Money and God: New Zealand’s richest religions revealed

Matt Nippert trawls through annual reports to build a financial picture, and audit the largest players, amongst New Zealand’s $11b organised religion sector.

The 2018 census for the first time saw people with “no religion” (48.6 per cent of the population) overtaking those identifying as Christian (37.3 per cent). At the 2001 census, less than a third of people lacked a religious affiliation, while Christians comprised nearly 59 per cent of the population.

But despite a decline in religious attendance and affiliation, New Zealand’s national collection plate – whether passed around on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, or at a church, mosque or temple – still manages to raise nearly a billion dollars a year.

According to analysis by the Weekend Herald that scraped financial returns from the Charities Register for organisations describing their primary purpose as running religious services, the sector today still manages nearly $11b in assets – comparable to the university sector – and last year attracted $853m in donations.

With nearly 8000 paid staff, organised religion is twice as large as the kiwifruit industry and – taking into account volunteers hours – engages as many full-time equivalents as the film industry.

The sector comprises more than 5500 individual entities. Many comprise small single congregations while others – particularly in established orders representing city, provincial or national groupings – with balance sheets running to nine figures.

When ranked by net assets, it’s a top-heavy sector dominated by established Christian denominations who have drawn donations and built churches over the past two centuries. The seven largest organisations ranked below account for a third of the entire sector’s net asset base and attract a quarter of all donations.

This methodology favours highly organised religions with consolidated structures (see: Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists), and those with a long history in New Zealand who have built substantial (mostly property) asset bases.

Ranking instead by annual donations puts a few of the newer, largely evangelical, churches into the top 10 (City Impact, Arise and Life) but growing pains typically are accompanied by ambitious construction plans and accompanying mortgages.Non-Christian orders are still well-down even this list, with the first appearance being the Soka Gakkai Buddhists at 25th.

1. Roman Catholic Diocese of Auckland Group
Net assets: $1.07b
Annual donations: $17.1m

Number one on this list should come as no surprise. According to the census Catholicism is the largest distinct individual religion in the country, and Auckland is its largest city.

This Group comprises dozens of sub-entities, largely parish-based, across a region that – due to history with the Auckland Diocese established in 1848 – stretches far beyond the city limits of what is now known as Auckland.

The vast bulk of assets are held by the Catholic Diocese of Auckland (CDA) charity which is run from its expansive Pompallier Diocesan Centre in St Mary’s Bay. The organisation holds $84.8m in financial investments – with Milford, Nikko, Castle Point and Harbour Asset managing the funds – and $778m in real estate.

While donations to the group for the 2019 year – the most recent year for which accounts are available- were still healthy, in 2018 CDA received around $120m in cash classed as a legacy or bequest. The year before and after having bequests around $1m.

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This appears to represent the largest individual donation in New Zealand history – the legacy establishing the now-billion dollar Dilworth School in 1894 was only $20m in today’s dollars – but for some reason was not publicised at the time.

2. The Salvation Army New Zealand Group
Net assets: $554m
Annual donations: $29.5m

An oddity on this list, the Salvation Army is less a church in a traditional sense and more a multi-armed charitable organisation that runs foodbanks, thrift stores and a social policy arm that lobbies for poverty reduction and housing reform.

Operating in New Zealand since 1883, the Salvation Army now owns $299m in property spread across the country, and another $216m in financial investments – largely shares in listed companies. A large slice of their income – $5m – was sent offshore to support their head office in the United Kingdom and also operations in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

3. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Trust Board
Net assets: $365m
Annual donations: $42m

The largest religion with roots in the United States, Mormons first set up a congregation in New Zealand in 1855. The church has $357m in property, but is rapidly expanding.

While pulling in $42m from local donations – good for gold in the collection-plate stakes – the church here is still largely bankrolled from Salt Lake City, Utah, where the LDS head office is based.

In 2019 the New Zealand branch received $71.9m in grant income from its United States parent, and the year prior it got $31m. The funds are believed to be going towards the construction of a second temple in New Zealand, on a $27m property on Manukau’s Redoubt Rd.

4. Anglican Diocese of Wellington Group
Net assets: $311m
Annual donations: $7.8m

The size of the dioceses reflects when it began – in 1858 – covering not just the capital city, but the entire lower North Island stretching from Cook Strait to Ruapehu.

The Group – comprising 117 individual entities ranging from parishes, a theology school and numerous bequest trusts – owns $257m in real estate and $41m in financial investments. During the first Covid lockdown, notes to the accounts show they claimed $1.05m in wage subsidy payments.

5. Seventh Day Adventist Church in New Zealand
Net assets: $301m
Annual donations: $29.3m

A smaller denomination whose placement on this list is bolstered by being consolidated into a single national grouping, and also the significant commercial – but charitable – operations of its Sanitarium food empire that produces supermarket staples such as Weet Bix.

The New Zealand group owns $176m in occupied properties, and another $48m in real estate investments, and is also a part-investor in pharmaceuticals companies Asklepion and Ausio.

These loans to biotech companies appear to be alongside an international effort by the Seventh Day Adventists to spur medicine production – but Ausio has stumbled and in 2018 required the New Zealand branch to write off $6.2m, or around half the value of its investment.

6. New Zealand Methodist Trust Association
Net assets: $299m
Annual donations: $0

An oddity on this list, the Methodist Trust Association is the investment management arm of the Methodist Church in New Zealand. It takes deposits from member churches, and seeks to obtain the best possible commercial returns on them.

In 2020 it had $297m in depositors funds under management that delivered income of $11.3m (a return on capital of 3.8 per cent), invested in mainly in shares ($60m), corporate bonds ($100m) and investment property ($61m).

7. Roman Catholic Diocese Of Christchurch Group
Net assets: $244m
Annual donations: $8.7m

The Christchurch branch of the Catholic is asset rich – with $169m in property and $40m in financial assets largely derived from insurance payouts – but has been grappling for a decade from the fallout of the Christchurch earthquakes.

It’s landmark Christchurch Basilica closed after the first quake in 2010, and partly collapsed following the sequel in 2011. Debate and planning as to whether to repair or start afresh has raged for years, but an end – and a hefty accompanying bill – is now in sight.

Accounts to June 2019 show the church had by this point spent $29m acquiring land for a new cathedral, and by December of that year the Bishop announced a total of $85m was expected to be spent on deconstructing the Basilica and building a new cathedral on a different site.

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