teaches Bible studies.
If James, the Dennis family’s first-generation believer, was like Abraham, Jim is like Jacob—he wrestled with God and survived, albeit with a limp.
“He’s never fully recovered from that experience,” Jonathan said of his father. “I think he really got hurt by being forced out of the church for doing the right thing, and I think it really hurt him that he was not able to put food on the table.”
Still, his parents tried to protect their children’s faith. “This isn’t God’s fault,” they explained. “This is man.” Cheri consistently pointed out evidence of God’s goodness and faithfulness to her children. “That was God,” she said about how she had signed up for a public health insurance program just before receiving her cancer diagnosis. “Look, God provided that,” she told her daughter, Christina, when a church helped pay for summer camp. She praises God that she has been cancer free for almost 20 years now.
But there were unspoken things that Jonathan sensed as a youth. Perhaps because his parents never once doubted God’s existence, he didn’t question it either, “but I very much wondered if God cared about me.” At times he wondered if, maybe, his father was angry at God. And what would that mean for him, a pastor’s kid who formed his first image of God through his parents’ eyes?
“I’ll never be a pastor,” Jonathan declared. Cheri tried to appear neutral on that topic. Though she and Jim were always careful not to pressure their kids to go into ministry, her personal opinion was “What’s the point of working a regular job if you can work for Jesus?”
“I’ll never be a pastor,” Jonathan would repeat—during dinner, on the drive to church, in his bedroom, whenever the occasion called for another emphasis on how much the life of a pastor’s kid sucked.
“Okay, whatever you want to do,” Cheri would reply. “That’s between you and God.”
Jonathan’s upbringing was very different from his father’s. Jim and Cheri loved hanging out with their children and homeschooled both kids. They did everything together—no blow-in, blow-out dinners at their table. Having a children’s pastor for a mother meant their childhood was stuffed like a piñata with fun Bible stories and artwork, a new devotional book every year, and intentional teachings on doctrines and values. Jim taught the children apologetics, guiding them through questions to logical answers about faith (Jim’s favorite book is Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict).
By the time he was a tween, Jonathan knew about God the way he knew his grandfather: He had never met him, but he had sure heard a lot about him. Then, in one day, when his father was fired from their church for uncovering financial mismanagement, Jonathan lost all the regular rhythms of faith that his parents had carefully woven around the church: “Everything that I identified with faith just disappeared—the place disappeared, the programs disappeared, the connections to it just all went poof.”
Jonathan was then almost 13, old enough to know something was wrong without fully understanding what. Looking back, he says he sees in himself signs of clinical depression. The transition to teenhood is hard enough without isolation, financial hardship, and sickness. He had lots of needs without knowing how to express them, which caused him to withdraw. His father, meanwhile, seemed distant and distracted to the point that, for years, father and son barely talked to one another.
His parents had trained him up in the way he should go, but it took help beyond their family to keep him on that path. A high school friend challenged Jonathan to question whether his faith genuinely belonged to him rather than to his parents. A youth pastor took special interest in him, encouraging him to consider pastoral ministry as a vocation.
Jonathan resisted the call to ministry. Hard. But every reason he employed to argue why he shouldn’t be a pastor—he hated public speaking, he wasn’t leadership material, he didn’t want to raise his own children as pastor’s kids—eventually fell away like chaff. He calls it his “Moses moment.” When God calls you from a burning bush, you can protest all you want, but in the end, your only response is “Here I am.”
He hadn’t even graduated from high school when Jonathan told his parents he felt called to be a pastor. Cheri, with what she hoped was a neutral face, told her son, “Okay, if that’s what God’s calling you to do.” (Jonathan could tell she was uber-pleased.) She then turned to her husband and warned, “Don’t you say, ‘I told you so.’”
But that wasn’t what Jim was thinking. At first, he was flabbergasted. After everything they had gone through? After all that his son had seen happen to him? Then he thought, Oh my God. This has to be God. That’s the only way it could be.
Jonathan is today, at age 33, the senior pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian congregation in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and a father of four. Like his father, he questioned the theology he was raised in—and eventually, with only the slightest controversy, he left his parents’ denomination for Reformed theology and Presbyterian polity.
His younger sister, Christina, moved to the opposite coast—Huntington Beach, California—and chose a different spiritual path. She grew up in the same household, with the same parents and the same spiritual heritage. She always scored higher in Bible quizzes and was highly empathetic, choosing counseling as a career. Yet while one pastor’s kid became a pastor, the other hasn’t set foot in a church for years.
It’s a sensitive topic for the Dennises. Conversations about faith can get tense—and painful. “It’s the worst thing I can ever think of,” Cheri said. She is a bright-faced woman who smiles and chuckles a lot, but when mentioning her daughter’s faith, her mouth droops and her eyes glaze. It grieves her that she’s unable to talk with her own daughter about what matters most to her. She worries whether she’ll meet her daughter in heaven. But then she gives it to the Lord, because that’s all she can do. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be his name.
When James Dennis died in 1977, his wife’s faith seemed to die with him. “It was like Mom had no reason whatsoever to go to church or have any conversations about God,” Jim said.
As the lone prodigal son who came back to Christianity, Jim is now the one remnant praying for the family.
Not long before his mother’s death, Jim visited her in Sequim, Washington. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s and her memories were moth-eaten. Jim and his mother were sitting together, flipping through family photo albums, when she pointed to a picture of her and her late husband smiling under a sunset at the beach. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, James Dennis. Oh, he loved God so much.” And then she said, “I love God so much too.”
Jim was startled. It was the first time he’d heard his mother mention God in 15 years. He wanted to talk more, but her mind had already moved on. It was a brief, unexpected moment that blesses Jim to this day. “With her mind as affected by dementia as it was, there was still a place for God in there.”
The next day, before Jim left to catch his flight, he stood in the driveway and had a premonition that it might be the last time he would see his mother alive. “Can I pray for you?” he asked. Then like a pastor, and like a son, he blessed her.
The next time he saw his mother was at her funeral. Soon after, his stepfather called. “You have no idea the impact your prayer had on your mom and me,” he told Jim. “There was a change in your mom. A peace came over her.” His stepfather, raised a nominal Lutheran, began attending church again.
For Jim, his mother is one fruit of his father’s legacy that somehow held onto the vine. And who knows? Perhaps there are buds forming on that vine yet.
Like Jim, Mike walked away from faith out of disgust with “organized religion.” Mike remembers overhearing his father talk about a deacon who owned the local telephone company and went to visit an older homebound woman who couldn’t pay her phone bills. The deacon munched on her cookies, drank her tea, and—just before he left—unplugged her only connection to the outside world.
“I just thought he was the most evil man I ever met,” Mike recalled. If a deacon could act like that, what was the point of Christianity?
But Mike liked his father’s Christianity. His father’s faith seemed to have the power to tame The Demon. His seemed consistent, authentic, loving. “He was right there with people, working with blood and guts to do real stuff,” Mike said. Mike didn’t believe, but he could tell when someone genuinely did.
Mike is in Jim’s prayers. In September of 2022, when Mike, a train enthusiast, mentioned he was speaking at a railroad convention, Jim dropped everything and hopped on a train from Arizona to Washington to join him. As always when they got together, the two brothers sat and talked for hours.
One time, Mike commented, “Jimmy, after everything you’ve gone through in ministry, why keep doing it?”
“Well, Mike, I’m not working for man,” Jim said. “I’m working for God. And wherever he puts me, I’m content.”
Mike said, “That’s an answer I would expect to hear from Dad. That’s the way he lived.”
Later, on an Amtrak returning home, Jim felt certain: “God’s got ahold of Mike.” There was a smile in his voice as he reflected on their conversations. “Oh yes, oh yes. No doubt about it.”
Sophia Lee is global staff writer for Christianity Today.
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