Hillsong senior pastor Brian Houston during an online service in January 2021 (Image: YouTube)

Hillsong’s senior pastor Brian Houston’s decision to step aside from Hillsong boards has raised questions about whether or not several of Hillsong’s entities might now be in breach of the rules governing charities in Australia.

As we reported last week Houston stepped aside as a director from 18 or 19 boards in the days after he was charged by NSW Police with concealing information on child sex abuse. Houston strongly denies the allegation.

Several hours after our story was published the Hillsong pastor emailed a “personal note” to his flock to “let you know” of the church’s corporate changes.

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“I’ve made a decision to step aside from my role on the Hillsong church boards that oversee the governance of our operations,” Houston wrote. “I did this so that these boards can function to their fullest capacity during this season.

“This doesn’t change my role as global senior pastor. I thought it was important to let our church family know in the interests of transparency, and I wanted you to hear it from me directly.”

A ‘personal note’ Brian Houston emailed to his Hillsong followers (Image: Hillsong)

“In the interests of transparency”? “Hear it from me directly”? Houston stepped aside from Hillsong’s entities on August 17, 12 days after being charged by NSW Police. It took him more than a month to be “transparent” and then only after our story.

Houston has developed a corporate-religious code which gives a spiritual coating to the reality that in the secular world he and Hillsong are under pressure as never before. When he refers to the Hillsong board being at its fullest capacity “during this season” he is referring to the fact he is about to face a magistrates court on a charge of concealing information on child sex abuse which could see him imprisoned for up to five years.

Hillsong has also been the subject of damaging media coverage this year, led in the United States by Vanity Fair magazine. The megachurch has twice called in legal firms to help crisis manage issues which go to its morality.

But Crikey can reveal another serious real world consequence of Hillsong’s corporate reshuffle.

Removing Houston from Hillsong boards means that a number of its entities, all registered charities, appear to be in breach of their constitutions. It raises the question of whether or not they are also in breach of the rules governing charities.

Hillsong’s charities hand enormous power to the senior pastor, Houston, in keeping with Houston’s dominant role as its founder and its public face for the past 20 years. The charities’ constitutions embed Houston in a way that makes it almost impossible to dislodge him. 

Six Hillsong charities formalise the senior pastor’s role to appoint and remove directors. They have identical constitutions which stipulate that the board of directors must include the senior pastor and that the senior pastor “shall serve as chairperson of directors”.

There is also a clause which exempts the senior pastor from rules which govern all other directors in terms of  “appointment, terms and removal”.

In the case of three other Hillsong charities, the constitutions formalise that the senior pastor must be a director.

It means that as a result of Houston exiting from Hillsong boards there are now nine Hillsong charities which appear not to fulfil the terms of their constitutions lodged with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC). 

Under ACNC rules a constitution is important. It acts as a formal governing document and is needed for clarity on how a charity “makes decisions and consults members”. It also tells the regulator who and who is not fit and proper to run a charity.

One option may be that the ACNC insists that Houston resign as Hillsong’s senior pastor.

The ACNC told Crikey via email that by law it was not able to comment on the particular circumstances of a charity. 

“Speaking generally, all registered charities have an obligation to notify the ACNC of any changes to their governing document. Changes must be made in accordance with the governing document. When notifying of a change, a charity must provide a copy of its updated governing document,” the ACNC said.

“Certain changes to a charity’s governing document — for example, changes to the purposes — may affect its eligibility to be registered as a charity.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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