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As Hillsong continues to face internal struggles, former members talk about the trauma they suffered in the church and the post-traumatic stress they have dealt with since. By Tanya Levin.

Former Hillsong members detail PTSD from ‘abusive cult’

Hillsong at The Forum in Los Angeles.
Hillsong at The Forum in Los Angeles.
Credit: Michael Saechang / Flickr

For more than 20 years, I’ve been talking to people who’ve left Hillsong. I have spoken to journalists who want to speak with them, and these conversations have been close to identical. “The camera crew was about to leave. And then they cancelled. They said they were afraid. What are they afraid of?”

I grew up in the small church that became Hillsong. After I left, at age 20, I had nothing to fear but eternal damnation. Hillsong was small then. There was no talk of mandatory non-disclosure agreements or smear campaigns, but then there wasn’t much talk between former members at all.

More recent ex-members say they are afraid to talk about their experiences in case they are sued for defamation. While in the church they are taught a solid distrust of the media. There is also a fear of the information Hillsong keeps on members, in a personnel database called MyHillsong. Other information contained in the files includes notes from counselling and crisis moments. Some who leave fear the contents being “leaked”.

Many of these “leavers” still have family and friends in attendance and they’re not willing to jeopardise relationships that are important to them. It’s usually with a profound sense of sadness that they tell me they wish they could go on record, but they can’t. In some cases, this is not just about loyalty. A number of leavers I have spoken to also suffer from significant psychological trauma.

While there is scarce literature on religious trauma syndrome, a term coined in 2011 by psychologist Dr Marlene Winell, leavers often end up with diagnoses of bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorder or complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Those who invest the most are the ones most affected,” says Shaun Némorin, a trauma therapist and former Hillsong member. “When people invest their entire self and identity into a place, the sense of betrayal is profound when that comes crashing down and they realise they’ve been told lies.”

One former member, Anna, describes Hillsong as “an exploitative, abusive cult”. Speaking with her and others, I began to see patterns. The relationships between individuals and the organisation bear strong similarities to the dynamics of domestic abuse: the initial love bombing, the isolation, the consumption of time, the indoctrination and the gradual control result in a very real and common fear of leaving.

Those who are susceptible to such environments are those who are trauma survivors, according to Némorin. “The most vulnerable are those who were already struggling with a sense of belonging, identity or a sense of self,” he says. “In order to heal the fragmented self, people seek the feeling of connection with others.”

Churches are historically promoted as remedies to emotional ailments. Where Hillsong differs is the extensive marketing of itself as an all-inclusive, all-welcoming “family” where everyone can find acceptance.

“There is a sort of spectrum of impact,” Némorin says. “Those who are less affected within the system are those who either invested less or those who benefited more from the social capital available as well as the relationships with key leaders.”

Many of those who choose to remain in Hillsong’s employ are big fish in a small but powerful pond. Hillsong college was churning out tertiary qualifications prior to Covid-19 and currently has its eye on accreditation for doctoral degrees. These academic achievements, and many of the trade skills acquired at Hillsong college and workplace, are useless outside that culture.

Where would a pastor with a small church and a mortgage look for a career change after having been committed to Hillsong for the majority of their working life?

Leaving then, says Némorin, results in a total sense of betrayal. “They’re subjected to a controlled environment and a type of groupthink where loyalty is demanded and no dissent is allowed. When someone steps outside of that framework, having invested their entire identity and sense of self in a place, it’s an enhanced sense of betrayal. It’s a huge loss.”

Némorin explains that “traditional churches, while hierarchical, never contained the emphasis on the ‘lay pastor’. Leaders were distinct and there wasn’t the ongoing expectation to replicate what you saw.”

Hillsong heavily promotes its own leadership college for theology and media studies. Its machine is reliant for its expansion on more young people investing their futures, marriages and careers in a Hillsong world view. Total involvement is a minimum requirement but that is not initially explicit.

For Anna, growing up in a lapsed Anglican and atheist home, her pathway into Hillsong, and out of it, was similar to most. Her parents had deliberately prevented her involvement in any church apart from a couple of services, which she’d found “entrancing”. A gifted child, she was studying arts and education at university when, about 21 years old, she decided that “maybe I didn’t know everything”.

Soon after, she recalls having an encounter with God through reading the Bible. “I knew that God was real and that God was love,” she says. “But I didn’t know if I was supposed to be Jewish or Catholic or what?”

A new job in Sydney led to a move from Adelaide. She attended other churches before finding her way to a Hillsong service. She recalled the Anglicans referring to it as “the till on the hill”, but to Anna it seemed like any regular church, if a little enthusiastic.

Anna watched as a woman preached on stage about surviving child sexual abuse and finding out as an adult she’d been adopted. Her manner was a revelation. To Anna, she was relatable. She remembers it like this: “It was okay to come from a fucked-up background. You didn’t have to have come from a church family to be accepted here like in stricter churches. And she was a female on stage. I thought, ‘This is the place I’m meant to be.’ ” The job fell through and Anna ended up sharing a house with a girl from Hillsong. With a new job in the centre of Sydney, Anna moved again and began “serving” – the Hillsong word for volunteering.

Anna says she learnt early that “leaders can do or say what they want” after watching a supervisor explode over a minor event. She describes her involvement and her later diagnoses with PTSD and agoraphobia as “incremental and insidious”. Anna says the system relies on partial reinforcement, where members are rewarded and punished.

One pastor harassed young people constantly to win a competition for fundraising among the smaller “connect groups”. Anna persisted. “From the beginning the message of ‘Touch not the Lord’s anointed’ was clear. To criticise was to risk stepping out ‘from under the covering’.”

Anna recalls another Hillsong pastor saying, “Imagine we’re a fist. If you step out, you’re like the little finger and when we throw a punch ... you’re gonna come right off!”

When Anna was first casually sexually harassed by another member of Hillsong, she reported it to the immediate leader. She later encountered the harasser at another service and he approached her, calling out, “You have to forgive me! You have to be friends with me! Jesus was friends with everyone!”

He was removed from the church indefinitely but the perpetrator of the more serious and ongoing sexual harassment, an employed pastor, was not. Anna worked closely with him for several years and after the abuse escalated she reported it formally.

The response by superiors led to her psychological fallout. Anna described a devastating darkness that fell over a senior pastor’s face as he roared at her: “What are you doing with these accusations about my staff?”

Any criticism of leadership was deemed “unforgiving, anti-church, well, anti-Holy Spirit,” Anna says. “You were going against the Holy Spirit!”

The perpetrator was married soon after and Anna laments that he is now viewed by Hillsong as incapable of being sexually inappropriate.

It’s not surprising, then, that Anna now lives with “intense fear, especially of speaking up”. She says, “Hillsong destroyed my sense of safety and sense of community. There’s no legal remedy and seeing how emotionally shaken I was, they knew that.”

Trauma psychologist and ex-evangelist Julie Howard, who is based in Los Angeles, tells me: “The god of the fundamentalists uses fear to control people but it’s called love. This creates a trauma bond wherein the person you need the most is also the person who terrifies you.”

This trauma, says Némorin, is at the most severe end of the spectrum of impact. “It’s the existential aspect that’s devastating. Knowing that it’s not just your life at risk but your eternal soul.”

He points to connectivity as the remedy and the antidote to encounters with places such as Hillsong. “People need groups. But when numbers get over 150 people, hierarchies start to form, and in megachurches this is usually not a meritocracy. Most people don’t end up being on stage or getting the promises that were advertised. But by then they’re often strongly indoctrinated and no criticism of leadership is permitted. It’s the ultimate case of the emperor’s new clothes.”

Trauma treatment, including eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing, has been effective for Anna but she still doesn’t go out much. “They only care what the system gives them,” she says of Hillsong. “They don’t care what their ‘loyalty culture’ does to people.”

Howard concurs that this experience can be psychologically annihilating. “People are sold a world that is lies and doesn’t exist and it’s traumatising to realise that. It’s like your house collapses along with the foundation. And you have to start all over to build a new one.”

Hillsong did not respond to requests for comment. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "Acts of faith".

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Tanya Levin is a social worker and author of People in Glass Houses: An Insider’s Story of a Life In and Out of Hillsong.

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