Brand or church? How Hillsong is facing a day of reckoning | Hillsong Church

It was an emotional sermon and Phil Dooley, the interim leader of the global evangelical megachurch Hillsong was preaching about pain.

“Pain happens in life – sometimes we cause the pain,” he told Hillsong congregations around the world from its Hills Campus headquarters in western Sydney last Sunday. “In order to get healthy, sometimes we have to go through some pain.”

Without directly referencing the recent troubles affecting the Pentecostal megachurch – which in the last two weeks alone include its founder Brian Houston resigning for breaching its code of conduct after two women said he had behaved inappropriately towards them, and the airing of an explosive documentary containing allegations about the church’s culture – Dooley also spoke about the need for “honest conversations” and added that “healing can only take place when we acknowledge this pain”.

The pain Dooley speaks of has been felt around the world. A respected church elder and Houston family confidant has resigned, nine of its 16 American church campuses have broken 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 numbers, which have been rumoured to be in decline after several years of global scandals, have been noticeably down the last two Sundays. One production worker said camera crews were struggling to film the weekend’s sermons “without showing all of the empty seats”.

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

This week the Guardian has been made aware of rifts at the highest levels of the church that appear to run deeper than has previously been reported. This split led to the resignations of senior figures in Australia and the United States which began prior to Brian Houston resigning from all positions at the church on 23 March.

Former Hillsong Church leader Brian Houston. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AP

A rift in the church’s factions

Publicly, divisions have played out between what might be termed the spiritual and business factions of the church. The Guardian now understands there has been a split in senior management in the business wing of Hillsong about the direction of the church, including the moving to a future without the Houstons and other senior board members.

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

Sources have stated they feel conflicted about airing this information publicly, but fear the church will not change without external pressure.

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

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

In a leaked transcript of an all-staff meeting on 18 March, Sydney-based Hillsong general manager George Aghajanian noted there were a lot of rumours circulating started by “a few of the elders” who he claims were not involved in internal investigations.

“The elders’ role is to basically pray for people, and to care for people spiritually,” Aghajanian said. “But beyond that they have no government’s [sic] authority in our church.”

It is unclear whether the eldership has been formally dismissed, but sources say that Aghajanian’s comments “reducing them down to nothing more than people who only prayed for the sick” means it has been effectively neutered.

Aghajanian’s apparent attitude towards the elders has upset many staff and raised the ire of many in the “spiritual” faction of the church, and increasingly some within the “business” side of the church.

Sources with knowledge of Hillsong’s power structure fear he could be using the crisis to consolidate his already considerable power.

After several years of scandals in Hillsong churches culminating in the sacking of “celebrity preacher” and head pastor of Hillsong New York City Carl Lentz, the church hierarchy has been restructuring its governance. Local boards are being disbanded and put under the authority of the Australian-based global board, led by Aghajanian, who is described as the man behind the Houstons’ throne. He presides over the church’s business operations.

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

The church has set up unpopular but widespread use of nondisclosure and non-compete agreements, routinely requiring workers and volunteers to sign NDAs, including Hillsong College students, who must sign an NDA each semester. While the church has said this is part of their “internal commitment to facilitate the protection of personal information” and necessary to comply with Australian privacy regulation, critics have long maintained it sets a culture of secrecy and fear, and forces people with complaints to take them in-house.

Those complaints are often investigated by George Aghajanian’s wife, Margaret, the church’s head of pastoral care oversight. She is said to have a substantial role in interpersonal affairs and has investigated a number of incidents that have rocked the church in recent years. Former Hillsong College student Anna Crenshaw, who has alleged she was a victim of sexual assault by a fellow staffer and went through an investigation led by Aghajanian, described repeated questioning, accused the church of sitting on statements, and of a culture where she believes the church has “protected the perpetrator over the victim”.

Last year, a Hillsong spokesperson told Vanity Fair Crenshaw’s complaint led to an internal investigation which “did take some time to complete as there were multiple parties present at the time of the alleged behaviour”. The perpetrator, Justin Mays, who was subsequently convicted of indecent assault, was “stood down” from his positions during the investigation.

The power couple is cited by some Hillsong insiders and regular parishioners as the reason they declined to speak on record. 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 his six churches from the Hillsong umbrella on 27 March.

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

“I believe it is in the best interest of Hillsong Church globally to conduct an internal investigation related to board conduct, to immediately restore the Sydney eldership, to make the findings public, and to dismiss the board members who have protected the institution and not the people,” he said.

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

“Our church has always felt the tension between our need to focus on local ministry versus the expectation to focus on the global initiatives,” he said. “I have heard from pastors all over the world this week expressing their concern for us and offering encouragement and prayers.”

An expert in church governance has also warned that the resignation of Houston may not be enough, as leadership culture is rarely set by a single person.

‘A culture change is almost impossible’

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

“In my experience, whenever there is a sudden or scandalous departure of a pastor and serious questions about the organisation’s culture, there is also a need for a more holistic review of the administration,” he said.

“I’ve seen it so many times. Boards have to ask hard questions about who else should or shouldn’t step down. What about biological family or close friends involved in running the organisation?”

Vanderbloemen said churches in crisis are also prone to overcorrection where new leaders are hamstrung by overcontrolling boards.

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

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

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

A 27-year-old member of Kingdom City, which was until recently Hillsong Kansas City, said she is pleased the church will be returning to focus on local issues and that the Houstons had shown a “drastic change in attitude”.

Another member who has been attending Sydney’s Hills Campus for 22 years said she is staying on for now to fight for reforms, but “there is a group of us who have stated that if Brian returns or any Houston is appointed global senior pastor, we will leave”.

One recently departed Australian church staffer doubts that Hillsong – which has built much of its popularity on highly produced music and stadium spectaculars – will ever be able to reign in its culture of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” and function 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