When you send your teens off to college, you have an expectation that they will stay a part of your family, even as they grow in independence. But some families say when they sent their kids to Central Michigan University, a nearby church isolated and manipulated them and they want the school to do something about it.
About 5,500 students from southeast Michigan attend Central Michigan University every year.
Now, some CMU parents are questioning why a local church in Mt. Pleasant appears to target university students, urging them not to return home but instead to give all their time and money to the church.
Is Grace Church Mount Pleasant a tight-knit group of Christians, or is it a place of manipulation and spiritual abuse?
There are sermons posted on the church’s website, and it’s this pastor’s message that has some parents worried their children are being controlled.
A different website, gracechurchexposed.org, includes testimonials from ex-members who describe things like being asked to sign over their bank accounts to the church, as well as shaming and shunning. There is also a Reddit post with similar stories.
“I miss my daughter, I want my daughter back, I want my daughter,” Elizabeth Antkowiak told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo through tears.
Elizabeth and her husband David met when they were both students at Central Michigan University. So, they were thrilled when their daughter decided to get her Doctorate of Physical Therapy at their alma mater. They say they had no idea they were about to be cut out of her life.
“No one should relinquish their child to some place and then have this be the end result,” said Elizabeth.
David says while their daughter was attending Central, she joined Grace Church and married a man she met there. David says that’s when she gave up on her career goals.
“The church seems to be controlling her more than everything. She always had lofty goals,” said David Antkowiak. “It was clear that she wanted to have a career.”
The Antkowiaks say their daughter now stays home with her four children; and the last time her parents tried to visit, she wouldn’t let them in the house without her husband’s permission.
“We showed up and she said, ‘I don’t want you here without him here, he’s the head of the household,’” said Elizabeth.
The Antkowiaks blame Barry Flanders, the pastor of Grace Church. But they also say they’re furious with their alma mater.
They even passed out flyers at a recent CMU alumni event in Detroit, warning others about the church.
Grace Church is just across the street from the CMU campus, and their signs say “Welcome Students!” in colors that match the CMU colors.
Part of the church is something called Twelve17 Roasters, a coffee house that former church members say caters to students.
The Grace Church website also encourages CMU students to tune in to their televised Sunday sermons.
The Antowiaks and other former members say Grace Church starts making massive demands on the students’ time and money. In online testimonials, one ex-member writes that she was told to sign a contract requiring her to “surrender control of my bank account and personal life.”
There’s also a Registered Student Organization called Young Church Connection on campus that’s affiliated with Grace Church.
Heather Smith is CMU’s Director of Communications.
“Several alumni feel that this church is targeting your students. Is there anything this university can do to prevent that?” Catallo asked Heather Smith, CMU’s Director of Communications.
“At this point, there’s been no findings of criminal wrongdoing against this church,” said Smith. “So, there’s really no means for us to be able to discriminate against this religious organization versus any other outside organization.”
“But parents and alumni have reached out to the university and asked you to not allow this student group on campus. What’s your response to that?” asked Catallo.
“Our student organization that’s affiliated with this church has had no complaints against it that would violate our student code of conduct,” said Smith.
Macomb native Ryan Soulard graduated from Central in 2015 and used to be a member of Grace Church.
“There’s no accountability for the higher-ups. There’s loss of individual freedoms, there’s a lot of control, manipulation, it’s all there,” said Soulard.
Soulard also says he witnessed women being told to be submissive in the church.
“Newlyweds or expecting mothers were handed certain books that would teach certain doctrine on how to raise their family or act in correspondence with their husband. And a lot of it was just like degrading material,” said Soulard.
The 7 Investigators reached out to Grace Church Pastor Barry Flanders several times, but he would not talk to us on camera.
He has apologized in online posts to the people who have come forward and has said that he believes what ex-members are saying but that he has a different perspective.
In an email 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.
When we asked about the allegations that the church tries to separate students from their families, this was Coffman’s response:
“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.”
The Antkowiak’s daughter also responded to the 7 Investigators via email, saying:
“Several months ago, I sent my parents a letter in the mail trying to work things out with them… Even more recently, my mother and I have been in contact over email.
Also, I’m wondering who said I am done with my career? I had to leave my job several years ago due to some health issues, but I have worked on and off since then. Currently, I am on maternity leave with my 3-month-old baby.”
"What I am confused about is that my mother is arguing that I am cutting off relationship with her, when, in fact, she is the one not responding to peaceful attempts for reconciliation."
Elizabeth Antkowiak denies that.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call 248-827-4473.