COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Former members of a Columbus church are hoping current congregants will see the sign – a literal sign, that people who used to belong to Dwell Community Church put up along High Street in Clintonville, encouraging members to leave.
This follows a series of NBC4 Investigates reports about the church, in which former members said they experienced abuse.
Dozens of people who belonged to Dwell, formerly known as Xenos Christian Fellowship, have described to NBC4 allegations of control, dangerous living conditions and exploitation during their time there. More former members saw the reports and bought a billboard.
“Stuck in Dwell Community Church?” it says. “There is hope.”
Kate Heck and Kari Puchovich are part of the group behind the message.
Heck belonged to the church from 1999 until 2007. She said she left because fellow members didn’t approve of her marriage.
“It was uncomfortable to stay,” Heck said. “I also had concerns about the way – the level of coercion within the church and felt that I needed to leave at that point.”
Puchovich joined in 1996 and remained a member until 2014. She said she left in order to win her battle with addiction, which she said was made difficult by the abundance of alcohol at bible studies.
“I was a mess, and this wasn’t the place where I was going to get any help. And I needed to leave to get actual help,” Puchovich said.
Although these women ultimately left Dwell for different reasons, they said they’ve connected with hundreds of former members with similar trauma.
“It’s been healing and empowering to share our stories and see the consistencies,” Heck said.
After NBC4 Investigates aired a series of reports in February about the allegations against Dwell, Puchovich and Heck felt compelled to act.
Puchovich, who no longer lives in Ohio, said she was in Columbus caring for her ill mother when the reports aired.
“It was literally the last week of her life. We spent a lot of time talking about it. And a huge part of when I started going to Xenos, my mom was really against it,” Puchovich said, tearing up as she described the ‘wedge’ the church had driven between herself and her mother for two decades. “That narrative of, ‘You’re either with us or against us’ is so damaging for people. And so it really just jumpstarted me to ask people for funds, to get an LLC started and have a billboard.”
“I also saw the stories that you ran and was disappointed by the response from the church and the leadership there,” Heck said. “I think that when you hear stories of pain that people are sharing ways that they have been hurt– I think the appropriate response is to be curious about how and why, and to seek to make things right. Apologize. Find out what the systems are that are causing these pains so consistently. These stories span decades. They’re not just one-offs.”
Puchovich said her initial fundraising goal was met within 15 minutes of posting a GoFundMe link on social media, and the donations are still coming in through the LLC’s website, LeavingDwell.com.
“We wanted to provide resources that have been helpful for a broad range of people that have left the church,” Heck said.
Those resources include counseling, housing, and other local churches that some former Dwell members, like Heck, currently attend.
“I am really thankful to have found a place where I could rest and just be and receive the love of God that wasn’t dependent upon what I did, and how I worked, and how many people I brought to church,” Heck said. “I know that there are wonderful people in (Dwell) that don’t understand why their church is being criticized, and want to just follow God. And they love their community and at some point in time, will experience these same kinds of pain.”
“We have many members who are willingly, joyfully following Jesus here in our community, but our members know that they’re free to leave at any time, if that’s what they’d like to do,” said Brian Adams, the executive pastor of Dwell’s student ministries, from which almost all of the negative allegations have stemmed. “We’re heartbroken, right, that there are people that have had a poor experience in our church. And our hope is ultimately just that, if the experience and Dwell is not what they were looking for, that they won’t abandon their faith, and we’ll be able to find a community that really fits what they’re looking for.”
Adams said Dwell members are encouraged to report physical abuse to law enforcement authorities, and emotional or spiritual abuse to an internal grievance board. Former members have previously expressed skepticism about the board’s effectiveness.
“We continually are evaluating. We’re continually growing,” Adams said. “I believe that we have made several great changes and ways that we have grown as a church.”
In response to a follow-up question about what specific changes have been made in response to allegations of abuse, Adams provided a list of “Training Upgrades” via email. The most recent changes, according to the document, were made in 2020. Changes in recent years include safety training, an indoor vaping ban during church meetings, and mental health workshops that promote professional counseling and medication when warranted.
The training upgrades document is below.