The Rise and Fall of Carl Lentz, the Celebrity Pastor of Hillsong Church

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Credit…Andrew White for The New York Times

The Rise and Fall of Carl Lentz, the Celebrity Pastor of Hillsong Church

A charismatic pastor helped build a megachurch favored by star athletes and entertainers — until some temptations became too much to resist.

Carl Lentz, speaking at Hillsong NYC, became not just a friend to celebrities but a celebrity himself.Credit…Andrew White for The New York Times

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In the summer of 2017, the singer Justin Bieber abruptly canceled the remainder of a concert tour that had taken him across six continents in 16 months. Mr. Bieber cited fatigue; his fans fretted. But on the tabloid website TMZ, a more hopeful narrative quickly emerged. The 23-year-old singer left the tour because he “rededicated his life to Christ” thanks to a pastor named Carl Lentz, leader of the New York City branch of the global megachurch Hillsong. The pastor and the pop star were inseparable, the gossip site reported. Two days later, the site reported that Mr. Bieber saw Mr. Lentz “as a 2nd father.”

That year Hillsong and Mr. Lentz became a fixture on TMZ, always in flattering items citing unnamed sources. One article reported that at Hillsong, “Justin worships in total peace, and at least feels he’s treated like a regular person.” In another, TMZ said it “got our hands on some video” of Mr. Lentz dunking a basketball in what appeared to be a near-empty gym. “If that doesn’t get you to church nothing will,” the site concluded.

The association with Mr. Bieber catapulted Mr. Lentz, 42, into a new stratosphere of fame, in which he became not just a friend to celebrities but a celebrity himself. He was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, and showed up on Kourtney Kardashian’s Instagram. He mixed with a jet-setting group of other hip pastors, including Rich Wilkerson Jr., a Miami pastor who performed the wedding ceremony for Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

Justin Bieber with Mr. Lentz, who became a fixture on TMZ.
Credit…Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

But as Mr. Lentz’s profile rose, many congregants felt the focus on fame and cultural power that had helped the church grow was overwhelming its spiritual mission. Last month, it all came crashing down for Mr. Lentz in a scandal that has cast a shadow on one of the most influential megachurches in America.

On Nov. 4, Brian Houston, the founder of Hillsong, announced he had fired Mr. Lentz, citing “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures” in an email to churchgoers. The day after the announcement, Mr. Lentz confessed on Instagram, where he has almost 700,000 followers: “I was unfaithful in my marriage, the most important relationship in my life.”

In a private video conference with staff members and volunteers at the church’s East Coast branch on Nov. 19, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Houston described the church’s discovery of “more than one affair. They were significant.” But sexual infidelity was only one piece of the story. Mr. Houston also connected Mr. Lentz’s dismissal to “general narcissistic behavior, manipulating, mistreating people,” as well as “breaches of trust connected to lying, and constantly lying.”

Even in the contemporary era of megachurches, Hillsong stands apart. Founded in Australia under a different name in the 1980s, its great innovation was to offer urban Christians a religious environment that did not clash with the rest of their lives.

At a time when many Americans have abandoned regular churchgoing, Hillsong attracts thousands of young churchgoers through soaring music and upbeat preaching. If anything, it is cooler than everyday life, with celebrities like the actor and singer Selena Gomez and the N.B.A. star Kevin Durant showing up at Sunday services.

By now, Hillsong is not just a church, but a brand. Hillsong is a look: neutrals, streetwear, body-conscious fashion. And it is a sound, too. The church’s bands have won a Grammy. Their most popular song, the soaring ballad “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail),” has been streamed more than 235 million times on Spotify. And the formula works. The global church now has congregations on six continents, and claims an average attendance of 150,000 people weekly.

Credit…Andrew White for The New York Times

But there was another side to Hillsong in its most popular branch in America, according to many current and former attendees: a pastor who was so swept up in ministering to the famous that ordinary congregants felt neglected. A culture that worshiped wealth, while making volunteers cater to leaders as royalty. And a sense that for all the celebrity surrounding the church, its soul was harder to find.

A representative for Mr. Lentz declined to comment on a detailed list of questions about his tenure at Hillsong and his departure. In his Instagram post after his firing, Mr. Lentz wrote, “This failure is on me, and me alone and I take full responsibility for my actions. 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.”

Mr. Houston, who is also the global church’s senior pastor, said in a statement that “our heart and care is for our church in Hillsong East Coast and we are saddened that a lot of people are hurting.”

“I want to make it very clear that celebrity culture is not a core value of Hillsong Church,” he continued. “People are a core value. Jesus is a core value.”

The church has contracted with a New York law firm to conduct what Mr. Houston described as an independent investigation of “Carl’s leadership of Hillsong New York, and culture of the church during that time.”

Mr. Lentz, who was raised in Virginia Beach, spent years looking for his calling. He played basketball at North Carolina State University before dropping out. He worked as a greeter at a Gucci store on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. But in the early 2000s he made his way to Australia, where he attended a school operated by Hillsong Church.

Mr. Lentz interned for Mr. Houston, who founded the church with his wife, Bobbie, and befriended his oldest son, Joel. By 2010, Hillsong was opening its first church in the United States, and Mr. Lentz and his wife, Laura, moved from Virginia to New York to help Joel Houston lead it.

Around this time Mr. Lentz became friends with Mr. Bieber, the young pop star. The two became so close that Mr. Bieber moved in with the Lentz family temporarily in 2014. They were photographed together often: at a recording studio in Beverly Hills, a go-kart racetrack in Los Angeles, and — ruffling feathers in conservative Christian circles — apparently doing shots at a bar in New Zealand.

Mr. Lentz was known for his look: tattoos, edgy glasses and not just style but fashion. Women’s Wear Daily described Mr. Lentz’s “uniform” as a Saint Laurent leather jacket, ripped jeans and a low-cut T-shirt. He often sported a Rolex, too. Pastors and other staff members who arrived at Hillsong wearing traditional suits and ties often gradually started to dress like Mr. Lentz, and even imitate his Southern-inflected accent.

Thanks in part to Mr. Lentz’s high profile, Hillsong’s New York branch appeared to thrive. A church that started as series of small group meetings in apartments across the city began gathering at the downtown concert venue Irving Plaza, then at the larger Hammerstein Ballroom, and then at United Palace, a venue that advertises itself as Manhattan’s fourth-largest theater.

The New York church, which reported a weekly attendance of more than 7,000 people last year, soon started outposts in Montclair, N.J., Norwalk, Conn., and Boston. Those four locations became known as Hillsong East Coast, and the Lentzes were in charge of all of them.

Hillsong’s model is what is known as “seeker sensitive,” a consumer-oriented approach that aims to attract people wary of or unfamiliar with traditional church. Instead of old hymns and dry sermons on Sunday morning, Hillsong and the churches like it offer a slick concert punctuated by a “message” that often sounds more like a self-help seminar. Mr. Houston’s rules for leaders in Australia instruct that a Hillsong sermon “leaves people feeling better about themselves than they came.”

Credit…Andrew White for The New York Times

At Hillsong, living well and looking good are sometimes framed as forms of evangelism. Janice Lagata, who was an early attendee at the New York branch, recalled leaders referring to a well-known verse from 1 Samuel that reads in part, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” The verse is traditionally interpreted as an exhortation to look past appearances. At Hillsong, the verse was “twisted,” Ms. Lagata said: God’s presence is not in doubt, but to attract superficial “man,” it was important to present the best “outward appearance” possible.

Soon the church’s cultural cachet grew outside Christian circles. “I knew people who came to church not because they were Christians but because they thought Carl was hot,” said Heather McClanahan, who worked for the church in 2014 and 2015.

But Mr. Lentz both loomed large and was rarely present.

No pastor of a big church can have personal relationships with every parishioner. But Mr. Lentz was unusually remote, according to current and former congregants.

He seemed to disappear for months at a time, appearing onstage at church only intermittently. His Instagram showed him attending the Super Bowl in Florida, and at Mr. Bieber’s wedding at a South Carolina resort.

When he did appear on Sundays, he rarely mixed with churchgoers. On Sundays, a team of congregants working as volunteers prevented anyone without the right badge from wandering backstage, and only a few had clearance to enter the green room stocked with a lavish catering spread and changes of clothes to fit Mr. Lentz’s increasingly particular tastes.

The church seemed to go out of its way to cultivate a hierarchy of coolness. A reserved seating section for V.I.P.s appeared at the front of the church, and then expanded to take up multiple rows. Ms. Lagata, a former volunteer, said that when high-profile entertainers or sports stars would try to slip into the main seating area, content to worship with ordinary churchgoers, ushers were often instructed to guide them to the special section in front, or to whisk them backstage to meet Mr. Lentz. “The staff built this culture, and made them a big deal,” Ms. Lagata said. “A lot of us felt torn because it doesn’t feel like something Jesus would do.”

Congregants also described a distinct caste system at the church that corresponded to appearance, wealth and fame. “If you’re a pastor, you’re more important than everyone else,” said Josh Canfield, who used to attend the church and sang with the local church’s worship band. “If you’re a celebrity, you’re more important; if you’ve done something to make you famous, or if you’re rich, you’re more important.”

Those who attend Hillsong do not become official members, another way the church has rejected traditional norms to project a more casual, low-commitment style of worship. Instead, those who want to deepen their connections to the community often take on volunteer work.

All churches rely to some degree on volunteer labor to function. But several former Hillsong volunteers described a particularly intense culture of working 12 or more hours a day and then being treated as low-status workers by church leaders.

After the staff enjoyed catered dinners on Saturday evenings at the church offices, volunteers would be summoned from home to come in and clean the kitchen, according to Ms. McClanahan, who worked for the church and was also close with leaders including the Lentzes. Ms. McClanahan recalled attending, along with Ms. Lentz, a birthday party for a pastor’s wife in a private room at a Williamsburg restaurant, and seeing a friend who was a church volunteer sitting at the edge of the room. The volunteer had been enlisted to drive partiers home in the wee hours of the morning, but had not been invited to enjoy the party himself.

Mr. Lentz seemed to surround himself with people primarily concerned with protecting his reputation. Melyssa Zurasky, a volunteer who helped lead regular meetings of congregants for a year, said she heard rumors about Mr. Lentz’s “inappropriate” behavior with women in 2017. Although she had not witnessed any incidents herself, she and her co-leader felt an obligation to report it to staff leaders. Her attempts to meet with a staff leader were brushed off, she said.

Eventually her story reached a staff pastor named Kane Keatinge, Ms. Zurasky said, who told her she was “unfit for leadership” and could no longer teach classes or lead her group. Her co-leader, who had also raised alarms, was removed from his position, too. What happened to her felt like “the opposite of the Gospel” and “like a cover-up,” Ms. Zurasky said. (Mr. Keatinge said he did not recall telling Ms. Zurasky that she was unfit for leadership when he dismissed her.)

Mr. Houston told The Times that leadership looked into the claims in cooperation with legal counsel at the time and found no evidence to substantiate the allegations. But they are being revisited as part of the investigation initiated after Mr. Lentz’s departure.

Mr. Lentz’s dismissal happened quickly. On Oct. 22, a staff member at the church office in Manhattan found intimate text messages on Mr. Lentz’s work computer. Ranin Karim, a jewelry designer in Brooklyn, told The Times that she had been in a relationship with Mr. Lentz since May, and that Mr. Lentz called her in late October to tell her their messages had been discovered.

A week and a half after the messages were found, he was fired.

In his statement to The Times, Mr. Houston described the dismissal as the culmination of long-simmering frustration with Mr. Lentz’s leadership. He had reprimanded Mr. Lentz at other times over the years, he said, including after the pastor was photographed doing shots with Mr. Bieber. He said he had three meetings with Mr. Lentz over the summer to discuss “leadership issues.”

Credit…Jeff Gilbert/Shutterstock

Mr. Houston has been forced to confront scandal before. An Australian commission found in 2015 that he had failed to inform the police about child sexual abuse accusations against his own father, another prominent pastor in Australia. Mr. Houston’s father was accused in the late 1990s of sexually abusing a young boy decades earlier. Mr. Houston pressed his father, who has since died, into retirement when he found out. Soon after, the two churches merged and were renamed Hillsong.

Mr. Lentz, for his part, appears to be moving on. The Lentzes sold their home in Montclair in October. Ms. Lentz resigned from her position at the church, according to Mr. Houston. The couple and their three children have since decamped to Southern California. Mr. Lentz has been photographed by paparazzi riding his bicycle, taking an evening stroll with his family, and meditating shirtless on the beach.

Like so many other churches, Hillsong NYC has been meeting online since March. One Sunday evening a few weeks after Mr. Lentz’s departure, John Termini, an executive pastor, spoke to the church about its future, acknowledging its recent difficulties. He described Hillsong East Coast as pioneers and “fighters” who had built Hillsong’s presence in America from scratch. “Our general right now, he has gone down,” Mr. Termini told the camera. “I need you to know today, we might not have a general, but we have a king, and his name is Jesus.”

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