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Hillsong Church purges global board to make room for diversity, include at least 40% women

George Aghajanian, Phillip Denton, Gary Clarke, Nabi Saleh
Hillsong Church's Global Board members who have transitioned from the board (clockwise from L-R): George Aghajanian, Phillip Denton, Gary Clarke and Nabi Saleh. |

Stephen Crouch, the accountant who replaced Brian Houston as chairman of Hillsong Church in 2021, announced a raft of changes Tuesday meant to improve leadership in the denomination, including a purge of several directors from the church's global board to create a more diverse body that will be at least 40% women.

The purge has left only five members standing on the global board, which church leaders plan to make a 10-member body after the update. Tolu Badders, Hillsong NYC's chief operating officer and executive pastor, is the lone woman among the five.

Tolu Badders
Tolu Badders is chief operating officer and executive pastor at Hillsong NYC. |

Sibo Nxumalo of Hillsong Africa, Russell Dacre of Hillsong UK and deputy board chair, Hillsong Interim Global Senior Pastor Phil Dooley and Crouch currently stand with Badders as the remaining board members.

Speaking during a meeting with church members at the Hillsong headquarters in Australia, Crouch said longtime Hillsong General Manager George Aghajanian, Hillsong London Lead Pastor Gary Clark, Property development company Hillscorp Executive Director Phillip Denton and Gloria Jean's Coffee Chairman Nabi Saleh have all "transitioned" from their roles on the Hillsong Global Board.

Stephen Crouch, Hillsong Church
Stephen Crouch is chairman of the Hillsong Global Board. |

Crouch added that in the past few months, Benjamin Houston, the son of the disgraced Hillsong founder Brian Houston, and International Ministry Director Darren Kitto resigned from their global board roles.

The board's shakeup comes some five months after Hillsong Phoenix Lead Pastor Terry Crist called for an investigation of the global board of the Australia-based church network due to a governance dispute in the wake of Brian Houston's resignation in March.

Houston, who co-founded Hillsong in 1983, resigned on March 23 after it was revealed that two women made severe complaints of misconduct against him in the last 10 years. His resignation also followed a series of misconduct scandals involving other Hillsong Church leaders in the U.S. and Australia.

The Christian Post reported that less than two weeks after Reed Bogard abruptly resigned as lead pastor of the now-defunct Hillsong Dallas in January 2021, an internal investigation commissioned by Hillsong Global showed that the married father of three was accused of rape by a junior female staffer with whom he had a monthslong affair while serving at Hillsong NYC years earlier.

The report also highlighted abuses by several other leaders at Hillsong churches in the U.S. and how the global board failed to effectively address the abuses.

Terry Crist
Pastor Terry Crist speaks at Hillsong Phoenix in Arizona on March 27, 2022. |

Crist said he wanted Hillsong to publicly release the information about misconduct in the church, but the global board took steps to protect the church's brand.

"As information began to leak out as to what was in the report, and as the global board made the decision to increase financial controls within the churches, lead pastors were suddenly asked to sign NDAs and non-competes. Some of us couldn't do that in good conscience," Crist said.

Hillsong Church leaders, including Dooley, said they conducted a comprehensive review of their systems of governance with help from outside professionals who gave them helpful recommendations.

"I'm confident we'll work through the largest transition we've ever faced as a church together. But tonight, we need to address certain issues so that we can walk confidently toward our future," Crouch said in the beginning of his address to the church.

He highlighted five recommendations that came out of the board review process: the completion of a clear transition of global senior pastor to provide needed clarity for the church; an updating of the board appointment and renewal process, including a global governance framework and accountabilities; overseeing the development of a new strategic plan with clear goals and priorities; and placing greater emphasis on trust, culture and health in the church by starting with the board.

Phil Dooley
Phil Dooley is the interim global senior pastor of Hillsong Church. |

Murray Baird, the former assistant commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission, which began investigating the church in March to verify if it is compliant with Australian regulations governing the operation of charities, was a part of the Hillsong Church governance review process. He said they didn't recommend a complete overhaul of the board because it would have been too risky.

"We didn't recommend a complete spill and fill. We took the view that there was a really important memory within a complex organization and that if you completely change the board all at once, you would lose some of those things and you might even run a risk of not having that understanding of background that's important as you go forward," he said in a recorded interview presented to the church.

"We wanted to suggest that there should be a new governance framework with agreed accountabilities. So what we mean by that is simply a board charter that says what the board is responsible for and who they are accountable to and how they will communicate that accountability," Baird added.

"We recommended that there be a clear strategic plan with a set of priorities. And really, it's the board where the buck stops for strategic plan. So we recommended that the next iteration of the board should put a lot of emphasis on strategy and come up with a plan and make that clear to everyone involved."

Crouch said the selection of the new board members will now involve more people who will seek out candidates with "desirable attributes and skills including business people experienced in governance as well as pastors experienced in the inner workings of global organizations like our church."

He noted, however, that the number of pastors and church executives on the board would be kept to a maximum of 30% "to ensure conflicts of interest are managed well."

"I mean, it's not reasonable to expect someone whose job is to execute their boss' instructions day in day out to leave that mindset completely at the door when they enter the boardroom and be able to give robust disagreement with perhaps or even vote against that boss who ultimately holds the power to terminate their employment," Crouch said.

Along with targets for greater gender diversity, Crouch said the church would also seek to become more diverse in "age, geography, and racial background" to create a board that is "more reflective of our church community." Board members will also be subjected to term limits.

Crouch also shared an independent review of Hillsong's process of complaints against pastors that included interviews with "board members and staff members involved in the complaint handling" and examined conflicts of interests and the support provided to both complainants and respondents.

It was recommended that the handling of complaints against pastors could be improved by reframing the process away from being a discipline and restoration for pastors to being an inquiry into the fitness of the pastor and forming a new body within the church to handle complaints relating to credentialed pastors.

The recommendations also state the process can be improved by outsourcing complaints about the global senior pastor to an external, independent investigator, forming a single credentialing body, providing psychological assessment for future candidates for ministry and developing a program to provide ongoing accountability and support for credentialed pastors.

In introducing Crouch to the church in his new role as board chairman on Tuesday, Dooley said he was happy to have him in that role. Before 2021, Brian Houston served as both global senior pastor and chairman of the board. Dooley said the decision to separate the roles was one of the first steps made by Hillsong toward healthier governance.

"I'm so grateful for that. I really am because I've had enough to do and having a separate chair is really helpful to carry the weight because there's a lot of weight to what we are doing and what we are all about in the responsibilities of leading our church well," Dooley said.

"Stephen has stepped into that role, and I know Lucinda and I are incredibly grateful for the role that he has played and the depth with which he has dug into going, 'How do we do this?'"

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