Former Brethren Exclusive Members Detail Church Money Ride
A sectarian church that exercises almost total control over its members has metastasized into a multinational corporation with massive purchasing power.
The Exclusive Brethren – now renamed Plymouth Brethren Christian Church – says it does not own, operate or hold any business interests itself, but that its members run their own “family businesses”.
However, many top New Zealand companies are lining up to join the list of preferred suppliers in what former members describe as a captive market.
Every Monday, employees at Brethren businesses nationwide religiously watch the latest Silver Bulletin, a short online video interspersing business tips with the latest member-exclusive offers.
Senior executives from a range of major brands, including Air New Zealand, Office Max and Freightways, make cameo appearances thanking the herd for their business and offering details of new deals.
Brethren and their businesses are encouraged to purchase their supplies, groceries, gas, internet, insurance – the full range of goods and services – from businesses that return money to the church through a range of bribe arrangements.
An insurance company broker, Crombie Lockwood, said he was instructed to use a special code with Brethren clients, cutting his commission by 20%, which went to the ‘sub-agency’ listed, UBT (Universal Business Team) a church-controlled company.
“What I find troubling is that they are businesses so their insurance premiums are tax deductible and on top of that they are also charging GST – so I consider that almost a legalized form of money laundering. silver.
“It’s a circular pattern – they use their businesses to pay back ‘donations’ to their own church, then they claim it as a tax-deductible expense.”
The broker, whom RNZ agreed not to name, said while they were not doing anything illegal, he was uncomfortable with the way the church treated former members in particular.
“When I read about some of the conduct of the Brethren, it sounds more like a sectarian organization than a mainstream religion.
“My personal view is that as a large multinational company that prides itself on being one of the 100 most ethical companies in the world, it [Crombie Lockwood] should not participate in a kickback scheme like this.”
Bulk buying power is smart business – but according to former members, the Brethren weren’t really “free to choose”. They were used as cash cows by their rulers.
Church, business, and family life are inextricably linked in a way that means all parts of their lives are controlled.
Here’s how the money trick works: New Zealand’s big retail companies get guaranteed customers (the Brethren who are invited to buy their goods and services) in return for discounts, which go to UBT.
This Sydney-based ‘global consultancy group’ claims to provide ‘services and advice’ to around 3,000 Brethren-owned businesses in 19 countries, with a combined turnover of over NZ$12.6 billion . It also produces The money slip.
Profits from UBT are channeled as donations to the National Assistance Fund (NAF), which then returns the receipts to UBT for tax reduction.
Yesterday RNZ revealed the unusual structure of this charity, which is wholly controlled by the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church but with no formal constitutional link to it.
The NAF then distributes grants to PBCC trusts, which are not registered charities and therefore not subject to scrutiny.
In addition to kickbacks, Brethren-owned businesses also transfer a percentage of their profits to trusts or directly to the National Assistance Fund.
Business owners receive annual questionnaires on their turnover, gross profit and net profit and NAF representatives then suggest how much they should donate from their business.
Wellington man Peter Hart, who was excommunicated two years ago, said he was happy to give to the charity and often gave more than was ‘suggested’.
However, he was reluctant to pay hundreds of dollars a month to join UBT for “business advice” he didn’t have time to read or services he didn’t need.
“It was known in my local church that I didn’t subscribe to it and I was treated with disdain, like a black sheep. And in other parts of the country I was known to be against UBT, that’s So that’s where I felt the pressure.”
However, staying out of UBT made it easier for him to leave the church, he agreed.
“I personally don’t agree with the church having a business arm that everyone should join.
“That’s not the role the church should be playing.”
Charities researcher Michael Gousmett said it appeared the Brethren’s businesses were used to generate donations, which also reduced the amount of tax paid by those businesses.
“So let’s say their profit was $200,000 and they decided to donate $50,000. Then they can claim that as a deduction in their accounts and reduce their tax liability at the end of the day. But it has a cost to the taxpayer because obviously it’s a cost to revenue.”
According to the Companies Registry, the seven directors and shareholders of the Fund’s corporate officer are currently directors or shareholders of 79 other companies.
Individuals or companies are free to spend their money as they see fit – but Dr Gousmett argues the trade of charities should be taxed.
“And in this case, the companies involved appear to be under the control of the church.”
Brothers’ families as well as businesses are also encouraged to purchase goods and services from businesses that donate money to UBT and the National Assistance Fund, including gasoline and produce. ‘grocery.
The brothers built 36 Campus & Co supermarkets in New Zealand for the exclusive use of their members, staffed in part by “volunteers”.
All church members work in Brethren-owned businesses.
If they leave the church, they lose their livelihood – many former Brethren claim they were forced to hand over their own businesses to relatives.
Another former member, whom RNZ agreed not to name, said he managed to keep his job in the family business, despite huge pressure from church leaders – but said many others weren’t so lucky.
The companies themselves were also interconnected by supply chains and personal relationships, controlled by the church’s supreme leader, Bruce Hales, who took a personal interest in their performance, he said.
“It’s like the inside of a golf ball in there, everything is connected, with a very centralized structure and power dynamics.”
He compared the Brethren trading ecosystem to a giant game of Jenga.
“When you remove one of those Jenga blocks, it can make the whole stack quite unstable. So that’s a very, very unsatisfying situation for Bruce Hales.”
In addition to forcing Brethren companies to purchase locked computers, phones and IT services, UBT also charged “consulting fees”, which could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even started taking majority stakes in profitable businesses through a company called Vision. Accelerator.
Church spokesman Doug Watt said the decision to buy or work with UBT or the Vision Foundation was “entirely an individual business decision that occurs in a competitive marketplace.”
Users of UBT’s internet security product (“often a mom or dad”) were able to customize its filters, he said.
“Group buying is a common business practice, using the power of group buying to provide better prices or other benefits (such as discounts). Many UBT suppliers are top global brands that offer a wide range of products and services, ranging from travel, fuel card business to insurance.
Wellington man Rob McLean, who was excommunicated from the church more than a decade ago and forced to give up his business, said for many older brothers this was the story repeating.
Bruce Hales’ father, John, and his brother ran a “trading system” between 1960 and 1965, which gave them control of the Brethren businesses.
“Even housewives had to fill out diaries explaining what they did and spent each hour,” McLean said.
However, the then world leader (Jim Taylor) condemned the “trade in the assembly” and excommunicated the Hales brothers and those involved were required to “repent publicly”.
John Hales was eventually reinstated into the church and became its world leader – but the trading system was not revived until after his death when his son, Bruce Hales, took over.
“We had to go to business meetings, paid thousands of dollars to go to business meetings all over New Zealand. And all the Exclusive Brethren alumni now, they’re all depressed, because “They know it’s all wrong. They use church connections to run their business and control people.”
Rob McLean said he thinks making money shouldn’t be the main focus of an organization calling itself a church.