Church Defense Strategy: Hillsong Responds to Allegations and Government Investigation

Australian megachurch Hillsong, facing leadership scandals and allegations of financial misdeeds, has embraced a defense strategy remarkably like American televangelists facing investigations and court challenges.

Hillsong’s responses to allegations can be summarized as …

  1. Deny problems exist.
  2. Create churches as limited liability companies as part of a risk containment strategy. Individual churches are overseen by managers.
  3. Threaten to sue critics.
  4. After indisputable evidence emerges, confess, or admit that mistakes have been made.
  5. Request prayer for fallen leaders.
  6. Acquire expert legal advice.
  7. Make personnel and board changes.
  8. Experts release a report denying systemic problems exist.

Hillsong History

In 1983, Brian Houston founded Hills Christian Life Centre. The church would become Hillsong.

Actions taken by Houston more than twenty years ago still haunt the organization. In 1999, Houston learned his father Frank Houston had committed sexual abuse of children but failed to report the criminal behavior to law enforcement. Houston is currently on trial for the failure to report, with a decision expected this year.

In 2019, Hillsong threatened to sue news media for publishing articles critical of Houston:

“Much of this commentary is factually incorrect and highly defamatory, and we call on the media and others to immediately stop making these spurious claims. We have directed our lawyers to review several articles that have published untrue and defamatory claims that smear Pastor Brian’s reputation as a Christian leader. Furthermore, we remind those who seek to spread rumours and baseless information via social media that these comments may also be subject to a defamation action.”

Houston embraced the prosperity gospel and in 2000 he authored the book You Need More Money.

Hillsong began to expand internationally. In 2010, Hillsong Ministries USA, Inc. was incorporated. The articles of incorporation stated, “The Corporation shall have no members.”

On the advice of attorneys such as Stephen Lentz, the father of Carl Lentz, Hillsong would form affiliated churches in America as limited liability companies (LLCs).  Stephen Lentz is a leading advocate for churches to use LLCs as part of a risk containment strategy and describes this strategy in his book The Business of Church.

In 2020, Hillsong fired celebrity pastor Carl Lentz who led the church’s New York City congregation. After the firing, Houston responded, “I’m acknowledging that mistakes have been made and that there are things where we need to get far better, much better. I’m not shrinking back from that.”

2022 was a busy unflattering year for Hillsong.   A documentary Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed premiered on Discovery+.  Brian Houston resigned from his position as Global Pastor of Hillsong after news reports revealed he entered a woman’s hotel room drunk during a conference.  Church whistleblower Natalie Moses alleged that illegal financial transactions had  taken place. Damage control: Hillsong revealed that Murray Baird, former assistant commissioner for the ACNC, was serving as an advisor to the church during a governance review.

In March 2023, Australian member of parliament Andrew Wilkie tabled (made public) Hillsong financial records. Hillsong bank records revealed large travel expenses, lavish gifts, and extravagant honorariums.

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) publicly confirmed an investigation of Hillsong in responding to Wilkie’s criticism.

ACNC Commissioner Sue Woodward announced, “Although it was stated in Parliament that the ACNC has not acted, I can confirm that we are investigating concerns raised about Hillsong Church charities. Hillsong has stated publicly that it is fully cooperating with regulatory authorities.”

At the end of March 2023, during a meeting for church attendees hosted by Hillsong Global Pastor Phil Dooley, Baird reported that accounting firm Grant Thornton had completed a report on Hillsong’s behalf.

Predictably, Baird told the assembled audience: “The Grant Thornton report came out today … What they said was that all the inquiries do not support allegations that there’s been unlawful conduct by Hillsong, or its people and they do not support the concerns that there’s been non-compliance. They go on to say the matters alleged reflect a misunderstanding about facts and details of transactions and arrangements generally.”

Televangelist Responses to Scandal and Investigations

Televangelists have frequently used some of the same strategy as Hillsong by admitting some mistakes were made, seeking expert counsel, announcing a financial or governance review, releasing a report that denies systemic problems exist and making changes to their boards of directors.

In November of 2007, the office of Senator Charles Grassley faxed letters to six TV ministries demanding financial records. Benny Hinn responded to the inquiry by acquiring counsel from two former IRS commissioners Larry Gibbs and Fred Goldberg.

Hiring former government officials as counsel or lobbyists can be incredibly expensive. During one of his TV broadcasts, Hinn admitted spending $5 million fighting the Grassley inquiry.

In 2008, Benny Hinn Ministries expanded its board from three directors to five directors, allegedly to create a more independent board. However, eleven years later, Benny Hinn Ministries returned to just three board members, showing that governance improvements may be temporary.

If 2007 was a bad year for Hinn, it was worse for televangelist Richard Roberts who resigned from his position on the Oral Roberts University (ORU) board of regents.

Several professors sued the university alleging misuses of funds.

Mart Green, Hobby Lobby board member, financially rescued the university which was heavily in debt and a new board of regents was adopted, eliminating many televangelists on the board.

The university obtained counsel from the law firm Miller & Chevalier which specializes in “thwarting investigations.”

The law firm’s website reports, “Given the stigma of being accused of criminal activity, clients seek our early and rapid intervention to thwart investigations before they become public.”

After an audit was conducted, Miller & Chevalier delivered the audit report via a phone call. Plaintiff Trent Huddleston, a former ORU accountant, was unable to obtain a printed audit report as no printed copy was allegedly ever produced.

When attorneys and accountants exonerate misconduct, they may be participating in a coverup.

Televangelists, pastors, priests, church elders, Bible teachers and leaders of Hillsong should follow the biblical command not to cover up sin.

“Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” – Proverbs 28:13