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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Hillsong, Southern Baptists, and The King’s College

Editor’s Note:  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will comment on one or more stories in the week’s news, adding an additional perspective or, sometimes, a behind-the-scenes look at how the story came to be.

Plot Twist In Hillsong Story.  The Hillsong Church story took a turn this week when one of its key employees filed a Fair Work lawsuit saying the church misled donors and evaded taxes.

Natalie Moses is a former fund raising and governance coordinator for Hillsong Church.  Her lawsuit, even if unsuccessful, could put a lot of records previously hidden in the public record.  

For example:  The Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC) launched an investigation into Hillsong Church in March to examine its compliance with regulations as a registered charity. But we didn’t know about that until this week, when it was revealed in the court documents supporting Moses’ suit.

Moses also alleged that Hillsong has engaged in questionable practices when it comes to expenditures for church leaders, including conflicts of interest. According to Moses, Hillsong artists were classified as “pastors,” receiving half of their salaries tax-free while still earning millions in royalties for record sales and other residuals related to Hillsong music.  

The suit also says that Natalie Moses repeatedly raised concerns about the ethics and legality of Hillsong’s financial dealings with the church’s chief financial officer, Peter Ridley, but was consistently rebuffed. So this lawsuit could also give us a look into the culture of Hillsong.

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SBC Under Investigation.  In another major announcement: federal officials have begun an investigation into sexual abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, Southern Baptist Convention officials announced last Friday. 

Southern Baptist leaders pledged to cooperate fully with investigators, who will be looking into several SBC entities, according to a statement released by the SBC Friday, Aug. 12. 

No matter what you think of the sex abuse cases in the SBC, you have to admit that this development is ominous.  An investigation is not an indictment, and certainly not a conviction, but it would be unusual for the Department of Justice to begin an investigation without some reason to believe they will find wrongdoing.  I’m reminded of a famous saying by billionaire Warren Buffet.  He said that no matter how “clean” you are, “If a cop follows you for 500 miles, you’re going to get a ticket.” 

More to the Story?  Tim Gibson has stepped down as president of The King’s College in New York City and has been replaced by Stockwell Day, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, on an interim basis while the college searches for a new leader.  

That’s not a huge story in itself.  Gibson had already retired once.  He is a former Brigadier General — that’s two stars — in the U.S. Air Force.  He served for six years at the school, nearly five of them as president.  My sources tell me he did a great job, providing stable and consistent leadership to the college.  He made many friends there who are sorry to see him go.

That said, the school faces many challenges.  Some of these challenges are those facing all Christian colleges:  demographics and funding.  But The King’s College has some challenges that are unique.  It is in New York City, which is a hard place to do business.  The college lost about $10 million in 2019 and 2020 combined, which is a lot of money for a school the size of King’s.

Also, King’s greatest asset – its location in New York City – makes it tricky to do online classes.  Being physically in New York is a big part of the King’s brand.  How do you do distance learning without eroding that key brand promise?  Online classes have been cash cows for other Christian colleges, saving more than a few of them from extinction.  Squaring this circle will be one of the biggest challenges of the new president.

For now, that person is interim president, Stockwell Day.  Day is a former head of the Conservative Party in Canada, holding several key government posts at both the provincial and national levels.  I wish him well.  For all its challenges, The King’s College is also among the most exciting places in Christian higher education.  It is one of the most significant evangelical institutions in what is arguably the most important city on the planet.  It’s a project worth fighting for.

DISCLOSURE:  My son is a graduate of The King’s College, and I worked for the college as a marketing and communications consultant in 2009 and 2010.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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