Former Plymouth Brethren want Church’s charitable status stripped

Plymouth Bretheren

Former members of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church are calling for it to be stripped of its charitable status.

Registered charities can claim millions of dollars in tax breaks each year.

But former members say the Church isn’t operating as a charity but as a pyramid scheme.

How it works

Members donate money and time to help Brethren maintain a sustainable way of life and to contribute to society.

Each year selected members smuggle hundreds of thousands from charitable donations that have already received New Zealand tax breaks – across borders.

They smuggle it to avoid customs. They then hand it personally to church leaders.

The journey is represented as a spiritual pilgrimage.

Currently, the donations are taken to the “Elect Vessel” – Sydney businessman Bruce Hales.

It was formerly sent to the global leader, North Dakota pig farmer James Symington, who has since died.

Among 20 of those charged with transporting the cash back in the 1980s is former member Rob McLean.

He says he felt uneasy about his task – it seemed more a mercenary mission than a spiritual church group.

McLean said church elders gave him a stash of envelopes just before he left New Zealand.

“I didn’t know what was in them. They said ‘You give these to Mr Symington, that’s our giving from our church’.”

Four decades later, McLean believes the Brethren Church has become even more of a money-spinner for its leaders.

New Zealand sends hundreds of thousands in cash to Hales and family each year. Millions comes from around the world.

Cash payments are varied to avoid tax authorities’ attention.

Thousands also go to an offshore, Hales-controlled fund called the General Charitable Fund (GCF).

This fund is believed to be for legal costs.

Hales’ personal substantial security costs are also underwritten.

Another fund involves everyone donating to a registered charity called the National Assistance Fund (NAF).

“Most charities are set up to raise money and dispense it for a charitable purpose,” a former member says.

“But NAF doesn’t do either of those things. Money is raised by private, non-charitable Brethren organisations and spent by private, non-charitable Brethren organisations.”

McLean believes the global church operates like a pyramid scheme, with Hales at the top.

Others receive graduated amounts according to their proximity to him.

The Plymouth Brethren respond

The Plymouth Brethren say it’s “common in many Churches for small gifts to be given from the Church plate to further the work of the ministry and to support those providing pastoral care.

“We are no different. Gifts to our church leaders ensure that pastoral care and the costs associated with it, for example travel, continue as pastoral care plays an important role in our way of life.”

Plymouth Brethren’s mission statement declares it will “source and apply resources for the benefit of persons in NZ.”

It doesn’t define “persons”.

The Charities Services say it reviewed NAFs recent audited financial reports. These indicate “it is advancing educational, religious and general charitable purposes in addition to the relief of poverty”.


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News category: New Zealand.

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