Faith Christian Church leaders have agreed to meet with the UA’s University Religious Council regarding alleged abuses uncovered in an Arizona Daily Star investigation, a council officer said.
The church’s response came after a Star article on Sunday quoted URC treasurer Michelle Blumenberg saying the church, which recruits members on campus, risked losing its council membership if it continued to ignore a meeting request, emailed March 11. Church leaders responded on Monday and agreed to meet next week, she said.
Blumenberg said she can’t comment further until after the meeting.
More than 30 former church members and their parents told the Star that Faith Christian exerts excessive control over members’ lives and finances, encourages students to cut ties with relatives and friends outside the church, and promotes spanking of babies. Dozens of people who belong to a Facebook group for former members, most of them UA alumni, say they suffered negative psychological consequences, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, for years after leaving the church.
Faith Christian leaders Stephen Hall and Iak Laks have not responded to the Star’s repeated requests for comment on its practices.
Blumenberg said the “worrisome” findings of the Star’s investigation prompted the UA’s religious council to investigate the church, which is one of its 19 members. The council is a coalition of the ministers and directors of religious and spiritual groups at UA, providing spiritual support to students.
The investigation will focus on whether Faith Christian’s practices violate the council’s standards of conduct and exhibit any of its warning signs for “religious practices gone awry,” including religious stalking, invasiveness, deception, pressure and shame.
On Thursday, 22 ex-members of Faith Christian Church sent a letter asking the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability to consult with former members when looking into the church’s financial practices, which they say amount to coercion and abuse. Church members are punished or can be asked to leave the church if they don’t give enough money to the church, ex-members told the Star.
“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.”
Dan Busby, president of the Virginia-based evangelical council of which Faith Christian is a member, didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday. A representative of the council suggested the Star call a Georgia public relations firm it is working with, but because of the time difference, the firm was already closed for the day.
Before the Star’s investigation of the church was published, Busby expressed support for Faith Christian and some of its financial practices. But he said via email last week that the issues raised by the Star prompted the council to send an official to Tucson to determine if the church is in compliance with its standards. It is, he wrote.
Since the Star’s investigation, the UA dean of students office has asked the public for feedback on the church and its ministries. The office has received at least 31 emails critical of the church and one complimentary email.
“Without reservation, I believe Faith Christian church and its affiliates to be a harmful presence at the university,” said one complaint emailed to UA last week. The writer, whose name was redacted, was a member for seven years and left the church in 2009. “Their practices, if left unchecked, will continue to leave a wake of psychologically broken students. This type of abuse has no place on campus.”
Some former members are concerned that a member of Faith Christian, Cody Nicholls, works in the office that collects the complaints. He also is a liaison between the dean of students office and the University Religious Council. But UA officials say Nicholls has only worked as a liaison for one year, and his primary role is overseeing veterans affairs.
UA spokesman Chris Sigurdson emphasized this week that Nicholls isn’t involved in the investigation and doesn’t have access to any communication received about Faith Christian. Only Dean of Students Kendal Washington White and two administrative assistants have access to the information, Sigurdson said.