Former pastors of Hillsong churches in Kyiv and Moscow accuse former Hillsong Global pastor Brian Houston of taking over the churches, expelling the couple and threatening them to keep quiet.
Zhenya and Vera Kasevich broke their silence by an explosive report published on Wednesday by Australian media ABC. They spoke with The Roys Report (TRR) yesterday about their work at Hillsong Kyiv and Hillsong Moscow and how Hillsong’s global management decided to kick them out.
“All Australia wanted from us (was) control and responsibility without giving us support and taking responsibility,” Zhenya Kasevich said. RTR by email.
They say Hillsong leaders tried to force them to change church governance to give world leaders more control in local churches. They resisted and were expelled, they say.
The Kaseviches also say they were coerced into signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) preventing them from saying anything derogatory towards Hillsong and prohibiting them from setting foot in churches in Kyiv and Moscow.
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Hillsong did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story. Houston also did not respond when RTR reach. Hillsong management said a recent documentary that includes an interview with the Kaseviches does not paint an accurate picture of the church.
Lee Furney, defender of end the use of NDAs in churches, said the scandals surrounding Hillsong show the “desire, danger and deprivation regarding our response to money, sex and power” in evangelicalism.
Building in Kyiv
The Kyiv Christian Life Center, as it was known then, began when a missionary from Australia’s megachurch helped plant it in 1992 in Kyiv, Ukraine. It was right after Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union.
The Kaseviches have been appointed senior pastors in 1997. When the Australian church adopted the name Hillsong a few years later, so did the church in kyiv. However, Vera Kasevich said RTR the church remained autonomous and was governed by the vote of the congregation.
The couple planted a church in Moscow in 2007 and also named it Hillsong Moscow because of the “relational and spiritual” connection to the Australian church. It was also independently governed, Vera Kasevich said.
Within a few years, the church in kyiv was attracting thousands of people to its multiple weekly services and bringing in substantial donations.
In the mid-2000s, Vera Kasevich said, Hillsong Kyiv was one of the largest churches in Ukraine, with $4 million in assets and nearly $1 million in offerings each year.
Then in 2008, Houston became interested in bringing Hillsong Kyiv and Hillsong Moscow into the fold. He wanted churches to change their constitutions so Hillsong’s global leadership would have control of churches and appoint pastors, the Kaseviches said.
From 2012 to 2014, church leaders in Australia and the church in Kyiv negotiated, mostly over email because of language differences, according to the Kaseviches.
“My husband asked Pastor Brian, why do we have to change our constitution, our bylaws? And why do we have to give all the power to Australia? Vera Kasevich recalled while on the phone with RTR yesterday. Houston responded that under the proposed new constitution, he would be the one to appoint or remove pastoral staff, she recalled.
Her husband replied, “If my church doesn’t want me, I don’t want to pastor the church.” I do not need protection from you, ”said Vera Kasevich.
Vera Kasevich leads worship at Hillsong Kyiv (clip from 2008)
Meanwhile, the Kaseviches were leading the churches of kyiv through growing unrest. In late 2013 and early 2014, Moscow-backed Ukrainian officials cracked down on massive protests. Ukrainian forces finally opened fire in February 2014 and killed dozens of protesters in Kyiv.
War seemed inevitable, said Vera Kasevich. But the kyiv church heard nothing from Hillsong world leaders for months.
“My husband was kind of wondering,” she said, “Why do we need the church in Australia that says, ‘You are our church,’ but they act like if they didn’t care at all?”
At Hillsong view sunday this February, Zhenya Kasevich decided not to show Houston Presentation of the global vision at the church in Kyiv. The annual presentation sets the theme for the work of the world church each year.
“That video was completely disconnected,” Vera Kasevich said. “And it was irrelevant to the reality we were facing in Ukraine.”
The decision angered Houston, the Kaseviches said.
The following Tuesday, Zhenya Kasevich called a meeting of church members and asked them to vote if they wanted to keep in touch with Hillsong. He said RTR he urged members to formally affiliate with Hillsong because of its greater resources and influence, but that if they did, he would leave as pastor.
“It wasn’t just about church governance,” Vera Kasevich said. “We saw things that weren’t in our belief system. It was not ethical and it did not suit us.
This included things they had heard about Carl Lentz’s immoral actions, she said, as well as other questionable behavior. They say in a new Discovery+ documentary they tried to warn Houston about Lentz.
They also told Australian news outlet ABC that Hillsong world leaders worked with pastors in Kyiv to plan a conference and then charged the local church thousands of dollars for airfare and other expenses.
“So we were saying that we cannot accept this way of building a church,” Vera Kasevich said.
Church members voted overwhelmingly to drop Hillsong from the name and keep the Kaseviches as pastors. Zhenya Kasevich briefed Houston that night. Within hours, the Kaseviches had lost access to servers, databases and email accounts controlled by Hillsong.
Church members also received an email from Houston saying he was “shocked and disappointed by the events of the past three days” and claiming that the Kaseviches had “made it clear that they no longer wish to be part of Hillsong Church.
“Sunday was Vision Sunday,” Vera Kasevich said. “Tuesday evening, they voted. And Wednesday morning, the church was hijacked.
Leave Ukraine Behind
Fighting with Russia erupted weeks later, on February 20. The Kaseviches said that instead of dividing their wartime church, they walked away, leaving Houston to paint a negative picture of their departure.
But for more than a month afterwards, Hillsong executives also sued the Kaseviches “to threaten us and silence us,” Zhenya Kasevich said. RTR in an email.
They pressured the couple to sign an NDA confirming their resignation. Additionally, the deal involved a donation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets and cash; a joint statement regarding their resignation; and a ban on the couple attending church in Kyiv or Moscow in the future.
In return, Hillsong planned to help the couple and their two children obtain visas to the United States and would contribute up to $10,000 towards visa costs.
The Kaseviches refused to sign, they said, and provided a copy of the document for RTR.
Non-Disclosure Agreement Proposed by Hillsong Church (Sydney) – March 2014
kasevich hillsong kyiv NDA
Vera Kasevich said RTR she believes “100% of people who were on staff” at Hillsong were required to sign an NDA.
Furney, a leader in the #NDAfree movement drawing attention to NDAs and other similar gagging deals in the evangelical world, said the Hillsong scandals “embodied the compromised witness of the evangelical church.”
“More serious, the proliferation of non-disclosure agreements surrounding the Pentecostal network means the covering up and minimizing of sin instead of more complete rebuke, repentance and reconciliation,” Furney wrote in an e -email to RTR.
“The Hillsong scandals demonstrate that NDAs are the ultimate tool to protect the powerful through concealment and intimidation,” he continued. He added that “NDAs exploit power imbalances” and thwart attempts “to expose unsuccessful acts of darkness in order to remedy them.”
NDAs “and non-disparagement agreements represent the Church’s failure to free itself from an idolatrous relationship with money, sex and power,” Furney said.
Some time after refusing to sign the NDA, the Kaseviches received an email from Houston threatening the couple’s US visa process, an email shows.
Vera Kasevich explained to RTR that they needed documents from the kyiv church to show US immigration officials what their work had been over the previous two decades.
She added that she finally received the necessary documents after threatening to return to Hillsong Kyiv and ask for them publicly during a worship service.
Eventually, Zhenya Kasevich obtained a visa for religious work in the United States and planted two churches in Florida, where they still live today. This visa led to permanent residence in the United States, or a green card, two years ago. Then Vera Kasevich also became eligible to apply for a green card. She received it six months ago, in August 2021, she said.
Then she finally felt free to express herself. That same month, the pair sat down for their interview for the Discovery+ documentary released in March.
They also pleaded with current Hillsong executives to resolve the situation in Kyiv, an email chain shows. They eventually want to return to Ukraine to help other pastors there, they said. RTRbut they feel like they can’t because of the impression Houston gave of their departure.
“Now, when our country needs us most, we need to clear our name,” said Vera Kasevich. “People keep talking and gossiping, and it’s not helping anyone.”
But they received no response from Hillsong’s global leaders, they said.
“Which means they are not determined to change anything,” Vera Kasevich said.
Letter from Zhenya Kasevich to Hillsong Alumni and Management – March 2022
Sarah Einselen is an award-winning writer and editor based in Texas.