Story: Pacific churches in New Zealand

Page 4. Change and adaptation

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New Zealand-educated Pacific people’s expectations of the churches’ role differ from the expectations of older people. As younger people exert increasing influence within congregations, some elements of traditional governance and organisation are changing.

English-speaking groups

With growing numbers of members who spoke English as their first language, some congregations introduced English-speaking groups and services of worship. In the Pacific Island Presbyterian Church (PIPC), the English-speaking group sat alongside the Samoan, Niuean, Cook Island and Tokelauan groups, with comparable status and rights in church governance. The PIPC leadership also realised that this group had different aspirations and gave them greater autonomy in the form and style of their worship.

Maintaining the language


In 2004 Auckland University researcher Melenaite Taumoefolau noted that the use of Pacific languages was declining in New Zealand churches and homes. She urged the greater use of Pacific languages in church services, funeral services and cultural celebrations to ensure their survival.


Other denominations have adopted similar measures to retain the interest and support of their New Zealand-educated members, from whom their future support will come.

Women in leadership

There have also been challenges to the traditional male dominance of religious and lay leadership and governance structures. New Zealand-based Protestant churches recruited and ordained women ministers from the late 1950s. The Pacific Island Congregational Church, and then the PIPC, recruited significant numbers of women to the ministry and to important lay leadership roles. The more conservative Pacific-based churches, which restrict the formal influence of women within church governance, were less willing to appoint and train women for either ministry or lay leadership.

Gay clergy

In the 1990s and early 2000s New Zealand-based Methodist and Presbyterian congregations were divided over the appointment of gay clergy. Pacific Island congregations largely opposed the move, believing it defied Christian doctrine. This put them at odds with more liberal church hierarchies.

A group of Methodists – mostly Pacific Islanders – who opposed the ordination of gay ministers formed the Wesleyan Methodist Movement in the 1990s. Many members, some ministers and several entire congregations left the main Methodist Church in protest over the appointment of gay clergy, and in 2000 the Wesleyan Methodist Church was established as a breakaway church. Perhaps to avoid such a split, the Presbyterian Church banned the appointment of gay clergy.

Higher standards

Some people have also challenged the more traditional churches’ acceptance of human weaknesses in their leaders, such as personal misconduct and inconsistent governance standards. New Zealand-born and -educated Christians have been less tolerant of such faults than older Pacific Island-born Christians.

Future directions

In the Pacific, families typically have longstanding connections with particular denominations and exert pressure on members to remain within them, but in New Zealand people are free to leave and join other denominations. Pacific church communities are likely to remain a central feature of Pacific enclaves in New Zealand, but they will continue to adapt to the growing influence of New Zealand-raised members. The high levels of participation in early Pacific church communities may decline, as patterns of religious commitment for New Zealand-raised Pacific Islanders come to resemble those of the general population.

How to cite this page:

Cluny Macpherson, 'Pacific churches in New Zealand - Change and adaptation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Cluny Macpherson, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 10 Apr 2018