NEW YORK (RNS) — For the Hillsong lovers, Hillsong haters and those who love to hate Hillsong, the latest documentary treatment of the global megachurch’s descent into scandal is here. The first two episodes premiered Friday (May 19).
“The Secrets of Hillsong,” a four-part series streaming on FX and Hulu, purports to be the first time Carl Lentz, the fallen celebrity pastor, one-time “hype priest” and former spiritual mentor of Justin Bieber, has spoken publicly about allegations that he had sexual affairs, including allegations of sexual abuse toward his family’s nanny, Leona Kimes, though pieces of his personal defense have been leaking out in news stories and Instagram posts since Lentz was fired in November of 2020.
In the new docuseries, produced in partnership with Vanity Fair and based on their early reporting of scandals at Hillsong’s Manhattan branch, Lentz acknowledges a power dynamic at play in his relationship with Kimes but denies his behavior was abusive and suggests the relationship was consensual.
“Any notion of abuse is categorically false,” he claimed in the documentary, though he seems to admit to being reckless and hurtful. “There were mutual adult decisions made by two people who lied profusely, mainly to my wife.”
Lentz also appears to spare some sympathy for himself. “You do not want to be in this chair. I cannot stress it enough,” Lentz, 44, said in the documentary, his hair grown out to Jesus length.
Laura Lentz, Lentz’s wife, also appears in the documentary to offer her side of the story and share her experiences in the wake of her husband’s betrayal and her own exit from Hillsong.
In a May 9 post on his Instagram, Lentz said that cooperating with “a documentary that we do not control, that we don’t have any say in and that we haven’t even seen yet,” was a decision made as part of their healing.
Lentz allows he had responsibility for the relationship with Kimes, who was also employed by the church along with her husband. “It’s an issue because I was a boss, this person was an employee. I’m responsible for that power dynamic and the management of it and the wisdom that goes with it, and I failed absolutely miserably,” he told the filmmakers.
David Pooler, a professor in the school of social work at Baylor University, finds Lentz’s statements incongruous.
“It doesn’t appear that he really understands power and consent,” said Pooler, who has spent decades studying clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse of adults and its subsequent trauma.
“He says there’s a power differential, then it’s consensual; the two don’t go together,” said Pooler. He noted that Lentz had control over multiple facets of Kimes’ life, including her spiritual life, as well as her livelihood and her husband’s livelihood.
“For him to claim consent is ludicrous. I literally think it’s ludicrous for him to claim that,” Pooler said. “It was an egregious misuse of power and position.”
“A minister is no less a helping professional than a therapist, or a social worker, or a nurse or a doctor, and all those other professions clearly have ethics that delineate and outline the power differentials and the ethics by which someone should function in that relationship to keep a person safe from the misuse of power,” said Pooler.
Lentz recently took on a consulting position at Transformation Church, a megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his family now resides. He said in his Instagram post that he is neither preaching nor overseeing people, but his role “is to help give perspective and insight where I can.”
Though Lentz is the first half’s main character, the two episodes tease the larger story of Hillsong co-founder Brian Houston (who resigned last year in the wake of his own scandals) and toward the end begin to pivot toward much larger coverups by the global megachurch, a Pentecostal powerhouse and media empire headquartered in Australia.
Since Lentz’s firing, the NYC branch and Hillsong Global have been embroiled in parallel scandals, with revelations of Houston’s indiscretions with women and misuse of alcohol and prescription medication, as well as ongoing allegations of financial misconduct by the church.
The final two episodes of “The Secrets of Hillsong” will premiere May 26. The FX production follows a previous documentary series on Hillsong, “A Megachurch Exposed,” produced by Discovery+ and distributed by TMZ.