Hillsong takes baby steps in changing the board


When I am in a naughty mood, I sometimes say that one great advantage of Anglican churches is that our method of church government can’t possibly be biblical. So we can’t have that high an expectation of it. After all, the Bible does not set out, as far as I can tell, a detailed scheme of how we should run churches.

Should we be Presbyterian with two types of elders (teaching and ruling) appointed for life?

Should we be Baptists, with independent churches with elections where members vote in deacons?

Or that strange Anglican system where most deacons are “transitional” to become presbyters (ministers or elders)? And we have an extra layer called Bishops – which role at least is hinted at in the Bible, with Titus instructed by Paul to appoint elders in every Town (Titus 1:5).

Pentecostals charmingly use “oversight” to refer to whoever is in charge of a church – usually a board. That word probably comes from Titus as well, which describes the qualities of an overseer (Titus 1:7-9).

Each bunch of Christians has strange jargon that appears weird to outsiders, even other Christians.

Hillsong and its board

As Hillsong begins its first steps to reform its structures – for example, by modifying how its global board is appointed and moving to have any board member nominate new board members – it is worth examining who is on that board.

Here’s a list of what they do – nothing I say here is critical of them, so I leave their names out.

• The general manager with an extensive business background
• Executive Pastor and Chief Operating Officer at Hillsong East Coast
• A Hillsong Global Pastor who led Hillsong UK for many years
• A Charted Accountant in private practice
• A businessman
• A property developer
• The (now interim) Global Senior Pastor
• A vacancy from the previous Global Senior Pastor
• A Global Online Lead Pastor
• A Hillsong executive for 25 years
• The founder of a large retail business

This appears to be a mix of a “management or executive board” and a “governance board”, two entirely different types of boards. A management board is typically found in smaller organisations or a lower level body and is responsible for day-to-day management.

A governance board is responsible for the big picture. Executives generally do not sit on that sort of board. The Hillsong Global Board with Houston had seven full-time employees on it, a majority. This dominance gives it more of a feel of a management team, there to support the leader.

While there are also four businesspeople connected to the church on the board, it asks a lot of these four to bring a broader perspective. As an in-built minority, they would rarely prevail against the in-house team.

In addition, they have all been handpicked by the leader. In the future, the board will pick its new members. The management majority will have an effective veto. What hope is there of independent thinking or accountability?

Hillsong has transitioned from a vast local church and part of the Australian Christian Churches (ACC) network to a separate global denomination. It is too big now for a management board.

Some reports suggest that Hillsong has both a group of elders and a board. Working out what are the roles of both is urgent. In some churches, a board looks after money, and elders look after ministerial appointments.

But churches are different from companies

Churches reflect the times in which they were born. Churches with bishops were generally founded when kings or emperors had absolute power. The Baptists and Churches of Christ are products of when representative government was established. The Methodists’ system of “itinerancy”, meaning bishops could send ministers anywhere, was influenced by the American frontier. Pentecostal churches reflect the entrepreneurial age in which they were founded.

But all churches have one big issue: balancing the involvements of ministers and attenders. This dilemma can cause boards to be far too big. For example, the Sydney Anglican standing committee has an unwieldy 55 members. It has church leaders and many bureaucrats on it, but they are outnumbered by local church ministers and “laypeople” – ordinary members of local churches.

Presbyterians achieve their balance by having a mix of teaching elders (ministers) and ruling elders (appointed local church members) locally and at higher church councils. Most Protestant denominations have a mixture. The Uniting Church is typical of many other churches in including a mix of elected representatives, officeholders in Synods and their standing committees. The Uniting Church includes representatives of the UAICC – the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Congress – in bodies such as its Triennial Assembly.

Some churches mostly ignore the issue. For example, the Catholic and Orthodox churches use mostly ministers on their boards.

But apart from a tendency to put business people on boards, Pentecostal churches can be similar, tending to be “episcopal” with strong bishop-like leaders given lots of power and “presbyterian” with panels of overseers that perpetuate themselves.

There’s no perfect way to run a church or any ideal structure to put on top. With its history of innovation, Hillsong may come up with something new. But reforming systems and processes, while worthy, is slow.

A structural solution may not be what Hillsong needs right now.

It would be ungracious for me to labour the point, but an independent investigation might be the most effective way for Hillsong to move forward. Engaging experts to see what has happened would give leaders room to creatively lead while ensuring justice is seen to be done.

It’s not just Hillsong that needs independent investigators. Churches have learned the hard way that an independent look at charges against a minister or pastor is the better way to go. In the era since the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, all churches have had to reform how they select and train volunteers and all leaders now have the task of making sure harm and abuse are guarded against and reported. When something goes wrong, part of church governance is to make sure things are followed up.

This suggestion of independent people being given a chance to examine what has happened does not imply that Hillsong has more cases of abuse to surface, or that Brian Houston has done more than has been described, or even that Hillsong is worse than any other church. It’s not. The Royal Commission’s evidence is that Pentecostals were relative cleanskins.

Here’s one thing to do straight away

There is one victim/survivor whose case needs no investigation. As a young boy, Brett Sengstock was abused by Frank Houston but falls outside a strict interpretation of the Redress Scheme, set up by the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

That is because Frank Houston was a minister of the New Zealand Assemblies of God when he visited Australia in 1969 and began his abuse of Sengstock. Hillsong had not been founded, and Frank Houston was not an Australian AoG (ACC) minister at the time.

While Sengstock could sue in New Zealand, according to evidence at the Royal Commission, may I suggest that the three church bodies should come together and pay Sengstock what the Redress Scheme would pay him?