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Foursquare Abuse Response Ignites Fight over Transparency

An investigation found a “culture of unchecked power” at a Virginia college. Denominational leadership has declined to speak about it publicly.
Foursquare Abuse Response Ignites Fight over Transparency
Image: Screengrab / Foursquare Connection 2022
Church leaders at Foursquare’s annual gathering repent of the “family dysfunction” that has led to abusive leadership.

The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel has suspended a safeguarding team that was working with students who accused a former college president of manipulation, bullying, and harassment.

Members of the team—along with Foursquare ministers and former students at the affiliated school in Christiansburg, Virginia—were raising questions about how the Pentecostal denomination handled a third-party investigation into the allegations. Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) found that Mike Larkin, president of Ignite Life Pacific University, misused his authority and that Foursquare failed to set up adequate structures of oversight and accountability.

But at the denomination’s national convention in June, ministers demanded to know why they hadn’t heard any specifics about GRACE’s report. They criticized board members for not taking abuse seriously enough and voted to recommend the 11-member safeguarding team be given more power and freedom from board interference. In late July, the board informed the team their work would be put on pause.

Larkin, a Los Angeles cop who became a charismatic minister in the 1980s, was a prominent figure in The Foursquare Church until he resigned from the Virginia school in 2019. Starting in the late 1990s, he served in the national leadership of the 100-year-old Pentecostal denomination with an estimated 255,000 regular attenders. Then Larkin turned his attention to discipleship and education. He launched Ignite at the flagship Foursquare school in Southern California in 2008. He called it a “reproducible, hands-on ministry where discipleship, academics, global ministry and local community outreach are all synchronized together.”

In 2011, the program moved to Christiansburg, Virginia, and became Ignite Academy. It later became Ignite Life Pacific College, then Ignite Life Pacific University and, today, Life Pacific University-Virginia, a satellite campus for the California school.

As he built the discipleship-focused education program, Larkin exerted a tremendous authority over students’ lives, the GRACE investigation shows. And he pushed and pressured them to give him control.

“The whole place was a competition for Mike’s attention, getting him to like you,” one former student told CT. “He would say, ‘I can snap my fingers and get you a job in Foursquare like that.’ He could guarantee you a job, because he had so many connections, or he could make sure you would never get a job. He threatened us with that all the time.”

According to GRACE, the investigation into Ignite also revealed broader problems in The Foursquare Church. The Pentecostal denomination has a “culture where there is unchecked power … ripe for misconduct,” the report said. And there is a charismatic theology of inspired leadership that can work against accountability and oversight.

“There’s a mentality of, ‘We don’t cover up, but we do cover leaders,’” former Foursquare vice president Tammy Dunahoo explained to investigators, according to a copy of the GRACE report obtained by CT. “We’ve had this ‘touch not mine anointed’ [approach]. … It has covered up a lot of stuff” (Ps. 105:15, KJV).

A former Ignite student speaking to investigators put it more bluntly: “Pastors are allowed to do whatever they want,” she said, “and do it in the name of God.”

Questions at the annual convention

The GRACE investigation concluded in February 2021. No. 1 on its list of recommendations: Foursquare should “respond to this report transparently and in a way that honors victims.”

More than a year later, as thousands of ministers gathered in Orlando, Florida, for the denomination’s annual meeting, Foursquare had not made any public statement about the investigation or acknowledged that anything went wrong at the Virginia school, which serves 100 to 200 students. Some at the convention expressed confusion about what had happened to Larkin—who had a high profile at past gatherings—and others raised concerns about reports he’d been paid $99,000 in severance.

“It’s not clear to me what happened,” Brian Butler, a Florida pastor, told CT. Butler, who identified himself as a friend of one of the victims of sexual harassment, asked who authorized the severance payment during an open forum with Foursquare board members. He was not happy with the answers.

“They were vague. They were evasive. They were defensive answers,” he said. “I was not very satisfied.”

Foursquare spokesman Brad Abare objected to the idea that the denomination hasn’t been forthcoming.

“The posture has been a sense of transparency—as much as possible,” he told CT.

Abare pointed to the three sessions at the convention devoted to the topic of pastoral abuse and open question-and-answer with board members.

At the annual meeting, the denomination’s national leaders talked about being open about faults and shortcomings. They described Foursquare as a family and said families needed to talk about issues and get stuff “out in the open.” And in one public session, recorded and posted online, the president and board members got on their knees on stage to ask God’s forgiveness.

“We have a family dysfunction,” Randy Remington, president of Foursquare, told the gathered ministers, noting the denomination will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023. “We have a family system that has allowed certain kinds of behaviors to go on for a long time. And the manifestation of that primarily has been in heavy handed, abusive—spiritually, emotionally abusive leadership. … We’re in a moment where God is saying, ‘I want you to tear down an idol.’”

The Foursquare Church board also released a statement of corporate repentance, saying, among other things, that the denomination “will not allow leaders to leave uncontested when there is clear evidence of abusive leadership.”

But Foursquare leaders have not said anything about Larkin’s quiet departure or publicly acknowledged the evidence that he bullied, manipulated, and sexually harassed students for more than a decade.

“They have gone totally silent,” said Heidi Cooper, a Foursquare minister who accused Larkin of sending her inappropriate, sexualized messages. “There hasn’t been one person from Foursquare leadership to even reach out to see how I’m doing since the convention. They also have still given no apology whatsoever to the Ignite community. I thought maybe they would handle the Ignite community differently, but it’s even worse.”

Students tried to get Foursquare to do something

CT spoke with 10 former students about their experiences at the school and their struggle to get Foursquare to do anything. They spoke on the condition that CT not publish their names, out of fear of retaliation against them or their families.

Larkin did not return multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment.

Some former students told CT they had been working with the Foursquare safeguarding team, an ad hoc group organized to respond to the issues raised by the GRACE investigation, before it was put on pause. They trusted the team leader, Foursquare minister Paul Kuzma, and had started conversations with him about having therapy sessions paid for by Foursquare.

Then in July 2022, the denomination’s board suddenly suspended the safeguarding team and sent former students an email inviting them to submit a request for a meeting with a board committee. The email said, “We hope that this serves as a tangible expression of our deep affection and genuine regard for the health and wellbeing of every person who lived, studied, or worked on the school campus.”

For the former students who spoke to CT, it did not seem like tangible evidence of genuine regard. It seemed like a new hurdle in an impossible process to get the denomination to care.

They have, over the years, reported Larkin’s behavior to Life Pacific University faculty and administrators, Ignite board members, Foursquare pastors, district supervisors, and national leaders. They never got anyone to open an investigation.

“Foursquare knew about it, and they did nothing,” one former student told CT. “That’s what makes me really really mad. They knew about this and turned a blind eye.”

Some students were told to submit to their spiritual authority. Others, that some people just weren’t a good fit for the discipleship-education model at Ignite. One was given a copy of a book to read on spiritual abuse.

The former students struggle, even years later, to understand why the denomination didn’t provide any substantial oversight of Ignite and why Larkin was allowed such complete control over the administration, teaching, chapel services, and spiritual discipleship of students at the school.

“If there had been proper checks and balances in place, Mike Larkin absolutely would not have been allowed to do what he was allowed to do,” said one student who left the school in 2019.

Another told CT that she begged leaders at the main campus of Life Pacific University in San Dimas, California, to do something a decade earlier, in 2009. She said they pointed to Larkin’s personal charisma and their understanding of charismatic authority.

“They kept saying ‘Mike is ordained by God. We have to side with Mike because Mike is ordained by God. Don’t talk against a leader, that’s sinful,’” she recalled. “And he was handsome. He was tall and handsome and an ex–police officer, and if Mike liked you, it was like Jesus Christ himself liked you.”

More invasive than they expected

The students who went to Ignite were invested in the idea of growing as Christians. Many of them came from Foursquare churches and hoped to become Foursquare ministers. The program they found in Virginia, however, was more invasive and more controlling than they expected.

At the start of school, former students said, the president would pull new students into his office for a private conversation. He asked female students about their relationship with their fathers, their dating history, and whether or not they had had sex.

“He would always ask about your relationships, your history,” one woman said. “And he asked, ‘How far would you go?’ I remember thinking, I guess this is normal?

Another, asked whether she was a virgin by the college president, recalled wondering, Is he allowed to have that information?

Larkin, in addition to his responsibilities running the school, also involved himself in students’ current romantic relationships, former students said. He would tell them whether he thought they should break up or get married, and when they got married, how quickly they should have children. He told several female students he understood why their boyfriends were attracted to them and made suggestions for how they could be more attractive to him.

He urged some women to dye their hair blond so they would look like Foursquare founder Aimee Semple McPherson.

“He’d say, ‘You’d be prettier if you lost weight’ and ‘You’d be prettier if you were blonde,’” one student recalled. “‘Have you thought about dying your hair?’”

Larkin also frequently used students in examples during his twice-weekly chapel sermons, sharing personal information told to him or another school authority in private. While he didn’t normally use students’ names, students at the small school often knew who he was talking about. He would describe students’ mental health issues, their struggles with school, struggles with sin, struggles with authority, and difficulty accepting his direction as God’s will for their lives.

Once, when several students decided to drop out, Larkin coached a staff member to preach a sermon in chapel on listening to God, former students said. The sermon illustrations included details shared only in private.

“They said anyone who is leaving is a liar,” recalled a student who was there. “Either you lied then about God calling you to Ignite or you’re lying because you’re running away now. One of the girls started sobbing in the middle of the sermon. I was just so angry.”

When students didn’t listen to Larkin or, worse, defied his authority, he would resort to anger. Students recalled bouts of yelling, screaming, and swearing. When two couples who were told they couldn’t date were caught going out as a group, Larkin pulled them aside, said, “This is how you made me feel,” and flipped them off.

When students made fun of Larkin and his wife with a meme, the college president screamed and threatened to take each of them into the parking lot to fist fight them. He said he wanted to cause them bodily harm for betraying him and that they were like Satan.

When one student recounted the story to GRACE, he said he couldn’t recall everything Larkin said but there was “an astronomical amount of cussing.”

Larkin told the investigators he didn’t say those things and they were “out of character” for him, but he regretted “those scenarios where I lowered myself to the level of peer.”

Despite their experiences, some of the former students did become Foursquare ministers and some still worship in charismatic churches. For others, though, the experience took a spiritual toll.

“I can’t go into a church,” one told CT. “The two times I tried, I had a panic attack both times. I can’t imagine sitting through a sermon and not feeling like I’m being manipulated.”

The students’ distress, stories of graduates leaving the faith, and reports of Larkin’s controlling behavior didn’t prompt national leaders to provide any additional oversight. In 2019, then-president Glenn Burris praised Larkin on the stage at the denomination’s annual gathering. He spoke about how the Virginia school was a fulfillment of prophecy.

GRACE found one occasion where the denomination insisted on increased oversight of Ignite. Foursquare put its own representatives on the Virginia school’s board of directors. The reason wasn’t abuse of authority or crossing lines with students, but Larkin’s failure to grow the school and develop its programs as quickly as he promised.

“Mike’s a very charismatic, visionary leader, but he just doesn’t follow through,” Burris explained to investigators. “The vision is just bigger than he’s able to produce.”

Foursquare leadership investigates Larkin

The denomination finally moved to investigate Larkin later in 2019, when Heidi Cooper, a Foursquare minister, told the vice president of the denomination, Tammy Dunahoo, that she would no longer serve as an occasional guest speaker at Ignite. She explained that Larkin had said sexually inappropriate things to her.

The comments, exchanged over Facebook Messenger over several years, included Larkin calling her a “hot drummer girl,” complimenting a dress, complimenting her feet, saying he’d like to give her a foot massage, saying he’d like to see her drunk, and saying that he missed her. Cooper said she didn’t know what Larkin intended and for a long time convinced herself the comments were awkward but not sexual harassment.

Cooper’s report prompted Dunahoo and Burris to interview Cooper and her husband, Jim, and then confront Larkin. Larkin denied being inappropriate and then insisted the conversations were consensual, according to the GRACE report. He attempted to argue Heidi was “no innocent party.” When the two top leaders pointed out that Larkin was the spiritual authority, however, he agreed he’d been stupid and apologized.

“I am asking for your forgiveness,” Larkin wrote in a letter obtained by GRACE and included in the report. “I understand that regardless of my intention, things that I said triggered confusion and caused pain.”

He stepped down at the end of 2019. Later, when interviewed by GRACE, however, he said he had taken more than his fair share of responsibility.

“If I’m the scapegoat in this, I’m the scapegoat in this and I accept it,” he told investigators. “Locker room talk. It wasn’t vulgar. It was never vulgar. And I’ll tell you something else too: It was never sexual.”

GRACE interviewed 28 people over the course of several months and submitted a 29-page report to the Foursquare board. Investigators concluded that Larkin abused his authority and “at minimum … crossed professional boundaries as a pastor.” The board reviewed the report and voted that it agreed with the findings in January 2021. Larkin’s credentials were revoked, and the board approved a draft of a public statement about the investigation.

The statement, obtained by CT, said there was an “unhealthy leadership culture” at Ignite, which “commonly exhibited toxicity, emotional misconduct, verbal aggression, and sexual harassment.” The board took responsibility for a lack of oversight and announced the formation of the safeguarding team, which would be led by Paul Kuzma and include Heidi and Jim Cooper.

No public statement

In the next three months, however, the board changed its decision. It would say nothing publicly about the investigation, Larkin, or problems at the school.

In a letter to the Coopers obtained by CT, the board said it would have to “agree to disagree” with Foursquare ministers who believed transparency was an important part of fixing a culture of abuse.

“Publicly making a statement about specific people or situations is not the way forward for Foursquare,” the letter said.

At the annual convention at the end of May and start of June 2022, ministers asked questions about Larkin and GRACE’s investigation, according to multiple people who were there. Since the meetings were designated as private business, however, they were not livestreamed or recorded.

The meetings were sometimes tense, those who attended said. At a question-and-answer session with the board, one board member said on stage that the denomination could not respond to everyone who was ever offended. Kuzma, the head of the safeguarding committee, responded that they weren’t talking about offense, but abuse. Some ministers in the room cheered and applauded.

In open session, the convention body passed a motion recommending the board empower the safeguarding team to operate without board or staff interference. It passed overwhelmingly, people in attendance said. It was not binding, however. The convention can only make recommendations to the board.

The following month, the 11 members of the safeguarding team were notified that their work would be “paused,” with roles and makeup of the team reevaluated. Foursquare then announced that a new board task force would be overseeing the denomination’s “journey toward health, free of leadership abuse.”

According to the denomination’s spokesman, the move to reevaluate and reorganize the safeguarding team was in keeping with the “spirit of the motion” passed at the convention, despite the clause about interference.

“The idea is not taking away the potential for victim advocacy and support,” Abare said. “The idea is to get the board to design the structure and just to get their head and hands around how this is going to be designed.”

Leadership has, according to Abare, made abuse a high priority in the past few years. The church’s concern for victims should be apparent.

“Our whole focus for the last few years has been ‘more and growing leaders,’ but it only works if the more and growing leaders are healthy,” he said. “We don’t want to multiply an unhealthy culture.”

Brian Butler, the minister who is friends with Jim and Heidi Cooper and asked about the $99,000 paid to Larkin, wasn’t happy with the decision. The denomination should be transparent, he said. He believes Foursquare national leadership isn’t living up to what it teaches.

“They’re looking at a corporate level,” he told CT. “They’re putting their reputation over everything—over their relationship with the Coopers, the victims from the school, and their relationship with the Lord.”

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