University of Arizona officials are meeting this week with the president and faculty adviser of Faith Christian Church’s campus recruiting arm to ask about allegations of wrongdoing raised in a recent Arizona Daily Star investigation of the church.
The leaders of Wildcats for Christ “are going to have to show up and answer questions,” said Melissa Vito, UA’s senior vice president.
The Star interviewed 21 former employees and church members and nine of their parents as part of its investigation. They described Faith Christian as a cult that promotes spanking of babies that show a “rebellious spirit,” exerts excessive control over members’ lives and finances and encourages students to cut ties with family and friends outside the church.
Faith Christian’s top leaders, senior pastor Stephen M. Hall and executive pastor Ian A. Laks, have declined for more than two weeks to comment on the Star’s findings.
Four people have told the Star they raised concerns to UA about Faith Christian Church as far back as the mid-1990s. But Vito said the school was unable to act because doing so requires a written complaint related to a current UA student.
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Vito said Tuesday that some tactics used by the church’s campus ministries have come under scrutiny over the years and were addressed informally by UA. For example, around 1995, the UA restricted the group’s access to student dorms in response to concerns about overly aggressive door-knocking and soliciting. The UA also banned the group from holding Bible studies in students’ rooms, she said.
The UA recently began an investigation after hearing from a Los Angeles-based mother of a current UA junior who is a church member. Kathy Sullivan said she has witnessed “drastic” changes in her son’s personality and behavior, and she worries about losing him completely. Sullivan told the Star she has filed a written complaint.
Since the Star’s investigation was published Sunday, the UA has received eight emails from former students and their parents criticizing the school for not taking action. Some said they would not send their offspring to the UA if the church is allowed to continue recruiting there.
“I have four children, and I would love to see them go to the U of A as well,” wrote one alumnus. “However, if this cult is still on campus by the time my oldest goes to college then neither she nor the other three will be allowed to attend.”
The UA also received a complimentary letter about Faith Christian Church from the parents of one former student who joined the church in 2008.
“I hope you recognize that the Arizona Daily Star was participating in yellow journalism,” the writer said. The names of writers were blocked out of the emails, which the UA provided to the Star.
Cody Nicholls, an assistant dean of students in the UA dean of students’ office — which handles complaints about campus groups — is a current member of Faith Christian Church. Nicholls acts as a liaison between the University Religious Council and the dean of students’ office.
The UA said the situation does not pose a conflict of interest because Nicholls has no role in investigating complaints. He oversees veterans affairs and has only acted as the interface between the dean’s office and the campus religious council for about a year, officials said.
Faith Christian Church is a member of two national evangelical organizations. Neither one will comment on allegations that the church shuns outsiders, shames members who question church leaders and encourages members to hit infants with cardboard tubes to make them submissive.
Dan Busby, president of the Virginia-based Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, expressed support for Faith Christian’s financial practices last week. In an email Tuesday, Busby said, “Since the issues were raised last week, we have had a senior ECFA executive on the ground in Arizona to confirm the Church’s compliance with our standards.”
Faith Christian also is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, which has recommended pastoral practices but does not provide any oversight of member churches, said communications director Sarah Kropp Brown. “We provide guidance, but compliance is the church’s commitment and responsibility,” Brown wrote in an email.
Former University Religious Council chairman Dan Hurlbert said that, as early as 1999, the council was hearing about Faith Christian’s controlling practices and “badgering” of students. Hurlbert was URC chairman from 2000 to 2002.
He recalled the mother of a student mailed her concerns to then-UA president Peter Likins around 2002. She said her son was so deeply involved in Faith Christian that he was failing academically and was harassed by campus ministers after trying to distance himself from the church, said Hurlbert, now senior pastor at Tempe First United Methodist Church.
Former Faith Christian member Jason Bell said that after he left the church in 1996, he spoke with someone in the UA dean of students’ office about how Wildcats for Christ funneled students to Faith Christian and about the church’s controlling practices.
“They were concerned, but they needed more people, and they needed more formal complaints,” said Bell, now 43. But he said he didn’t file a written complaint because he felt he would be targeted by the church. He was already hearing rumors that church members had been telling his friends he was mentally unstable since he left the church.
“I didn’t want to be alone trying to fight that fight,” he said.
Susan Barnes, a nurse educator in Oklahoma whose daughter Rachiel Morgan left the church in 2008 after more than a decade, said she called the dean of students office around then to share her concerns about the church’s practices. She said she got a “very, very lukewarm” response from whoever answered the phone.
The person who answered told her everything seemed fine because the UA had no complaints about the organization, Barnes said. She was promised a call-back but said she didn’t receive one even after she called back to leave a reminder message.
UA alumnus and ex-member James Peeken, now 42, also said he spoke to an employee in the dean of students’ office in 1995. Peeken, who joined Faith Christian as a UA sophomore in 1993, left the church after a year and a half. He said he was disturbed by leaders’ control over members, their intense focus on tithing and the pressure to confess sins publicly, during Bible study groups.
Church leaders would exert control by saying they’d received “a word from God” about minute details of members’ lives, he said.
“They would get a word from God about what classes you should take, what car you should buy. If you didn’t follow that, you would be accused of having a rebellious spirit,” he said.
“After I went to them and said, ‘This is really troubling,’ I felt like they kind of dropped the ball,” he said. “That should have raised some red flags.”