Nov 20, 2023

Exclusive Brethren told to 'create a crisis' to generate profits

The Post

Craig Hoyle

November 18, 2023


Leaked documents reveal how the pursuit of money is driving the secretive Exclusive Brethren, with one insider saying the sect has effectively become a “pyramid scheme”.

The religious group, which practices an extreme form of social isolation from wider society under its “doctrine of separation”, has an aggressive focus on maximising revenue from members and wider society, and current and former members said large sums of money were flowing upward towards world leader Bruce Hales.

The Sunday Star-Times can also reveal that incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon has had ongoing contact with senior Brethren since speaking at one of their seminars in 2016, and is not ruling out a similar appearance as prime minister.

The National Party has a chequered history with the Exclusive Brethren after the church tried to get the Don Brash-led National Party elected in 2005, and were outed for being behind pamphlets attacking the Greens.

At one of the latest international business conferences held in Sydney in September, Brethren members were told to have an “investor mindset” and given detailed instructions for how to generate profits, including taking financial advantage of crises.

Brethren leaders took that instruction a step further, telling attendees: “We may need to create a crisis.”

Exclusive Brethren offer financial advice

A business conference in Auckland this week had a very special guest speaker - the brother of the worldwide leader of the Exclusive Brethren church.

Academics and former members who reviewed notes from the seminar were particularly concerned by that suggestion.

“It’s just a massive red flag,” said Sara Rahmani, a lecturer in religious studies at Victoria University’s School of Social and Cultural Studies.

The seminar was organised by Universal Business Team (UBT), a Sydney-registered company that describes itself as a “global consultancy group” providing “services and advice” to about 3000 Brethren-owned businesses in 19 countries, with a combined revenue of more than NZ$12.6 billion.

In a written response, a spokesperson for the Exclusive Brethren, who have rebranded themselves as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC), said statements made at the seminar “were presentations to members of the church, not from it” – however a review by the Star-Times found speakers were senior members of the church, including relatives of Hales.


UBT holds regular seminars for Brethren members, and the Star-Times previously reported on a 2016 event held at Vector Arena where guest speakers included then All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, Victoria Cross winner Willie Apiata, and then Air NZ chief executive Christopher Luxon - who is now in coalition talks to become Aotearoa’s next prime minister.

A spokesperson for Luxon said UBT “was a longstanding corporate customer of Air NZ”, and he spoke about leadership and the national carrier’s business strategy in his 2016 address. He was not paid for his appearance.

Luxon stood by his decision to speak at the Brethren conference, the spokesperson said, “and he possibly would do so again”.

In response to a question about whether Luxon has had subsequent contact with the Brethren, its members or subsidiary organisations, the spokesperson said he maintained relationships “with many people from his Air NZ days”.

“Since entering politics, he has occasionally met [senior Brethren leader] Caleb Hall, the UBT CEO who he knew from his Air NZ days, for coffee.”


UBT, which Luxon’s spokesperson described as a “large and successful small business network”, funnels profits back to various Brethren causes as charitable donations, with large sums of money flowing between sect halls, education trusts and the sect’s National Assistance Fund.

Membership of UBT is theoretically voluntary for Brethren business owners, but Peter Hart, who was excommunicated in 2020 for questioning the leadership of Hales, said in reality that was not the case.

“[As a small business owner] people put pressure on me to be part of UBT, and I said ‘oh, I thought it was optional?’ And they said ‘yes, it’s optional, but you should be doing it’.”

Most Brethren business owners took the easy route and went along with UBT membership, Hart said, resulting in an enormous flow of cash to the organisation.


“It was morally wrong to me that you should have that pressure put on you to join a business group as part of your church.”

Beginning around 2010, UBT undertook a review of all Brethren-owned companies worldwide, grading them into a traffic light system: green for good, orange for those needing work, and red for those that should be ditched immediately.

Hart’s company, which was struggling at the time, was graded red, and he was ordered “to close the business down and work for other Brethren”.

“All the red cases got sent to Bruce Hales to look at, and that was his advice.”


Hart ultimately declined to sell his medical products business, managing to slow the process down enough until revenue picked up - no thanks, he said, to UBT and Hales: “It was very poor advice that they gave me.”

The Sydney seminar notes make repeated references to Hales and his predecessors, including his father, directing members to obey his instructions.

“They are doing the thinking for us and we just need to do the doing,” reads one reference to the so-called Great Men. Another reads: “The key is to always follow, don’t be independent and think I know better.”

Rahmani, the religious studies lecturer, who reviewed the notes, said the overall messaging appeared to be about consolidating control and “maintaining legitimacy”.


“Linguistically, they elevate these Great Men’s position and sainthood by drawing parallels between them and God, and then them and Jesus … The central theme is obedience.”

Michael Lee, an associate professor of marketing at Auckland University, explained that a strong emphasis on business was a common theme among conservative religious groups.

“That’s the one area that they can comfortably educate their members in, and do well in,” he said. “But the business focus gets a bit disturbing when it’s ‘we should create crises for the benefit of others’.”

Lee, who also reviewed the seminar papers, said some of the advice was “pretty good”, such as promoting the importance of healthcare and having an abundance mindset, although the patriarchal language throughout “wouldn’t normally fly in this day and age for mainstream companies”.


Lindy Jacomb, a former Brethren member who founded the Olive Leaf Network to help people escape high-demand religious groups, said the Exclusive Brethren emphasis on profit had been turbocharged under Hales.

“Prosperity gospel theology teaches that personal and financial wellbeing is the highest sign of God’s favour, and God’s favour is seen primarily through financial prosperity,” said Jacomb, who is now trained as a Baptist pastor.

“It does seem like the Brethren are increasingly teaching this kind of vision of life.”

The leaked seminar notes lay out a focus on health and wealth, with members told to care for their physical wellbeing for the sake of profit.

“We need to be as healthy as possible to be a good employee,” read the notes, which were distributed widely within the Brethren community.

Rahmani said it was concerning when groups equated physical health with morality, “suggesting that people who are sick are sinners, and therefore deserving”.


A diagram from the UBT seminar in September shows how the Brethren are focusing on multiple aspects of members' lives.

The sect is even more assertive in extracting money from regular society. “Take it from them because it doesn’t belong to them anyway,” said Hart, recounting the Brethren attitude toward non-members. “They can be quite ruthless.”

Hales has previously told members to have “an utter hatred of the world”. Lee, the associate professor of marketing, said fostering a position of “us against the world” was a recognisable business practice.

“When Apple was a very niche product, that was their selling idea - us, the special, the unique, those who know better, the enlightened ones, versus the masses … They feel like they’re part of this group that is persecuted or special, and if they were to leave, they’re leaving behind their band of brothers.”

The September seminar notes include common business terms such as “whale hunting”, which refers to the practice of targeting high-value potential customers. Attendees were also told they should “understand why we won when Covid hit” - an apparent reference to the billions scooped up by Brethren-run companies in lucrative PPE contracts with the UK government at the beginning of the pandemic.

Brethren business owners who become wealthy are often elevated to positions of leadership within the sect, with Jacomb saying it appeared material success had become more important than “spiritual depth of understanding”.

“It’s really concerning if people can reach positions of spiritual leadership due to their financial status,” she said.


The Brethren are scrupulous about keeping as much money as possible circulating within their own community. Recently, members were surveyed worldwide about their property holdings and mortgages - the results showed that Brethren held about US$13.2b (NZ$22.1b) in private property assets, and owed US$4b (NZ$6.7b) in mortgage debt.

Subsequent teachings at an October conference called Strive 2024 – held across three continents in Sydney, Australia; Birmingham, UK; and Westfield, New Jersey - suggested the Brethren needed to take a “creative approach”, with a proposal that richer members buy equity in the homes of those with mortgages to “free them from the bank”.

Members are also being encouraged to sign up for the Personal Prosperity Plan (PPP) - a newly-released wealth management system “adding structure and a plan into our affairs”, with financial control extending from the business realm into personal lives.

The plan is available for “every willing individual globally”, and pushed as a “massive win” for Brethren businesses. Leaked notes from Strive 2024, which was attended by hundreds of New Zealand Brethren, suggested each Brethren student should be signed up for a PPP by the time they left school.

In a statement provided to the Star-Times, a spokesperson for UBT said the PPPs were “aimed at enabling business owners to care for their employees in a meaningful and long-lasting way by encouraging them to be aware about their finances, caring for themselves and caring for others”.

“Obviously, it is up to employers and employees if this is taken up.”

In their written statements, neither the PBCC nor UBT responded to a question about how members were expected to balance personal choice against the sect’s instructions to follow leaders’ orders. A current member of the Brethren said there was a clear feeling that “those who reject it will be left behind”.

Jacomb said the growing financial web was “undoubtedly making it much harder for members to leave”.

“You can’t be employed outside of the Brethren ecosystem, which was and still is a barrier, but now there are all these other financial areas of your life tied in - your mortgage, your insurance, your superannuation - that add layers of complexity to extracting yourself.”

And there are signs that not all members are happy with being encircled financially. A source told the Star-Times that when the mortgage survey was distributed the return rate was 89% - meaning one in 10 members did not comply.

“I think there would be a number of people who are really uncomfortable with the direction that things are taking under Bruce Hales’s leadership,” said Jacomb, adding that non-compliance by some members was “a really bold step”.

“We know that they will be being closely watched.”


Craig Hoyle is a former member of the Exclusive Brethren. His book, Excommunicated: A multigenerational story of leaving the Exclusive Brethren, published by HarperCollins, is available now. RRP $39.99.


No comments: