The Downward Spiral of Arise Church: Part 3
Alleged sexual harassment and NDAs at Arise megachurch
Several weeks ago, Webworm reported on some of the physical behaviour Arise Church’s John Cameron — and his brother Brent — exhibited towards interns and staff:
“John and his brother Brent would often very aggressively punch or dead leg you, for no other reason than it being funny. This was normalised because it was done in good faith and was a sign that they liked you.
I remember one specific time Brent punched me in the ribs so hard that I thought I had broken my ribs for the days that followed. Brent was also notorious for farting in his hand and putting it in your face.”
Before we published that story, we reached out to John and Brent for comment. Kingdom PR replied, and eventually we got a cobbled together email from John.
We rang Brent for comment on April 13, and he told us to email him. We did, and he replied with: “At present the Arise Board are working towards providing a response”.
Brent set his Instagram account to private, and set up his email with an auto-reply announcing he would be on leave until April 29.
The rest of our reporting turned back to John Cameron “stepping aside” from his pastoral duties, the musical chairs on Arise’s Board, and further allegations from volunteers, interns and staff. All of that reporting can be found here.
But we held back one of the most serious allegations, mainly because we wanted to be certain of what we’d been told. It involves Brent Cameron’s pattern of abusive behaviour toward an intern, which culminated in an upsetting encounter in the corridor of a Dunedin hotel.
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What Goes on Tour Stays on Tour
Some names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of those speaking. They are noted with an asterix. Many are speaking about incredibly sensitive issues, and some have friends or family still in the church.
Brent Leaves The Limelight
Since starting to look into Arise church over six months ago, I’d heard murmurings of incidents involving Brent Cameron.
Brent and John have a close working relationship. Both served on the Arise Board until they resigned their positions following Webworm’s reporting.
Until a few years ago, Brent had been a campus pastor at Arise’s Christchurch campus. He served there for a decade, alongside his wife Annie.
This Instagram post from Ben Kendrew (Arise Christchurch’s current campus pastor) from August of 2019 would end up capturing one of the last services where Brent held that role:
“Two of the greatest people and greatest leaders on the planet,” said Ben of Brent and Annie Cameron in August of 2019.
In an Instagram post dated December 8, Kendrew announced he was leaving Arise on a seven week overseas holiday. He would return to Christchurch in January of 2020, where he quietly took over the campus pastor role from Brent.
“In usual Arise style they implement the change as strategically and seamlessly as possible, so you almost don’t notice it,” one former church member told me.
This wasn’t the only person to mention Brent slipping away: “I also note that Brent Cameron — John’s brother who helped him build the Arise empire — also disappeared off the Arise map, with no further talks or even mention on their website” another church member told me.
Indeed, Webworm can’t find any clear public post about Ben assuming this new role. In a January 27 Instagram post, Ben states: “Always miss you [Annie Cameron’s Instagram handle] and [Brent’s Instagram handle].”
What Goes on Tour
I was curious as to the events leading up to Brent leaving a role he’d occupied for 10 years.
Webworm spoke to Kendrick*, who said before Brent left his role as campus pastor, he’d participated in a pervasive lad culture at Arise.
He saw church leaders giving people ‘dead legs’, addressing interns with insulting nicknames, and joking about the LGBTQ community in demeaning and pejorative terms. Kendrick also noted Brent would dish out “sack taps” — a sudden surprise hit to the testicles.
This behaviour was especially pronounced on the church’s annual leadership tours.
These tours saw Arise travelling around New Zealand, hosting leadership sessions in local churches. When it began they’d visit six destinations — but the tour grew to stretch across 15 to 20 stops. It could be likened to a band hitting the road to play shows: meeting existing fans, and making some new ones along the way.
In Kendrick’s mind, Arise’s tours “grew over the years to become one of New Zealand’s premier church leadership slash intern-gathering tours.”
“It usually lasted two weeks, had an operational and pastoral staff of 15, as well as an intern army of 10 to 20, plus a speaking staff of three to four.
In total, some years there was a team of 40 to 50 people working on this tour, half of whom were interns. It took months of preparation and by the time it arrived, everyone was already stressed and tired.”
Multiple former Arise staff and interns say these tours were seen as a chance for church leadership to let loose while they were away from their families.
When anyone brought up the more wild or questionable things they got up to on the road, those leaders would parrot a common phrase: “What goes on tour stays on tour”.
Kendrick says Brent Cameron was particularly uninhibited on these trips, and would bully people who had less power than him.
“Sadly, on the tour things got out of hand. It was on these tours that Brent Cameron found his happy place.
He would give people nicknames that were less than flattering, slap people, punch people, knee people, shoulder or border line tackle people constantly and consistently.”
Another ex-church member, Nathan*, also observed this behaviour:
“When Brent Cameron was in town, he would sometimes attend and punch and be physical, much like he has been accused of being — but I think that as we were all a little older, he was a tad more reserved with us.
On one occasion, I recall he tried to punch one of the guys in the group to give him a “dead leg” and I said out loud “if you do that to me mate, it’ll be the last punch you ever throw”, which was met with silence.”
It was during this time — circa 2014 — that Brent took a particular interest in one staff member, Theo*, who often travelled closely with the core Arise team.
“Theo was the workhorse for events like this,” a former staffer told Webworm. “He was tireless. He was everywhere. He did all the driving, all the labour, and was always the first one up, last to sleep.”
You Were Made For Loving Me
Theo became a particular target for Brent Cameron during an Arise leadership tour almost a decade ago, when the pair would room together on sections of the trip.
As well as the dead legs and punches, Webworm understands Brent would also show his genitals to Theo, as a perceived joke.
This happened on more than one occasion. The threat of unwanted nudity was a repeated theme in Brent’s exchanges with Theo.
According to a witness:
“Brent would always tell stories of being naked, sleeping naked, kind of ‘priming’ Theo with fear of ‘spooning’ him in the evening. It was incessant.”
Then at a hotel in Dunedin, Brent pursued Theo down a hallway. Theo locked himself in a room.
Brent knocked on the door — saying Theo needed to let him in, as he was naked and he wanted Theo to be the “small spoon”.
According to one person who was on the tour:
“Brent was knocking on Theo’s door singing ‘I was made for loving you Theo’, to the tune of ‘I was made for loving you’ by KISS.”
Webworm understands this incident was referenced repeatedly over the coming years. When Brent saw the victim in person, he would often repeat: “We’ll always have Dunedin [victim’s name]’”
Eventually this ongoing behaviour, and the repeated public references to painful past events, became too much for Theo. Webworm understands, from an Arise source, that Theo suffered a mental breakdown and eventually entered into an employment dispute.
As part of this process, Webworm understands Theo signed a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, binding him to secrecy — and received a payout.
He left Arise in February of 2020.
As this was going on, Brent Cameron got a promotion.
According to Arise sources, he left his role as campus pastor at Christchurch in the aftermath of the dispute with Theo, and stepped into a higher-powered (but less public-facing) job overseeing all the church campuses.
He also remained a member of the Arise board until stepping down following Webworm’s original report.
Theo’s treatment at the hands of Brent will have left an indelible mark on his professional life and mental health. For Brent, it appears to have been a boost for his career.
He may have stepped out of sight, but he never stepped away.
A Lot of Questions
Webworm put all of this to Brent Cameron, John Cameron, and the Arise Board.
We wanted to know whether they’d considered reporting the Dunedin encounter and other instances of alleged indecent exposure to the authorities, and what disciplinary action they’d taken — if any — over these incidents.
There was also the question of why they’d bound Theo with an NDA, and whether that matched with their repeated recent assertions that they want accountability and action over the allegations of abuse at Arise.
Lastly, what role did John play in handling this situation — and given it involved his brother, should he have stepped away?
Webworm gave Brent, John and the Arise Board 24 hours to respond.
The board responded to those questions with a single sentence — reiterating that they won’t comment on employment matters due to “legal and privacy obligations”:
“We are unable to comment on specific allegations or individual employment circumstances. Allegation(s) formally raised during either of the two processes currently underway will be independently investigated in accordance with the principles of natural justice and the Private Security Personnel and Private Investigators Act 2010. ”
A Board in Flux, and Growing Concerns About the External Review
While all this is going on, the board appears to be in a state of flux.
Since Webworm’s last story, it appears to have lost another member, chair Graeme Kirkwood.
According to the Charities Register, the Arise Board is now made up of only three people: Kylie Fletcher, Robert Reid and Israel Cooper.
Webworm reached out to the board for comment on this last week. They said this is all a mistake:
“There appears to have been an administrative error with the Charities Register. Graeme R. Kirkwood is the Chairperson of the Arise Board.”
Kirkwood or no Kirkwood, the board is in the middle of a series of major changes to its makeup and governance systems. It recently passed a resolution allowing the appointment of new board members to take place if they’re voted by a two-thirds majority of existing members. Prior to that change, John Cameron had to approve any new appointments to the church’s board.
That shakeup is happening against the backdrop of growing dissatisfaction with the external review being run by Pathfinding NZ, an organisation owned by Christchurch counsellor Charlotte Cummings.
Over the weekend, Ali Mau — a senior journalist at Stuff — suggested that investigation may have fallen short before it had even began:
“When allegations of abusive behaviour are made, the right thing to do is take a deep, preferably independent, look at the organisation's culture and come up with a sound plan to do better. How does the organisation achieve that? By hiring the best-qualified experts to get the complex job of an external investigation done with natural justice and the dignity of all preserved.
Arise has promised to do that. This week, it appointed a Christchurch firm trading as Pathfinding NZ to carry out what it called a “full and complete response” to the allegations. The Arise review will be run by its owner Charlotte Cummings, who is a counsellor with many years of experience and training behind her.
But Cummings is not a lawyer, nor is she, or any of the others on the review panel, a Private Investigator.
Why does that matter?
Because external fact-finding investigations must be run under the rules set by the Private Security Personnel and Private Investigators Act 2010. The provisions of this rather obscure Act were tested in 2020 — which established any fact-finding investigation must be carried out by a licensed private investigator, or a person exempted under the Act — for example, a lawyer.
Most major external reviews are led by Queen’s Counsel, or retired judges (also exempt from the provisions of the Act.)”
Mau notes that Pathfinding hadn’t responded to her questions about who was carrying out this review.
However in a statement released today, Arise has issued an assurance that the reviews would comply with the church’s legal obligations. While Pathfinding is operating a communication channel for feedback from Arise members, the law firm Duncan Cotterill will carry out a review of Arise’s workplace culture, employment policies and practices, management of volunteers and interns, and handling of external complaints, the statement says.
It says the decision to appoint Duncan Cotterill to carry out that review was made in December of 2021.
Webworm also understands a number of current and former Arise staff and interns wrote a letter to the Arise Board raising a number of issues with the Pathfinding investigation prior to the church’s most recent statement.
Its concerns include that the format of the review may not be robust enough to deal with the gravity of the allegations, and that Pathfinding is not equipped to deal with the sheer volume of complaints. The letter notes Charlotte Cummings’ email auto-reply, which says she may be unable to respond for up to three days.
It also raises concerns about public perception of the independence of the review, given Pathfinding’s links to religious institutions.
Webworm looked further into this, and found Cummings is a former practice manager for the wellbeing service Mind Health (a role she’d started in February last year) — which has a supportive testimonial from Arise board member Israel Cooper featured on its website:
Warren Gouman, a pastor at the St Martins campus of another large pentecostal church, C3, is listed as one of the Mind Health team members.
The letter — which is signed by over 50 people — goes on to ask for a qualified panel to be appointed to ensure the review is independent and transparent, as well as safe for those getting in touch with stories of trauma and abuse.
That panel should include someone with the specialist knowledge needed to carry out a proper and thorough investigation of Arise Church’s organisational structure, governance and trust deed, the letter says.
It suggests an experienced independent lawyer chairs the panel.
Webworm published its first story on Arise almost a month ago now. We put our initial allegations to Brent Cameron back on April 11.
Brent didn’t want to speak on the phone back then — and an email to him was greeted with an out-of-office reply, saying he was on annual leave until April 29.
Assuming this is still correct, Brent returns to work this Friday. He returns to his role of overseeing all the Arise Church campuses. Campuses that boast 10,000 members across New Zealand.
His brother John — while having “stepped aside” during an external investigation that looks to be increasingly compromised — still remains “an important part of the Arise family”.
One wonders who that family consists of. The subtext is that it’s 10,000 happy pastors, volunteers, interns and members. But the more you examine the fabric and inner workings of Arise Church, that family looks to consist of just a few men.
And they appear to be doing what most families do: Protecting each other at all costs.
-Additional reporting by Hayden Donnell.
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For anyone struggling since leaving a church — be it Arise, or others like it — I have published some advice from a mental health worker. This includes some tips dealing with mental and physical trauma. The writer comes from a background in the church, so knows some of the things people are grappling with. You can read that piece here — Religious Trauma: Some Resources.
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This has literally turned my stomach.
Theo, I’m devastated that you were treated this way by someone who should have regarded your wellbeing as his utmost concern. You should have been safe in his presence but you were abused. I am so sorry this happened under the guise of doing “the Lord’s work”. God have mercy 😓
David, thank you for keeping the heat on and uncovering more layers. Sterling work 👏👏👏
Ugh, of course it was going to get worse... I hope Theo knows that what happened wasn't ever OK, nor his fault, and that even though it is beyond unfair that his suffering was met with a promotion of his tormentor, his story is being heard, and there will (hopefully, finally) be some retribution. I truly hope he gets the support he deserves, and that his obvious work ethics and talents will be more respected by future employers. Kia kaha, also to David and Hayden for writing about this difficult stuff with a lot of empathy and sensitivity 👏