Ex-church member: 'They try to encourage you to not go visit your family'

MT. PLEASANT, Mich. (WXYZ) - When you send your kids to college, you don’t expect that they’ll end up spending more time and money at a local church instead of on their studies.

Dozens of people have come forward to warn parents about a church near Central Michigan University’s campus that some say is controlling and manipulative.

We’ve been talking with multiple parents of former students and ex-members of Grace Church during the last year. Most of them were afraid to appear on camera about this but Ryan Soulard was willing to speak out.

You can watch video of a service from Grace Church Mount Pleasant that’s posted on their website. Ex-members warn the message from their pastor is not a healthy one, and they make allegations of manipulation and control from the church.

“From the outside, it seemed like a normal church,” said Ryan Soulard, a recent graduate of Central Michigan University.  

Soulard is also a one-time member of Grace Church, which is located a block away from campus. He’s also one of about 100 ex-members who have spoken out on the website gracechurchexposed.org and in other online forums.

“People are always being asked for money," Soulard said. "If you had access you were asked to give. People were selling... property in order to give money to the church. People are giving up their student loan that they weren’t using during the year."

Soulard says the pastor in charge, Barry Flanders, would guilt students if they weren’t giving enough of their time to the church.

“There were a lot of students who changed degrees in order to stay with the church or stay within Mt. Pleasant to be part of the church,” Soulard said. “I don’t think it’s right. I think it’s manipulative. Obviously, you should have the freedom of your own future.”

And that’s not all.

“People were often encouraged to date specific people, especially people that were in the inner family circle,” Soulard said. “Especially if they weren’t entirely committed to the church, but they had shown some interest; like they would use marriage or dating as a way to pull people in closer and like kind of hold them in.”

Soulard says he was required to work long hours for no pay in the church’s in-house coffee bar. 

“They kind of want to keep you there during breaks and other things, so they try to encourage you to not go visit your family,” Soulard said.

“Do you think Grace Church targets Central Michigan students,” asked 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

“Oh, for sure," Soulard said. "I think students are most vulnerable during that first year away from home."

He eventually left the church.

Despite several e-mail and in-person requests for an on-camera interview with Barry Flanders, he refused.

Central Michigan University officials also at first refused to do an on-camera interview.

But we pushed them to talk to us because Grace Church has a Registered Student Organization (The Young Church Connection) on the campus, and because 8 out of 12 members of the church leadership team either work at Central or attended the school.

“Is that one of the reasons this school has not done more,” Catallo asked.

“Again, matters of spiritual life are personal decisions. We will uphold freedom of religion for our students, for our employees, and Central Michigan University is one of the safest campuses, if not the safest campus, in Michigan,” said Heather Smith, CMU’s Director of Communications. "I will reiterate this story is important in the terms that it is important that the public know that CMU does not have jurisdiction over this organization."

Central officials say the Registered Student Organization known as The Young Church Connection has not violated the school’s code of conduct, so the University cannot remove them as a student organization.

Even though Barry Flanders, the pastor of Grace Church, would not talk to us on camera, he has apologized in online posts to the people who have come forward. He has said that he believes what ex-members are saying, but that he has a different perspective.  

In an e-mail Tuesday, Flanders’ church elders acknowledge problems in the past.

“However, it seems clear – especially during the first decade of our ministry – that our ministry resulted in a number of hurts and offenses that have yet to be resolved. We remain committed to seeking healing and resolution wherever possible with those who desire it,” said Ben Coffman, chairman of the Elder Team for Grace Church.

The elders also denied that they encouraged students to change majors, date children of elders, or give student loan money to the church.

In response to allegations from parents that they separate students from their families, the elders said this:

“The relationship that students have with their parents during the college years poses some unique challenges and we don’t quite feel like we have this all figured out yet. Many students are away from home from the first time, or still living at home, and desiring more autonomy and independence. We see this is a natural and necessary part of growing up. That being said, we recognize that when students are also learning to rely on God and consider His will for their life as they make decisions, these added dynamics can be especially challenging for parents who may feel at times like their input into their child’s life has been diminished. We’ve thought a lot about this over the last several years and sought, in both counsel and practice, to make sure that students are actively seeking their parents’ input and that parents still feel they have an “open door” into the lives of their kids.”

Here is some additional information from CMU:

  • CMU works diligently to educate and prepare our students to make smart decisions. It starts during Leadership Safari, our five-day, immersive program for students before they start at CMU, and continues with personal interactions with faculty and staff, email communications, and social media campaigns focused on safety.
  • We encourage students to research any organization prior to joining it. We educate students repeatedly about safety. About looking out for each other. About making smart decisions.
  • We are available if students need support. Students can talk with our counselors and advisors, success coaches, faculty, student organization advisors and staff. Families and friends also can submit a CARE team report if there are concerns about a student’s health, well-being, safety or academic success.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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