With her tightly choreographed dance videos and 1.3 million Instagram followers, Miranda Derrick appears to be just another successful influencer.
However the 25-year-old star is, alongside a group of other young dancers including her new husband, allegedly part of a cult-like management company overseen by a Christian religious leader who styles himself as “the Man of God”.
Robert Shinn, a 63-year-old pastor, has denied making inappropriate sexual advances and controlling the lives of his followers at the Shekinah Church he founded in California in 1994.
He is also an entertainment mogul with a production company that has produced several films including 2013’s Random Encounters, starring Meghan Markle, the future Duchess of Sussex. However, it is 7M, the talent group where he is CEO, that is bringing Shinn the most attention.
The pastor, who lives in a $2.5 million Los Angeles mansion and drives a Bentley, was pulled into the spotlight this year when Derrick’s family shared a tearful video alleging that she had joined a “religious group” and had cut off contact.
Melanie Wilking, Derrick’s sister, was flanked by her parents and said: “It’s been haunting us for over a year now. It’s definitely been the hardest year of my life.
“Miranda is a part of a religious group and she’s not allowed to speak to us.”
Derrick’s family said she had married James Derrick without telling them and refused to go home to Michigan for her grandfather’s funeral in January 2021.
She walked away from the successful dance partnership she had forged with Melanie – they had more than two million followers on TikTok – and now posts videos alongside other dancers managed by 7M.
Responding to her family’s claims, Derrick and her husband insisted that they were not in a cult while 7M said in a statement: “It is pathetic and contemptible to try to turn her private family matters into a tawdry public scandal for clicks and clout.”
Despite the denials, former followers of the Shekinah Church allege they can see a similar pattern.
Several told the Business Insider Web site that Shinn “brainwashed” them and demanded control of their lives and finances through “isolation, restriction and intimidation”.
He allegedly controlled his followers’ diets so that they lost weight to “appear godly” and oversaw marathon prayer sessions where they were expected to run on the spot and speak in tongues.
The pastor, who lives in a $2.5 million Los Angeles mansion and drives a Bentley, was pulled into the spotlight this year.
Some said Shinn persuaded them to cede control of their non-public bank accounts and distributed allowances as small as $15 a week to a married couple.
He promised salvation in return for such devotion, it is alleged.
“I thought that when I left I was going to hell,” a church member who left in 2004 said. “That’s how much they make you believe that this is the only way.”
A representative for Shinn dismissed the claims as “false and defamatory”.
“At no time did Dr Shinn isolate anyone, limit anyone’s diet, force anyone to run, or control anyone’s bank account,” the representative said, adding: “Dr Shinn does not believe or inspire the prosperity doctrine”. The representative denied that Shinn claims to have a direct line to God.
It is not the first time that Shinn has faced such accusations, however. He was previously sued by former church member Lydia Chung in 2009 for allegedly cutting her off from her family, brainwashing her and defrauding her out of property and funds worth $3.8 million.
Chung claimed Shinn had been described online as a “former medical doctor who successfully practiced medicine for seven years before God spoke to him and brought him into ministry full time”.
He and other defendants reportedly prevailed at trial against all of the claims in the lawsuit.
Shekinah Church’s Web site states: “We are called to aggressively train God’s people to develop the fruit of the Spirit, which are divine characteristics of God Himself, so that they may really meet God in the deepest way.
“Only in this way, will one handle all the success and prosperity properly.”
Critics have linked 7M and the “Seven Mountain Mandate”, a conservative Christian movement accused of seeking to take control of key areas of society — family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government.
A representative for Shinn said that his church and 7M have nothing to do with the movement.
However, Dr Steven Hassan, an expert on cults who has spent 46 years studying them since he escaped from one, drew a direct link between the Shekinah Church and the Seven Mountain Mandate.
“These people want money and power … that’s their agenda,” he said.
Hassan said it was a common tactic within cults to cut members off from their families and those within the group are unaware they have been brainwashed and may believe the arrangement is healthy.
He said: “The key is [with a healthy group], you’re not being lied to. You can talk to critics and ex-members and leave without harassment, threats or indoctrination.
“If somebody says ‘I’m not in a cult’, prove it, talk to ex-members.”
Derrick’s family has vowed not to stop until they have been reunited with their daughter.
Hassan said it is possible for loved ones to save family members from cults, however the process can be challenging.
He advised families to avoid directly criticizing the cult or its leader.
“The idea is you go around the cult-programmed identity,” he said. “But it requires a diplomatic, respectful, loving, curious approach where you ask questions.”
A statement provided by lawyers representing Shinn and 7M Films stated: “The false and sensational allegations about 7M stem directly from a dispute between 7M-represented dancer Miranda Derrick and her estranged family.
“Despite her family’s claims, Miranda is a successful businesswoman and a loving wife and daughter who cares very much about her family.
“It is pathetic and contemptible to try to turn her private family matters into a tawdry public scandal for clicks and clout.”
Keiran Southern is the West Coast correspondent for The Times of London