Carl Lentz
Disgraced Hillsong NYC Pastor Carl Lentz. (Instagram Sept. 22, 2018)

Hillsong Announces Investigation Following Carl Lentz’s Firing; Source Says Church Knew of Sexual Transgressions in 2017

By Roxanne Stone

Brian Houston, global senior pastor of the international Hillsong Church,  announced Thursday that an independent investigator will review the “inner workings” of Hillsong’s New York City branch after the firing of its lead pastor, Carl Lentz, on Nov. 4.

“We need a solid foundation for a fresh start and new beginning,” Houston said in a tweet, adding, “The best is yet to come.”

On Friday, the church sent a statement to The Roys Report, saying that the church has heard from “a number of people about their experiences and concerns.” As a result, Hillsong is hiring a New York-based legal firm that is not associated with Hillsong to conduct an “in-depth review and investigation into all concerns and wider cultural issues. We are taking this extremely seriously and on the basis of this report, we will be better positioned to take whatever actions are deemed necessary to right the wrongs . . .”

Houston emailed staff and members of Hillsong East Coast about Lentz’s termination on Nov. 4. His email, which was obtained by The Roys Report, cited “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures” for Lentz’s firing but did not reveal more details, saying to do so “would not be appropriate.” He later posted a similar statement on the church’s website.

The following day, Lentz, who founded the New York Hillsong location in 2010 with Houston’s son Joel, admitted in an Instagram post that he’d been “unfaithful to my wife.”

Lentz’s confession was accompanied by a photo of Lentz with his wife and three children. “I now begin a journey of rebuilding trust with my wife, Laura and my children and taking real time to work on and heal my own life and seek out the help that I need,” Lentz wrote.

According to an unnamed source in an article  published by the Sun, an unnamed source reported sexual transgressions to Hillsong in 2017, but was rebuffed. “There have been many sexual transgressions at Hillsong NYC,” the source said. “We tried to address them in 2017 and we were told that we were spreading gossip.’”

Commenting on the quote in the Sun, Boz Tchividjian, a former prosecutor and founder of GRACE, said, “This is a common & effective method leaders use to shame victims into silence in order to protect offenders & institutional reputations.”

Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie founded the original Hillsong Church in 1983 in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. It now has locations in 28 countries around the world and, pre-pandemic, saw an average 150,000 attenders each week, according to its website.

The various global churches all report to Houston and a board of male elders.

Relatively unknown before taking the helm of Hillsong NYC, Lentz became a media darling for his hipster clothes, tattooed arms and his celebrity congregants, including Justin Bieber and his wife, Hailey Baldwin Bieber, as well as the Jenner sisters. He was one of a number of pastors GQ Magazine has described as “hypepriests” who lead churches frequented by celebrities. 

In answer to Lentz’s Instagram post, Esther Houston, Joel Houston’s wife, implied that, despite his admission, Lentz had not stopped the affair that led to his dismissal. 

“Amazing to see all the support being poured out for this despicable ongoing behavior,” she said in the comment. “Listen. I’m not gonna play this game. I fully denounce this and will make no excuses for it. You’ve been dealt a good hand, and you played it wrong.”

Esther Houston

The British tabloid The Sun has reported that Lentz posed as a sports agent when he met a 34-year old designer, who identified herself only as Ranin, in a Brooklyn, New York, park. Ranin told The Sun she had been having an affair with the pastor for the past five months.

Ranin said after a few dates, she began to suspect he was married and asked. At that point, he admitted he had three children and had been married for 17 years. She later used his phone number to find out his last name and, at that point, discovered he was a pastor.

“My mind was blown,” she told the tabloid.

Ranin said Lentz told her that when he first saw her, “God told him to tell me that I need to know my worth and there’s something special about me … whatever whatever.”

Ranin
Instagram photo of “Ranin”

According to Ranin, the two broke up last week. She said Lentz’s wife discovered their text messages on his computer at the Hillsong offices, with several of his coworkers there.

Lentz met his wife, Laura, a family friend of the Houston’s, in Australia when he attended Hillsong’s training program, Hillsong College. It is unclear whether she will remain in her position at Hillsong NYC, though some reports have said that she has also been let go.

In a brief appearance at Hillsong NYC’s Sunday streaming service, Brian Houston expressed gratitude for the team of leaders at the Manhattan church and said they were not only supportive of the decisions made, “but were part of the process.”

Houston also noted that during transitions, “It’s always a time where there’s speculation, rumor and gossip when change is made, and especially when radical change is made.”

“There’s great days ahead,” Houston assured the church. “We will continue to stay in touch when it comes to the long-term leadership of Hillsong East Coast.”

Neither Hillsong NYC nor Hillsong Global immediately responded to request for comment.

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include a recent statement from Hillsong.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story attributed a quote to Boz Tchividjian instead of the source in the Sun.

Roxanne StoneRoxanne Stone is the managing editor for Religion News Service. She formerly served as editor in chief for Barna Group, editorial director for RELEVANT Media Group, as well as at Christianity Today and Group Publishing. Roxanne lives in New York City.

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22 thoughts on “Hillsong Announces Investigation Following Carl Lentz’s Firing; Source Says Church Knew of Sexual Transgressions in 2017”

  1. “Ranin said Lentz told her that when he first saw her, “God told him to tell me that . . .”

    Reason #986 to walk away when anyone says, “God told me _____.”

    This whole saga is another reason not to start, join or promote churches with multi-site models and/or that don’t have real elder accountability. They often lead to a cult of celebrity and a complete lack of accountability. Same thing for ministries like that of Ravi Zacharias, where his family members were highly paid board members and “surprisingly” didn’t hold him accountable.

  2. So Carl commits adultery and the innocent victim Laura gets fired for the failing of being married to Carl. Seems about right NOT!

  3. Seems like there is a continuous stream of “celeb” pastors who have large amounts of power getting away with immoral acts. Just like other very powerful men in various occupations. There is real help out there for all of you very sick men. Please go get it. As a victim, I implore you to do so. I think doing this, before the pastoral abusers are caught, is the best option. Confess and repent and learn how to change sick behavior for good.

  4. What people fail to understand is that the fish rots from the head. In this case, the head is Brian Houston. So the behavior the minions in NYC is hardly surprising. Google Brian Houston, Royal Crown Commission Australia, Frank Houston (Brian’s dad) and child abuse. Here is but one article:

    https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/nov/23/hillsongs-brian-houston-failed-to-report-abuse-and-had-conflict-of-interest-royal-commission

    In a nutshell, Frank Houston was an abusive pedophile and Brian knew about it, and helped cover it up. Of course, it helped when one of the recent PMs of Australia was one of Brian’s buddies.

    This is why Hillsong should really be called HELLsong.

  5. Uh, that “The Sun” article is mind-blowing… If what Ranin says is true, Lentz needs some major help. I really hope he gets it. Wow. I just finished “When Narcissim Comes to Church” by DeGroat. Anyone struggling with wrapping their minds around Lentz should read it. DeGroat doesn’t pull punches, but he has a uniquely merciful perspective on people.

  6. ** Houston also noted that during transitions, “It’s always a time where there’s speculation, rumor and gossip when change is made, and especially when radical change is made.” **

    Has it ever crossed their minds that being honest and fully transparent would do a lot to reduce “speculation, rumor and gossip”? *Of course*, when congregants are reading about their pastor’s adultery on Instagram and in tabloid newspapers, there’s going to be “speculation”! Who isn’t asking, “How many other affairs has he had? Any with his church coworkers? Any payoffs using church funds?”

    Maybe his supervisors don’t know the answers, but acting as if the congregants shouldn’t have the questions is completely unrealistic. They could try a statement along the lines of, “This is what we know right now. Anyone with relevant information should contact us. We will inform the congregation of new information when its accuracy is verified.”

  7. Let’s count Pastor Lentz’s lies as reported in just this article alone:

    1. “I’m a sports agent.” Lied to the unwitting target of his desire.
    2. “I’m a faithful husband.” Lied to his wife.
    3. “I’m above reproach.” Lied to his congregation.
    4. “I won’t intentionally exasperate you.” Lied to his children.
    5. “I’ll uphold your leadership standards.” Lied to his employer.
    6. “I won’t pay any consequences.” Lied to himself.
    7. “I will faithfully follow Your commands.” Lied to God.

  8. Somehow something said by Martyn Lloyd-Jones fits here: “God has always done His greatest work through a remnant. Get rid of the notion of numbers.”

  9. I’m so tired of powerful men and the way they twist language to cover up sin. And then afterwards, when it all comes out, they distance themselves from the sinner and offer trite apology to those who they slammed and shamed for speaking out in the beginning. Just so tired.

    I’m a pastors wife who has just been through an excruciating six months involving the fallout of sin of the senior pastor. It has been horrendous. The Turner/Brukas interviews this year were awful and too close to home. Someone close to me interned at Mars Hill years ago and was subject to bullying back then when he tried to call something out. There was such a culture of power and control. We’ve all read stories about Mars Hill from that time. And yet they said “People are being saved regardless so they must be doing something right. Who are we to judge?”

    Yes, God is bigger than the sin of a pastor who is cheating on his wife, thankfully. The word preached might come from a rotten source but if it is still God’s word, then people can respond, repent and believe. But oh, for the believers behind the scenes who know the sin that is going on in the background, it is just so devastating. And every time another pastor is found out, especially one who used his power and the people at the top to protect him, it is like living through it again.

    So another example happens – Ravi. And now Carl Lentz. It is like a punch in the guts. I never esteemed Lentz. We visited HS NYC once. The congregation members were lovely and welcoming and kind. The worship was great. The guy on the stage, Kane, was a showman and didn’t mention Jesus once in his 30 min ‘comedy routine’. We left after an hour and a half. But there were good, Jesus loving people there.

    I’ve never been able to understand how Brian Houston has justified Esther Houston’s behaviour and posts. Bizarre. And while I found Joel’s worship music pointed me to God, I still found it hard to fathom their relationship. Pastors need to smell like their sheep, but if you become so like the world to reach the world that there is nothing left of the goodness and beauty and truth of Jesus…

    And so I don’t think we can let this one go through to the keeper. Because not only does it grieve our God, damage the church, affect the faithful congregation members who have put up or excused or justified behaviour and practices in the past (despite deep down feeling it was wrong), tarnish the image of the church to the world, cause people considering Christ to walk away and provide more fodder for an unbelieving world. But for every pastor or their family who has spoken out, and been hushed or told to trust the system or let down when sin is not dealt with, it is another blow to a weary servant who might just eventually walk away from his call to share the gospel and love and serve and make Jesus known.

    So ask the questions. Here are some questions for an independent investigation:

    1. Brian Houston and Joel Houston did you know that Carl had been unfaithful earlier (Caryl Hesler on Twitter suggests as early as 2014, others have said 2017)

    2. If yes, did you allow this man to keep his pulpit and not be removed from ministry for at least a period of discipline and restoration?

    3. How many people came forward with allegations or were uncomfortable and were silenced? In an effort to ensure transparency will you allow them to share their stories?

    4. Why did Joel and Esther Houston leave NYC and go to LA? Was it because they had spoken out about Lentz’s behaviour?

    5. Will Hillsong’s finances be made available for review and audit at a top level and for every campus, including staff salaries? Other churches do this as part of the AGM. If not, why not?

  10. I am sick and sad to read this. Every time there is an incident and it’s reported, I stupidly think: “this is the last one”. But I have a serious question now: I and everyone I know (I exaggerate) LOVES Hillsong’s worship music. Does all this behavior imply that the music isn’t “good” to listen to or worship with?

    1. Sara – “Does all this behavior imply that the music isn’t “good” to listen to or worship with?” Simple answer: Yes! God states that He must be worshiped in both spirit and truth. There exists no third option for us. Where is the truth when the music is all about a bunch of narcissistic musicians having their names be lifted up instead of the God who made them? God is not worshiped by writing best selling hit “worship” songs. Where is the truth when the people responsible behave in such reprehensible ways when the cameras are not turned on?

      The other question is what is the spirit behind the making, promoting, distributing and $elling of such pop music? Is it really any different then the production of any other style of music on the planet? I have a quote for you from Billy Spoon from 1990. He is a Christian who had a home recording studio back then that made a magazines best 10 list of studios. “There is absolutely nothing Christian about the Christian music business. It is all business!” That does not sound like the kind of spirit that God would be looking for does it?

      I now believe that God is simply disgusted with the worship music business. I once saw some demons flying around in a room in a conference like the kind that this org puts on. They were inhabiting the praises in the room which were all about the people having a good time. The praise was self focused instead of God. I do praise God, but I do it alone most of the time and their is no band or music involved. If you think that you need that than I wonder if you really know the same God that I have known for 50 years? He saved me from a horrible life on the road I was headed on, so it is true and it does come from my spirit. Beware those who have a great deal of lust for the spotlight. That is just narcissism which is the opposite of the true fruit of the Spirit.

  11. He (and Laura) sold their home in NJ on October 23rd, which is an interesting piece of the timeline—seeing that the story broke first week of November. Did he know this was all coming to a head? Almost feels like insider trading.

  12. Not shocked at all. First time I saw Lintz with the deepest v neck shirt you ever saw you knew he was headed for sleaze town. “Cool kid” church will get ya every time! Bummer for everyone involved in this guys false leadership.

  13. In addition to poor oversight by Houston and other top leaders at Hillsong, we need to look at current leadership surrounding Carl, in particular, throughout the Hillsong East Coast campuses. It appears that members and group leaders attempted to bring Carl’s “behavior” to the attention of the surrounding pastors, and were allegedly dismissed from their roles.

    So, who are these campus pastors and surrounding leadership? If others who tried to confront were thrown out or removed from roles, what does it say about the remaining leadership on the East Coast? How much do they know? Why weren’t they sounding the alarm years ago, since it sounds like these abuses and indiscretions have been going on for a long time? Every single one of these leaders needs to be questioned and held to account. Even if they were “well-meaning,” they failed to protect the sheep from a brazen wolf. This must be reconciled.

    Boston Campus Pastor: Josh Kimes (his wife, Leona, is the Care Pastor)
    Other pastors listed as contacts: https://hillsong.com/usa/eastcoast/online/staff-chats-boston/

    Connecticut: Pastor John Termini, East Coast Executive Pastor and Hillsong Global Board Member Tolu Badders, and Executive Pastor Brenda Thorn https://hillsong.com/usa/eastcoast/online/staff-chats-ct/

    New Jersey: Matt Bartgis, Pastor Darnell Barrett, Liz Nolz
    Other leaders listed as contacts: https://hillsong.com/usa/eastcoast/online/staff-chats-nj/

    New York City, Manhattan Campus Pastor: Todd Crews (his wife, Nicole, is also a Pastor)
    Other Pastors and leaders listed as contacts: https://hillsong.com/usa/eastcoast/online/staff-chats-nyc/

    It is important to note that the 2 designated Campus Pastors, at Boston and Manhattan locations, also indicate their wives as pastors as well. Based on the firing of East Coast Head Pastor Laura Lentz due to her husband’s indiscretions and abuses, it stands to reason that these campus pastors and their wives are likely unable to contribute holding someone like Carl accountable in any meaningful way, even though they may claim they do.

    Every pastor and leader associated with the East Coast locations needs to be questioned as to the knowledge of Carl’s years of indiscretions and abuses. Whether these leaders were enablers or outright complicit, all must be held to account. Unfortunately, with Houston’s announcement of an “independent” investigation, which we know will not actually be independent, but internal and controlled, I highly doubt we will obtain any kind of real answers about how there was a massive failure at local leadership level on the East Coast team. Hopefully, as more of these scandals come to the surface, more attention will be given to the enabling and complicit leadership surrounding these abusive, disqualified pastors.

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