Breaking News: I wrote 90% of this blog yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon Eternity News published Brian Houston’s extensive and heart felt apology. I regard this as a wonderful and certainly the right thing to do and to be honest not very common in these types of situations. Without a doubt it will help the healing process for the complainants, for Brian himself, his family and the Hillsong church family. It is also true to say that a full on independent investigation as I’ve written about below may not be as necessary in this case now. Perhaps some kind of amended version may suffice.
Sadly Hillsong and Brian Houston are in the news for all the wrong reasons. I am truly grieved over this. So many other times over it’s 40 year history it has been in the news for the right reasons. I doubt that anyone will disagree that Brian Houston and Hillsong church have made a major contribution to the Christian church world-wide as did Bill Hybels and as did Ravi Zacharias to mention but a few high profile ministries that have fallen on hard times in recent years.
I’ve been in two minds as to whether I should write on this. I don’t know Brian, I don’t know enough about Hillsong’s structure, nor its policies and processes. I certainly have no reading of the churches culture and I have no idea who the people on the Global Board are.
I have chosen not to comment on Brian’s behaviour. Rather, I would like to make a few comments about two critical issues - the importance of an Independent Investigation and Good Governance. Both these principles apply to all churches at all times.
Independent Investigation (1). In short I believe in them. If there is a repeated problem or evidence that a Christian leader has mis-behaved over a long period of time then an independent investigation is not only warranted but essential for all organisations including Christian organisations and churches. Though an investigation is not a legal response as such it is the best way for the truth to be established. If the investigation finds that the law has been broken then legal action is an option.
Why Independent? Because an internal enquiry/investigation can’t by it’s very nature be sufficiently distanced to see the issues clearly. There are all sorts of relationship dynamics and loyalties present that invariably compromise both the process and therefore the findings. In the event of minor breaches and violations an internal enquiry may suffice but I would strongly suggest it be led by someone outside that organisation.
An Independent Investigation is also important for ‘affected parties’. Complainants and/or victims who were negatively impacted by the bad behaviour( and/or dysfunctional and toxic leadership culture) can and should have their stories listened to and taken seriously. That is only right and just. Usually some kind of restitution process may be and often is necessary which may include financial compensation.
Finally on this point. It’s the truth we need in situations like this. Though an independent investigation is not a legal response as I previously noted it is the best way for the truth to be established. Once the truth is established we know that people who are found to have done wrong can if they so choose be reconciled and restored. The grace of God is available.
Though an investigation is not a legal response as such it is the best way
for the truth to be established.
It is interesting that the Global Board came out very early this past week acknowledging that their Governance structure needs to be looked into and three days later announced the changes they are going to make. This is a very big subject and a whole book could be written here. But I would like to make what I regard as four points that are fundamental to a good Governance structure.
- The Board Chair should be a different person to the Senior Pastor each with their own roles and sphere’s of influence. The larger the organisation the more important this principle is. In Hillsong’s case it is absolutely essential. I hold the view that if the Senior Pastor’s wife is also leading with her husband (as is the case in many contemporary churches these days) it is best she is NOT on the Board at all.
- The senior pastor must be held accountable for his/her performance as must all people in leadership roles within that organisation. I know that this idea is a very challenging one for pastors who believe that they are Apostolic Leaders and therefore should lead the Board and therefore are not accountable to the Board. I beg to differ. Apostolic leaders should be accountable like anyone else and that accountability begins with the Board.
- The Board have a moral and biblical mandate to raise a ‘red flag’ whenever they have a concern or have evidence of some kind of breach or violation by the Senior Pastor. The raising of a red flag must be able to be done without any and I mean any recriminations. In the case of a church it should include all matters to do with the Senior Pastors performance and decision making especially around financial, theological or behavioural matters. When this dynamic is in place and it is working it provides a safe environment for all people young and old, male and female. That said, I am not suggesting the Board adopts a ‘judge and jury’ posture. Not at all, it is simply good governance practise as recommended by the NZ Institute of Directors.
- All organisations should have a well understood complaints procedure. And that is a whole other subject.
My hope and prayer is that God will give much grace and wisdom to Brian Houston and the Hillsong senior leadership team in the coming days and months.
(1) A question that often arises here is what about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18: 16-17? Shouldn’t we as Christians adopt a mediation process rather than an investigative process? My response is No, not at this point. Not if there has been repeated and long term abuse of power and/or Christian morality violations and/or repeated offending of any kind. It is clear that Jesus never intended a victim of say bullying let alone sexual misconduct to go in private and be reconciled to your brother/sister. Imagine victims of rape being made to do this? This text, I believe, assumes all players in the relationship breakdown are safe people and applies to the kind of everyday breakdowns that can occur in the best of relationships. It is a fabulous prescription for reconciliation. We should use it more often.
Alan Vink is currently the Executive Director for LeadershipWorx. Prior to this role he has been the Executive Director of Willow Creek Association NZ (WillowNZ), a Baptist pastor (23 years), Bible College teacher, and church consultant.