With founder Brian Houston resigning from Hillsong amid scandal and allegations, and his wife, Bobbie, being pushed out, the global megachurch is now facing its own day of reckoning. By Rick Morton.
Hillsong after the Houstons
Shortly after Hillsong global senior pastor Brian Houston resigned, due to “moral failings”, from every position at the church he founded, and the board of the Pentecostal giant moved to force out his wife, Bobbie, a sensational internal investigation into other church figures was leaked.
That report – by New York City law firm Zukerman Gore Brandeis & Crossman, LLP – considered allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct that led to the termination of Hillsong New York lead pastor Carl Lentz in November 2020, a powerful figure in his own right, who famously converted celebrities such as Justin Bieber as acolytes.
Until last week, the report had remained secret. For more than a year, only the highest-ranking members of Hillsong’s global leadership group had access to findings that revealed a culture so toxic that multiple staff at the New York City operation reported becoming mentally ill as a result.
Now, the contents of that investigation have been reported by The Christian Post and confirmed by Hillsong itself, although it has declined to release the report, citing confidentiality concerns.
“The Australian mother ship appears also to bear some responsibility here, since it never established effective oversight and accountability for the New York Lead Pastor,” investigators said in the 51-page report.
“This lack of oversight permitted Carl Lentz to assume the role of final arbiter of what was proper behavior for everyone in New York, himself included. With the benefit of hindsight, given Lentz’s personal limitations, this was a recipe for trouble.”
Throughout the investigation, Lentz admitted to multiple extramarital affairs and conceded some points about the difficult working arrangements of his staff. However, he denied multiple reports from different people that he often said words to the effect of “Australia is dead to us”.
He did tell the investigators he “was a very good liar”. The report noted that “such efforts included boldly lying to his wife, Laura, when she caught him and Leona [Kimes] in flagrante delecto [sic] on a couch late at night”.
The timing of the leak is interesting, not least because it comes as Brian and Bobbie Houston’s lucrative career at the church they built and ostensibly controlled now seems over. Mounting scandals and allegations of criminal conduct in the years following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have plunged the organisation into crisis.
Inquiries were opened into allegations that Brian Houston had concealed sexual abuse committed by his father, Frank Houston, in both New Zealand and Australia. In evidence put before a New South Wales estimates hearing in 2018, then NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller said that in July 2016 Brian Houston “declined to be interviewed or assist police with the investigation”.
For a while, the police matter went nowhere until it was reopened late in 2019. Houston was formally charged with one count of concealing the serious indictable offence of another person in October last year and is due to face court in six months. He denies the allegation.
In January, Brian Houston announced he was stepping aside from all church leadership positions, having already vacated his Hillsong board directorships four months earlier. He pointed to the charges.
“Last year, I also received unexpected news of charges against me that allege the concealing of information that may have been material to prosecute Frank Houston. These allegations came as a shock to me, and it is my intention to vigorously defend them,” Houston said in a statement.
“In December, during our board meeting, Hillsong’s external legal counsel gave the board advice … that it would be ‘Best Practice’ for me to step aside completely from church leadership during the court proceedings ... We have talked about the effects of the situation with my father, which go back many years up to the current legal case, and the impact this has had on me emotionally ...
“I have agreed to step aside from all ministry responsibilities until the end of the year.”
Behind the scenes, however, more trouble was brewing.
On Friday, March 18, the ABC reported explosive revelations that Brian Houston was himself the subject of two complaints relating to his conduct in 2013 and 2019.
One allegation concerned “inappropriate” text messages from Houston to a Hillsong staff member. The second related to an alleged incident after a Hillsong conference, at which Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave an address, and involved a cocktail of anti-anxiety medication “mixed with alcohol”. Houston allegedly “knocked on the door of a hotel room that was not his, entering this room and spending time with the female occupant”.
Houston resigned after the story came out and Hillsong’s global board was forced to concede they had been “working through a number of issues privately with Pastor Brian” but were only commenting publicly because the matters had been exposed in the media.
“As you are aware, Pastor Brian recently stepped aside from his ministry duties. When he stepped down in January this year, the reasons he gave were genuine,” the board said in a statement. “You can be assured that investigations into these complaints were treated extremely seriously.”
Days after Brian Houston resigned officially on March 21, the Hillsong board began quiet discussions with the Houstons to also remove his wife, Bobbie, from her position as co-global senior pastor “given that Brian had resigned and was no longer working for Hillsong Church”.
When the redundancy papers came through on April 8, a Hillsong board member also texted: “Dear Bobbie, I wanted to text to let you know I will be sending an email shortly regarding your employment. Please let me know if you would like to talk about it or if you have questions.”
Brian Houston was incensed. He went public with a screenshot of the text in which part of his wife’s response can be seen.
“I don’t even have words to express how cold and callous this has all become,” she wrote.
In his own words, Houston added: “After 39 years of exemplary service and extraordinary faithfulness and fruitfulness, this is the communication Bobbie received from the Hillsong Church board as she is made redundant (effective immediately) through no choice of her own ... And we are supposed to act like this is all ok. It’s not! Our beautiful church is losing its soul.”
What was already a febrile atmosphere within Hillsong has now turned into one of factionalism, recriminations and panic.
“There is a sense now that this is Brian’s church and only his church and if he can’t have it, no one can,” one Hillsong member tells The Saturday Paper. “I’ve got no doubt that things are going to get even dirtier before they get better. If they get better.”
Earlier this year, Channel Ten removed Hillsong Church content from its regular programming. By the end of this month, the United States-based Trinity Broadcasting Network will rebrand Hillsong Channel No. 183 on Foxtel and replace all Hillsong content with other Christian programming.
Hillsong Music is also in trouble, with major artists pulling out of festivals and licensing deals in the balance. In the US, Hillsong has lost nine of its 16 church campuses after pastors who had joined the Pentecostal umbrella announced they were leaving.
Australian freelance journalist Elle Hardy, the author of the book Beyond Belief, has been investigating the rise of the Pentecostal movement around the world. She tells The Saturday Paper that the Lentz report was known about, but even her high-level contacts at Hillsong “could not get access to it”.
“The fact is the place is leaking like a sieve now, everyone is saving their arse,” she said. “There have been massive, massive cultural problems in the organisation for years and, especially in the United States, they really prioritised growth and expansion, brand recognition and celebrity following.
“Lentz’s behaviour was well known. He was a bully, a diva, a womaniser. This seems to have been tolerated for that aggressive growth and brand recognition. I think there is some strong evidence that Carl Lentz’s moral failings were brought out into the open because he was about to leave Hillsong. He got bigger than the brand.”
As these events were set in train, Hillsong’s revenue – at least that reported to the charities regulator in Australia – has been in decline. In 2018, the brand reported $103 million in revenue but this sank to $94 million in 2019. In the most recent update, for 2020, that dropped to $87.8 million.
“There are huge internal discussions and friction,” Hardy says of the response to the past few weeks inside the church. “Some people who were once very strong allies of Brian Houston have said that [the Houstons] have got to go and they were part of the push to get Bobbie out as well. Some very high-level people have been resigning.
“A lot of these people have been together for 30 or 40 years. Their kids have all grown up together. Everyone intermarries, they all go to school together. They all go on holidays together. It is really complex and very profound. It is really quite shocking and seismic.”
It has been almost a month since Brian Houston resigned from the church and three months since he stepped aside. For Houston – who was once recorded telling staff that his prodigy Carl Lentz displayed “general narcissistic behaviour” and was “manipulating, mistreating people … and constantly lying” – the fall from grace has been an adjustment.
On his personal Instagram page, he is handling the excommunication with new mantras. Earlier this month he posted a picture of “My beautiful daughter loving her dad”. Three days before that, it was a photo of the family groodle with a similar refrain: “He loves me.”
In religion, as in politics, if you want a friend, get a dog.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "After the Houstons".
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