NEW YORK (RNS) — Brian Houston, global senior pastor of the international Hillsong Church, announced Thursday (Nov. 12) 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, last week.
“We need a solid foundation for a fresh start and new beginning,” Houston said in a tweet, adding, “The best is yet to come.”
According to a statement sent by Hillsong to RNS on Friday (Nov. 13), the church has “heard from a number of people about their experiences and concerns,” in the wake of last week’s announcement regarding Lentz’s termination.
On Nov. 4, Houston emailed staff and members of Hillsong East Coast about Lentz’s termination. The email, which was obtained by Religion News Service, 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.” Houston 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.
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 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 all-male elders.
Relatively unknown before taking the helm of Hillsong NYC, Lentz became a media darling for his hipster clothes, tattooed arms and celebrity congregants, including Justin Bieber and his wife, Hailey Baldwin Bieber, as well as the Jenner sisters. Lentz 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’s behavior was “ongoing.”
“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.”
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 that 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.”
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 co-workers there.
Lentz met his wife, Laura, a family friend of the Houstons’, 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.”
Boz Tchividjian, a former prosecutor and founder of GRACE, an organization that works with churches to investigate abuse, quoted on Twitter an unnamed source from a Sun article who alleged that “‘There have been many sexual transgressions at Hillsong NYC. We tried to address them in 2017 and we were told that we were spreading gossip.’”
Tchividjian added, “This is a common & effective method leaders use to shame victims into silence in order to protect offenders & institutional reputations.”
According to the church’s Nov. 13 statement, they plan to hire a New York based legal firm with no connections to the church to investigate “tall concerns and any 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 and see Hillsong East Coast move forward in a way that enables many more people to find hope in Jesus,” said the statement.
This story has been updated to include a statement from Hillsong church.