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Hillsong Scandals

Hillsong Church All Laughter and Applause as Financial Scandals Addressed

Hillsong Church has faced innumerable mounting scandals from their years of excess finally coming to account. The empire built by the Houston brand is crumbling as these scandals mount. Currently, Brian Houston awaits the verdict in Australia over allegations that he (in violation of Australian law) illegally covered up his homosexual father’s pedophilia, it was recently revealed that he was charged with a DUI in 2022 just before his departure from Hillsong. Yet the empire Houston departed is equally mired in scandals. Australian MP Andrew Wilkie has taken Hillsong to the woodshed over the lavish expenditures and other misappropriations the corporate church made throughout the previous decade.

Summary of Financial Scandals

The following is a list of the uncovered financial scandals from Hillsong which have been revealed in recent months. The AUD:USD exchange rate is currently $1.49. Assume all amounts are in Australian Dollars, not US Dollars.

1.   Lavish vacations and travel expenses for staff. This includes Brian Houston’s vacation to $150K trip to Cancun, fine dining, airfare, and luxury fashion items.

2. Labeling of musicians as “pastors” as clergy for tax benefits. This allegation stems from whistleblower Natalie Moses. Musicians were also paid royalties from Hillsong for use of their music. This would include Joel Houston. Hillsong artists make hundreds of thousands and upwards of over a million in music royalties, which would include Brian Houston.

3.   Purchase of real estate using tax exempt monies. This would include Melbourne’s Festival Hall, through a loan to another Hillsong entity for $15.7 million.

4. Laundering of moneys through international charities. Hillsong possesses a host of entities overseas which money from Australia could be funneled through without the oversight of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC). This money could then be transferred to personnel, like Brian Houston.

5.    Receipts of $1 million per year from Compassion International for access that they label to be a “Strategic Ministry Alliance.” These transactions occurred for three years and are no longer ongoing.

6.  Cash Honorariums from global churches to the Hillsong Family. Essentially, these churches purchased “franchise” rights to become under the Hillsong network. These would include Judah Smith’s Churchome and Christ Hodge’s Church of the Highlands in Alabama.

7.  Large cash payment or gifts to false teachers under the guise of honorariums. TD Jakes and Joyce Meyers are the most notorious of the recipients, each receiving hundreds of thousands. Other false teachers associated with this scheme include Pricilla Shirer, Loui Giglio, and Carl Lentz.

8.  The “resignation” of 153 staff members to save $9.7 million annually. Staffing bloat correlates with other extravagant spending.

9.    Cash gifts to board members and staff. While it is unsurprising that these claims would be made against the Houston family, current Global Senior Pastor Phil Dooley was also included in this allegation. Everyone at Hillsong is on the take.

Australian Law

Under Australian law, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) was created in December 2012 to regulate charitable organizations. Large organizations must file audited annual financial statements with the ACNC. The ACNC has confirmed that Hillsong is under an investigation pertaining to these scandals. Their investigation could lead to civil penalties. Australia implements fines based on Penalty Units, which are currently $275. The ACNC may penalize upwards of 60 Penalty Units for severe violations. If the investigation were more serious and criminal, the ACNC would likely refer their Hillsong investigation to the proper agency.

Australian tax law permits Exempt Fringe Benefits, which applies to the income of clergy from individual churches. So if a pastor’s salary is $75,000 and they receive $20,000 in mortgage assistance, that $20K is tax exempt. For Hillsong, they were labelling their artists as pastors to avoid their remittance of taxes.

The law also regulates how charitable donations are expensed. When Hillsong purchased Festival Hall, they contend that it is for its use as a weekly worship facility. However, Festival Hall is essentially a concert venue six days a week. The question then becomes whether the use on Sunday of a concert venue justifies a loan to an associated entity to purchase the venue.

Hillsong Responds

[H/T Protestia for audio and highlights of Hillsong’s meeting]

On March 30th, Hillsong hosted a business meeting as the financial scandals mounted to address MP Wilkie’s revelations before their congregants. When assembling to conduct a Q&A session regarding financial scandal, whereby the donations of the Hillsong attendees was misappropriated was not the somber or embittered environment that one might expect. Logically, if one realized that their money given in good faith was used to line the pockets of the swindlers or used in some racketeering scheme, it should naturally engender anger and hostility.

Instead, Hillsong calls together the meeting with soft music, a meet and greet, laughter, and applause—applause and laughter which was constant throughout the session.

Hillsong trotted out Murray Baird, a previous Assistant Commissioner and General Counsel for the ACNC, to downplay the financial scandals by likening it to a learning process. Because of the size of Hillsong, it should be expected that the ACNC would have questions. The excessive spending was likened to being out of bounds in soccer. The lawyer contended that they were cooperating with the regulators as to where they were out of line and would take corrective measures accordingly to remain in compliance. He also denied the MP’s allegations yet was brief in his answers. Essentially, Baird is a former regulator hired to remedy the situation through his insider knowledge and expertise.

Then Stephen Crouch, Chairman of the Board speaks to the crowd. Crouch has served since 2016, just like Phil Dooley. After touting the legacy of Hillsong, Crouch got on stage and said:

Our mission to change the world doesn’t come without opposition or challenge. We set out to be a contemporary church with a modern expression of timeless and ancient messages of Jesus. Who would have thought a church at the bottom of the globe would have such an impact? In this country, the Christian faith is on trial. Our faith in Jesus is being examined. There is a focus on us as Christians and on the organization of church, not just Hillsong Church, but all churches and all Christians. Well, this sometimes can feel unfair. We recognize there are many historical reasons why the world has become disillusioned.

Perhaps people are disillusioned by churches operating as global money laundering syndicates, but nonetheless, Crouch is treating their financial scandals as an attack against their church and a setback. He apologizes for the credit card transaction “falling short of the mark.” He lastly announced Peter Toganivalu’s resignation from the board, to which he received applause for his service. Peter Toganivalu and his wife serve as youth pastors.

Hillsong had Amanda Tate and Jessica Martin address the people, who rather than speak as lawyers or managers, they speak rather casually about these serious financial allegation. Tate defends Hillsong against the sexual allegations revealed in August of 2022 and subversively denies the allegations of Natalie Moses, though not by name. Martin opens with a joke that she is used to teaching children and receives laughter before telling her story growing up in the church. Martin is a lawyer yet does not present herself as one to a congregation regarding a legal matter. She speaks as a friend, not as legal counsel.

Martin would deny the Cancun vacation was private and suggest it was for a “global strategy meeting” involving fifteen attendees. While she concedes that the expenditures might be unwise—due to being in the “middle of a pandemic,” but she does not admit that they were fraudulent or excessive. Martin would then obfuscate that Hillsong Global paying out gifts was transparent but did not interfere with the Australian Church before stating that the amounts were negligible compared to the global budget.

From my understanding, the annual global budget allowed to the global senior pastors for gifts was around 17 to 120,000 [dollars], depending on the preceding variable factors…if you see that in relation to the scale of the global budget it was about 0.1% to 0.18%. Apologies for the hesitation. I’m not an accountant. I’m a lawyer.

Basically, she is calling the honorarium scheme an accounting error, yet the nickels and dimes add up eventually.

Now the gifts cited by the member were not necessarily all in the one year, and the context is missing from the statements. What is also absent is that some of those recipients of the gifts who have been shamed in the statement, genuinely thought those personal gifts thanks to them were from Management of the organization and they were completely unaware that they were gifts from you, from the church. So I’m so sorry for the hurt and embarrassment experienced by those recipients.

Martin claims that the recipients, like TD Jakes and Joyce Meyers, have been wrongfully shamed for not knowing where the money came from, as if they care. The context is that they received money.  Megachurch paying prosperity preachers to travel and provide one sermon for an extortionate price. That is the scandal. She then contends that the skateboards that enraged Parliament were legitimate artwork given as a gifts for the pastors. A total of 156 were purchased at a price of $85. The $6350 Cartier bracelet was a gift for Bobbie Houston’s 25 years of service, to which she received applause.

Phil Dooley then steps in to sell Hillsong Church to the crowd and tout the changes in policies going forward, again emphasizing this as a struggle for expansion. Dooley would thank Peter Ridley, the Chief Financial Officer at Hillsong Church, whose conduct led Natalie Moses to become a whistleblower.

Conclusions

Hillsong Church is a corporation masquerading as a Christian church. Apart from Brian Houston and Carl Lentz, the same characters who oversaw the financial mismanagement will continue to helm the organization. The financial indiscretions they confess were trivialized or obfuscated for being out of context and their followers largely appeared to swallow the answers they were given. In business, this is called “controlling the narrative.” Rather than Hillsong being branded as the racketeering “McChurch” operation they are, Hillsong executives came out and played the victim and touted the “good works” they had committed since inception. Rather than treat Andrew Wilkie’s statements as a cause to repent, they instead insisted that Wilkie was making a mountain out of a molehill while tacitly acknowledging mistakes were made—just not as bad as it looks. Financial impropriety is merely a growing pain to a global mission. Why would Hillsong offer anything different?

The tragedy is those in the crowd who attended and believed the lies they were being sold. They do not care that their money was wasted or enriched malefactors. They just want to be part of a movement. Because Hillsong is a global behemoth with 50 million people singing their songs every week and 15 million YouTube subscribers, its followers are sycophants in their desire to be a part of something grand. They worship the movement, not Christ. As Hillsong churns on donations and members, shudders locations globally, there remains a devoted following intent on defending the integrity of the Titanic as it sinks to the bottom of the Lake of Fire.

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