Arise Church: Report Shines Light on Numerous Employment Relations Issues


Arise is one of New Zealand's largest churches and religious institutions with 13 campuses situated around the country. 

An independent review was ordered by former leader John Cameron and the Board of the organisation prior to his resignation. The review, conducted by Pathfinding, was led by Christchurch Counsellor Charlotte Cummings and involved some 617 participants (545 of which completed submissions). These appear to have included current and former members, employees, and volunteers of the Church. 70 of those appear to be current staff and 325 current members of the Church. Hundreds of potential victims of inappropriate behaviour and sub-standard employment practices appear to have come forward and participated in the review.

John & Gillian Cameron / Arise Website

The report outlines that all current staff of the Church were given an opportunity to engage in the process. A team of counsellors and psychologists were also involved. The report records that throughout the process Pathfinding alerted the employer/the Arise Church Board to incidents that if established would constitute serious misconduct. A summary of the review’s findings was also provided to the New Zealand Police. 

Although the review process was concluded on the 27th of May 2022, it has taken a considerable amount of time for the report to see the light of day. According to Webworm’s reporting, that appears to be because a number of people have sought to block the report’s release. On the 7th of July 2022, the Arise Board released a statement advising that it intended to release the full Pathfinding report publicly that day, but had been unable to do so “because there is now an urgent non-publication order over the report”. 

Webworm appears to have subsequently confirmed with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (the Employment Relations Authority sits within the infrastructure of the MBIE) that a temporary non-publication order was issued by the Employment Relations Authority in respect of the report. It appears that someone has subsequently leaked the report, possibly in breach of the Authority’s order. 

Under Schedule 2 of the Employment Relations Act 2000 the Authority has wide-ranging powers to prohibit publication of material before it, including party’s names, witness names, all or any part of the evidence filed, and the pleadings filed. The rationale behind temporary non-publication orders is generally to uphold the integrity of the system and to ensure that the Authority’s determination-making process is not compromised. Similarly, temporary non-publication can prevent prejudice resulting in one or both of the parties to the process in circumstances where the Authority is yet to issue a decision. 

These are sound legal principles in the writer’s opinion but must also be robustly weighed against public interest factors. In this situation, there is arguably a strong public interest in the report’s contents given the wide-ranging and serious nature of the employment (and other) issues identified. 

It appears the focus of the review was to provide a process whereby individuals could freely describe their experiences. The report appears to make it clear that the purpose of the review was to capture and outline the participant’s experiences and to make recommendations, rather than carry out an investigation into the concerns the participants raised. For instance, it does not appear that during the review allegations were put to those individuals that were alleged to have perpetrated the behaviours of concern. 

The report should therefore prompt the Arise Board, if it is to act as a fair and reasonable employer and comply with its health and safety obligations, to now investigate the incidences and concerns raised by its current and former staff, particularly if those issues relate to current members, staff and those that hold a senior role in the Church. 

From a health and safety perspective, the Arise Board has an obligation to take all reasonable and practicable steps to identify and reduce risks and hazards in the workplace. In the writer’s opinion, this includes investigating issues of possible workplace bullying and harassment when those matters come to its attention. There can be no doubt that this report brings such issues to its attention. It now has a proactive duty to investigate and where necessary remediate and enact change. 

It is important to note the report does not necessarily reflect everyone’s experience with and in the Church. The report itself notes the experiences recorded should be considered “a sample”. Many of the staff and members may never have experienced or been subjected to the behaviours referred to in the report. One must also accept that the Church generally appears to provide positive support, and a positive experience, for its members. It also appears to carry out several charitable activities for both its members and the wider community. Regardless, the report identifies some very serious employment and health and safety issues for the Arise Board as an employer and it must now act promptly, and meaningfully, to investigate and address the issues. 

The report also records that an independent review specific to employment matters was conducted by the law firm Duncan Cotterill. It appears the results of that review are not publicly available. This is not surprising as generally such reviews are subject to strict confidentiality and privacy requirements, particularly because those types of employment-related inquiries orderly involve sensitive employment issues and information, as well as private personal information, that if released could cause serious damage and harm to existing staff. The release of that information may also result in further victimisation of those that have been the subject of inappropriate behaviour in their workplace.  

From Arises Facebook

From an employment-relations perspective, the most concerning incidences and employment practices identified in the report include:

  1. Stories of racist remarks, including from staff in leadership roles. Some former staff also described being told by their employer to focus their efforts on ‘white kids’. 

  2. Stories of sexual grooming, underage relationships, sexual harassment, assaults, and rape. 

  3. Stories of staff allegedly sexually harassing others and indecently exposing themselves, as well as sexual touching. These appear to have included a former Board member indecently exposing themself in front of a staff member, as well as ongoing targeted sexual harassment by a leader. 

  4. Stories of staff feeling disbelieved and judged by church staff or leaders when they raised their experiences of sexual harm.

  5. Some submitters felt there was a lack of action from staff to prevent subsequent incidences of a sexual nature and not reporting incidents.

  6. Insufficient record keeping regarding serious incidents of a sexual nature. 

  7. Some staff and volunteers are being subjected to outbursts of anger and being shouted at by leaders or other staff. 

  8. Some staff were physically handed, such as being grabbed by the collar. 

  9. The marginalisation of minority groups. 

  10. Burnout and exhaustion of workers. 

  11. Pressure from the Church to continue working despite suffering from illness or serious injury.  

  12. Staff felt that they had to be available to leadership 24/7. 

  13. Unrealistic expectations and inappropriate initiation rituals for staff. 

  14. Staff did not know who to turn to about their health and safety concerns and such concerns were not being responded to in a manner that left the individuals feeling assured the necessary follow-up action would occur. 

  15. People’s experiences of what they perceived to be constructive dismissal situations, unfair redundancy processes, being promised jobs that did not eventuate, warning process without support and role changes without negotiation. 

According to its website, the Church’s values include “love, grow, give, smile, excel and unite”, stating that “We are united as a team, God blesses and favours what we do”. The report paints a very different picture of an organisation that adheres to these values in everything it does, and we suspect that if God had indeed blessed and favoured the incidents described in this report, it would shake the beliefs of even the most faithful and devout.

The report notably includes an opinion that significant structural and cultural changes need to be made, including to the governance and leadership of the Church. The report includes a raft of recommendations. These include:

  1. Church leaders receive training on how to respond to incidents of a sexual nature appropriately and on sexual harm prevention.

  2. Following up with staff members involved in the review, including formally investigating the claims made. 

  3. Reviewing its policies around the prevention of bullying and assault. 

  4. All Arise Church staff receiving compulsory training including around the expectations regarding zero tolerance for bullying. 

  5. Reviewing and strengthening the Code of Conduct, including defining what constitutes unacceptable behaviours. 

  6. Adopting a Code of Conduct to cover both staff and volunteers as well as Code of Conduct training for all staff and volunteers. 

  7. Developing induction modules for staff, interns, and volunteers. 

  8. Ceasing the practice of people working for ‘promised jobs’. 

  9. Ensuring Sundays are considered a ‘work day’ for staff. 

  10. Ensuring staff initiations do not include induction rituals which cause discomfort or humiliation.

  11. Ensuring key groups such as staff and volunteers have their own defined health and safety representative to turn to. 

  12. Reviewing the system through which health and safety concerns are raised and actioned. 

  13. Ensuring the Board receives regular health and safety reports. 

  14. Developing a clear incident management plan. 

  15. Issuing a formal apology, acknowledging, and apologising for the hurts people have experienced within the Church. 

  16. That the entire existing Arise Board resigns. 

BuckettLaw supports these types of wide-ranging organisational reviews. They often assist and result in bringing employment issues and practices to light that need to be and would not otherwise have been brought to the employer’s attention. They assist individuals in raising their concerns, and in employer’s dealing with those concerns. They bring attention to systemic organisational failings and harmful employment practices that from a health and well-being perspective require urgent attention and action to prevent further harm and damage from occurring and to provide staff more generally with the healthy and safe workplace they are entitled to. 

If you have suffered from any of the inappropriate behaviours or concerning employment practices mentioned in this article and the Pathfinding report, we urge you to get in touch with BuckettLaw right away. BuckettLaw offers a free initial 15-minute telephone conversation to discuss your employment concerns. We can provide guidance and advice to those that feel they have suffered from bullying and harassment in their workplace, including how to raise and pursue those issues in a safe way.

If you are reluctant or unsure whether you should make a complaint to your employer, or you feel like you might be victimised or ignored if you do so, we urge you to contact BuckettLaw. If incidents of bullying and harassment fall by the wayside because they are never raised and brought to the attention of the employer then it is likely those behaviours will continue, perpetuating a cycle that can lead to serious harm, both physically and psychologically. BuckettLaw not only assists victims of bullying and harassment with raising their concerns and pursuing redress, but it can also point victims of such behaviours to individuals and organisations that can provide appropriate support.   

If harmful behaviours continue, either because they are not brought to the employer’s attention or because the employer does not take appropriate action to address them, they can create a toxic and ultimately unproductive workplace environment. This can, and often will be, extremely bad for business. From an employer perspective, there are some obvious steps an employer can take to reduce the likelihood of these issues occurring, and persisting, in the workplace. These include:

  1. Ensuring there is a Code of Conduct or similar policy in place that clearly defines what is acceptable and not acceptable behaviour in the workplace. 

  2. Ensuring there is a policy in place which provides a clear escalation pathway for staff who feel they have been subjected to inappropriate behaviour, bullying, or harassment (of any kind) in their employment. 

  3. Ensuring the policy does not necessarily require a ‘formal written complaint’ for there to be any meaningful action. The employer’s policy should also provide for other more informal ways for staff to notify the employer of the issues and raise their concerns. 

  4. Ensuring there is a policy which appropriately addresses concerns when they are raised by staff. Ordinarily, this includes investigation and if appropriate disciplinary action. 

  5. Ensuring that concerns of this nature are always taken seriously and always acted upon promptly. 

  6. Ensuring that any employment investigation is fulsome, fair and proper and adheres to the principles of natural justice.

  7. Ensuring that if inappropriate behaviours are identified, appropriate action is taken. Depending on the gravity of the behaviour this may include disciplining the perpetrator of the behaviour(s) (including dismissing), restorative justice processes (if appropriate) and training, support, and guidance (again if appropriate). 

  8. Conduct independent reviews to ensure that issues and incidents are not being buried and that staff feel like they can raise concerns. 

  9. Take appropriate action following the reviews.

BuckettLaw can assist an employer with undertaking these steps. They not only represent “best practice”, but also in our opinion necessary practice to ensure as an employer you are meeting your obligations under the suite of New Zealand employment rules and regulations as well as the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015

BuckettLaw can be contacted on 04 472 8600 and reception@buckettlaw.co.nz

Note: BuckettLaw takes no responsibility for the consequences of any actions taken on the basis of our articles. Any views expressed or comments made in an article are the writers option only. The content in our articles does not constitute legal advice. If you need legal or expert advice you should obtain specific advice about your case or matter from a professional. For legal advice based on your individual situation please contact us to speak with one of our expert lawyers.

Enjoy a complimentary 15-minute phone call as a first-time offer.

Barbara Buckett

Barbara Buckett is a highly experienced senior employment lawyer with over 35 years of practice in New Zealand. She provides expert advice on all areas of employment law and has a proven track record of delivering excellent results for clients. Barbara has extensive experience in resolving workplace issues and is an experienced litigator. In her free time, she enjoys reading, traveling, working out, and fine wine and dining with friends.

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