First, Pastor Phil Dooley, thank you for acknowledging our work last night as you set out your vision for Hillsong without Brian Houston. It’s heartwarming to know that Crikey has played a special role in what the church likes to call “this intense season”, aka the implosion of Hillsong.
Pastor Phil, who has taken over from Hillsong founder and ex-global pastorissimo Brian Houston, paid (ironic) tribute to “all the different, you know, media encouragement we’ve been receiving from all the different news agencies around the world who seem to love us”. Pause. “Crikey.”
So kind of him to mention little Crikey alone among the titans of local and international media, but yes, we have developed a special relationship over the past 12 months or so. Just wondering though if that might extend now to Hillsong answering our questions in the future, because it sure hasn’t happened in the past.
Pastor Phil wasn’t the only church official to adopt a jaundiced position towards the media last night. Even the church’s finance director talked about the “horrible environment around media” that Hillsong has endured “in this season”.
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Old habits die hard. Houston never missed a chance to demonise the media. I guess we now know why, given the amount of scandal that has become public via, err, the media. (Houston appears to be spending time in Europe, recovering from the humiliation of being kicked out of his own church and spending his time posting angry “just you wait” social media missives to those who are dismantling his 30-year legacy.)
But let’s not be churlish.
Pastor Phil used his online pulpit-turned-performance space to push one big post-Houston message: there would be “no more secrets”.
This may be a reference to the 10-year secret of Houston’s flirty text messages with a female Hillsong employee that occurred in 2012. Or it might be the three-year secret of his 40 minutes, drunk, in a hotel room with a woman who attended Hillsong’s conference in 2019. Or there is the seven-year secret of a Hillsong pastor’s assistant in New York who has alleged she was raped. Or maybe it’s the payouts that were kept secret. Or perhaps the non-disclosure agreements that Hillsong’s global board has enforced on US pastors. Or perhaps it’s the darkest secrets of all: the past of Houston’s father, Frank, as a serial paedophile.
Where to end? Whatever the case, it’s all over. No more secrets. Hallelujah.
Meanwhile, as it emerged last night, there is the small issue of a global megachurch to save. A number of US churches have pulled out of the Hillsong family since the troubles with Brian Houston emerged. In the past week, a Norwegian church pulled out. Hillsong TV is no more.
Hillsong’s chief financial officer Peter Ridley revealed that donations via tithes and offerings have dropped by 18% compared with this time last year, and donations to the Hillsong Foundation were down by 22%. Church attendances were also down, although COVID was the explanation for that.
Pastor Phil told followers he considered God was on board with not just keeping the church going but in making it stronger. And in case the Holy Spirit needed a hand, Hillsong has appointed corporate consultants to overhaul the church’s governance. To give Pastor Phil his due, in Hillsong terms this is revolutionary.
Hillsong has appointed management consultants and governance experts Insync to advise on the composition of its board, which has to date been a collection of older men with ties stretching back decades to the Houstons.
Pastor Phil spoke of introducing “codes of conduct”, “compliance mechanisms”, “accountability” and — gasp — “diversity”.
Is Hillsong ready for all that sunlight? Let’s see. It’s a mighty collision with the 21st century and with secular ways. But while we have Pastor Phil’s attention and apparent respect, we’d like to let him know that there are more secrets to emerge and more reckonings to come.
Crikey has a suggestion: why don’t you set up a truth commission to deal with the sins of the past and provide proper compensation to those who have been damaged? That could cost the church money — much more than the cheap, secret deals that Hillsong has struck in the past with people who have no power to argue. But it would signal a serious change. After all, Pastor Phil, your finance director did say that Hillsong was debt free and had cash in the bank.
If you have any information please contact David Hardaker at firstname.lastname@example.org