Former members of Boulder's Resurrection Church are speaking out in hopes of warning incoming University of Colorado students about what they say is a cult-like campus ministry.
The Boulder church, which recruits CU students and holds Sunday services at New Vista High School, is an offshoot of a University of Arizona campus ministry that faced scrutiny last year after a Tucson newspaper published former members' accounts of physical, emotional and financial abuse.
In interviews with the Daily Camera, former members of Resurrection Church and their parents described a CU campus ministry that is initially welcoming, but slowly begins to control students' lives through manipulation, degradation and brainwashing.
Eventually, they said, the church has a say in every decision student members make — who they date, how much time they spend with members of the opposite sex and under what circumstances, what kind of cars they buy, what majors they choose.
Church leaders did not respond to repeated interview requests.
As thousands of freshmen descend on the campus ahead of Monday's opening of the fall semester, former Resurrection Church members and their families are worried those students will confuse a cult with a healthy religious community.
"I never thought in a million years that I would have to educate my soon-to-be-college-student on cults and spiritual abuse and manipulation," said Marie Dudrey, an Erie mother whose son Conner left the church last fall.
Jessica Gossett, a CU student who also quit the church last year, said at first it was nice to be surrounded by people who were so passionate about Jesus. Even as red flags started popping up, she pushed them aside because she liked the sense of community.
Gossett eventually began having anxiety attacks because she felt church leaders were monitoring her every move.
"One of the first things that stood out to me, that made me a little bit weary, was when Pastor Aaron (Brechtel) said, 'Your parents are going to think this church is a cult, but they are wrong. This is just following the Lord and living for the Lord and they aren't going to understand,'" Gossett said.
Resurrection Church, which describes itself online as nondenominational, is led by senior pastors Aaron and Julia Brechtel, as well as several other associate pastors and campus evangelists.
Records from the Colorado Secretary of State's Office show the church was incorporated in March 2008. Former members estimate Resurrection has around 100 congregants.
According to former members and staffers, the Brechtels became part of the larger church organization when they joined Faith Christian Church as undergraduates at the University of Arizona. Then, after becoming staff members, they were sent to Fort Collins and Boulder to help start offshoots.
Aaron and Julia Brechtel did not respond to multiple emails and phone messages from the Daily Camera this month. Additionally, no one answered messages sent to the church's administrative email address or returned voicemails left on the church's phone line.
No one answered the door when a Daily Camera reporter visited the Brechtels' home in Longmont. The Brechtels also did not respond to a letter hand-delivered to their home requesting an interview.
An eight-minute YouTube video explains that Resurrection Church's mission is to reach CU students who "are at a crucial time of life and desperately need to hear the gospel."
The video contains footage from CU football games and from around campus, and a testimonial from CU graduate and former pro football star Heath Irwin, who says he contributes to the church financially.
"There is no other secular institution that has more impact on our society than the college campus," a voice says in the video. "Each day, students are confronted with tremendous moral and academic pressures. Peers and professors bombard them with secular humanistic philosophies, anti-Christian ideologies and man-made theories."
The video pans across a sign that says "Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Student Services" and then shows an animated depiction of the evolution of man.
In the video, a handful of members share their journey to the church, and a female minister named Angel asks viewers to consider donating money.
Darrel Ray, a psychologist who founded Recovering from Religion, a nonprofit group that supports people as they deal with changing religious beliefs, said college students, especially freshmen, are easy targets for predatory groups. Many are away from their families for the first time and searching for a sense of community.
"Campuses are real rich hunting grounds," Ray said. "The religious organizations are out in force at the beginning of the semester. If you go around a university on the first orientation day, you'll see dozens if not hundreds of signs for different evangelical Christian groups recruiting kids."
The difference between a well-meaning campus ministry and a cult, Ray said, is that cults try to isolate students from the world around them.
"What they're ultimately looking for is total control over the individual, and they use the Bible," he said. "If I can convince you that I've got a direct line to God, then to disagree with me is to disagree with God.
"That's a pretty powerful message."
Resurrection Church is one of a handful of satellite churches connected to Faith Christian Church in Tucson, which recruits students from the University of Arizona.
The Arizona Daily Star first reported on the cult-like practices of Faith Christian Church in March 2015. Since then, the University of Arizona's religious council revoked Faith Christian Church's membership, and Massey University in New Zealand banned the leaders of Victory Christian Church, an offshoot of the Tucson branch, from campus.
The University of New Mexico also banned offshoot New Covenant Christian Church from its campus in Albuquerque.
CU officials said they became aware of the issues surrounding the Tucson campus ministry because of the news stories there last year. The Boulder campus received four informal complaints about Resurrection Church's operations this summer.
Campus spokesman Ryan Huff said he couldn't divulge the details of the complaints because of federal student privacy laws.
"We're listening and ensuring that those who have approached us have the proper support services," Huff said.
It's unclear what action, if any, CU could take in response to any complaints about the church, since it's an off-campus organization, said Christina Gonzales, CU vice chancellor for student affairs.
"We can't get in the way of (students') choices," Gonzales said. "If someone said, 'I choose to be part of the KKK,' I can't get in the way of that."
Gonzales said the university wants to support its students no matter what, and encouraged any student with a problem to come forward to her office, the Division of Student Affairs.
"I want them to know about (the Office of Victim Assistance) and that we have services that can help and support them," Gonzales said. "And if there's information that we need to know, so that all of our students are aware that there may be an issue, that would help us to know what's happening, even though we may not have jurisdiction. It would be helpful to know as we welcome new students."
The church also has a registered CU student group called the Christian Buffalo Fellowship and is a member of CU Religious Campus Organizations, an umbrella group for campus ministries.
That group received complaints about Resurrection Church roughly two years ago and asked church leaders to make some changes. They complied, according to Rev. Zach Parris, president of Religious Campus Organizations and a Lutheran campus minister.
Religious Campus Organizations has a code of ethics that requires member churches to respect and care for students on campus. That code also requires member churches to respect other groups and their leaders, so Parris said he couldn't speak about Resurrection Church specifically.
The Boulder Valley School District, which has rented New Vista High School to the church on Sundays since January 2015, has not had any problems with the group, according to a district spokesman.
In 2015-16, the church paid the district $18,316 to rent the high school for its Sunday services and has a permit that will run through June 30, 2017.
Conner Dudrey, a music education major who's starting his senior year at CU, wrote a blog post this summer, six months after leaving the church, about his recovery from "spiritual abuse."
He was recruited by a fellow student his freshman year on campus. He started attending church programs — covenant group meetings on Thursday, house parties on Fridays, prayer meetings on Saturdays, church services on Sundays.
Dudrey, who lives at home with his parents and two younger siblings in Erie, set up a checking account because church leaders said they couldn't track his donations — everyone is expected to tithe 10 percent of their income — when he paid in cash.
His parents watched as he became withdrawn, judgmental and cynical. His mom described him as a "shell" of a person, whose loud, outgoing personality was suddenly crushed.
"They basically make you believe that who you are, the way you're wired, is wrong," Dudrey said. "It's just a gradual filing you down and getting you to break down and accept what they're feeding you. I definitely feel that it is brainwashing."
Within months of joining Resurrection, Dudrey began to avoid spending time with his family and friends who were outside the church. Slowly, his life became consumed with church activities and spending time at off-campus houses shared by church members.
"There's a Bible scripture that says, 'Bad company corrupts good morals,'" Dudrey said. "They convince you that most people outside of that church are bad company. They basically boil everything down to, 'We have the right answers for you, and your family will probably be opposed to what you're doing, but just ignore them.'"
Lisa Phillips, a former member of Faith Christian Church in Tucson who helped start church branches in Tampa, Fla., and New Zealand, said campus ministers use Bible verses to slowly and subtly exert control over the students.
They tell students to "submit to Godly counsel," aka church leaders, before making any and all decisions. They instruct the students not to seek advice from anyone else, including their parents or former religious advisers.
If church leaders don't agree with a decision a student wants to make, they will tell them to pray harder and come back with a different answer.
"The leadership begins to become the Holy Spirit for them, God to them," said Phillips, who left the church in 2008 after more than 15 years. "In that way, they begin the process of manipulating, controlling and separating those children from their families."
Phillips said she and her husband were close friends with Aaron and Julia Brechtel when they all lived in Tucson and attended Faith Christian Church.
She said the church encourages students to live together in off-campus houses, separated by gender. The students keep tabs on each other and report back to church leaders on their housemates.
When one group of members wanted to get a dog for their off-campus house, they had to ask a pastor first, said Trevor Sweet, a CU graduate who was a member of Resurrection Church for five years.
Sweet, now 25, said church leaders also reprimanded him for buying a new car without their permission and insisted he sell it.
"Because they back every single thing they do scripturally, it makes it seem right," Sweet said. "And so because you're a Christian and you want to follow God, the Bible is everything for you."
Laura Hampton, 27, was a member of Resurrection Church for about nine months in 2008 and 2009 while she was attending CU. She said she was told not to associate with other Christian organizations and pressured not to read Christian literature that wasn't vetted by Resurrection leaders.
She, and many other former members, described being "corrected" for seemingly minor infractions, such as procrastinating packing for a church trip or texting.
"When you have a small group like that who isolate themselves, all sorts of bad things can breed in the darkness," she said. "It is not abnormal for someone to have their life drastically changed by faith in Christ, but the isolation that ensues when Resurrection pulls people in is very dangerous."
After exerting total control over them, church leaders begin grooming students to eventually join them on staff and become campus evangelists and ministers, Phillips said. Single women on staff are required to live with married pastors to learn how to be good wives, mothers and homemakers, she added.
"Everyone has to home-school," said Phillips, 44. "You can't put your kids in soccer or gymnastics. And they control every minute, every area of your life, from your money to your time to your relationships, even between husbands and wives."
The father of a former CU student who is now on staff at Resurrection Church said his daughter told him at Christmas that she had no interest in dating and that there was no one special in her life.
Then, this summer, she told them she was engaged to a male church staffer and that they would be getting married in a few months because, until then, they were not allowed to touch.
He did not wish to be identified because he said he was trying to preserve the relationship with his daughter in hopes of getting her out of the church.
When they started having children, Phillips and her husband were reprimanded for not spanking them as infants.
Even after two of their children were diagnosed with autism, church leaders continued to pressure the couple to spank them. That's what finally pushed Phillips to leave the church.
As with others who have left the church, Phillips described being shunned by people she had known for years, people she considered her best friends.
Now, in addition to being a full-time mom of four kids in Phoenix, Phillips helps maintain a website and Facebook page Former Members of Faith Christian Church and Its Offshoots, a support group that is working to raise awareness about the church and its many branches.
"We still love God, but what they're doing, the spiritual abuse that they're perpetuating, is not OK and we can't be complicit," Phillips said. "We cannot be silent about it."
It took Conner Dudrey more than two years to leave Resurrection Church.
As he fell deeper and deeper under the spell of campus ministers, his mother said, she tried to maintain a close relationship with him, while still pushing him on some of the church's teachings when she got the chance.
She tried to get him to read the news articles coming out of Tucson, but he refused.
After gently prodding him for years, Marie Dudrey began to consider staging an intervention. But finally, over lunch one day last fall, Conner began to see how much control the church had over his life, including over his relationship with a female student.
Marie Dudrey cried retelling the story of the day Conner decided to leave the church for good.
"We have a huge victory story for us and our family," she said. "But what makes me so sad is there's so many families that don't know what is happening to their kids and they don't know how manipulative they are and how much they're controlling their children."
She's been trying to help parents who live out of state and she's been warning everyone she knows with kids who might someday attend CU about Resurrection Church.
There are dozens of other religious groups at CU and elsewhere that are doing good work and helping students to find community at a big campus. Students should seek out those groups instead, she said.
"If there's an active group that is manipulating humans in any way, shape or form, they should be exposed and they shouldn't be allowed to do it," Marie Dudrey said. "There's so much freedom in living a Christian life, and the way they approach Christianity is bondage and manipulation. That's not right."
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