Bobbie's and my finances - A letter from Brian Houston
13 August 2010
Well, friend, you might need to get yourself a cup of tea and get comfortable to read this…
Hillsong Church has always been about God and People. Every day we hear wonderful stories about how this church is directly impacting the lives of people both here in Australia, and abroad.
Some may wonder why I would put all of this (below) in writing… The truth is, Hillsong’s profile means that there are levels of scrutiny on myself and my family, which quite frankly, does not seem consistent with any other minister of religion or charity CEO in Australia. For that reason, I want to share with you a bit about my world and perhaps bring some clarity to areas of our ministry that you may or may not have wondered about…
Leadership Ministries Incorporated (LMI) is the entity by which Bobbie and I conduct our broader ministry, outside of Hillsong Church here in Australia. LMI was originally established in the interest of good governance, as the advice we received from professionals recommended that best practice was to draw a clear line between the activities of Hillsong Church in Sydney and our broader ministry, including itinerant speaking and travel. LMI was set up with the blessing of our board, as a way of releasing Bobbie and I to our wider leadership calling outside of this, our church home, in Sydney. LMI is the best vehicle to allow us to do what we do.
In recent times, LMI has (along with many other religious organisations) been one of the not-for-profits reviewed by the Australian Tax Office and just a few weeks ago, received continued endorsement as a not-for-profit ministry. There are many such models of ministry within Australia and following our professional advice we have been assured more than once (including by the tax department) that LMI is an appropriate vehicle for the unique ministry that Bobbie and I do, outside the walls of Hillsong Church. We are very blessed to have the opportunity to speak and preach at churches and conferences all over the world, though our congregation and those of you that know us well know that my first love is building this House, Hillsong Church.
My total personal income from Hillsong Church in its entirety is just on $150,000 including fringe benefits plus currently the use of a Holden Caprice, along with just over another $150,000 from Leadership Ministries which makes up my complete personal income. (If you want to get really personal, I drive a Holden, Bobbie drives a three-year-old Audi Q7, and I ride a motorbike). All of LMI’s income is generated through Bobbie’s and my ministry endeavours, including our writing, resources and speaking to Christian leadership groups and conferences. Both Hillsong Church and LMI have separate boards that determine my personal income – Bobbie and I are not a part of those decisions and in fact, no one from our family serves on the LMI board. The nominated salary for both Bobbie and I from the Hillsong Church Board is significantly more than what we choose to accept, though we made the choice to forego much of our nominated salary for many years. The existence of LMI also increases the opportunity for finance to go towards the Church and other related causes that we are so passionate about.
The two properties owned by LMI are a part of the ministry and their use is in line with ministry purposes. One of these properties has permanent tenants and the rent goes directly back into LMI. The other is a one-bedroom apartment in Bondi. Both of these properties were included in the ATO’s recent re-endorsement of the ministry.
Almost ten years ago, Bobbie and I owned two properties that were effectively being used for the work of our ministry. One, in the Hawkesbury, was regularly used for church get-togethers, church activities, and it is used as a ministry retreat as well as for family time. In Bondi, we invested in a one-bedroom apartment that we often used, in-line with our responsibilities at the Hillsong City Campus. I held appointments there; we entertained people and visiting ministers and used it as a quiet place for personal study. Its close proximity to the airport is a great blessing to me. Eight to ten years ago, we were in a position where we could no longer afford to keep these properties and upon deciding to sell them, the board of LMI recognised that they were a valuable asset for the purpose of the ministry. After receiving professional advice, the board unanimously agreed and purchased these properties at the independently evaluated current market price. Bobbie and I paid personal tax on the profit of the sale and the Australian Tax Office have reviewed the use of these properties for ministry purposes, similar to an Anglican vicarage or a Catholic rectory.
When Bobbie or I travel, the inviting church or ministry pays all related travel costs, including airfares – which is a normal practice in churches and ministries throughout the world. If we travel personally, then it is paid for personally. The only time travel would be paid for by Hillsong Church is if we were specifically travelling to represent the church, with the full knowledge of the board and elders. (Also, when Hillsong United travels on behalf of Hillsong Church, including when I have travelled with them, all income goes back to Hillsong Church.)
When I travel overseas to churches, I do not receive any money personally…that’s right…none. I do not charge a fee for my speaking engagements or for visiting churches or conferences and no offerings or honorariums go to Bobbie and I personally. Now, people often give ‘love offerings’, but every offering and honorarium that is given goes to LMI and therefore, towards the initiatives and work of the ministry. It is a not-for-profit religious organisation whose objectives are to spread the Christian message through our teaching and leadership ministry.
Bobbie also, as you all know, works many long hours and oversees the vision of the Hillsong Sisterhood within our own church and internationally, as well as carrying the weight of her role as a Senior Pastor and gets paid for what she does – though, her income is significantly less than mine. It is important to note that when Bobbie, myself or other Hillsong pastors speak at any of our global church campuses (such as London, Cape Town, etc) we do not personally receive offerings and nor does LMI. These congregations are an extension of our church home.
Though it was a vulnerable moment for us, we have talked publicly about this over the past few months and have heard more than one time since (in unofficial comments from the Australian Tax Office) that my income is relatively modest in proportion to the size of the work and scale of responsibility that we have. The innuendos that suggest Bobbie, myself and our children are profiting off people’s tithes is completely false. Our children, Joel, Ben, and Laura have all taken their own individual journeys and have specific roles within church life to which they contribute in an employment capacity. Joel, Ben and Laura are treated exactly the same way as our other staff and their remuneration reflects that. (They receive no special benefits and it was unfair that they were brought into a recent nasty media attack.) Neither Leadership Ministries Inc. nor Hillsong Church has made any direct or indirect investment into properties on behalf of any of the Houston children. Thank God our children have grown up to be creative, hardworking, confident individuals who love God and love to serve in this House.
I know that you realise, and those of you that are a part of our world know, that the inferences that people are pressured to give money have no foundation – tithing is and has always been a biblical principal that we live by and one that we stand by. Nobody is expected to give; giving at Hillsong Church is entirely free will and is treated as a private and personal matter. You could attend Hillsong Church for ten years, give nothing, and be treated the same as everybody else.
Undoubtedly, there is a push from some quarters of society to tax churches – which would mean that across the nation; hundreds of millions of dollars that currently goes toward helping people, including the poor, disenfranchised and hurting, would no longer be able to do so. I have never personally been a campaigner for fringe benefits (allowances for pastors and charity workers) and though it is clear that it translates into more money being able to go into the good work of ministry; I would not personally be adverse to the amount of non-taxable fringe benefits being capped at certain income levels. Hillsong Church pastors pay personal income tax and in fact pay more in taxation than they would otherwise be legally obliged to. We do not rely on the full tax exemptions that other religious organisations rely upon in the conduct of their affairs and that are legally available to us.
CHARITIES COMMISSION/ GOVERNING BODY
I have said many times that I would welcome a Charities Commission and have raised that possibility to both political leaders and church leaders. I believe that a body such as a Charities Trust or Commission, who worked pro-actively with non-profits and churches, would be helpful to high-profile churches, such as Hillsong, who take our commitment to proper practice in governance very seriously; yet are too often subject to misguided and unfair and cowardly attacks.
Obviously, the structure, terms and parameters of any Charities Commission are important and I believe this body should not be a ‘watchdog’ but a proactive body that can work with the charities and non-profits in establishing a uniquely Australian model.
I believe that Hillsong would have nothing to fear from such a body and it would be helpful in protecting us from being the “tall poppy” victim of misguided innuendo. Hillsong London has operated under the UK Charities Trust for many years and has found it to be a relatively helpful and proactive body.
Bobbie and I are grateful to God for His blessing, have both worked hard for over 35 years and I believe it has been through wise investment and consistency that we have seen our lives grow. We are very committed to living by the same principles of giving and generosity that we teach others and one of the great blessings of LMI has been to enable us each year to contribute significantly to the Hillsong Foundation and other missions, causes and outreaches that are passionately focused on helping people. We are blessed and I would want the same for anyone else in our position and stage of life. When, 27 years ago, we started Hillsong Church, the furthest thing from our mind was financial gain, in fact, we put everything on the line then and we have that same view today.
We are so blessed as a church family and I thank God that we are surrounded by generous people who love to see the work of the Lord go forward…
So, THANK YOU Hillsong Church, for your love for God and your love for people. I pray you always feel loved, valued and confident in the church family you are a part of and more importantly, in the God whom we serve.