(RNS) – Less than a week after the Hillsong board released a statement revealing its cofounder, Brian Houston, had sent inappropriate text messages to a staff member and spent time in a woman’s hotel room, the board of the global megachurch has announced the longtime global senior pastor has resigned.
In a statement posted on its website Wednesday (March 23), the board said it had accepted Houston’s resignation and acknowledged “there will be much emotion at this news.”
Houston, 68, a New Zealand native, founded Hillsong Church with his wife Bobbie in the suburbs of Sydney in 1983. The Pentecostal powerhouse now boasts 30 locations around the world, with an average global attendance of 150,000 weekly. Hillsong’s music program has produced some of the most popular worship songs used in evangelical churches around the world, including “Oceans,” “What a Beautiful Name” and “Shout to the Lord.”
“Irrespective of the circumstances around this, we can all agree that Brian and Bobbie have served God faithfully over many decades and that their ministry has resulted in millions of people across the world being impacted by the power, grace, and love of Jesus Christ,” read the statement signed by the Hillsong Church Global and Australian boards.
News of the complaints against Houston surfaced late last week in the Australian press and in a March 18 statement, the Hillsong board acknowledged it had been “dealing with two complaints made against Pastor Brian over the last 10 years,” and said each was investigated by a board member, or “a body appointed by the global board,” and dealt with confidentially.
The first complaint, an accusation that Houston had flirted with a staff member in text messages a decade ago, the board attributed to Houston’s being under the influence of sleeping medication – “upon which he had developed a dependence,” it said. The board’s statement said Houston apologized to the staff member, who had resigned because of the flirtation. “We also worked closely with Pastor Brian to ensure he received professional help to eliminate his dependency on this medication, and this was achieved successfully,” the statement read.
The second incident, reportedly took place during Hillsong’s annual conference in Qudos Bank Arena in Homebush, New South Wales, in 2019.
The Hillsong board statement said that Houston had become “disoriented” after taking more than the prescribed dose of an anti-anxiety prescription, mixed with alcohol. “This resulted in him knocking on the door of a hotel room that was not his, entering this room and spending time with the female occupant,” read the statement.
There was an investigation “by the integrity unit” after the incident, according to the board, and Houston agreed to step down from leadership for a period and “take specific action,” but ultimately, according to the statement, he did not take all of the agreed-upon steps, “which resulted in the board taking further action in late 2021.”
In January, Houston had announced he was he was taking a leave from his pastoral duties during 2022 in order to prepare for his trial in Australia on charges that he failed to report sexual abuse committed by his father. At that time, neither Houston nor the board mentioned the two complaints against Houston, citing only his need to focus on the trial.
Houston was charged in August 2021 with concealing a serious, indictable offense of another person. Police say his late father, Frank Houston, also a preacher, indecently assaulted a young male in 1970. Court documents allege Houston knew of his father’s abuse as early as 1999 and, “without reasonable excuse,” failed to disclose that information to police. Houston has denied covering up the abuse. His trial will reportedly be held in late 2022.
The board also noted in its statement that it has “committed to an independent review of our governance structure and processes.”
Concerns have arisen over how Houston and Hillsong have handled allegations of abuse within the church and about the conduct of its pastors, some of whom are celebrities in their own rights.
The announcement of Houston’s resignation included multiple references to Bobbie Houston’s leadership at the church, but did not indicate what her role might be going forward.
News of Houston’s resignation came the same day as Australian news outlet Crikey published a story alleging the former pastor of the Hillsong church in Dallas, Texas, Reed Bogard, raped a female staff member of the church. Crikey claims access to a 30-page internal Hillsong investigation into Bogard’s actions.
Bogard and his wife and co-pastor, Jess, abruptly resigned in early 2021, leading to the Dallas church being shuttered for the foreseeable future. Hillsong and Houston initially characterized the resignation as amicable and mutually agreed upon, but church leaders later said the couple had “failed to meet the commitments and standards of Hillsong Church.”
Hillsong did not address request for comment on the Crikey allegations and pointed to the public board statement when asked for further comment on Houston’s resignation.
In May 2021, a former staff member at Hillsong’s New York church came forward with allegations that former pastor Carl Lentz had subjected her to “bullying, abuse of power and sexual abuse” over the course of seven years as she worked as a nanny in Lentz’s home.
In a statement at the time, the Houstons commended the staffer for coming forward and said they welcomed the “opportunity to grow in what is an increasing societal problem.”
Lentz, who had established Hillsong’s Manhattan church with the Houstons’ son Joel, had been fired about six months earlier for “moral failings” and admitted to an adulterous affair. In the aftermath, Hillsong conducted an outside investigation into Hillsong East Coast and Lentz that Houston said found “significant ways” the New York City church “failed to reflect Hillsong global culture.”
And in Australia, Anna Crenshaw, an American student who attended Hillsong College in Sydney, was inappropriately touched by a Hillsong staffer, Jason Mays, the son of the church’s human resources chief, at a party in early 2016.
Crenshaw didn’t tell Hillsong leadership about the incident for two years and told RNS in May that she believes there is “a lack of institutional accountability” and a cultural tendency at Hillsong “to value those ‘higher up’ or more connected.”
Crenshaw said that while Hillsong leadership took her accusations seriously, they were slow to take action and that Houston seemed initially dismissive of Mays’ behavior, saying Mays was “just young, drunk, stupid, and in a bad situation.” Mays pleaded guilty to indecent assault in 2020 and received two years’ probation and mandatory counseling.