Destiny Church is struggling to generate enough money in tithes from its working-class congregation, and is instead trying to exert influence by taking over organisations such as government-funded social-service bodies, according to the author of a new history of Bishop Brian Tamaki's controversial organisation.
Massey University associate history professor Peter Lineham, who has been charting Destiny's fortunes since 2003, says despite the personal wealth of its leaders Brian and Hannah Tamaki, the church has suffered financial blows, including the departure of some of the wealthy white parishioners who were so important to the church's early growth.
Lineham said the church is instead becoming increasingly involved with government-funded social schemes, and its members have been seeking influential roles in other organisations.
A recent example was Hannah Tamaki's 2011 attempt to become president of the influential Maori Women's Welfare League, but Lineham says this is part of a broader pattern. More recently George Ngatai, former head of the church's social services arm Te Runanga a Iwi o Te Oranga Ake, was a candidate to be the new president of the Maori Party.
In his book, Destiny: The Life and Times of a Self-Made Apostle, Lineham traces the Tamakis from their early days preaching in the Waikato backblocks, through their ill-advised adventures in politics in the mid-2000s, to their current ambitious construction of a new $5 million "City of God" in South Auckland, which is set to include a boxing gym, a 1600-seat auditorium, an early childhood centre and a school. The complex should largely be completed by October.
He also explains how the Tamakis use of the church to fund their ostentatious lifestyle, complete with big houses, Harley-Davidson motorbikes and expensive jewellery, is consistent with the United States-inspired "prosperity gospel" they preach.
Lineham, who is gay, says he had been disturbed by the strong anti-gay messages coming out of Destiny in the mid-2000s, including the infamous "Enough is Enough" rally in 2004, when black-shirted Destiny members marched on parliament to decry what they saw as the collapse of public morals under the Labour government.
But Lineham said Destiny now seems to have lost interest in attacking homosexuality, and were surprisingly co-operative as he wrote his book, providing him with church records and access to church members, including the Tamakis, though he also talked to some disaffected former members.
Destiny spokesman Richie Lewis said the Tamakis will attend the book's launch next month. He said the church had been happy to co-operate with Lineham, and its previous anti-gay activism was "not something we're defined by". He said he felt some frustration that the church hadn't been able to respond to claims made by anonymous sources, but it was "no drama", and the Tamakis were happy with "some aspects" of the book.
Lineham writes that Destiny was more badly burnt by its failure to win votes in the 2005 election than many commentators realised. At the time, a Wellington pastor spoke privately of his difficulty in explaining to his congregation, the day after the election, how a miracle had not happened and Brian Tamaki wasn't prime minister.
Lineham says from then on, Destiny found it hard to hold on to its wealthy Pakeha patrons, as the church changed its focus from fixing the morals of the entire nation to concentrating on helping Maori and Pasifika people, particularly around the church's base in South Auckland.
Lineham says the flight of senior Pakeha Destiny members has been because Tamaki "has become too Maori. I think it's as simple as that".
In January, the Sunday Star-Times reported that key Destiny supporters Janine Cardno and Paul and Michelle Hubble had left the church, allegedly because of the Tamakis' obsession with building the "City of God".
Lineham says despite the tithing system, which demands church members hand over 10 per cent of their income, his research shows the church is not as wealthy as some of the country's other pentecostal "megachurches", and its financial position has "clearly been on a knife-edge at times".
Charity Commission reports show Destiny's income in 2011-12 was a little over $5.3m, and Destiny's own records show it has around 6000 active members. That means an average gift per person of less than $900, a figure Lineham says is "surprisingly low". By comparison, annual giving at the City Impact Church on Auckland's North Shore has been reported as being as high as $8000 per head.
Lineham says Destiny's income may even be "dropping away". While the City of God is an expensive expansion, the church is relying heavily on volunteer labour to get it built. But Lewis rejects the idea Destiny is struggling: "Our move to South Auckland suggests we're at least holding our ground, if not going forward."
Lineham said Destiny's strategy now seemed to be "taking over organisations in South Auckland that get government grants".
In 2011 the church's social services arm Te Runanga a Iwi o Te Oranga Ake received $860,000 for schemes funded by Work and Income. Lineham's book lists several organisations where Destiny members have recently become involved, including the Tamaki Pathways Trust, a Counties Manukau District Health Board suicide prevention programme, and the South Auckland Violence Prevention Network. However, last week Destiny's application to set up a charter-type school was declined.
Lineham was raised as a Brethren, but was asked to leave after coming out as gay in 2000, when he was in his 40s. He is now a member of both Baptist and Anglican congregations in Auckland, and has has written several books on New Zealand's religious history.
He writes that some of Destiny's money-focused traditions - such as the annual "first fruits", where members are urged to give huge financial gifts directly to Bishop Tamaki - make his "blood curdle", but he acknowledges that the church has helped turned around the lives of some of its more troubled and disadvantaged followers. Destiny: The Life and Times of a Self-Made Apostle (Penguin, $38) is published next month.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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