Former Palmerston North 'cult' members tell of emotional scars

Manawatu Standard , New Zealand/March 25, 2015

By Lucy Townsend

Former members of a Palmerston North parish say they were suicidal, depressed and in need of counselling after leaving a "cult-like" church and being shunned by their friends and family.

Nearly a dozen people with connections to the Palmerston North Victory Christian Church have come forward following a series of stories highlighting concerns about the parish's practices, including manipulating marriage pairings, financial coercion, alienating people from parents, public shaming of members and excessive control over the congregation's strong student membership.

Massey University has said it is in the process of issuing trespass orders against nine known Manawatu-based religious leaders connected to the church.

The university has come under fire from students, a former chaplain and ex-members for not taking concerns raised about the parish seriously enough and failing to take care of students' wellbeing - claims it denies.
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The church's senior pastors, Joel and Jaimie Miller, have not replied to calls and emails.

A former Massey student who attended Victory Church said he was overwhelmed with fear and anxiety once leaving the church and experienced post traumatic stress disorder for more than a year. "There is huge fear that you are going against God if you were to report your experiences, so you do your best to move on and try to forget them, but you can't bury it alive," he said.

He attended therapy to help manage the traumatic feelings following his time in Victory Church.

Another ex-member said when he left he was shunned by those who stayed in the church and excluded from group gatherings by people he considered to be friends.

"You feel guilty when you come out and you're not sure about it for a long time . . . some people were suicidal when they realised what was going on when the 'safety' of the church was taken away from them."

Another ex-member said he experienced doubt and depression and he was concerned for the people who remained in the church - thought to number about 70 - and their mental wellbeing.

A former founding member of Victory Church, Jeff Phillips, from Phoenix, Arizona, said people were emotionally and spiritually scarred from their experiences in such churches.

Phillips and Miller were sent to New Zealand from the Faith Christian Church in Tucson to set up a sister parish in Palmerston North in 2003.

Phillips split from the religious movement in 2010 and set up the "Former Members of Faith Christian Church Tucson and its OffShoots" to help ex-members connect and heal. Miller called him a few years later.

"He thought what we were doing was wrong, that we were violating scripture and the Bible, he wanted to correct me and told me to repent," Phillips said.

"I told him, 'Joel . . . I think you guys are hurting people and I'm trying to warn as many people as I can'.

Victory Church has a subsidiary branch called New Zealand Campus Ministries Trust. Calls and messages to the trust have gone unanswered.

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