‘Manipulative’ ministry’s controversy deepens as former members speak out

After leaving a church labeled “spiritually abusive” by former members, an ex-member of the evangelical ministry spent months rebuilding her life, facing psychological effects such as nightmares, paranoia and anxiety attacks. She and other former members talked about their experiences and emotional trauma to deter other CU students from joining the church.

A local ministry called Resurrection Church that recruits on the CU campus — as first reported by the Daily Camera in August — has been accused of cult-like behavior including financial coercion, isolating members from family and former friends, shunning members who decide to leave and manipulating other facets of members’ lives. The church continues to operate but did not respond to multiple contacts from the CU Independent regarding the accusations.

The Resurrection Church is an offshoot of the Faith Christian Church, which originated in Arizona in the 1990s. Faith Christian Church became subject of an investigation by the University of Arizona. Its name appeared on warning flyers around campus and it became known as a “religious practice that had gone awry,” according to the University of Arizona Religious Council. The Arizona Daily Star reported in 2015 that some former members of the Faith Christian Church have spent years in therapy to treat symptoms attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks, depression and panic attacks.

Since then, former members from the Arizona Daily Star reports have described the Faith Christian Church as initially welcoming but they say it slowly imposes control over members’ lives. Their statements align with some of the statements from former members of the Resurrection Church, who claim that it took control gradually through minor tweaks in the scripture that was taught and a steady increase in involvement within members’ lives. 

“I have grown up as Christian, and there’s nothing particularly odd about the initial meetings, but to people who aren’t as well-versed in the theological stuff, it will all sound weird,” Conner Dudrey, a former member and CU senior, told the CU Independent in interviews.

Trevor Sweet, former CU student and former member of the Resurrection Church for five years, said that his time with the church started out seemingly normal, and that it appeared to be a passionate ministry. According to Sweet and other former members, the church staff tells new members not to listen to rumors about the church.

“If anything negative comes out about the church, they tell you to not even listen to it,” Sweet told the CU Independent. “Brainwashing is a really strong word, but that’s kind of what it is. The people who leave the church are discredited 100 percent by them saying ‘they left the church and are no longer following God.’”

Sweet said there were several ongoing instances that contributed to his eventual departure from the church, including the ministry’s preference that members of the opposite sex are not to interact frequently with one another, especially not alone. Another ex-member also stated that when ministers deem a male-female friendship to have gone too far, they step in to try to impose boundaries.

“One of the pieces of scripture that they basically spiritually abused us with is Corinthians 7:1, saying that it is good for a man not to touch a woman. The context of that scripture is meant sexually, but they take it literally,” Sweet said. “You are to avoid physical contact with the opposite sex at all costs — don’t touch women, don’t hug them, don’t high-five them.”

Dudrey said that during his freshman year, he wanted to find a Christian group that he could get involved with and a friend invited him to join Resurrection Church. Dudrey fell firmly under the church’s control for a long time.

“I had gotten to the point where I was very much under their control, and there were not very many things that they could have done to push me out,” Dudrey said. “That’s the case for a lot of the people who are still there — they’re just so far under their control.”

Dudrey said that each member does not experience the same forms of manipulation.

“I personally did not experience them telling me what I should major in; I am sure that there were members who experienced those kinds of things,” he said. “But they spend a lot of time telling people how they should be spending their time.”

Dudrey also said he felt the effects of financial manipulation.

“Everyone who is a member is asked to give 10 percent of their income to retain their membership with the church,” he said. “I ended up opening up a checking account when they couldn’t track the cash that I was giving to the church.”

Another former member of 3 1/2 years and a CU student, Erin Holt*, told the CU Independent that the church knew her struggling financial situation, yet still encouraged her to contribute, although they did not require it.

“I had a few conversations with the ministry where I said I just can’t give, and they said well, you still should,” Holt said.

Another former member of six years and a CU graduate, Aaron Aragon said he wasn’t necessarily coerced into paying, but he was made to feel guilty for not contributing. He also said members are encouraged to surround themselves with other members of the church including through living arrangements.

“For the first two years I was living with other people that I met around campus, but they had several conversations with me about considering living with members of the church,” Aragon said. “It isn’t forced upon you, but if you aren’t living with people in the church, in some sense, you are an outsider.”

Recently, CU’s Religious Campus Organizations removed the Resurrection Church’s membership from the group, stating that it violated their code of ethics. The group said its decision was part of their duty to protect students. However, since the ministry operates off of the CU campus, CU itself cannot become involved in explicitly preventing students from joining. 

Dave Pommer, a preacher and youth leader at Boulder’s First Presbyterian Church, said a healthy church will ask questions, interpret the scripture based on situations and other peoples interpretations, and will not draw lines for exactly what is “right.”

“I think a cult is a perfect example [of not being open to scripture interpretation]; someone takes a stance and then suddenly ‘this is the way we do things.’ People’s lives are controlled, they’re diminished, there is intimidation, there is fear of losing your community,” Pommer said.

He also said sometimes churches that are more controlling are appealing to people up front, and they seem to provide answers and clarity to those who are looking for them. Palmer said it’s possible the leaders of Resurrection Church have good intentions for the members at some level, but he said there is no way to know for him to know that for sure.

Resurrection Church also holds Sunday meetings at New Vista High School. According to Briggs Gamblin, the communications director for the Boulder Valley School District, the high school does not consider themselves to be affiliated with the church.

“There is no relationship between the church and New Vista High School nor is there anything more than a rental agreement,” Gamblin said. “We are not involved with the church or a partner in any way or have anything to do with their work.”

Gamblin also said they have met all conditions of the lease, and therefore continue being able to rent the space.

Holt said she could not deal with the church interfering with her relationship with her family, manipulating many of her personal decisions, and the lack of service and volunteering options for members. She thought that the isolation of Resurrection Church from other local churches was strange, as well as their lack of programs that would involve anyone outside the church. She also described her experience of leaving the church as lengthy and emotional.

“If I leave, I don’t have any friends outside the church, I don’t have anyone. I was really scared to leave,” she said, describing a situation where she once confided in a family member.  

After leaving, she said she experienced nightmares, paranoia and depression that became so severe she contemplated suicide. Another former member once called the police to check in on her. She said it was a combination of feeling shunned and losing her support system.  

Dudrey said that the fear of losing the family he had developed through the church lingered over him as he contemplated leaving, because they had been the only people he had been allowed to spend time with during his membership.

“I had never had an anxiety attack before, but I had panic attacks frequently as I considered leaving — there was a crazy amount of anxiety at the thought of getting out of this system we had been subjected to,” Dudrey said. “What they could do in response … we didn’t know what could potentially happen.”

Holt has since found a new church in Boulder, and says she is on her way to recovering mentally. She and the other former members say that the most important outcome now is to help prevent students from accidentally getting sucked into a manipulative ministry. They encourage other members to come forward and current members to take time off from the church. 

“They’ll get you in, and once you are in, they’ll control and monitor everything you’re doing. They’ll tell you it isn’t happening,” Aragon said. “Once you’ve gotten in an gotten established it is kind of hard to see the red flags. But once you take a step back and look at what is being said, it isn’t hard to see.”

*Name changed to protect anonymity.

Contact CU Independent News Feature Editor Charlotte Bowditch at charlotte.bowditch@colorado.edu.

For more on this story check out the CUI’s podcast to hear an interview with a former member and a Boulder preacher’s thoughts on Resurrection.

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