Tucson’s Faith Christian Church has resigned from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a national group that has been interviewing former church members about its controversial financial practices.
Faith Christian “voluntarily resigned” from the council on April 6, an action that halted the council’s efforts to determine whether the church meets the council’s standards for responsible stewardship, a council spokeswoman said.
The church has removed the Virginia-based council’s logo from its website. The council accredits Christian nonprofit organizations that comply with its standards for financial accountability, transparency, fundraising and board governance.
The inquiry came on the heels of an Arizona Daily Star investigation into Faith Christian, which ex-members say recruits vulnerable college students and exerts excessive control over their lives.
The Star investigation — based on interviews with 30 ex-members, church staff and parents — included allegations that the church promoted corporal punishment of infants, isolated members from family and non-church members, shamed those who question church leadership and demanded that members tithe.
For six weeks, the church’s head pastor Stephen Hall and second-in-command Ian Laks haven’t responded to the Star’s questions regarding ex-members’ allegations. Faith Christian Church leadership again did not respond to an email and voicemail seeking comment this week.
Because the church is no longer a council member, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability won’t offer any more comments on the church or its practices, Anna Hutsell of Atlanta-based public relations firm DeMoss said in an emailed statement.
Former Faith Christian member Doug Pacheco, who submitted his concerns about Faith Christian to the council via email, says he wishes the organization had completed its investigation of the church.
“I believe that FCC took the path of least resistance. It was a simple step to withdraw (from the council) in order to keep from being investigated,” he said in a Facebook message.
DEFENDING THE CHURCH
Last month, Evangelical Council president Dan Busby defended Faith Christian in response to questions from the Star.
“The questions you have raised, compared to what we know about the church, does not give rise to a sensational story about the church,” he wrote in a March 5 email. “It is so easy for disgruntled folks who used to relate to a particular church to cast aspersions and create negative perceptions about churches that are doing good work.”
Days after the Star’s investigation was published, Busby said the council had sent an executive to Tucson to confirm that the church’s practices were in line with the council’s standards. He said in a March 10 email that the church was in compliance.
But on March 19, a group of 22 ex-members of Faith Christian sent a letter to the council, requesting it seek feedback from former members to better understand the church’s practices. Former members say Faith Christian violates the council’s stewardship standards because it shames members, or asks them to leave the church, if they don’t give enough money.
“In violation of ECFA’s Donor’s Bill of Rights, most of us experienced pressure to donate at least 10 percent of our income while at the church,” the letter said. “In fact, it is clearly written in their membership that tithing is a requirement for membership.”
Former church member Rachel Mullis — who wrote the letter encouraging the council to interview ex-members — says 26 former members have since either emailed statements to the Evangelical Council or were interviewed by council executives over the phone.
Mullis, a member of Faith Christian from 1994 to 2004, said her interview with a council executive was thorough and respectful.
“There was no judgment on his part,” she said in an interview. “He was like, ‘Were you there? Did you see this? Tell me more.’ It very much felt like I was talking to a lawyer, in a good way.”
Mullis said she was questioned about the church’s financial practices, as well as other areas such as corporal punishment of infants, which at least a dozen former members told the Star is promoted by the church. Mullis said she discussed church leaders’ intrusion into members’ personal finances, gifts the church made to the head pastor’s family and intense pressure to tithe.
“Steve (Hall) would preach that if you don’t give 10 percent, you’d be cursed, and he refused to pastor cursed people,” Mullis said.
OTHER INVESTIGATIONS ONGOING
Faith Christian has six offshoot churches around the country and in New Zealand, which all focus their recruitment efforts on college campuses. Some are facing heightened scrutiny since the Star published its investigation.
Two colleges in New Zealand have banned top ministers of Faith Christian-affiliate Victory Christian Church from stepping foot on campus, in response to concerns about the church’s conduct. A former Faith Christian associate pastor who helped launch Victory Christian said its practices are a “carbon copy” of Faith Christian’s.
The University of South Florida in Tampa is looking into two recent complaints about Cornerstone Student Fellowship, the campus ministry of Cornerstone Christian Church, which is an offshoot of Faith Christian. The university is working to determine whether an investigation is warranted, said spokesman Adam Freeman in an email.
“USF would take action if a violation of university policy or state or federal law has occurred,” Freeman said. “While student safety is USF’s highest priority, the university also values the right to exercise freedom of speech and religion.”
Colorado State University received one complaint from a parent about Faith Christian affiliate Grace Christian Church since the Star investigation ran, spokeswoman Dell Rae Ciaravola said in a Friday email. While the university is not “actively investigating” the church or its affiliates, officials have been in touch with former church members to gather information, she said. Grace Christian has not had a registered student organization at CSU since 2012, she said.
On March 30, the University of Arizona’s University Religious Council voted to revoke Faith Christian’s council membership due to disturbing allegations from former members, a council officer said.
“The number, seriousness, and pattern of red flags raised compel URC members to no longer believe that Faith Christian Church and its affiliates operate at the highest level of integrity, transparency, safety for students, and respect for students, standards required for URC membership,” a statement from the Religious Council said.
Faith Christian will be included on a list of churches whose membership has been revoked — and that list will be distributed to UA students during orientation to send a message that the council does not endorse the church’s practices, a council official said.
The church’s three associated on-campus clubs — Wildcats for Christ, Native Nations in Christ and the Providence Club — are also the subject of a UA dean of students’ office inquiry. The clubs aggressively recruit on behalf of Faith Christian on the UA campus, former members say.
Since early March, when the dean of students’ office began soliciting input from the public on Faith Christian’s affiliates, the office has received more than 30 complaints about the church or its related clubs. The dean of students’ office has no jurisdiction over the church itself, only its on-campus clubs.
Last Wednesday, ex-church member and UA alumnus Cody Ortmann made a presentation to the Associated Students of the University of Arizona. He pushed the student government to pass a resolution recommending the dean of students’ office no longer recognize the church’s three on-campus affiliates as student clubs — at least until the inquiry into the church is complete.
The ASUA didn’t vote on the resolution but asked Ortmann detailed questions about his experience with the church, he said.