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Hillsong Church’s Brian Houston announces investigation into claims of financial abuse

Hillsong Church’s Brian Houston announces investigation into claims of financial abuse

Hillsong Church Senior Pastor Brian Houston of Sydney, Australia giving remarks at Catalyst Conference in Atlanta, Georgia on Friday, October 7, 2016. | Catalyst

While defending his denomination’s “record of excellence in financial accountability globally and an unwavering commitment to financial integrity,” Hillsong Church’s Global Senior Pastor Brian Houston said his church will review recent allegations of gross financial abuse by pastors.

“I am writing to you today because of several stories circulating online alleging a serious abuse of trust — the misuse of church funds by Hillsong Church employees,” Houston began in a letter sent to members Monday that was also shared with The Christian Post.

“We are particularly grieved that, in many cases, inaccurate accounts in these stories have been reported as if they are true. Hillsong Church strongly refutes that our culture casually allows for such gross misuse of church funds. In fact, these stories are especially troubling since Hillsong has a record of excellence in financial accountability globally and an unwavering commitment to financial integrity,” he said.

The U.S. arm of Hillsong Church was recently rocked by allegations of financial abuse from former members who said pastors frequently splurged tithe money on lavish expenses. This accusation came on the heels of a sex scandal that erupted at the Hillsong NYC location.

Former members of the church, including Hillsong LA Service Pastor Nicole Herman, told the New York Post that many pastors at Hillsong NYC frequently used tithe money loaded on debit-like “PEX” (pre-paid expense) cards on things like expensive restaurant meals, designer clothes and weekly manicures while living in a high-priced building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Herman, who left the church two years ago, told the publication that she personally loaded the funds onto the PEX cards as directed by leaders.

“I was instructed to fill them,” Herman, who helped found Hillsong’s California branch in 2013, said. “We had a team count the tithes after every service and they would allocate X amount of money for the PEX cards.”

The reloadable cards were given to volunteers to make purchases for the church and pastors, said Herman. Church staff, such as former Hillsong NYC Pastor Carl Lentz, who was fired last November over “leadership issues” and moral failures, including being unfaithful to his wife, also received their own Hillsong credit cards.

Houston argued, however, that his church has systems in place to prevent the abuse of tithes and offerings, and even though he's confident that many of the allegations circulating about the church are “not true,” the church will “closely examine” the claims and take action if necessary.

“Global leadership has always taken the stewardship of the tithes and offerings entrusted to us seriously and we have numerous structures in place to ensure financial accountability and integrity,” he said. “Even though we know many of the stories circulating are not true, we are still obligating ourselves to closely examine the claims in line with our ongoing commitment to financial integrity.

"We have always placed a high value on good governance and stewardship, and if we discover a breach related to this we will take strong and swift action. We have a biblical responsibility to be excellent stewards of the ministry funds that have been committed to our care at each of our church locations.”

Hillsong Church, which reports having 131 global campuses, became a denomination in 2018. In 2019, the church reported nearly $96 million in revenue, of which 76% came from donations. Most of those donations, 77%, were classified as tithes and offerings.

“Budgets, set by each location and approved by the independent Hillsong Global Board, are adhered to so that we can ensure resources are applied to specific areas of ministry. Staff are required to spend within pre-approved budgets and careless spending is not permitted,” Houston said.

Despite recent allegations of financial abuse among U.S. pastors using expense and credit cards, Houston noted in his letter that credit and PEX cards are reconciled and reviewed monthly as part of their internal controls.

“Personal expenditures are not permitted to be charged to church credit cards. If this occurs, it is addressed and the church is reimbursed for such expenditure in a timely manner,” he noted.

He also explained that staff members are paid “moderate” salaries, which “align with comparable roles in similarly situated charitable organizations. Our Global Remunerations Committee reviews all senior staff compensation on an annual basis.”

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