Hillsong: where free labour for God is just the beginning – Crikey

hillsong:-where-free-labour-for-god-is-just-the-beginning-–-crikey

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One of Australia’s major law firms has run the rule over Hillsong College — the church’s training ground for pastors of the future — and found instances of racism and sexism, as well as favouritism towards wealthy students and students well connected to Hillsong families.

The confidential review has made its way into the Crikey bunker and it paints a decidedly unchristian picture of life for the college’s fee-paying students, many of whom are from overseas.

A key finding goes to the exploitation of students as free labour for other Hillsong activities, such as providing the staff to run conferences. As Crikey has reported before, Hillsong’s business model relies enormously on free labour — some 5790 volunteers staff various businesses and activities such as conferences and services.

Its music productions — which provide the trademark razzamatazz of a Hillsong gathering — are almost entirely run by volunteers, with more than 1800 unpaid workers.

The review, which reported three weeks ago, says “a number of former students” raised concerns about “an expectation to volunteer” over and above their college academic and “practicum” commitments — the practical components of their course work. It said the college should ensure students are reminded that “they are not obliged to participate in volunteering opportunities over and above their course requirements”.

“They want more and more of you,” one former student told Crikey. “It’s sold to you like you are doing the work of the Lord. So many people struggle.

“They tell you that if it’s too easy you’re not really doing God’s work because you have to work hard to keep the devil away. They use Christianised language as a way of indoctrination. It becomes entrenched in your brain.” 

The recommendation should be read alongside another finding: that “many students” found their expectation of college life was “vastly different to the reality” — which appears to suggest they were suckered by the church into parting with their money. 

Students pay course fees of about $5000 a year (bringing in total fees to the college of $8.8 million in 2020). They also pay for accommodation (bringing in a total of $2.6 million in 2020). On top of that — and their obligatory volunteering — they must also pay a 10% tithe on whatever money they earn.

The review, by national law firm HWL Ebsworth, was commissioned after the Hillsong College Alumni Network Facebook page was bombarded with complaints from students past and present. Crikey understands one post attracted more than 1600 comments.

At the same time a young American student enrolled at the college made a complaint that she had been indecently assaulted by the son of a long-term Hillsong employee and Houston family stalwart. The young woman, Anna Crenshaw, went public about what she alleged was Hillsong’s reluctance to involve police in her complaint. The young man, a Hillsong employee, subsequently pleaded guilty at a magistrate’s court. The case caused widespread concern at the campus which in pre-COVID times has been a magnet for overseas students, enticed to Sydney to share in the Houston dream.

What the report says

  • Many students identified that their expectation of college life upon enrolment and entry was vastly different to the reality
  • A number of former students raised concerns about an expectation to volunteer over and above their college academic and practicum commitments
  • Some former students raised concerns regarding racial and/or sex discrimination, as well as alleged preferential treatment on the basis of students’ wealth, family connections within Hillsong Church and favourable treatment of student groups that represent the “majority” of the student body.

What Hillsong College says it does

The law firm’s findings sit awkwardly with the Christian values which Hillsong professes to advance through its teaching. 

The college’s corporate documents lodged with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) say: “The object of the college is to equip disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in their Christian ministries in the areas of academic, professional, leadership, character and technical skills development, through a principal purpose of theological and ministry education.”

Meanwhile, with ACNC approval, the college is exempt from income tax, and donations to its education arm are tax- deductible, with one major area of training being in writing and performing the music that has helped make Hillsong a fortune.   

Hillsong’s response 

Hillsong has published a media statement. It fails to detail the review’s key findings but promises to do better, using pastor Brian Houston’s oft-used catch-cry: “The best is yet to come.”

You can read more of our reporting on Hillsong here.

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Peter Fray

Peter Fray


Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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