Former members accuse Kingston, Ont., church of ‘brainwashing’ through threats of ‘curses’

Former members of Third Day Worship Centre, a church in Kingston, Ont., have come forward with allegations of manipulation against the church.
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Former members of a Kingston, Ont., church have come forward, alleging manipulation and control at the organization that made them lose time, money and agency over their lives – Dec 15, 2020

More than 10 former members of Third Day Worship Centre, a non-denominational Christian church in Kingston, Ont., are speaking out, with some claiming they were “brainwashed” and afraid of being “cursed” if they didn’t give the church their time and money.

Third Day is a well-known church in Kingston. The city’s current mayor, Bryan Paterson, was a member for almost two decades.

Read more: Kingston public health confirms COVID-19 outbreak at Third Day Worship Centre

Former members claim the organization encouraged submission to the church’s ideology and to founding pastor Francis Armstrong, who they say preached ultra-conservative views, including demonizing the LGBTQ2 community and taking over Canada in God’s name.

The former members say they were manipulated into being afraid of the outside world, and became dependent on the church.

These people say their experience with the church was traumatic, causing mental health issues, broken marriages, loss of time and money, and most of all loss of agency over their own lives. They have come forward, hoping for change at the church, and to prevent others from falling prey to the traps of what experts call a “high-demand group.”

In September, a compilation of Armstrong’s livestreamed sermons showed the pastor, among other things, denigrating members of the LGBTQ2 community.

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Video compilation shows Kingston, Ont., pastor preaching against homosexuality, COVID-19 vaccine – Dec 15, 2020

Armstrong later apologized for the “hateful tone” of the videos.

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“That is not a true representation of my character, heart, or the heart of the church,” he said in a statement released at the time. “We have never promoted hate of any kind toward any group of people; we choose to love the way God loves us.”

On Dec. 11, following continued criticism of the church in the news and by former members, Armstrong offered, in part, the following statement:

“These past few months have been difficult and hearing the deep level of hurt communicated by some in our city has given us an opportunity for reflection and highlighted where we can strengthen our ministry to the community and work on our tone without compromising our biblical standards and goals,” he said.

Armstrong said he wanted to acknowledge all those who have spoken out with their concerns about Third Day.

“We have listened and will move forward keeping their concerns in mind as we remain dedicated to reflecting the heart of Christ within our city and around the world,” he said.

The video also shows Armstrong arguing the COVID-19 vaccine is a ploy from Microsoft to plant chips into people’s bodies, prompting outrage from the local community.

Last week, a COVID-19 outbreak was declared at the Kingston church, with 24 cases associated as of Monday.

When asked about his teachings on the pandemic, Armstrong apologized, saying that when the pandemic first hit, he, like others, was searching for answers.

“In looking back I can acknowledge that some of what I found and shared missed the mark. For this I am sorry, please forgive me if this caused any confusion or concern. This has been a season of learning for me and one that has demanded several pivots,” Armstrong said.

He noted that when he shares his opinions, he pushes people to look into those opinions for themselves.

“As the year moved along I put my opinions aside and we, as a body, have been following the guidance of our medical community and fully complied with the protocols put forth by our local KFL&A Public Health. We have been implementing them to the letter and our messaging reflects this,” he said.

KFL&A Public Health has not fined any faith community in the region for any COVID-19 infractions.

Third Day said in a previous statement sent to Global News that once it learned a congregation member affected by COVID-19 attended the church on Nov. 29, it immediately contacted public health “to report and contain.”

According to an email sent out to parishioners, services were moved online on Dec. 2, without any mention of the virus being spread at the church.

An outbreak was called on Dec. 3.

A charismatic leader

Armstrong’s sermons are energetic, at times frenetic, and flanked by long bouts of uplifting music. Over the last several years, he has changed his title from “Pastor” to “Apostle.” He speaks in tongues and, according to former members, gives prophecies and says he is meant to lead his church and the rest of Canada into revival and revelation.

“It’s the church of Francis Armstrong. I noticed that even during the services, like, they’re not worshipping God, they’re worshipping Francis. The more he yells, the more they yell. When he speaks, people shut up,” says Ashley Waugh, who says she was forced out of the church about five years ago for having a relationship with a woman.

Andre Gagne, a professor at Concordia University whose research focuses on the interpretation of the Bible and the charismatic right, says based on what former members say about Third Day Worship Centre, it practises what he calls “spirit-filled” or “spirit-empowered” Christianity, which emphasizes the power of the Holy Spirit, and the use of spiritual gifts like “speaking in tongues, prophecy, miracles, healing.”

According to Gagne, this is the fastest-growing stream of Christianity, with 645 million people practising worldwide. In Canada, Gagne says about 2.7 million people say they are spirit-filled Christians.

Often, these churches are run by a charismatic leader and are tied to denominations, which act as oversight bodies able to enforce standards and regulations on churches and pastors.

In fewer cases, the churches are non-denominational, essentially independent, with an “apostle” at the helm.

If you have an apostle at the head of the church, then the apostle is the ultimate authority in terms of governance,” Gagne says.

Read more: Mayor Bryan Paterson steps down as member of Third Day Worship Centre

It’s essentially the authoritarian type of leadership that is the problem,” Gagne says.

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Nicole Perry described herself as being in awe when Armstrong pulled her on stage to give a prophecy to her about her destiny.

“You don’t touch him. It’s not that you can’t talk to him, you just don’t. It’s almost like you’re supposed to respect him and the calling God has on his life,” she says.

Following the leaked videos in September, Kingston’s second-term mayor Bryan Paterson decided to step away from Third Day Worship Centre, after years of being intimately involved with the organization, including acting as a pastor and a leader in the church.

More than one person told Global News that Armstrong had prophesied Paterson would be a member of government one day.

Paterson said it was his father who influenced his runs for local government, not Armstrong.

“I always had an interest in politics and so there were comments among friends and among members of the church that I might someday run for office, but I have no recollection of anything more than that,” he said.

Many also noted that Paterson had never been anything but kind and decent to them, but that he and Armstrong had a close relationship.

Paterson agreed but said that relationship has changed over the years as he became less involved, and then stopped attending.

Despite his stepping down, former members say Paterson’s wife Shyla is still a member of the church.

Read more: Kingston mayor to head coronavirus economic recovery team

When asked, Paterson noted that when he left, his wife left her volunteer position as a pastor with the church as well.

“At the same time, we made the decision to ease the transition for our young kids because it’s been difficult for them to understand and adjust to what’s happening. That said, my wife and kids are no longer a part of the church,” a statement from the mayor read.

According to Stephen Kent, a professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in sects, cults, and new religions in Canada and the United States, people who join groups with charismatic leaders who claim to have a “unique communication pattern with God” can be subject to manipulation.

“One can make any kind of claim, and if the person making the claim has a very high status in the group, it’s impossible to challenge the person,” Kent says.

Groups with charismatic leaders that use manipulation to extract conformity and obedience are sometimes referred to as “cults,” but Kent says this term has taken on a pejorative meaning in popular culture, and that academics prefer the term “high-demand groups.”

He says it can be difficult to leave these groups because a person’s information and social bubble is often limited to the group setting, they are taught to fear retaliation from the leader or other members, their opportunities outside the group setting are restricted, and members are taught to demonize outsiders.

Death to yourself

According to the Third Day’s website, the church focuses on “spiritual renewal and reformation.”

Many former members say one of the church’s main focuses is the “revival,” or a spiritual awakening, of the rest of Canada, under the teachings of Third Day.

According to Jonathan Malloy, a professor at Carleton University who focuses on religion and politics, this is called Christian reconstructionism.

There’s basically one group that says, ‘We need to facilitate the coming of Jesus. We need to win the country back for God … we need to start the work of God coming back, take over the world,’” Malloy explained.

But to be able to commit to this task, Third Day members would have to turn away from their secular lives and commit themselves to God.

“Death to yourself was a huge thing they preached all time,” Perry says.

Read more: History of the ’90s podcast — Doomsday cults

Perry, along with other members, described going through a ceremony upon admittance in which they threw out items they had from their lives before Third Day.

“They called it a funeral service, and you had to bring all of your CDs, books, movies, anything that wasn’t Christian,” Perry says.

Kent says that when bringing people into the fold, high-demand groups will often focus on reinvention as a means of bringing about conformity.

“Join our group and we will help you reinvent yourself in the Christian context that involves identifying one’s so-called sins,” Kent says.

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Allegations of manipulation and fear

As a child, Grant O’Rourke says he and his family jumped between various Christian churches. At 16, he landed on Third Day for two reasons: music and miracles.

“I was wowed by the music … This band was playing some rock kind of tunes,” he says.

But as he grew older and more educated, Grant says he had doubts about Armstrong’s teachings, especially when it came to the LGBTQ2 community. By that time, Grant says he was already conditioned to doubt himself.

“What really got hammered in at Third Day, unlike some other churches I’ve been to, was it could be the enemy speaking doubts to you. … So, if you listen to your feelings about things, your own thoughts, maybe you would find yourself outside of God’s protection,” Grant says.

At Third Day, former members say being out of favour with God was also known as being cursed. People say they were taught that if they left, a curse would come upon them and their families.

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“Your life’s going to fall apart. Your kids are going to backslide, fall apart. Your marriage is going to fall apart. You’re going to lose all your money,” says Corinne Vadala, who left Third Day five years ago.

Vadala says her father was diagnosed with Stage 4 leukemia not long after her mother stepped away from the church.

“They told my mom that’s why my dad was dying — because mom had left the church,” Vadala says.

Kent says high-demand groups often work to strip options away from their members, forcing them to turn inward toward the group’s ideology. This can be done through communal living but also, according to Kent, through time constraints.

“There were so many different things going on at the church a week, and if you didn’t go to every single one, it was like you weren’t holy,” says Nikki Hamilton, who left the church in 2018 after several decades of attendance.

Read more: Faith in isolation — How Canadians are praying during the coronavirus pandemic

The church runs services on Wednesday night, Saturday night and twice on Sunday, and former members say attendance is mandatory, especially for those involved in “worship teams” or “ministries.” 

Armstrong described his congregation as “very involved.”

“That level of involvement is not required unless you are a part of different ministries or programs, ones that communicate the requirements clearly before any commitment is expected. Oftentimes these ministries or programs have consent forms signed prior to involvement as a means of ensuring those involved clearly understand the requirements,” he said.

There are also church events, full-week conferences and volunteer work, which former members say range from acting as the church receptionist to doing odd jobs for Armstrong and his wife.

Third Day also runs a children’s Bible school, a nursery, a children’s ministry, a youth ministry and a young adults ministry, a home for young women called the Esther House, a women’s group and a men’s group, and a healing clinic, all of which are extraneous to the church’s four services a week.

Armstrong noted that the church has endeavoured to give back to the community since its inception in 1996, in part by “volunteering in schools, developing radio programs and visiting hospitals and nursing homes,” and “providing meals and toys for families in need,” while working as one “to share God’s love and message of hope throughout the city.” Armstrong noted that this takes a certain level of commitment.

“Without this level of commitment, we would not be able to accomplish what we have set out to do as a church body truly intent on serving God and our community,” he says.

Many church members say fraternizing with people outside of the church was presented as a means for corruption, so they associated only with other congregants.

“He was always saying, ‘They will steer you away from God,’” Vadala says.

Many former members, especially those involved in ministries, reported being at the church seven days a week.

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“These groups become what sociologists call ‘fictive families,’” Kent says.

“These people come to adopt these people as their brothers and sisters. The leaders become parental figures.”

According to Grant, this fear of the outside world, when coupled with intimate relationships he built at Third Day, made him feel he wasn’t safe without the church.

“You need them, then you begin to lose yourself, to betray your own body, and how your body is feeling towards something.”

Former members also described a fear of repentance and public humiliation as motivators to adhere to the church’s strict purity culture.

Former members say that if a married man committed adultery, or a young couple had sex out of wedlock, they were made to repent publicly in front of the church. Sometimes, this would include ceremonies where leaders would lay their hands over the so-called sinners, shouting and speaking in tongues while congregants joined in, according to former members.

“It gave me a sense of fear because if you did something wrong, well, this might happen to you,” Grant says.

Read more: Keith Raniere sentenced to 120 years in prison in NXIVM ‘sex cult’ trial

Most former members say the church encouraged the use of its free counselling with long-time church leader Gerry Wein, who, members say, is not licensed or qualified to be a counsellor. Former congregants say the struggles they shared with her would often be used in Armstrong’s sermons.

“It would be based on all the stuff people were going through in the church, and you would know exactly who he was talking about because nothing was sacred in that church ever,” Vadala says.

When asked about these allegations, Armstrong said that Wein works under the “definition of pastoral counselling.”

“We work as a team on staff to see people through tough times. We have never hesitated to involve medical help when medical help is necessary,” he says.

Tara White says she was kicked out of the Frontline Bible Training Centre, a two-year college program the church runs to certify members as pastors. White says she turned to the school after leaving an abusive relationship, hoping as a Metis woman to become a pastor and bring what she learned to members of her community.

Yet struggles at home interfered with her success at the college. And for this, she says she was constantly reprimanded. She didn’t keep her house clean, she went out on a date with a man without permission, and she couldn’t make it to certain classes. Sometimes other congregants would tell on her, and sometimes she just confessed by herself, she says.

“They were praying over me so much, I was on the floor puking, telling me that this is demons,” White says.

Read more: Church of Scientology sued for physical, emotional abuse by ex-member

Ben Rodgers says he was kicked out of the college for calling a coworker a “b***h” while he was working at Queen’s University. He says this somehow got back to the school, and Paterson, who was the dean of Frontline at the time, dismissed him.

Paterson denied that allegation.

“No, I did not and I also don’t know of anyone who was removed for using a swear word,” he says.

The school’s $3,000 tuition is non-refundable if you are dismissed after the first few days of your semester. The school’s code of conduct allows for immediate expulsion if members “use tobacco, alcoholic beverages, illegal drugs,” or are “involved in gambling, sexual misconduct, cheating, gossip, strife, rebellion, ungodly attitudes, physical abuse, excessive debt, police arrest or who use profane language.”

According to Kent, surveillance and punishment systems are both essential functions of a high-demand group.

“The most successful groups are ones that socialize people to self-monitor. But before that point, external monitoring and then a whole range of punishments get established. Punishments can range from confessions — confessions to pastors or spiritual counsellors or whatnot — to expulsion,” Kent says.

But for Gagne, a spirit-empowered church’s strict adherence to purity culture is intimately linked to a church’s interpretation of the Bible.

“For them, the Bible is a living word and it’s applicable in everything,” he says.

The issue, Gagne says, is that the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways.

“It becomes difficult to argue with people like that, because what happens is, they’re always going to open the Bible, there’s always a verse somewhere to support that rule,” Gagne says.

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Upon being confronted with former members’ allegations of manipulation and fear, Armstrong said the church would endeavour to reconcile with these negative experiences.

“Reconciliation is a demanding goal, it takes time, energy and effort to sort through emotions and perspectives. We are committed to take that time and deeply sorry for the times that people have left us having experienced our community in a way that does not reflect our core values,” he said in a statement.

Alleged mandatory tithing

Tithing, the act of giving 10 per cent of one’s gross income to a church, along with other offerings, was mandatory at Third Day in order to ward off curses, former members say.

“If you don’t tithe, you’re going to be cursed, which also impedes on God’s protection,” says Jenn O’Rourke, Grant’s wife.

According to David Guretzki, resident theologian and executive vice-president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, tithing is often seen as an Old Testament practice that was not brought over into the New Testament.

He also noted that it’s not common practice to equate a lack of tithing with potential misfortune.

“There’s not a cause-effect between the tithe and the outcome,” Guretzki says.

But Gagne says there is scripture to support the importance of tithing.

“They read certain texts in the Bible where God asked, for example, the Jews, the Israelites in the Old Testament, God asked them to give to the Temple, give to the house of the Lord, and one of the reasons why they weren’t blessed is because they haven’t given,” he says.

Armstrong provided Global News with three biblical verses the church uses as a foundation for giving: Malachi 3: 8-10, Hebrews chapters 7:8-9 and Matthew 6:33.

The first biblical passage provided by Armstrong, written in Malachi, is the only one to mention a curse in reference to tithing.

It was testing the church’s theory on tithing that eventually led to Grant’s departure.

The O’Rourkes’ second child was born prematurely and with severe milk allergies. Grant recalled going to Wein, the church’s counsellor, to ask for a reprieve of tithing so that they could afford their child’s formula. Grant says Wein advised against this and pushed him to start tithing again “as soon as possible.”

From that time on, Grant stopped tithing.

“I realized pretty quickly that my son got better, he got healthy,” Grant says. “We weren’t under a curse.”

Other than tithing, former members say money is collected on special occasions, like the Easter “resurrection seed,” in which members are told to write down what they hope to grow out of the seed planted by their donation.

“If you sow a thousand dollars, God’s going to reward you back with double, two thousand dollars. So almost like investing your money, but it never happened,” Vadala says.

Sometimes, money is raised for no special occasion. On Oct. 18, Armstrong spent the majority of his service promising that a “massive miracle” was coming in six days to anyone who praised God through their giving. During this sermon, Armstrong used the word “massive” 40 times and often spoke in tongues.

“You sow a seed into that miracle. Amen, I said you sow a seed,” Armstrong preached in one of the church’s livestreamed services. “You know how to do it, e-transfer, sow a seed into the miracle.”

Click to play video 'Kingston, Ont., pastor promises massive miracle to congregation' Kingston, Ont., pastor promises massive miracle to congregation
Kingston, Ont., pastor promises massive miracle to congregation – Dec 15, 2020

He then encouraged his members to write either “six days” or “massive miracle” on their offering envelopes that day.

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Former members say one Sunday in 2013, leaders at Third Day took hammers to an outside wall of the church and said God was calling upon 10 members to give $1,000 each to bring the wall down for future expansion. This call-out was done at both Sunday services, according to former members.

Vadala and Nikki Hamilton, a single mother, both say they gave $1,000. Vadala says after six months, with nothing done to the wall, she went to Wein, asking where her money had gone.

“She said, ‘No, you have to trust. (Armstrong) knows what he’s doing. He’s praying about it,’” Vadala says.

It’s unclear how many people gave money that that day, but by all accounts, seven years later, the wall is still standing.

When asked about this incident, Armstrong replied:

“All the money that was designated towards the building fund or any other designated fund, can only be used for that specific purpose unless permission is given from the donor to put it towards something else. If money was designated toward our building fund, the money remains in the building fund waiting to be used for the project.”

According to former members, congregates would receive tax receipts for these types of donations, but sometimes they would be encouraged to give “love offerings,” done at Christmas as a special gift for Armstrong and his wife Edith. Members say the love offerings would amount to $10,000 or more each year.

Armstrong noted that under CRA regulations, charities do not have to issue tax receipts for love offerings.

“Love offerings are an initiative managed by our elders and the details are clearly communicated to our congregation throughout their messaging,” he noted.

According to Malloy, repeated fundraising is normal for evangelical churches.

“I would say churches like that, they’re constantly asking for donations,” Malloy says.

He did say most evangelical organizations would be “aghast” at the threat of a curse for not tithing.

“That crosses a line. That’s definitely not standard for evangelicals,” Malloy says.

Even then, that’s not illegal, he added. “People are giving willingly. Now, perhaps they’re feeling overly pressured to do so, but in the end, it is a voluntary operation.”

Nevertheless, Malloy says it’s important that churches be crystal clear about their finances.

“Speaking generally, if a church or any charitable organization wants to be seen as reputable and taken seriously, it needs to be very careful with money,” Malloy says.

Financial transparency can be done through annual general meetings or annual reports. Former members say that financial records were never made available to them and that they were told to trust the leaders of the church.

There is no financial information on Third Day Worship’s website.

Armstrong noted that as a charity, Third Day is not required to present financial statements to the congregation.

“We do communicate with our congregation regularly on matters of finances. We have had an annual extensive audit by a reputable accounting firm in Kingston for more than 20 years,” he said.

But the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) does list basic finances online for all Canadian charities, including Third Day.

According to the CRA, over the last five years, Third Day Worship Centre has brought in $1.3 million to $1.5 million a year.

In 2019, the church compensated its eight full-time and 12 part-time or partial-year employees a total of just over $500,000

The highest amount paid to a full-time employee at the church is $79,999.

Read more: Feds announce $350M fund for charities hurt by COVID-19 pandemic

Hamilton says she struggled financially while at the church. She got laid off, worked several jobs at times, but she never missed her tithe, even when she was on unemployment insurance.

“After a while, it was like breathing. I just did it whether I had money for groceries or not,” Hamilton says.

While at Third Day, she says she was taught that her misfortune was because she wasn’t attending enough or giving enough.

But Hamilton says it was clear that Francis and Edith Armstrong did not live like her. This is one of the many reasons why Hamilton says she left.

“The pastor drives a Lexus and lives on Bath Road among the $1.2-million homes, and people in the church are struggling,” Hamilton says.

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Former members say the Armstrongs had the rent for this home on Bath Road paid for by the church. Royal LePage

Former members say the home and the expenses for both of the Armstrongs’ vehicles were paid for by the church.

According to the CRA, in 2019, Third Day Worship spent over $40,000 on travel and vehicle expenses and over $64,000 on occupancy costs, while more than $240,000 is listed under “other expenditures.”

Armstrong says operating expenses at the church are approved by the manager of finance or an assistant pastor, two paid positions.

“I have never been an authorized signatory for any such expenses. Major expenses are approved by the board of directors, also known as the finance committee,” he says.

Armstrong is the chair and president of the board.

Some of the money Third Day raises is also donated to other charitable organizations.

According to Armstrong, providing its congregants with the opportunities to give back to local and global communities requires “consistent messaging on giving.”

“(This) also allows members of our congregation to give towards causes that are important to them, to us, and to God. There are many of us who have travelled in compassionate ministry to see first-hand what our involvement can accomplish, and we are blessed to be able to do so,” he said.

In 2019, CRA has Third Day listed as donating over $165,000 of the $1.3 million it made that year, so about 12 per cent, to various Christian organizations, including a more than $70,000 gift to a children’s home in Guatemala that Armstrong said was started by Third Day. According to him, it is “now a centre that equips young mothers with the teaching and resources to keep their children.” In 2018, the church donated over $120,000 to that same home.

In one sermon from November 2020, Armstrong lists other charitable organizations that the church gives to, like Molly Brant Elementary School and Lionhearts in Kingston, collecting shoeboxes for children at Christmas, and sending money to the Philippines, Kenya and Uganda. None of these donations is listed on the CRA website for 2019 or 2018. Armstrong noted that their donations to Lionhearts are done through Canada Helps, to which Third Day gave $1,200 in 2019, according to the CRA.

Armstrong says Third Day complies with all CRA regulations, and that donation information is only required if given to other Canadian charities.

“We give to several financial needs by local families due to fire, death of a child or other tragic event and will not disclose private details. We also give financial assistance to our own congregation members and again will not disclose private details.

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Kingston, Ont., pastor describes charitable donations – Dec 15, 2020

The church also donated over $72,000 to Destiny Christian Academy, a children’s Bible school run out of Third Day Worship Centre in Kingston, whose founding member is Francis Armstrong. Full tuition for the school stands at $2,500 per child a year, or for a family with three children, $6,100 a year.

CRA does not have financial information for the academy’s 2019 financials.

This is part one of Global News’ three-part investigative series into Third Day Worship Centre. See parts two and three here.