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'Encouraging': What the latest Hillsong scandal says about the #ChurchToo movement

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/22/2022 Sarah Elbeshbishi, USA TODAY

When Emily Joy Allison sat down at her computer in late 2017 to share her story of being groomed and manipulated,she has no intention to launch a movement of her own.

Inspired by the #MeToo movement, Allison penned a Twitter thread detailing her experience with a youth leader in the Northwoods Community Church, an evangelical megachurch in Peoria, Illinois.

“It started when I was 15 and he styled himself as a ‘friend’ and a ‘mentor.’ He taught me some photoshop things I was interested in and roped me in helping with the youth group newsletter. But it became more than that,” Allison wrote. She went on to describe how the relationship developed into the youth leader giving her dating advice that included convincing her to break up with a boy she was seeing. 

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Allison said the youth leader – a man in his 30s – eventually pursued a romantic relationship with her, encouraged Allison to keep her silence and talked about wanting to marry her. 

Nearly five years later, churches and congregations are continuing to come to terms with sexual misconduct within their institutions, as other prominent predators identified in the #MeToo movement have been ostracized, sentenced and pardoned. Experts say it’s a journey that began long before Allison’s Twitter thread, but as recent cases have shown,  ranging from nondenominational Hillsong to the nation’s largest protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists,the issues of trust and power exposed through #MeToo are even more firmly rooted in religion.

“It’s one thing for a horrible thing to happen to you, but then it’s another thing for everyone in your community to come around and say, ‘Well, that’s how God wanted it. That’s actually biblical,’” Allison told USA TODAY. “It’s adding this layer of spiritual and religious trauma on top of an already deep sexual and emotional trauma … You don’t see Harvey Weinstein justifying his actions with a chapter and a verse from the bible, but you do see these pastors doing that.”

Portrait of Emily Joy Allison © Courtesy of Emily Joy Allison Portrait of Emily Joy Allison

Hillsong church scandal

Hillsong was once a thriving evangelical mega-church, with congregations forming quickly around the world. But recent scandals within church leadership have taken a toll, according to the New York Times.

The most recent involved the church's founder, Brian Houston, who resigned in March after an internal investigation found that he breached the church’s code of conduct at least twice by behaving inappropriately towards two women.

  • The first was in 2013, when Houston sent inappropriate text messages to a staff member, which resulted in the resignation of the staff member, according to the Hillsong statement.
  • The second occurred in 2019 during the church’s annual conference in Sydney, Australia, when Houston was found in a hotel room with a woman. The investigation did not reveal details of the incident but Hillsong’s statement said “whatever the circumstances at this time, this person did not deserve to be placed in the situation she found herself in by Pastor Brian."

Houston's wife, Bobbie, also resigned from Hillsong in April, the church said.

Brian Houston, founder of the Sydney-based global Hillsong Church, resigned his position in March 2022 after he was found to have violated the church's code of conduct. © Mick Tsikas Brian Houston, founder of the Sydney-based global Hillsong Church, resigned his position in March 2022 after he was found to have violated the church's code of conduct.

Houston was under the influence of drugs or alcohol during both instances, according to Hillsong.

Houston's wife, Bobbie, also resigned from Hillsong in April, the church said.

Houston’s resignation followed the church’s public removal of Carl Lentz, a prominent pastor known for his association with several celebrities. Lentz was fired from Hillsong’s New-York based campus of the megachurch in 2020 after a "revelation of moral failures.”

The day after the announcement of his firing, Lentz went to Instagram, sharing that he “was unfaithful in my marriage, the most important relationship in my life and held accountable for that. This failure is on me, and me alone and now I take full responsibility for my actions.”

Months after Lentz's dismissal, Houston told "Today" that Lentz had leadership issues and had exhibited narcissistic behavior – actions that caused Houston concern as he began to witness them. 

"I think there's a lot of things I should've known earlier, and hopefully, moving forward, we'll make sure we have far better systems in place and better accountability," Houston told "Today" host Savannah Guthrie. 

What Hillsong looks like without Houston remains to be seen as its lost more than half of its U.S. campuses – 9 out of 16 – in response to the recent scandals, according to the New York Times.  But experts say both instances show congregants have enough influence to hold leadership accountable, a crucial step in maintaining or regaining trust.

a man holding a phone: Carl Lentz, a pastor who baptized Justin Bieber, was fired from Hillsong Church for "moral failures." © Bebeto Matthews, AP Carl Lentz, a pastor who baptized Justin Bieber, was fired from Hillsong Church for "moral failures."

“There have been several campuses that very publicly said that they were separating themselves from the larger organization, and they’re not intending it necessarily, according to their statements, as an attack on Hillsong itself as an idea or ideal, but they want to disassociate themselves from those destructive patterns of behavior and abuse, and that’s encouraging,” said Scott Culpepper, a history professor at Dordt University.

►Hillsong: Founder Brian Houston steps down to fight charge of concealing child sex abuse

An ongoing reckoning

While the #ChurchToo social media movement helped push institutions to further discuss and address the issues of sexual misconduct and abuse in their communities, there has been a prominent movement to address these issues in Christian institutions since the 1980s, according to Ellen Armour, a professor of theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

"Religious organizations didn't need the #MeToo movement to spark interest in and awareness of sexual violence and clergy abuse," Armour said.

Some of the cases that have captured attention recently, including leadership changes at Hillsong and the Southern Baptist Convention, have centered on religious groups that don’t have a stratified leadership structures like others,  Armour said.

#ChurchToo co-founder Emily Joy Allison holding a #ChurchToo sign during a protest last year © Courtesy of Emily Joy Allison #ChurchToo co-founder Emily Joy Allison holding a #ChurchToo sign during a protest last year

For Southern Baptists, the reckoning is ongoing as factions within the denomination battle over a host of issues including racial reconciliation and how Southern Baptists should handle allegations of sexual abuse and mistreatment of victims that stretch back decades.

As sexual-abuse survivors pushed for an outside audit on how the Southern Baptist Convention mishandled abuse claims, members of the convention’s executive committee, including several with ties with a more conservative faction of Southern Baptists, resigned their committee roles last year in protest.

But earlier this year, the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee formally apologized to a woman for mishandling her case after she first reported her story of sexual abuse to an SBC-affiliated newspaper.

An ongoing investigation is reviewing the committee's handling of abuse claims and treatment of victims in the past 21 years. A report of its findings are expected by June. 

Both Southern Baptists and Hillsong rely on leaders within individual congregations to provide oversight, Armour said, which has contributed to their ability, or inability, to respond to some of these allegations.

"I don't think it's coincidental that you see the mainline denominations with pretty clear policies and mechanisms for handling these kinds of accusations," Armour added. "The reason is they have pretty strong and multi-layered hierarchical polities, so governance organizations that were already in place." 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Encouraging': What the latest Hillsong scandal says about the #ChurchToo movement

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