The Destiny Church has become a multimillion-dollar business, making founder Brian Tamaki and his wife Hannah rich. Tony Wall reports.
He collects a six-figure salary and lives in a million-dollar clifftop home. He has a new boat worth more than $100,000, drives an $80,000 Ford Explorer and got a $35,000 Harley Davidson for his birthday.
Televangelist Brian Tamaki is enjoying an affluent lifestyle while members of his Destiny Church — some of whom are struggling to make ends meet — give 10 per cent of their gross incomes to the church he founded six years ago.
Destiny, which has 20 branches nationwide, has become a multimillion-dollar business and Tamaki and his wife Hannah have got rich off its success.
The Auckland church alone, with a membership of 2000, is estimated to bring in $7 million a year in members’ tithes, an Old Testament expression for donating 10 per cent of income to honour God.
But Tamaki is accused by former members and those who have attended his services of putting pressure on people to hand over their 10 per cent. They allege Tamaki preaches that people will go to hell if they don’t tithe, and say Destiny staff phone members if they do not give regularly.
There is also concern that people on low incomes have been getting into financial strife by giving more than they can afford, and that there are constant calls for donations above the 10 per cent.
The Sunday Star-Times has obtained a “contract” which new Destiny members are asked to sign. It contains several pages explaining the need for tithes, including the statement: “Holding back our tithes is robbing God, actually stealing.”
When this reporter attended a Destiny service this month there was a strong emphasis on money, with Brian and Hannah Tamaki repeatedly asking for cash for a building fund and 21 church officials going through the crowd collecting offerings.
The Tamakis deny they pressure people, but concede that tithing is encouraged.
“It’s their choice in the end,” said Hannah Tamaki. “The thing is people come here because they want to be here, they’re not forced to come in.”
Brian Tamaki said: “It (tithing) is up there with all the rest of the Biblical truths, I can only present that. People have to choose, it’s not as though I go around with a gun or get on the phone and force people.”
He believes the criticism comes from a handful of “disgruntled” former members. “It’s a crazy stigma that you have around a church, it’s around Hannah and I. People are not used to seeing someone like me who’s got a bike, who has a nice house and just got a boat, who’s actually good-looking, and is doing well with the church and is saying some things.
“People look at it and say there must be something fishy here, there must be something going on. Well there is something happening here that is very good.”
Brian Tamaki said Destiny Church had turned around thousands of lives. Most of the money went back into the church, including its social programmes, pre-school, primary school and Destiny Television.
The church employs 26 people full-time in Auckland. It owns $1.3m worth of television equipment and is about to buy the $2.25m warehouse in Mt Wellington that serves as church headquarters.
Brian and Hannah Tamaki are contracted to Destiny International Trust and draw salaries believed to be in the six-figure range, although they will not give an exact amount. Tamaki says his salary is on par with chief executives of a “reasonable sized” firm.
“It’s not as much as Paul Holmes . . . I’m not getting what the Telecom CEO gets, a million dollars. I’d say our salary is equal to the responsibility I carry for this church and the 20 churches in the nation.”
The couple say they give up to 50 per cent of their income back to the church.
Tamaki has set up a structure that gives him control over the 20 Destiny churches.
Each church is run by a charitable trust and each trust deed has a clause giving Tamaki “absolute power of veto over any decision made by the trust board”.
Under new legislation being considered by a parliamentary select committee, Destiny and other trusts would have to register with a Charities Commission to gain tax exemption. Trusts would also have to provide details of their incomes in a bid for greater transparency and accountability for charities.
Tamaki says each Destiny church is financially independent.
Explaining the reason for his veto power, he said: “It’s just to safeguard those churches. Each of them carries the Destiny name. It’s like McDonald’s – you’re very astute about business stuff and the way they go with their finances.
“It helps protect the churches, keep them going in the right direction, and keep them financially accountable and squeaky clean.”
Hannah Tamaki is considered the “brains” behind the Destiny business empire, but says she does not keep tabs on what the business is bringing in.
Asked if the $7m figure for the Auckland church was accurate, she said: “We’ve never ever once said to our finance people: ‘What does the church make in a year?’ because we don’t accumulate the funds, and we spend up to $15,000 a week purely paying for Destiny Television.
“That (money) is not the motivating force. We have accounts and everything, we have other people that do it.”
The couple are director-shareholders of three companies, including Tamaki Productions, which produces and sells Tamaki’s tapes and CDs. Asked how much he made from merchandise, Tamaki said: “To be honest I don’t know. I know what’s made there actually pays the two people to run it, there’s no profit – I’m not Ben Lummis.” The Sunday Star-Times has spoken to the family of an elderly woman still involved with a Destiny Church who became upset over a phone call asking why her tithe was fluctuating. It was because her income varied from week to week.
Tamaki denies this, and says staff are not under instructions to make such calls.
Asked if his sermons on tithes could be perceived as pressure to give money, Tamaki said: “You take it as you like, I preach and teach it and our teaching is very clear: that listen, if you want to honour God this (tithing) is part of it.”
He said records of people’s tithes were kept only for tax purposes. “Brian and I have never looked at who gives and who doesn’t give,” said Hannah Tamaki.
Cultwatch, a small cross-denominational group that monitors Christian organisations, says it has “grave reservations” about Destiny’s methods and has been investigating the movement for about a year.
Director Mark Vrankovich said he had spoken to between 30 and 50 concerned former members and had begun placing newspaper ads for more to come forward.
Vrankovich said some of Destiny’s techniques resembled those of direct marketing organisations such as Amway, and he was concerned vulnerable people were being manipulated. He said there was nothing in the New Testament that compelled people to give money, and he questioned Tamaki’s income.
“Tamaki excuses his exorbitant income by implying he is a CEO. But he’s not, he runs a small staff in a charitable trust, not a staff of thousands in a for-profit corporation.”
Vrankovich said he had spoken to a Destiny leader who confirmed that records were kept of members’ tithes to ensure they met their targets.
John Roxborogh, head of parish leadership training at the Presbyterian School of Ministry in Dunedin, said the biggest problem with tithing was how to apply Old Testament teachings to modern times. With most churches, tithing was never compulsory. “It’s a very private thing.” He said some church-goers, particularly in the Pacific Island community, had traditionally given a lot of money to the church. “I know ministers who have told people they should be giving less.”
Roxborogh said mainstream churches were wary of manipulating people, “especially when they’re vulnerable”. He said no one should feel forced to give money to the church. “The message that Jesus loves you doesn’t come with a price tag – it’s free.”
Tamaki earns several times the salary of most New Zealand pastors, and freely admits his wealth is at odds with the traditional image of a pastor living frugally.
A former member of the Assemblies of God national executive, who asked not to be named, said the executive issued guidelines on pastor salaries based mainly on years of experience and comparisons to salaries of social workers and teachers.
He said a senior pastor in Auckland with a congregation of 200 people would earn between $40,000 and $50,000.
Tamaki said there was nothing wrong with being a successful pastor and businessman and he was not ashamed of his wealth.
“We came here (to Auckland) with nothing and we’ve done pretty well over the years.”
He said Destiny was doing a lot of good work in the community, including a programme in high schools and initiatives with the police and fire service.
He said reporters only seemed interested in the negative. “They go straight to the money (issue) and two or three disgruntleds. They forget about the transformed ex-murderer, the number of people who have been off drugs for years, the happy marriages, kids now that are better, the people with better jobs, this has got to be better for the economy all over.”