The Resignation That Wasn’t
I take a look at some big developments in the Arise story, and ask: “What is Webworm?”
A few more updates on Arise Church — and then some angry feedback, which weirdly morphs into a look at what the heck Webworm is.
First up — some seemingly positive news came over the weekend in the form of a third Arise press release: John Cameron, and his brother Brent, have resigned from the Arise Board. That’s great news.
Then came a more obtuse statement: “John Cameron has voluntarily stepped aside from his pastoral duties”. Many — including me and New Zealand’s biggest news website Stuff — took this to mean John had resigned as pastor.
But it turns out “stepping aside” is not “stepping down”, I guess?
“In an additional clarifying statement provided to Stuff, the church said Cameron had not resigned his employment, however, and “remains an important part of the Arise family”.
“An important part of the Arise family”.
I thought about all the people I’ve been speaking to about Arise Church. Those yelled at and grabbed by the collar by John. Those who signed NDAs so they couldn’t talk to me. Those told to lose weight and given gym memberships to do so.
Those given dead legs and farted on by his brother Brent. Those who’d told other leaders about their sexual assault and rape, only to be told it didn’t happen; to have their pain pushed under the rug.
Those left broken by how Arise had treated them over years.
Were they important parts of the Arise family too?
Yesterday I was leaked internal messages from Arise leaders to their flock, updating them on what the heck was going on. A big priority of those messages was making it clear that John Cameron is still very much leader of Arise Church:
“I also want to clarify that yesterday there was a Stuff article that was reported incorrectly, stating that Ps John has resigned from Arise. Ps John has not resigned from Arise. During this independent review process he has stepped aside from pastoral care duties, and resigned from the board. This is so that the review goes through a fair process, and to ensure independence from that process.
He is still our pastor and able to continue with much of the other work that being leader of the church entails.
Thank you. Love you guys"
If I was being cynical, I’d say what Arise is doing (documented in their three press releases thus far) is simply an attempt to look transparent in order to take the heat out of the situation.
I’d look at those board changes and note that according to the trust deed of Arise (on the charities commission website), the two new board members would need to be personally approved by John Cameron. The deed does not say John Cameron has to be on the board to make this approval.
Clauses 5 and 8 make clear that John has overall power in this:
I’d also note that while the trust deed states the board shall be at least five people — it currently has four.
If I was being cynical, I’d say all John Cameron plans to do is sweep all of this mess under the carpet with a far-off review; a review that relies on victims getting in touch and reliving their trauma all over again without knowing if what they’re sharing is going to make a lick of difference.
If I was being cynical, I’d say internally Arise leadership is already in damage control: Arise Church members who shared my Webworm pieces got messages from church leaders pointing out all the good work they did:
Arise pastors have decided that making their Instagram accounts private is more appropriate than apologising — or saying anything at all.
If I was being cynical, I’d say any negative findings from the independent review will be met with a statement along the lines of “We admit some wrongdoings, but all that bad stuff is in the past, and will never happen again thanks to the admirable efforts we’re making to implement new rules and procedures.”
If I was being cynical, I’d say John Cameron will be stepping right back into the limelight.
I am deeply cynical because so far I believe Arise has been deeply cynical.
Just look at their first press release: It was a masterclass in ring-fencing — implying that all these problems were purely in their ministry school. To be clear, these problems extend far beyond that school — and yet New Zealand media has repeated Arise’s PR line again and again.
John Cameron’s only email to me was a hodgepodge of fonts and font sizes — hinting at the possibility that more than one pair of hands was involved in typing it.
Kingdom PR won’t talk to me anymore, and my questions to the Arise Board are never directly answered.
When asked these specific questions —
1) Is John Cameron gone for good?
2) Will Gillian Cameron be resigning too?
3) Have any of these changes come in response to existing reporting, or has new information come to light which has prompted this?
4) Is John Cameron still on his full salary?
— the board replied saying “We reaffirm our earlier statements made in regard to changes to the board and the independent review that is currently underway. We await its findings. Due to sensitivity and privacy reasons we are unable to comment on specific allegations or individual employment circumstances.”
They then link to the independent review.
Webworm is getting nothing from Arise, and a review is the perfect excuse to continue saying absolutely nothing. It’s worse than that time Joseph Gordon-Levitt stood me up for dinner.
“It will be dealt with as and when the time comes”
I’ve also heard from plenty of members of Arise who have well and truly drunk the kool-aid. They’re both depressing and fascinating to read. Imagine reading a story about rape and assault allegations being hushed up, and then writing this to me:
We just read your article. We have received an email from Pastor John about this.
In your article, we have heard some of it. We knew it's not right. It will be dealt with as [and] when the time comes, we’ve said. The time has come indeed after your six months investigation.”
They’d heard some of it before and knew it wasn’t right. What did they do? Absolutely nothing. “It will be dealt with as when the time comes, we’ve said.”
What a way to think about problems. Just wait until the right time comes.
They prattled on, complaining that I wasn’t investigating any Muslims, then ended with something that still bothers me:
“I would truly admire your investigative work, as you spent six months investigating Arise, if you start investigating that electric vehicles are blood vehicles. Nobody in the legacy media talks about this, because it doesn't fit their narrative. What fits their leftist narrative, one of these, is the ‘evil’ church.”
Blood vehicles. I don’t even know where to begin.
What is Webworm?
I wanted to end with an email I got at the start of all this — after I’d written my first piece on Arise two weeks ago.
It was sent from an anonymous account, and was a perfect example of the kind of passive-aggressive lecture only a New Zealander would be capable of.
I thought I’d just print it below, and answer some of it along the way, as I think it’s a good exercise to look at what Webworm is, exactly.
And what it isn’t.
I am a fellow New Zealand journalist, who also happens to be a Christian. I have followed and admired your work for some time.”
A fellow journalist who also happens to be a Christian. Colour me intrigued! But why not a Christian who is also a journalist? So many questions.
“Can I first congratulate you on your recent series on Arise Church. It appears to have caused immediate change and unprecedented accountability in the church, as I'm sure you saw in John Cameron’s post, and is likely to improve the lives of many young Arise interns. This is an important public service, which only the best journalists are able to achieve. I hope you’re proud of that.”
It starts well, and I could feel my chest physically swelling with pride. But I knew this was from a kiwi — and when a New Zealand starts with praise, you know some shit is about to go down.
“However, I want to give you some feedback…”
“... and I hope you take this in the nature it’s intended. I am a huge believer in the power of journalism and think it’s high time it happened in the church. They are powerful entities, which are not held to account enough by the media, and you are filling an important void. But some of the elements of your reporting are concerning to me. You’ve said several times in your posts that you have other stories about Arise, and I wanted to encourage you that you have a duty to protect and honour these people by following a rigorous journalistic process.
My criticisms are…”
Okay, let’s have them. My body is ready.
“1. You repeatedly make the investigations about yourself. In your most recent piece, you said you had to seek support for yourself after reading emails from Arise interns. The story is not about you. It is about the interns.”
I have written six pieces so far in my Arise investigation. In one newsletter — in the introduction, where I usually recap things and do a bit of a behind-the-scenes — I dared to say this:
“This is the first Webworm story where I’ve had to seek support for myself. I wanted to keep my head in gear while I had the responsibility of dealing with stories I felt, at times, ill-equipped to deal with.”
It’s amazing to think I wrote that — clearly stating I had been struggling a little — and the response was for someone to create an anonymous email account to tell me off.
They are right about one thing: the story is about the interns. And volunteers. And staff. I agree completely. That doesn’t mean I can’t offer some personal context about my own mindset.
“2. You verge on activism. You make your own personal opinions clear again and again, especially on megachurches, in extremely strong language. This is not good journalistic process. Would you see it at the New York Times?”
In case you hadn’t noticed: Webworm is not The New York Times.
The New York Times has 1700 journalists. It is a legacy newspaper with a rich history and a particular way of doing things.
Webworm has one journalist: Me. Thanks to paying subscribers, I can pay to get guest writers from time to time, as well as get legal advice and pay artists for illustrations.
There’s another key thing: Webworm is a newsletter. I write it like I am writing an email to you — that is how I think about it. I want to make it engaging, consuming, and readable for you. Full of images, links, and information.
I am opinionated when I want to be, and am very clear about that.
This is a newsletter that started in 2020 — not a newspaper that’s been going since 1851.
I know my readers are smart, and are capable of telling what my opinion is. They know where I stand, and can make up their own minds when I provide context, evidence and interviews.
And my tone can change depending on what I am writing about! I can be opinionated and loud — like when I am publishing cease & desist letters I’ve received, asking whether a DJ can be worse than Covid, or looking at social media influencers using anti-vax rhetoric to become more famous.
When I am reporting something that’s more serious — and involves stories from people who have been hurt — of course my tone shifts to something much more serious, because the subject matter deserves to be treated that way. Like my piece on Lonely Lingerie and QAnon, or this series on Arise.
“You are opening yourself up to allegations of bias.”
That’s okay. Webworm is me. I make it very clear who I am, and where I come from. If you want to know my stance on Christianity, I outline it in the introduction to “Webworm's Megachurch coverage so far”.
I am very clear on this, and it’s also very clear this anonymous writer is making a lot of their own assumptions.
“Many Christians will completely discount what you’re saying, because they feel you have insulted them from the outset. Please stop doing this; it’s not about you or your opinion.”
I am not writing for Christians. I am writing for my readers — and if they happen to be Christian, that is entirely fine with me. I am not writing to try and make a certain type of person listen to me. I am not tailoring my writing to win a particular person over.
I’d also add that I am not insulting Christians. I have Christians write pieces for Webworm!
“It’s about the opinion of these vulnerable affected people, and you should champion them instead of voicing your opinion. If you continue doing this, you will actually do them a disservice by colouring their traumatic stories with your own personal perspective.”
I have kept in close contact with all those who spoke to me in this series, and will continue to do so. I took a few weeks off other work to report these stories, and make myself available to everyone. Thus far, they’ve been happy with the process and I hope I don’t let them down.
“Frankly, I don’t care what you think; I care about the people who actually went through it.”
I also care about the people I am writing about.
After that, there’s a lot of word salad — but all I’ll say is that Webworm broke this story and I’m proud of that.
Webworm could do that because it’s not the New York Times or The Herald or Stuff. I can move on things when others can’t. I am empowered by my readers, and the paying subscribers who give me the time and resources to do this stuff.
The newsletter format of Webworm allows stories like this to be told. And I am so proud of that.
I am not Woodward and Bernstein, I am a lanky kiwi trying to make sense of a confusing world, with my own influences and heroes in the journalism and documentary world.
The email ended like this:
“I will continue reading your work from interest, and wish you all the best.
Goodbye, anonymous journalist who is also a Christian.
I hope you enjoyed reading this, and that it cleared a few things up.
PS: It’s been great seeing this story spread: Newshub and 1News both ran fresh stories on their 6pm bulletins last night, and it was also picked up by RNZ, The Herald and Stuff. With all that in mind, I’d like to give a special thanks to Otago student paper Critic for being the first to get onto this stuff after Webworm. Student press is incredible.
You can share this particular newsletter here: www.webworm.co/p/resign
Have never been prouder to be a subscriber.
Just wanted to say. Every point the Christian ‘journalist’ gave you is exactly why I like your work so much.i think it’s bloody amazing that you give your opinion and that you don’t hold Back. I love how passionate and obsessive you are. And yes the personalisation, I do feel like you are talking to me. Always excited when i recieve an email from webworm. I appreciate that you can be vulnerable and show that you are human by admitting you were seeking help yourself. It shows a level of empathy and emotional intelligence that’s very much necessary for this work. I appreciate and admire your work David. Keep being awesome. Maybe you need to send him some tips instead. :p