Leaked emails show how the Houston family responded to the scandal that may have ended their reign at the top of the Hillsong megachurch. By Elle Hardy.
The Hillsong emails
As Brian and Bobbie Houston enjoy a European holiday, new insights can be revealed into the turmoil – and togetherness – of the Houston clan as they lost their grip on Hillsong.
Emails leaked to The Saturday Paper show that the Houston family felt ambushed and humiliated by senior members of the church in a series of events that led to Brian Houston’s resignation as Hillsong’s global senior pastor earlier this year. The emails also give weight to the complaints of many Hillsong insiders who feel that the Houstons have long acted as though the highly corporatised church belongs to the Houston family, rather than being a community asset.
Trouble had been brewing for some time with Brian and Bobbie’s leadership of the church, which they founded in Sydney’s western suburbs in 1983, but the emails show measures taken by the church elders and board took the family by surprise.
Late last year, Hillsong’s legal counsel advised Brian Houston to step aside from his role at the church while he fights charges of allegedly concealing his late father Frank’s sexual abuse of a young boy in the 1970s. Brian Houston denies the charge.
On March 18 this year, the church revealed it was investigating Brian Houston’s inappropriate behaviour towards two women with ties to the church, with one incident dating to 2013. In a statement, the board said the incidents were due to sleeping tablets and alcohol, but on March 23 Houston resigned for breaching the church’s code of conduct. Bobbie Houston, who had the role of co-global senior pastor, was subsequently fired by text message – a claim the church denies.
The day it was revealed that Brian Houston was being investigated, Hillsong held a highly charged staff meeting by video link, the contents of which were leaked to Crikey. It appears that statements made in this meeting are what prompted the Houstons’ youngest child and only daughter, 35-year-old Laura Toganivalu, to email Hillsong board members two days later.
“I write this with tears soaking my pillow and the utmost gentleness & humility of heart. I’ve never lost anyone truly, truly near to me. So, I can’t say I know how that feels,” she wrote in an email obtained by The Saturday Paper.
“But I think public humiliation might be the worse feeling in the entire world. And as a Houston family, we have endured brutal humiliation endlessly for the last 20yrs+. No one being more defamed and humiliated unfairly than my father.”
Although Toganivalu’s husband, Peter, is a member of the Australian Hillsong board, Laura, a youth pastor with no official senior role, complained she was given no warning of church communications concerning her parents. “I made it very clear this week that I wanted to be kept in the loop so I would know what to expect.”
In the staff meeting, interim Hillsong leader Phil Dooley said “it was decided Brian should take three months off from ministry but unfortunately he didn’t abide by that. He did conduct some ministry and he did consume some alcohol.”
Laura Toganivalu called out the judgement she felt from friends, elders and board members. While she acknowledges in her email that Dooley had been “thrown in the fire” and was “doing his best”, she takes aim at language he used to describe her father’s alleged conduct.
Dooley told the staff meeting that anyone who came to the church should not be subjected to “any form of abuse or harassment” and added that “we’re deeply sorry for those victims and for what they’ve had to go through and what they’ve had to endure”.
To this, Toganivalu said in her email: “I pleaded to not use words like ‘victims’ and ‘harassment’ … but again those were the words that were used this morning at church. Perhaps I will never recover from that cruelty.” She says her “beloved (& broken) dad was made out to be a predator” in front of the church hierarchy.
“We have never asked for my father’s transgressions to be ‘covered up’ or ‘hidden’,” she writes, referring to his alleged inappropriate conduct with two women, not the case relating to Frank Houston. “No one wants that. Not even my mum and dad. All I asked for this week was that Mum and Dad would be given the dignity they deserve. Not protected. But given dignity.”
While Toganivalu’s email primarily focuses on her own anguish, it is believed the sentiments of betrayal and anger at the church’s actions are shared by other members of the Houston family. Brian and Bobbie, who have a long and well-documented distrust of the media, have been using their Instagram accounts to defend themselves and reflect the difficult period they are facing.
In response to Laura’s email to the board, her 40-year-old brother, Ben Houston, echoed her sentiments and took particular exception at the board’s treatment of his mother, Bobbie. “I FaceTimed my mum for the longest time, who was not given the decency of a heads up or preparation as to what was about to take place in that staff meeting,” he wrote shortly after Laura’s email.
“Can you imagine? She was muted and not allowed to give pertinent detail that was missed … She had her deepest anguish and pain as a woman and spouse and mother and grandmother laid out before 800+ staff and media meaning the entire world without a heads up?”
Ben Houston revealed that he removed himself from discussions and decisions about his father months earlier due to the conflict of interest, but was disappointed the board did not show him the statement about investigating Brian’s actions before it was published. “I am devastated by the weak PR job and the gutless fear of the crowd that is being displayed,” he writes. “There is such blinding self-righteousness and judgement that is doing far more damage to this global movement than the relatively minor indiscretions of our senior pastor.”
Further on in the email, Ben Houston underlines parts of one paragraph about his father’s reputation, accusing Hillsong of making Brian Houston “sound like the sick and twisted predator victimizing and abusing people … ALL WHILE HE FACES A COURT CASE around a similar thing is so outrageously unfair!”
Of his father, he writes: “Our senior pastor made mistakes. It’s unacceptable. There is no denying that.” He says to be a Houston is to be “praised on one hand and humiliated in the other hand” but all this was okay because he “saw the Kingdom purpose”. He says what is happening to the church is happening to his father, his family, his wife, his children.
“I can only pray you all realise what you are doing. When did we lose our purity and Christ-like characteristics and qualities?” he writes. “We have become like the crowd chanting ‘Barabbas’. We have become the person in Matthew 7:3 not just accusing but destroying the person with the speck in their eye. We have become everything that is Old Testament and forgetting the new covenant that is Jesus.”
Ben Houston talks about the “physical, mental and emotional toll of being a Houston” and asks how a sinner could feel welcome in a church “with this type of weak, hypocritical, legalistic, Pharisee like governance”.
Sources informed The Saturday Paper that Ben stepped down from the global board in the weeks after sending the email. He recently returned home to Australia for the first time in three years, although not before his parents had already left on an overseas trip. It is understood that Peter Toganivalu and Ben Houston both attended Hillsong’s annual staff retreat in the Hunter Valley earlier this month, although Laura did not.
While Brian and Bobbie have no official positions in the church for the first time since its founding almost 40 years ago, all three Houston children have maintained their paid pastoral and musical positions within Hillsong. The eldest sibling, Joel, is head of the flagship church band, Hillsong United. It is believed that the senior Houstons hope to eventually return to the church, although that is likely to depend on the outcome of Brian’s trial in December. The Australian and global boards and eldership are riven by factional splits, but the fact Hillsong general manager and Houston loyalist George Aghajanian remains in his position will give the family hope of maintaining control of the religious empire.
Still, what the church will look like by the time a Houston returns to the throne remains to be seen. Hillsong has seen the defection of nine of its 16 United States congregations, and a number of other Hillsong affiliates in the country have also removed themselves from the church umbrella. Church finances will undoubtedly be hurt by television stations dumping Hillsong broadcasts and many churches deciding to stop singing its songs – which, at the height of Hillsong’s popularity, were played by an estimated 50 million worshippers each week.
Whatever happens next, the struggle for the soul of the church looks set to continue. Reports of dwindling attendances continue as parishioners and pastors walk away, embarrassed by the conduct of the Houston family and the public airing of the church’s increasingly bitter internal divisions. As Ben Houston put it in his email to the board, “I do not see how Jesus is glorified in any of this.”
Laura Toganivalu did not respond to questions from The Saturday Paper. Ben Houston described his message to the Hillsong board as a “private, emotional and confidential email”.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "The Hillsong emails".
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