Brand or church? How Hillsong Faces Judgment Day | Hillsong Church

It was an emotion sermon and Phil Dooley, the acting head of global evangelical megachurch Hillsong was preaching about pain.

“Pain happens in life – sometimes we cause pain,” he told Hillsong congregations around the world from his headquarters at Hills Campus in Sydney’s west last Sunday. “To be healthy, we sometimes have to endure pain.”

Without directly referring to recent unrest affecting the Pentecostal mega-church – which in the past two weeks alone has included the resignation of its founder Brian Houston for violating its code of conduct after two women said he was behaved inappropriately towards them, and the airing of an explosive documentary containing allegations about church culture – Dooley also spoke of the need for “honest conversations” and added that ” Healing can only take place when we acknowledge this pain.”

The pain that Dooley talks about has been felt around the world. A respected church elder and Houston family confidant has resigned, nine of its 16 US church campuses have split from the church, including the resignation of its first African-American pastor and leader of Hillsong Atlanta which opened less than 12 months ago.

Sources say church attendance, which is said to be on the decline after several years of global scandals, has dropped noticeably over the past two Sundays. A production worker said film crews struggled to film weekend sermons “without showing all the empty seats”.

Hillsong – which has grown from a congregation of 45 in western Sydney in 1983 to churches in 30 countries and six continents is in crisis.

This week, the Guardian was made aware of rifts at the highest levels of the church that appear to run deeper than previously reported. This split led to the resignation of senior officials in Australia and the United States, which began before Brian Houston resigned from all church positions on March 23.

Brian Houston, former leader of Hillsong Church. Photo: Mick Tsikas/AP

A rift in church factions

Publicly, divisions occurred between what might be called the spiritual and business factions of the church. The Guardian now understands there has been a split within the senior leadership of Hillsong’s business wing over the leadership of the church, including the move to a future without the Houstons and other members. superiors on the board of directors.

There has also been significant debate within the highest levels of Hillsong about its functioning as a brand rather than a church.

Sources said they felt conflicted with releasing this information publicly, but feared the church would not change without outside pressure.

Hillsong’s troubles came to a head several weeks ago with the resignation of Hillsong stalwart Dr Gordon Lee from the church’s Australia-based elder, the body that deals with spiritual governance.

Lee’s resignation is believed to be due to concerns over the handling of Brian Houston’s alleged “moral defects”. Houston resigned as global senior pastor after internal investigation in complaints that he behaved inappropriately toward two women, he found he had breached the church’s code of conduct.

In a leaked transcript At an all-staff meeting on March 18, Sydney-based Hillsong managing director George Aghajanian noted that there were a lot of rumors going around started by “some of the old timers” who he said weren’t not involved in internal investigations.

“The role of elders is basically to pray for people and to take care of people spiritually,” Aghajanian said. “But beyond that, they don’t have a government [sic] authority in our church.

It’s unclear whether the former has been officially fired, but sources say Aghajanian’s comments “reducing them to nothing more than people who only prayed for the sick” means he was indeed castrated.

Aghajanian’s apparent attitude towards elders has upset many staff members and angered many members of the “spiritual” faction of the church, and increasingly the “business” side of the church.

Sources familiar with Hillsong’s power structure fear he is using the crisis to consolidate his already considerable power.

After several years of scandals in Hillsong churches that culminated in the dismissal of “famous preacher” and Hillsong New York City pastor Carl Lentz, the church hierarchy has restructured its governance. Local councils are dissolved and placed under the authority of Australia global board, led by Aghajanian, who is described as the man behind the Houston throne. He presides over the business operations of the church.

In this July 14, 2013 file photo, Pastor Carl Lentz, foreground, leads a service at Hillsong NYC Church at Irving Plaza in New York City on July 14, 2013
Carl Lentz, the former chief pastor of Hillsong New York, pictured here in July 2013. Photography: Tina Fineberg/AP

The church set up unpopular but widespread use of non-disclosure and non-competition agreements, routinely requiring workers and volunteers to sign NDAs, including Hillsong College students, who must sign an NDA each semester. Although the church said it was part of its “internal commitment to facilitating the protection of personal information” and necessary to comply with Australian privacy regulations, critics have long argued that it establishes a culture of secrecy and fear, and forces people with complaints to take them internally.

These complaints are often investigated by George Aghajanian’s wife, Margaret, the church’s pastoral officer. She is said to play an important role in interpersonal affairs and has investigated a number of incidents that have rocked the church in recent years. Anna Crenshaw, a former student at Hillsong College, who alleged she was sexually assaulted by a colleague and was investigated by Aghajanian, described repeated interrogations, accused the church of sitting on statements and a culture where she believes the church has “protected the abuser rather than the victim”.

Last year, a Hillsong spokesperson told Vanity Fair Crenshaw’s complaint led to an internal investigation which “took some time as there were multiple parties present at the time of the alleged conduct”. The attacker, Justin Mays, who was later convicted of indecent assault, has been “resigned” from his position during the investigation.

The power couple are cited by some Hillsong insiders and regular parishioners as the reason they have refused to speak publicly. The Guardian has contacted the Aghajanians for comment.

One leader who is willing to speak publicly is Phoenix-based Pastor Terry Crist. A respected figure in the Church beyond the United States, he withdrew its six churches of the Hillsong umbrella on March 27.

Over the weekend, he spoke to the Guardian and reiterated his call for an overhaul of Hillsong’s governance.

“I believe it is in the interests of the Hillsong Church globally to conduct an internal investigation into the conduct of the Board, to immediately reinstate the Sydney elder, to make the findings public and to remove board members who protected the institution and not the people,” he said.

Crist said his local parishioners were “very supportive” of his decision to sever ties with Hillsong.

“Our church has always felt the tension between our need to focus on local ministry and the expectation to focus on global initiatives,” he said. “I’ve heard pastors around the world this week express concern for us and offer encouragement and prayers.”

A church governance expert also warned that Houston’s resignation may not be enough because the culture of leadership is rarely defined by one person.

“Culture change is almost impossible”

William Vanderbloemen is a church recruitment specialist who works with approximately 250 of the 400 largest churches in the United States.

“In my experience, whenever there is a sudden or outrageous departure of a pastor and serious questions about the culture of the organization, there is also a need for a more holistic examination of the administration,” he said.

“I’ve seen it so many times. Boards have to ask tough questions about who else should or shouldn’t quit. What about biological family or close friends involved in running the organization? »

Vanderbloemen said churches in crisis are also prone to overcorrection where new leaders are crippled by excessive control advice.

“In a church like Hillsong where the founders are always the leader, a change in culture is almost impossible without a change in leadership,” he said.

“Phil Dooley is a great leader and I hope he can turn things around. But in my experience, I don’t know if you can do a cultural overhaul without having some level of personnel overhaul.

Many regular worshipers agree the church needs to urgently change the upper echelons that have presided over several scandal-ridden years. Some have vowed to stay in the Hillsong “family” and fight to reform the church, but more and more the pain of recent weeks is turning into outright anger.

A 27-year-old Kingdom City member who was Hillsong Kansas City until recently, said she was thrilled the church was returning to focus on local issues and that the Houstons had shown a “radical change in spirit.” ‘attitude”.

Another member who has attended Sydney’s Hills campus for 22 years said she is staying for now to fight for reforms, but “there is a group of us who have said that if Brian comes back or if Houston Named World Senior Pastor, We Will Leave”.

A recently deceased Australian church staffer doubts Hillsong – which built much of its popularity on highly produced music and spectacular stadium performances – will ever reign supreme in its culture of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” and operate as a church rather than a brand.

“I’ve seen behind the curtain, I’ve seen the inner workings – and that’s why I’m no longer part of Hillsong,” she said.

Elle Hardy is a freelance journalist and author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity is Taking Over the World.

Jerry B. Hatch