Let us Prey: Inside the Secret Hillsong Staff Meeting
Last night, Hillsong church held a private staff meeting. I watched.
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Earlier this week I wrote about Hillsong church — the megachurch founded in Australia, that then spread to other places like America where it boasted adherents like Justin Bieber and Chris Pratt.
It turns out the church had a problem.
A few problems.
Its founder, Brian Houston, had been found to have engaged in “inappropriate” behaviour. One incident happened a decade ago, and “involved inappropriate text messages from Pastor Brian to a member of staff, which subsequently resulted in the staff member resigning.”
The second came in 2019, when Brian Houston “became disoriented after a session at the Hillsong Conference, following the consumption of anti-anxiety medication beyond the prescribed dose, mixed with alcohol. This resulted in him knocking on the door of a hotel room that was not his, entering this room and spending time with the female occupant.”
This added to Brian Houston’s other problem: That the 67-year-old allegedly concealed child sexual abuse carried out by this father in the 1970s. He was charged by Australian police following a two-year investigation:
Police allege that Brian Houston knew of his father's abuse as early as 1999 and ‘without reasonable excuse, failed to bring that information to the attention of NSW Police’.
So yeah — news of these two cases of “inappropriate” behaviour was a problem for Hillsong. First the charges by the cops. Now this. What to do?
Well, over the weekend — they put out a press release, in which they blamed Brian’s behaviour not on Brian, but on alcohol and medication.
Then last night, they did something extraordinary. They held a crisis meeting for Church staff and leadership.
And I got access to the private link.
“Welcome to the Staff Meeting - please do not share this link”
The whole thing took place at 7pm PT. It was an unlisted video on YouTube, with a note: “Please do not share this link.”
Earlier, a contact had shared the link with me.
I sat in the virtual waiting room — one of four others. I’d love to know who they were.
Keep in mind, this was a church whose founder had been charged by the police — who alleged he helped cover up his father’s child sex abuse — and who’d engaged in “inappropriate” behaviour with two women.
How would church leadership be reacting to this, internally?
What was their plan?
What would church leadership tell their staff about their disgraced leader?
I guess I was about to find out.
7pm came, and a man who looked like Australian Weird Al Yankovich took to the stage. His name is Phil Dooley, Lead Pastor of Hillsong Church in Cape Town.
This meeting was apparently being held and broadcast from an Australian hotel.
I’ve transcribed the private staff meeting.
“I appreciate all of you guys greatly,” Phil opens with. His voice is wavering.
“I am going to read a statement to you, which is from our Hillsong Church global board, and our Australian board. This statement that I am reading will be sent to our church, basically as I am sharing it with you — and as soon as possible to our global churches around the world.
“Dear Church, we would like to advise you that pastor Brian Houston has resigned as global senior pastor of Hillsong church and the board has accepted his resignation.
We understand there will be much emotion at this news, and we all share these feelings. Irrespective of the circumstances around this, we can all agree that Brian and Bobbie have served God faithfully over many decades and their ministry has resulted in many millions of people across the world being impacted by the power, grace and love of Jesus Christ.”
I am sitting watching this, wondering if the two women who came forward with stories about Brian were watching. I wondered what they’d think. Would they “agree that Brian and Bobbie have served God faithfully”?
What about the kids abused by his father?
Frank Houston routinely sexually abused boys during the 60s and 70s. In 1999, the mother of one of his victims reported the abuse to the Assemblies of God organisation.
Who was the National President of Assemblies of God in Australia back then? Brian Houston.
Legally, Brian needed to report that crime — but chose not to. That’s why police charged him last year.
What would those kids think? Would they agree that Brian had served God faithfully?
Anyway — Phil Dooley went on:
“Hillsong Church was birthed out of Brian and Bobbie’s obedience and commitment to the call of God, and we are extremely grateful for all that Brian and Bobbie have given to build his house. We ask that you continue to pray for them and the entire Houston family during this challenging time.
As you can appreciate, there is still much to be done and our church leadership continue to seek God for his wisdom as we set the course for the future.
We acknowledge that change is needed. We have committed to an independant review of our governance structure and processes, understand that this is a time of humble reflection, and we are committed to doing what is necessary to show that God is honoured, and our eyes are fixed on Jesus.
We value your ongoing support and prayers, we are also praying for our entire church family at this time.”
He stops reading the statement. It’s over.
The main takeaway? The founder of the megachurch has resigned — and we should honour and respect him a lot. While there is going to be an internal investigation of some kind, so far there’s been no apology in this staff meeting. No acknowledgement of what went on.
“I am now going to hand over to Pastor Robert and he is going to share a few thoughts and then we are going to pray — and wherever you are I ask you also pray with us.”
At this point Pastor Robert comes onto stage. According to Hillsong’s website, “Robert Fergusson is one of the key team at Hillsong Church, where he has been on staff for over 30 years.”
“Thanks Phil,” says Pastor Robert.
I assume this is the bit where they will acknowledge the police investigation, or the victims of Brian Houston’s “inappropriate” behaviour.
I sit back and watch.
302 people are viewing the private church meeting now, and I’m reminded that Hillsong Church has a lot of staff because they’re big.
They have churches in Australia, America, Indonesia, Japan, Canada, Latin America, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Uruguay, and the United Kingdom.
Pastor Robert continues: “Can I just say that I think Phil is doing an outstanding job.”
The staff in the room at Hillsong erupt in a sea of righteous clapping. He goes on:
“Look, as — uh — Phil has just said, this is a really difficult season and difficult day. and no doubt this is a huge shock for people. So I want to do three things, and it’s not going to be long.
I want to talk about Brian and Bobbie — and honour them. And number two, I want to give you some practical advice on what to do in these situations.
Having said that, there is going to be lots of practical advise given over the next few weeks as well and of course yesterday — was it yesterday? — Phil talked about what to do in a crisis, something you could reflect on.”
This word “crisis” is going to come up again and again.
“And then I want to pray, because I think at this point the best thing for any one of us to be involved in is to seek God. We need his wisdom and we need his strength, we need his courage, we need his peace, the other things we need to get through this season.
So, can I also just say over the next few weeks there are lots of things to be done, lots of processes and no one is going to be — none of us are going to be perfect in it all.
Phil has made it perfectly clear in the last few weeks he is just going to do his best, and that is what we can all want to happen. I am just going to try and do my best.
Can I just say that about Brian and Bobbie. I want to —
In the announcement that just — and the letter will go out — we honour Brian and Bobbie for what they have done.”
“We honour Brian and Bobbie for what they have done.”
Huh. Interesting approach, honouring the one involved in “inappropriate” behaviour. I wonder when they’ll honour or even acknowledge any victims. He goes on:
“On a personal level, I would not be in Australia if it were not for the Houston family. I was called specifically to work with them, so in a sense as Brian has resigned, it is an end of something. For me, personally.
But I would not be here, so I am immensely grateful — and I would not be standing on this platform talking to you wonderful people if it was not for their faith, their belief in me, for the opportunity they have given me, and I will always honour them for that.”
“I will always honour them.”
FFS. The circle jerk goes on.
“And the reality is, we wouldn’t be sitting in this building were it not for the vision that they have had over many years, and may I say is not just a temporal vision, it’s an eternal vision. And so while things will change and things will stop, a lot of things will never stop….”
What the fuck is he talking about? Brian’s actions? Are they stopping or never stopping? Is he talking about their investigation? The police investigation? Apologies to the victims involved? What the hell.
“… because they are eternal. So I just want to — I am going to pray for them in a minute — but I wanted to just say that personally, I want to honour Brian and Bobbie and their family for all that they mean for me, for all that they given to me. All that they have enabled in my life.”
But the fact is, this is a difficult situation…”
Okay. Here he go. He’s about to take ownership of things, surely. Acknowledge what happened — why Brian Houston just quit — and perhaps express some sort of emotion or sadness for those effected by Brian.
I remember that press release: “Which subsequently resulted in the staff member resigning…”
I wonder if they’d been invited to this meeting?
“And uh, Phil talked about crisis and you have heard me talk about it before, but the Bible — I have been a Christian for 48 years, and I have been involved in these crisis on numerous occasions. And whenever I go through tough days, or seasons, I do three big things. I want to encourage you to do them.
Number one, I focus on Jesus.
That is why are going to pray.
I get on my knees more than I did before. I seek his council. Fixing our eyes on Jesus. The author and the finisher or our faith.
The second thing I do, is ground my life in the truths of the word of God. And I would encourage you to encourage people to do the same. Focus on Jesus, his kingdom his church, his plans, his purposes, his character, his life, and then ground our lives on the truths of the Word of God
Because it is from the Word of God that we gain stability and certainty in a time of uncertainty. And we gain wisdom for life. And so I look at what the Bible says about these situations.
And thirdly, I remind myself of the eternal promises of God. Even though this, uh, is a shock, the fact is — what God said yesterday, and a thousand years ago, and an eternity ago will still apply tomorrow, and the next year, and the next 1000 years.
And he says he will build his church, and he will build his church. And so these crisis come…”
Crisis, crisis, crisis. These people are utterly incapable of introspection or perspective. It’s maddening to listen to. It’s all so incredibly selfish. This is their crisis. Let’s be clear: they only care about themselves. There is no apology here.
“… and I always remind myself of those three big things, then I go to the Scriptures, and then in Corinthians it says, Paul talking to the church, in this present crisis — he does not tell us what it is — he just says there is a crisis. And when the Bible has statements like that they are there for a reason.
And they basically tell us that crisis will come. They will come. So shocking… but not surprising.
Secondly, it says that crisis will vary. It was as personal crisis. And everybody is going to react differently to this crisis, but crisis come and crisis vary, but look at what is says: It is a present crisis. So it will go. And it says this is a season, it’s not a — a — long term thing. It is a present crisis.
So I wrote down a few weeks ago a few thoughts from that verse, and then we are going to pray, but I just thought I would read the to you — this is what I drew. And I am just encouraging you to fix you eyes on Jesus, go back to the scriptures, write your own thoughts. And then remain and remind yourself of the promises of God.
And it says this. I just wrote this down from 1 Corinthians: ‘Use your common sense. I have no command from the Lord.’ In other words, ‘Guys, use your brain here. The Bible says there is a time to speak and time not to speak, so use your common sense.’
Number two: Think how your choices will effect other people. That is a really important one because — you may be shocked — but what you say and what you do will impact the way other people do things…”
I don’t think he’s talking about Brian Houston here. I think he’s talking about damage control. This is fucking insane.
“Number three: Take simple steps to reduce trouble. Ha! You see, an argument, a discussion that is inappropriate, just take simple steps to pour oil on troubled water.”
Again, not Brian’s actions. Damage control.
“Bring wisdom. Number four: Choose the best path for you….”
You, you, you. Me, me, me.
“Phil talked about this, about looking after yourself. In this context, it says “If you do marry you have not sinned.” That is a good thing to know!”
At this point I am reminded of America’s hipster Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz, who was fired (along with his wife, for some reason) after he had an affair. This was the guy who baptised Justin Bieber.
“A new report has now detailed one alleged affair in which he pretended to be a sports agent...”
Anyway, back to the private meeting:
“Choose the best path for you. What is going to work for you.
And then number five I wrote, ‘expect God to turn up’. Expect God to turn up. Because he always does.
So can I just encourage you just those three big things: Fix our eyes on Jesus, ground yourself in what God says, remind yourself of the eternal promises. Doesn’t take away from the difficulty. You will still experience the shock and, uh — we are going to pray. So why don’t we stand.
And, uh, why don’t we do exactly what the Bible says, raise our hands wherever you are — people in other places — if you are on your own, raise your hand. I am going to pray, first for Brian and Bobbie and their family, and then we will pray for this church, Amen?
‘Father, I pray for Brian and Bobbie, I thank you for their vision, I thank you for their service over the years. The impact they have had, as we’ve said, on millions of lives including ours — and Father we thank you for them, and we pray that in this incredibly difficult season, you would give them peace, wisdom and grace. And hope. In the name of Jesus. I pray you would cover them in a way we could not cover them, and help them in a way we could not help them.
And Father I pray for the church, Hillsong church, that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank you father that you sent your son to save us, and to build your church, your people and to extend your Kingdom and your word says nothing on Earth can stand against that purpose and that plan.
And so I want to rejoice that you are on the throne and you will build your church, and your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. It will be done.
And I pray father that individually, right around this room and those people listening you would just turn up in our lives, and give us the necessary courage, strength, grace to do the right thing. And to live more like your son Jesus Christ.
And to glorify him in all that we do. We ask it in Jesus’ name.’
And everybody said... Amen.”
A murmur of “Amens” rings out. A ripple of agreement.
“God bless ya,” are his final words.
Pastor Robert leaves the stage.
Australian Weird Al comes back.
“Thank you Robert.
Um, so for the rest of the day, ah, I think all of us probably have a need for time of reflection, time to talk, time to continue to pray, so you have the opportunity to do that — whatever you are needed to do work wise, if you are able to put that aside that is okay.
This needs to be a time where we are just there for each other. We obviously have our pastoral team to talk with you, and that is probably going to be an unfolding journey for all of us.
There is initially shock to things like that, and there is all kinds of emotions, and this will be something that we process. And so we have our pastoral team available to everybody — and maybe you have a trusted friend you can talk to.
But, I wanted to read again just this passage I shared on Sunday from Job.
Who knew that Job could bring us hope in this time? But Job 14: 7-9 says, ‘For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down that will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease, though its root grow old in the earth and its stump die in the soil yet at the scent of water it will bud. And put out branches like a young plant.’
And we are believing that through all of this, as we remain close to Jesus, that we will embrace and be covered in that water, of his holy presence, and that will cause us to grow. And fruit to come forth from our lives and our church, and can I just say for me personally in the midst of this hard, hard situation I have found God’s presence so immensely close.
And I know for all of us, this is a time where I believe he wants to continue to do a deep work in us. In our church yes, but in your life. And so I encourage you to take time to dig deep in God. That he shows you things through this that will make all of us more worthy servants of Jesus, and able to carry all that he is calling us to carry in building his church going forward.
So bless you guys, we love you all, and let’s continue to pray for our church together. And I am going to show up on Sunday, and I hope you guys will too…
[The audience laughs]
… and we will show up the Sunday after that, and the one after that, and we will just give it our best each Sunday.
God bless you guys, thank you guys.
The audience claps.
I let out a frustrated sigh about a church in utter denial of reality. A church desperately — yet cunningly — trying to hold their shit together.
This is more Scientology than Christianity.
Let us Prey
The number of times they “honoured” Brian was mind-blowing. Yes, this was meant to be an internal video for leadership only.
But not once did they even come close to mentioning what Brian had done — or allegedly done — and they certainly didn’t mention or apologise to any of his victims. Those he engaged in “inappropriate” behaviour with.
They made it feel like a crisis (their words, not mine) had mysteriously happened to them.
The whole thing was an utter denial of the truth.
I found myself wondering how many in the Hillsong congregation are utterly sheltered from what actually happened. That anything has happened. It’s as if they are in a cult, shut off from the news and reporting around this. And if what I just watched is anything to go by, then Hillsong is utterly focussed on one thing and one thing alone: keeping its members in the dark about what is going on.
Because what I just watched paints them as hapless victims in all this.
I’m reminded of the Instagram post Brian Houston’s daughter put up a few days ago:
“I choose coffee.”
About 800 other accounts poured into the comments commending her on her bravery. Many were members. Some had millions of followers — celebs and influencers:
@Connarfranklin — 241,000 followers, @elyse — 28,000 followers, @jenjohnson20 — 413,000 followers.
You get the idea.
None of them had a word to say about what Brian had done. What his father had done. Why his son, a church leader, hadn’t gone to the police. Why any of this was happening.
These are not Christians. These are grifters.
I think it’s important to mention not all Christians are like this.
In this Webworm piece I talk to a very different Christian, Frank Ritchie. One who isn’t a grifter, but someone who actually appears to have listened to the words of a guy called Jesus.
As usual, I will keep Webworm updated as more things come to light about Hillsong, Brian Houston, and other Church leadership.
If it’s not already clear, I hope one day this church doesn’t exist anymore. It’s rotten from the inside out. Brian Houston proved that — and his church’s reaction proves it even further.
PS: You can share this if you like. I’d love you to: www.webworm.co/p/secrethillsong
Back in the 80-90's Hillsong was hugely influential in the New Zealand Pentecostal scene - they even had their own branded church in Auckland (which later became independent and re-branded as LIFE). However, the concert-style light-rock singing, the elimination of "pentecostal" manifestations, and un-preachy preaching was widely accepted - and is still pretty much the default setting now. Image was very important (mind you, the Pentecostals really did need a modern look). However, the importance of image meant image-control (or damage control, as the case may be), and things like transparency and accountability were often sacrificed as a consequence. It was during and soon after this period that the New Zealand Pentecostal churches had their own spate of sex scandals involving the senior pastors of large churches. I remember being called on to help a church in such a situation; and it was then that I learned that these churches and movements had very few protocols for seriously dealing with professional sexual abuse (which is what most of these cases are). And there appeared to be zero knowledge or best-practice in working with the victims of the abuse. Professional sexual abuse is, of course, found in many professions - not just religion - but I discovered that the medical, legal, psychiatric, educational and other professional organisations were decades ahead of the Pentecostals in having proper processes for achieving best possible outcomes for victims and appropriate disciplinary procedures for the errant professional. In reading the "news" release from Hillsong this week, and your transcript of their staff meeting, it is obvious (and tragic) that very little appears to have changed - image wins.
After reading this excellent piece, it’s crystal clear to me that these people at aren’t Christians at all. As you said, David, they’re grifters with zero self-reflection. I’m an atheist, but I don’t hate Christianity and Christians. I know there are those who identify as Christians and live their values, instead of just claiming they do. My next door neighbors of 18+ years are a prime examples. I have my own deep-seated skepticism regarding organized religion in general, but Hillsong goes beyond that. Way beyond.