An independent review of abuse and misconduct by New Zealand’s ARISE Church has finally been leaked online after repeated attempts by church leaders to formally suppress the material. The report, which was put together after speaking with 545 people connected to the evangelical megachurch, details numerous instances of sexual and physical abuse, financial shenanigans, and straight-up racism. It also calls on the church’s entire board to resign.
The public only began to learn some of these details in April, when journalist David Farrier began writing about the megachurch shortly after the downfall of the Australian megachurch Hillsong and its leader Brian Houston. Farrier pointed out that ARISE had a dozen satellite locations throughout New Zealand, an eight-figure budget, and a membership of over 10,000 people. Yet its leader, John Cameron, wasn’t a major public figure. Maybe that was by design.
One former member of the church told Farrier that the emotional manipulation ran so deep, it extended into everyone’s pocketbooks. They weren’t just expected to tithe, which wouldn’t be unusual. Members were expected to donate 10% of their income, and 10% of the government-funded allowance they receive while studying, and 10% of all home sales, etc. The church also allegedly hired “interns” to handle a lot of its business… but those interns were overworked and exploited. You might think that means those interns are underpaid… or not paid at all. But many of them said they they basically paid out of pocket for the privilege of “serving” the church. One former intern said he had to pay about $2,500/year… in order to “volunteer” for the church.
Another former intern put it this way:
Unpaid interns were also used by staff as free babysitters, nannies, drivers, cleaners. I would babysit for free at least once a week for various staff. I was told that I was “serving the church” so they could have a night out.
In some cases, interns were painting pastors’ houses or mowing their lawns… you know, to serve God.
One intern said Pastor John Cameron and his brother Brent were aggressive to the point of physical abuse, punching people (in jest, though it was never funny) and grabbing others by the collar.
Some members, we were told, signed non-disclosure agreements about their time working for the church.
The end result of those initial stories from Farrier was that ARISE’s governing board apologized for “the pain and suffering some staff and volunteers have encountered” and admitted to being “unnecessarily demanding or aggressive”… but they didn’t confirm specifics. Instead, they said they had hired an outside group, Pathfinding, to conduct an independent review.
In the meantime, Farrier kept reporting. He told a story about a then-current member of the church who had been sexually assaulted by an ex-boyfriend (also a church member)… but only came to realize that after being in a new relationship (with another church member) that wasn’t abusive. When she confided to an ARISE leader that she had “been raped” by her ex—someone who still attended the church, mind you—that leader responded by… chastising her for having pre-marital sex with her new boyfriend.
The alleged abuser “remains a leader at the church.”
That story wasn’t unique, according to Farrier. A number of women who attended ARISE Church told him about their own situations, where they were victims of abuse, only to be further traumatized after they shared their experiences with church leaders who blamed them for inviting it.
Other former interns said their mental breakdowns were ignored. They felt burned out. Emotional abuse was pervasive.
Farrier also pointed out that, despite a public stance of not taking a position on homosexuality, the reality within ARISE was predictably against it. Its leaders opposed marriage equality and a ban on anti-LGBTQ “conversion therapy” (the ban thankfully passed anyway).
Shockingly, perhaps, all this reporting had an effect. In May, ARISE announced that the founders and lead pastors of the church, John and Gillian Cameron, along with John’s brother Brent, were all resigning.
ARISE board member Kylie Fletcher publicly apologized on behalf of the church:
“I am, and on behalf of the board, deeply sorry for those that have experienced hurt.
“As soon as the board were made aware of the allegations made in the public forum, we looked at finding and setting up robust processes, independent reviews.”
“At this time significant change is needed to rebuild trust, transparency and accountability to those that call ARISE home, and those who have experienced hurt while at our house.
“Our hope is that these changes will lead to ARISE Church being a trusted, safe place to worship and a culture where all people are welcomed, loved and accepted.”
That took care of some immediate problems… but the Camerons walking away didn’t necessarily change the broken culture of the evangelical institution. There also remained an open question about what the independent review would find.
In the weeks since the resignation, however, the Pathfinding review, which ARISE leaders said they would make public was never published, even though there was an initial promise to release it on June 29. The church claimed there was a legal order preventing them from making it public. (It wasn’t clear who was fighting the church’s release of the document or if it was simply a delay tactic.) Either way, the Employment Relations Authority said it would review that order by late July and come to a decision.
It’s now mid-August. The report still hasn’t been made public.
But David Farrier got his hands on a copy of the report… and he just published it.
We’ve been waiting for months for the independent review commissioned by Arise Church.
The review that was ordered by disgraced former leader John Cameron, before he resigned on May 26.
It is clear that the report is not going to be released in the foreseeable future — Webworm understands a number of people have gone to the Employments Relations Authority to block the report, and John Cameron has been actively petitioning to get his old job back.
With this in mind, and considering the considerable public interest in the report, Webworm has decided to publish the report in its entirety.
The full report is here. Farrier says it “paints a picture of a church rotten to its core.”
Why is it rotten? The Pathfinding report refers to “ongoing targeted sexual harassment,” “unwanted nudity,” inadequate systems for handling sexual harassment or abuse, discouraging victims from going to the police, racism among ARISE Church leaders (including a directive to “focus on white kids” when trying to win converts), and a confirmation that interns were screwed over financially.
ARISE is so broken, the report suggests, that it calls for the entire governing board to resign (Recommendation #47) because they’ve lost their “moral mandate to govern.”
Because the report wasn’t meant to go public yet, it’s unclear what church leaders will actually do. Will they heed all the recommendations? Will they downplay the seriousness of the report? Will they act like the allegations are exaggerated or made up?
The saddest thing about this is how, reading through the report, the allegations aren’t all that shocking in part because other evangelical megachurches have done many of the same damn things. They thrive in secrecy, they take advantage of their followers by using Christ as a carrot, and leaders feel beholden to no one. They know that their faith gives them a shield against criticism and oversight, and church leaders surround themselves with people who only know how to nod at their every suggestion. That’s not unique to ARISE. That’s common within all kinds of insular religious institutions. They suck people into their orbit, make them fear ever leaving the fold, then use that unearned trust to their advantage. Even if it’s not always criminal, it’s highly unethical.
And in this case, it only came to light because a bunch of courageous members and former members of ARISE were willing to share their stories with someone outside the bubble who had no allegiance to the Camerons.