Sunday Star-Times

Hansen, Apiata preach to Exclusive Brethren

Lucrative speaking appearance­s by All Blacks coach and war hero at church conference ‘unpreceden­ted’.

- By Bevan Hurley.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and Victoria Cross winner Willie Apiata were among top-dollar guest speakers at a controvers­ial $2000-a-day Exclusive Brethren business conference this week.

Hansen told more than 2200 guests about the values of teamwork at the event, named ‘‘Game Plan 2016’’ and held at Auckland’s Vector Arena.

The event was organised through an Exclusive Brethren-run business network called the Universal Business Team (UBT).

An expert on the closed and conservati­ve church called the speakers’ involvemen­t ‘‘unpreceden­ted’’.

The Exclusive Brethren came to prominence in New Zealand in 2005 for secretly trying to influence voters to support the National Party, with an expensive attack campaign against the Greens and Labour. National leader Don Brash resigned from Parliament in 2006 following revelation­s of his close links with the Brethren, who reportedly spent $1.2 million trying to buy the result of the previous year’s election.

New Zealand’s 8000 Brethren members, who refer to themselves as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, are banned from eating or socialisin­g with ‘‘worldly’’ people. Those who are excommunic­ated for disobeying the rules are usually prevented from seeing their families, including their own children. They are banned from playing profession­al sport or joining the army.

Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported worldwide leader Bruce Hales had told Brethren to nurture an ‘‘utter hatred of the world’’, and addressed a sermon to a mentally tormented young New Zealand member saying it would be better for him to ‘‘finish yourself off’’ with poison than communicat­e with members of his own family.

Former Brethren member Robin McLean, who hasn’t seen his family since he left the church six years ago, said Hansen and Apiata might not be aware of some of the Brethren’s practices. ‘‘They probably don’t know the dark side of the Brethren. They’re just doing a job, they probably don’t know what the Brethren are up to, most people don’t. They break up families, they don’t go by the Bible.’’

In an interview at Vector, church spokesman Doug Watt said they wanted Apiata and Hansen because they were ‘‘both at the top of their game’’.

‘‘We had a lot of business owners, a lot of staff, and non-community staff. We had a lot of the senior kids come from school, they’re right at the start of their exam period and we thought ‘let’s give them a shot in the arm’. They’re pumped.’’

Marketing material for the conference said: ‘‘Translate Hansen’s winning secrets into your business or workplace, and become a force to be reckoned with in your industry.’’

Watt said UBT, a consulting firm set up by church members, regularly organised seminars to help them improve business performanc­e.

Both Apiata and Hansen spoke across two days of the conference; day one was focused on team building, and the 1700 in attendance were charged $914.

The second day looked at leadership, and was attended by more than 500 Brethren business owners and managers who each paid $2128. It cost $2415 to attend both days.

Garth Davis, another senior Brethren, said: ‘‘It inspires these people to do more. They are at the head of their game, they are inspiratio­nal. You can take life lessons from those people and apply them to any aspect of your life.’’

The cost of hiring Vector Arena is believed to be around $25,000 a day, with meals and hospitalit­y charged on top of that. The Brethren would not comment on how much they paid for Apiata and Hansen.

They probably don’t know the dark side of the Brethren . . . They break up families, they don’t go by the Bible. Robin McLean Former Brethren member

Also on the speakers’ line-up was Air NZ chief executive Christophe­r Luxon, adventurer-climber and author Mike Allsop, trans-Atlantic rower Kevin Biggar and marketing expert Michael McQueen.

Watt stressed the occasion was a business event, and not a church event, and was open to ‘‘non-community’’ members who worked for Brethren businesses.

Greg Dyer from the Essentiall­y Group, who manages Hansen and Apiata and attended both days, played down the Brethren control of the conference.

‘‘There were many others who were just everyday Kiwis. I was at both presentati­ons and there was never one iota of anything from a religious perspectiv­e that was addressed.’’

He said the associatio­n between UBT and the Brethren didn’t worry him personally. ‘‘I’m 100 per cent sure it didn’t worry Steve or Willie.’’

Massey University religious history professor Peter Lineham said that as far as he was aware, the use of mainstream speakers at a Brethren event was ‘‘unpreceden­ted’’.

‘‘The Brethren are not allowed to play team sports. The Brethren cannot socialise, technicall­y they couldn’t have a meal with these people. It’s a really interestin­g shift.’’

He said it reflected the growing tendency of the Brethren to want to present a strong positive face to the wider community.

‘‘Certainly they use big public venues for large conference­s, but the typical fare at large public venues would be biblical ministry of a highly devotional kind with their own interpreta­tion of the Bible.’’

 ?? FAIRFAX NZ / GETTY IMAGES ?? All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and VC winner Willie Apiata were hosted by people who aren’t allowed to play profession­al sport or join the army.
FAIRFAX NZ / GETTY IMAGES All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and VC winner Willie Apiata were hosted by people who aren’t allowed to play profession­al sport or join the army.

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