OPINION: If you are looking for solace, companionship, answers, or just a fun place to spend a Sunday, the idea of a community dedicated to your spiritual health must be very appealing. The idea, I imagine, would be to grow and flourish as a person, supported by this community of like-minded citizens – not spat out years later, broken and abused.
This juxtaposition of promise and harm was highlighted by Los Angeles-based Kiwi journalist David Farrier in his series exposing allegations of exploitation and abuse at New Zealand’s largest church, Arise.
The allegations are serious – they include harassment, physical intimidation and exploitation of vulnerable workers.
Most organizations with a culture problem have found abuse of power at the heart of their problems. The greater the power imbalance within relationships, the greater the risk of harm.
* Arise Church founding pastor John Cameron resigns from board after intern allegations
* Arise Church intern’s allegations will face two reviews
* Lawyer says lawsuits aim to change culture that ‘breeds sexual predators’ in Gloriavale
Many of the people discussed at Arise were at the lowest rungs of the power ladder – young people, often brought into the church in targeted recruitment drives. They showed remarkable commitment and adherence as their workload increased.
In the end, in the words of Arise senior pastor John Cameron, they felt “overworked, overwhelmed, undervalued and exploited as interns”.
In recent days, Cameron has resigned from the Church’s board and “stepped down” (although, as Farrier points out in his latest post, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s no longer in charge). .) Cameron said all the “right” things. He apologized for the pain caused to students at ministry schools and promised change.
“I want to make it clear that there is no place for people’s health to be anything other than our top priority,” a statement read.
The devil, pardon the pun, is always in the details and there was another part of his last statement that I found particularly revealing.
“The truth is that for some time as a church we have allowed a culture of performance to be part of our Arise world, and it has negatively affected students at Arise Ministry School,” said Cameron.
“Performance culture” might be another phrase for the corporatization of organized religion – a common aspect of mega-churches around the world.
It’s not a new concept. In 2006 Samuel Kobia, then head of the World Council of Churches, warned that the mega-church movement was “superficial” and driven by ideals more commonly found in private sector companies.
“It’s a corporate church. It can be quite dangerous if we’re not very careful, because it can become a Christianity that I describe as ‘two miles long and an inch deep,'” Kobia said.
There are plenty of companies that, when they choose to take a look, have discovered faulty systems that have allowed harassment, intimidation and exploitation to flourish unchecked. However, few corporate environments would emulate the kind of structures that allowed Arise’s mess to escalate.
The closest I can come to a comparison would be large law firms, where, it was claimed in 2019, once average weekly hours were calculated, some new lawyers were working for less than minimum wage.
In Arise, there were no wages for young workers, who instead had to pay the church for the privilege of collecting dry cleaning, cleaning John Cameron’s car and babysitting his children, which apparently , would have enabled them to obtain a “qualification”. at the end of the course.
The concept of work as a “privilege” instilled in these young people was a practical tool – unlike law firms, which could only be justified by career ladder and company bottom line, executives of the Church had an ingenious way of circumventing responsibility. The work was not for their benefit, but for God. And if it’s for God, how can you argue?
When allegations of abusive behavior are made, the right thing to do is to thoroughly, preferably independently, examine the culture of the organization and come up with a solid plan to do better. How does the organization achieve this? By hiring the most qualified experts to accomplish the complex work of an external investigation carried out with respect for natural justice and the dignity of all preserved.
Arise promised to do so. This week he appointed a Christchurch company operating as Pathfinding NZ to carry out what he called a “full answer” to the allegations. The Arise exam will be led by its owner Charlotte Cummings, who is a counselor with many years of experience and training behind her.
But Cummings is not a lawyer, nor is she, or any of the other members of the review board, a private investigator. Why is this important? Because external fact-finding investigations must be conducted in accordance with the rules laid down by the Private Security Personnel and Private Investigators Act 2010. The provisions of this rather obscure law were tested in 2020 – which established that any fact-finding investigation must be carried out by a licensed private investigator or a person exempted under the Act – for example, a lawyer. Most major external reviews are led by Queen’s Counsel or retired judges (also exempt from the provisions of the Act.)
Pathfinding NZ did not respond to my questions about the staff responsible for this review, which leaves the question open; How solid – or even legal – will this much-vaunted investigation be?