ASU’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities took its first action on a student complaint filed against on-campus ministry Hope Church in February 2017, sanctioning five of six affiliated clubs, according to a church letter provided to The State Press by a former member.
The five clubs each received a four-year probation due to undisclosed code of conduct violations that stemmed from a 123-page report from students and alumni filed in July 2016 detailing the “unhealthy, damaging, and unethical practices” of the church.
Hope Church distributed a letter to members on Feb. 19 to explain the sanctions and “ask for your prayers during this time.”
Read more: Investigating Hope
The presidents of the five clubs named in the letter — Man Up, Wow Factor!, Sun Devil Survivor, Sun Devils Wear Prada and Outlaw Comedy — all declined to comment for this story.
Brian Smith, the church’s senior pastor, provided a church statement but did not make himself available for an interview at the time of publication.
“Hope Church is fully cooperating with ASU,” part of the statement read. “Any student can file a complaint and the University must hear both sides and clearly establish the credibility in each situation. We look forward to continuing to work with them to make sure they have all the facts. We're confident that ASU will be able to determine which student complaints, if any, need to be addressed.”
ASU confirmed that there was an “outcome” delivered to the student organizations, but declined to provide any SRR staff members for comment.
“The student organizations were part of an investigative process and received the outcome of that investigation earlier this semester,” according to a University statement. “Since that outcome was delivered, the Dean of Students has had meetings with the leaders of those student organizations to help determine their best path forward.”
ASU spokesman Bret Hovell said the department’s investigation into the church itself is still ongoing and the University wouldn’t be able to comment on it.
The State Press originally reported on Hope Church’s use of “front-clubs” in December. Former church members who authored the complaint said they felt pressured to recruit for the church through these clubs.
Stephen Wicker, a former member who was the first to bring his concerns to SRR, told The State Press then that the church started an effort called “Operation 72” which was intended to introduce ASU freshmen to club leadership as a recruitment effort.
"They would like to meet as many freshman students as possible during their first 72 hours on campus because during this time, people are looking to get connected to something — make friends — so you want to get them early," Wicker told The State Press last year.
Up until September 2016, the clubs weren’t listed on the church’s website. They are now listed under a “Partnership” tab.
Hope Church is a member of the Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability, a national organization that tracks spending of Christian nonprofit organizations. Three of the affiliated clubs are officially “subsidiaries” and can raise money for the church, according to the ECFA.
In 2015 Hope Church received $1.5 million through cash donations but it’s unclear how much of that revenue came from the “front-clubs.”
A former church member who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution said he was asked in 2012 to help lead Man Up, one of the clubs that was sanctioned. It is listed on the ECFA under the umbrella term called the “Respect Movement,” making it an official fund-raising subsidiary.
“They asked me to be one of the executive chairs and I did cause it looks cool on a resume,” the former member said. “I didn’t have any real responsibilities, they took them away from me. You’re just a figurehead, essentially.”
He said the “front-clubs” were intimately tied to the church.
"There’s not really any separation here," he said, "... using clubs for ulterior motives isn't the best way to go about it."
The current president of Man Up, Brian Smith Jr., is the son of senior pastor Brian Smith and a campus ministry intern at the church.
Two of the other club presidents — Shelby Kirkpatrick of Sun Devils Wear Prada and Ethan Cuthbertson of Outlaw Comedy — are both listed on the church website as campus ministry interns.
The former church member said he felt the sanctions against these “front-clubs” were justified.
“If ASU went through their investigation, they thought that was warranted," he said. "They thought something was troublesome to the safety of their students. I’m all for (the sanctions).”
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