‘A toxic environment’: Former members of Celebration Church felt exploited

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A Christchurch-based evangelical church is the latest to be accused of exploiting members for long hours of volunteering and huge donations, despite the church having assets worth millions of dollars.

Celebration Center Church.
Photo: RNZ / Belinda McCammon

Megachurch Arise and Gloriavale Christian Community are already facing similar charges.

Now former members of the Christchurch-based Celebration Center church say they felt compelled to donate thousands of dollars in tithes and work part-time for free, to help the church earn money tax free.

The latest financial reports from Celebration Center Group show the church received more than $1.1 million in tithes and offerings in 2020.

He also received over $2.2 million in Department of Education funding and child care costs.

But former members told RNZ they felt compelled to work without pay at the church’s three preschools in Christchurch.

One woman – who asked to remain anonymous – said she had never signed a contract, but had been signed up for pre-school shifts for more than five years.

“It wasn’t like, open and clear. And I questioned it a few times. But I was told that as long as we give faithfully, then it will be in their hands, and they are the ones in charge. the ‘God is going to judge them one day, so it’s on them. It’s not our problem. We don’t question these things.'”

She said: “If you question anything, it’s called offending. And they would say, like, ‘if you’re offended, you’re hard-hearted’.”

The woman said she felt “forced” to volunteer more than 20 hours a month at the kindergarten, and to bring and drive people from all over town to church – in addition to hours she was already spending in services and prayer groups.

Outside of Celebration commitments, she worked part-time, but said 40% of her income went to paying tithing at church, paying for food and toys for kindergarten children, and to use his own fuel and his own pick-up car.

Abstract silhouette of defocused cross inside church against stained glass window.

Photo: 123RF

She said the church expects this level of commitment from all members, regardless of their financial circumstances.

“I was just a high school or college student, so I didn’t make a lot of money.”

She said she felt “definitely” taken advantage of, and when she left Celebration she briefly joined Arise, which she said was an improvement.

“I remember going to some Arise services and saying, whoa, this is so great. There’s not as much pressure to do things here. It’s not as intense.”

The Celebration Center Group had $10.8 million in equity in 2020, according to its most recent financial report filed with Charities Services.

It has seven branches and Pastor Murray Watkinson is a listed director for each of them.

One woman said she gave thousands of dollars to the church and spent dozens of hours a month volunteering for her business ventures, including an on-site cafe.

“I gave a lot of money, I gave a lot of time, a lot of energy, but it was my responsibility. And now that I know that, I think, damn it. I wouldn’t have done that if I had known better myself, I would not have been engrossed in all this.”

Celebration Church, Christchurch

Celebration Church Event Center.
Photo: RNZ / Belinda McCammon

She was a member of Celebration for four years.

“When I look back now, I call it ‘the disease of pleasing’. I’ve always tried to please them.”

Another former member told RNZ they gave tens of thousands of dollars in tithes to the church for a decade, and they said they were never told where the money went.

“I will never get that back. I have nothing to show for these 10 years, we are financially worse off because of them.”

They can no longer afford to buy a house.

“When I talk to my husband now, I realize our house depot is in Celebration.”

She says she spent long hours every month volunteering at the church’s Jireh cafe, without pay.

He sells food to members and customers who come from outside the church.

“You had to find a service area (volunteering) and you were constantly pressured to be in a service area. And if you weren’t in a service area, you weren’t really part of the church. “

She described Celebration as “a pretty toxic environment”.

“They’re really into submitting to leadership and making sure you’re submitted.”

She told RNZ: “They just take what they want, like your desires or your vulnerabilities, and they just manipulate it to achieve their goal.”

She said that when she told the church she was leaving, she replied, “Well, you can’t leave.”

“I left without a single acknowledgement.”

And in a written statement, another former member told RNZ they spent an average of 50 hours a month volunteering for the church, for eight years.

“And that was the norm – the core expectation of all members. Celebration is a ‘total institution’ in that regard,” they said.

All Saints Anglican Church, Ponsonby

Photo: RNZ / Paul Bushnell

“It wasn’t until I went to another church that I realized it’s not right for a church to demand so much of your time every week, if you’re not employed part-time with them.”

They were based in the cafe.

“Volunteers run the cafe for free – manning the cash registers, preparing the food… But apart from the fact that nobody gets paid, it works like a normal hotel business.”

They said Celebration was “built around a few personalities, surrounded by lots of flashing lights and money.”

But they felt “ashamed” to question it.

The Celebration website shows the church has set up a phone app for people to donate and pay tithing, and it says, “We’re advancing the Kingdom with our donations.”

The website’s slogan is “One Church, Many Places” and it says the church has branches in Christchurch, Nelson, Warkworth, Kaikohe and overseas in Rarotonga, California, the Philippines, Thailand, in Myanmar, Kenya and Uganda.

“Apostolic leader” Murray Watkinson is said to have founded the church in 1990.

Celebration Center Church.

Celebration Center Church.
Photo: RNZ / Belinda McCammon

His sermons drew widespread criticism in 2020, when videos on social media emerged showing him making fun of mixed-race, bisexual and transgender people.

In a statement, the office of Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood said there were “worrying” reports from various faith-based organizations in Aotearoa.

He said all people should be treated “with respect and legality” in churches.

Watkinson and the Celebration Center Group did not respond to RNZ’s requests for an interview or comment on church finances, volunteerism and sermon content.

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