Hillsong: scathing internal letter denounces church response to Brian Houston’s ‘unhealthy’ leadership

A senior member of the Hillsong church has written an explosive letter to the church’s global board criticising the handling of complaints against its former head Brian Houston and his leadership style.

John Mays, the church’s head of people and development, recommended in the letter dated 19 March that Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbie, should be permanently sacked from Hillsong, saying Brian Houston “considered himself beyond disciplinary boundaries” and defied them “without further recourse from those responsible for his discipline”.

“Unfortunately, I believe this typifies the leadership that is foundational to many unhealthy people practices employed within our Church based on my observations over many years,” Mays wrote.

Houston resigned on 23 March, after internal investigations found he had engaged in inappropriate conduct of “serious concern” with two women, which “breached the Hillsong Pastor’s Code of Conduct”.

Mays said employees of the church were asked to believe insulting “dribble” put out by the board to explain Houston’s alleged visit to a woman’s room at a conference in 2019.

He said directors involved in managing the situation should consider resigning, having “failed in their governance and fiduciary obligations”, and called for an independent inquiry into the decisions of the church’s top body.

The church has undergone weeks of tension, during which at least one of the eldership has resigned, and nine of the 16 US branches of Hillsong have split from the church.

Mays said “Brian and his behaviours” had placed a great deal of stress on the board members and that “these challenges would have been intensified on account of Brian’s strong, immovable, leadership disposition together with a distinct lack of personal accountability which has been allowed over many years”.

‘Obvious information gaps’

In the days before Houston’s resignation, the board said it had been dealing with two complaints against him. The church said the first incident “involved inappropriate text messages” sent to a female member of staff about a decade ago.

“At the time, Pastor Brian was under the influence of sleeping tablets, upon which he had developed a dependence,” it said. “He immediately apologised to the person.”

An investigation into the second complaint found that Houston became disoriented at the Hillsong conference in 2019 after the consumption of anti-anxiety medication beyond the prescribed dose, along with alcohol. This resulted in him knocking on the door of a hotel room that was not his, entering the room and spending time with the female occupant.

The investigation found not all parts of the complaint could be sustained, but Houston’s conduct was “of serious concern”.

In his letter, Mays said there were “obvious information gaps and anomalies” in the account of the 2019 incident the board had given to staff.

“I do not believe our employees have bought the narrative within the statement made in the staff meeting,” he wrote. He said the message had been met with “skepticism and mistrust despite urgings to avoid gossip and talk to leadership about any concerns”.

“One insulting example (of many) is that Brian lost his room key so knocked on the lady’s door, a detail he no doubt recalls despite memory loss during the following 40 minutes. Are we really asking our staff to accept such dribble and defend our Church with such?”

Suggesting that a three-month suspension from preaching and requirement that Houston abstain from alcohol would not be a sufficient response, Mays said that “by all accounts Brian considered himself beyond disciplinary boundaries and defied same without further recourse from those responsible for his discipline”.

“We have been led by a leader who considers himself above normal societal expectations in a range of areas including many which might be considered mandatory in nature.”

After his resignation, Houston claimed that his wife, Bobbie, was fired from her position as a global lead pastor by text message, which the church has denied.

Mays wrote that he did not see Bobbie as a victim.

“I believe Bobbie in her capacity as Global Senior Pastor, paid accordingly, should also be accountable for her willingness to tolerate such behaviour and defiance on the part of her co-leader,” he wrote. “I do not see her as a victim in this situation, she has a biblical, professional and corporate responsibility to ensure accountability.”

Mays said the board had not followed through effectively on the penalties it had imposed on Brian Houston.

“There was a finding that disciplinary action was warranted but this was accompanied with what can only be described as inept commitment to enforce,” he wrote.

He said his recommendations on the future of the Houstons and the board members were made “without personal malice”, but it was “what a reasonable person might expect”.

Mays made clear in the letter his principal motive in writing it was to support Hillsong employees.

“There is obviously much to acknowledge in terms of Brian & Bobbie’s legacy etc. which I wholeheartedly celebrate, but that is not the purpose of this particular communication,” he said. “Please resist the temptation to minimise my thoughts on account of such … I simply ask that you consider how we might honour our employees and others by adopting better practices, both now with regard to the situation at hand, and in the future.”

Mays declined to comment further to Guardian Australia, saying only: “Any communication between myself and our boards is confidential and for the benefit of our employees and church community.”

Neither Hillsong nor the Houstons responded to a request for comment.

‘An arrogant employer’

The intervention by Mays illustrates a serious split within the formerly tight-knit Hillsong family. He is a longtime senior member of staff, with a number of family members employed by the organisation. The Houstons stood by the Mays family when John’s son Jason was charged with assault with an act of indecency in Australia. Jason Mays pleaded guilty in January 2020 and was given a two-year good behaviour bond.

In his letter, Mays wrote: “Failure is inevitable but I am inspired by my own son Jason, who in my estimation has done everything right since he did something wrong, despite much injustice.” Jason Mays remained on staff at Hillsong after the incident, which the church justified by noting the magistrate chose not to record a conviction and that some witnesses “did not fully corroborate” the victim’s version of events.

Hillsong has been widely criticised for its reliance on volunteer labour and the goodwill of its parishioner employees.

In his letter, John Mays wrote that Hillsong had “become an arrogant employer,” and that “we have ‘unearned’ and often unreasonable expectations of our employees as an employer on account of their commitment to the cause”.

He recommended a review of the board deliberations around the issues that led to Brian Houston’s resignation, to be undertaken by a forensic, independent, external body “with absolutely no allegiance to Hillsong” or any of its board members.

“I believe that the statement provided to staff should be reviewed and modified to ensure it more authentically reveals the full circumstances of Brian’s indiscretions (subject to his and others right to privacy), the agreements entered into with aggrieved parties (again subject to individual privacy) and the decision-making process that led to such agreements.

Mays also appeared to reflect on another frequent criticism of Hillsong, that it acts more as a corporate entity than a faith-based organisation.

“The perception of Hillsong as a “brand” confirms that we have drifted from our true mandate as a community of believers, the Church, leaving us vulnerable to decision making processes of an unhealthy kind,” he wrote.


Story first published on The Guardian

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Elle Hardy, The Guardian