How Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston’s fall from grace unfolded over five days

Three years ago, Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston tweeted, “Failure is never wasted if you are teachable, humble, and transparent enough to grow and change.”

Yet it was the lack of transparency from Hillsong that has triggered a major rift in the mega-church and led to the unraveling of Mr. Houston Heritage.

Sir. Houston and his wife Bobbie established the church in 1983 in the northwestern part of Sydney.

Today, it is a global empire with ministries, a 24-hour television channel and colleges across six continents and has attracted celebrity worshipers such as Justin Beiber, Chris Pratt and Kylie Jenner.

In January, the 67-year-old announced he would step aside as church leader to defend a criminal charge that he had concealed his father’s sexual abuse of children.

He did not at the time mention two women’s complaints about his own inappropriate behavior.

This angered a group of Sydney-based church elders who felt it was tantamount to a “cover-up” of the board.

Last week, an elder resigned after reading a letter from one of the female complainants to her leadership team.

Unable to limit the leak, acting Hillsong senior global pastor Phil Dooley decided to act.

On Friday, he convened an emergency meeting with 800 global staff to elaborate on what he described as Mr Houston’s “indiscretions”.

The revelations were extraordinary and have sent shock waves through the church, with some asking why Mr Houston was allowed to resign and was not fired.

During the emotional Zoom conference, Pastor Dooley denied any allegations of a cover-up, saying the board acted properly under the circumstances.

He said the decision was made to offer “grace”.

“We have always been a church that sees the grace of God expressed in Jesus and that our desire is not to reveal anyone,” he said.

Pastor Dooley and the Hillsong Global Board said an investigation into two incidents involving Mr. Houston – nearly a decade apart – found he was breaking the church’s moral code for pastors.

The church said Mr Houston was engaged in conduct of “serious concern” and offered an unreserved apology to his “victims.”

In a detailed letter sent to members, the church said Mr Houston sent “inappropriate text messages” to a female employee in 2013.

Pastor Dooley said the lyrics were in the style of “‘If I were with you, I would like to kiss and cuddle you, words of that kind'”.

The female staff were “obviously upset and felt awkward” and complained to Hillsong general manager George Aghajanian before resigning.

Houston immediately apologized and later paid the woman a few months’ salary as compensation.

a man in a suit surrounded by journalists
Brian Houston leaves the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Hearings on Child Sexual Abuse in 2014.(AAP: Mick Tsikas)

The church said at the time that Mr. Houston was under the influence of sleeping pills, on which he had developed an addiction.

Although the church had since helped Mr Houston kick off his addiction, medicine would later play a role in another incident at an annual conference opened by his friend Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

In 2019, Mr. Houston became “disoriented … after taking anti-anxiety medication in addition to the prescribed dose, mixed with alcohol”.

The church said Mr Houston was drinking with a group of people, and after being locked out of his hotel room, he ended up knocking on the door of a woman he met earlier in the foyer of the Pullman Hotel.

The woman, who was not a member of the church, opened the door, and Mr. Houston went into her room and spent 40 minutes there.

Pastor Dooley said “no sexual activity” was reported, but the woman raised it with the church’s leadership team.

The investigation did not uphold all parts of her complaint, but “important elements of the complaint were upheld and the conduct was of serious concern”.

“Eventually, the board found out that Brian had violated the Hillsong Pastor’s Code of Conduct,” the global board said in a statement released over the weekend.

It was decided that Houston would take three months off where he would abstain from alcohol. Pastor Dooley said he unfortunately did not keep his promise.

It was brought to the board’s attention in December – just before he announced he was stepping down due to the trial.

Yesterday, Pastor Dooley convened another emergency meeting to inform staff that Mr. Houston had resigned.

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Hillsong pastor Phil Dooley announces the resignation of founder Brian Houston.

Former Hillsong members, who were rejected by the church for “moral wrongdoing”, told ABC they were devastated by the results against the church leader.

Although the church apologized for his behavior, they thanked Mr. Houston and his wife for their commitment and service to Hillsong and would pray for their well-being.

Pastor Dooley said that the announcement of Mr. Houston’s resignation was one of the most difficult days of his life.

At the helm of the country’s dominant Pentecostal force, Mr Houston Hillsong ruled through scandal after scandal, including allegations of exploitation of workers, abuse of subsidies and anti-gay positions.

But yesterday was the last fall from the mercy of the exposed priest, who has been silent from his home in California since the complaints were sent.

He is not expected to return to Australia until his criminal trial begins in December.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not yet issued a statement about his friend, Mr Houston, whom he thanked in his maiden speech to the federal parliament in 2008.

A man in a suit with gray hair and glasses looks solemn.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not yet made a public statement on Mr Houston’s resignation.(ABC: Adam Kennedy)

Sir. Houston made global headlines after the Wall Street Journal revealed that the White House rejected repeated requests from Mr. Morrison’s office to include Brian Houston on the exclusive guest list for the state dinner.

Pastor Dooley will remain in the top job until a successor is found and recognized that a “change is needed”.

Meanwhile, the church board says it will review its management structure and processes to prevent a recurrence of past mistakes.

As Pastor Dooley told his followers last Friday: “Sin is messy.”

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