When Carl Lentz co-founded Hillsong Church New York in 2010, he emerged as a media spectacle known particularly for his unconventional look: tattoo sleeves, body piercings, Supreme sweatshirts, sagging pants, snapbacks and aviator glasses. It didn't take long for Lentz to garner an impassioned fanbase of young churchgoers, who were smitten by his charisma and grand promises.
So, it came as a major surprise when on Nov. 4, 2020, Lentz was fired from Hillsong over leadership issues and an affair. Just a few months later, Lentz — who also served as a spiritual advisor to Justin Bieber, Kevin Durant, Selena Gomez and the Kardashians — was accused of manipulation, bullying and sexual abuse by his family nanny. Lentz subsequently went into hiding amid his legal troubles. But despite the scandals that plagued his name, Lentz remained a figure of fascination and admiration amongst several of his followers.
Now, almost three years after Lentz's firing, the disgraced pastor is sitting down to give his first interview about his Hillsong tenure and termination in FX's on Hulu docuseries "The Secrets of Hillsong." The four-part feature covers a slew of allegations made against Hillsong that have already been covered extensively in news reports. There's the allegations of discrimination, racism, grooming, sexual abuse; exploitation of volunteer labor and misuse of church funds by higher ups.
There's also considerable focus on Hillsong church founder Brian Houston and his father, pastor Frank Houston. The former resigned last year following an internal probe that found he had breached the church's code of conduct by behaving inappropriately towards two women. Houston also stood trial for concealing child sex abuse committed by his father Frank, who confessed in 1999 to repeatedly raping and assaulting a seven year old church member.
While the stories of Lentz, Houston and Hillsong aren't particularly new, there's still plenty of major revelations made in the series. From Lentz's childhood sexual abuse to the church's reliance on free labor from its congregants, here are eight major bombshells from the doc:
In the second episode of the docuseries, Lentz revealed that he was sexually abused by a family friend when he was a child. This, in turn, made him develop a "pattern of secrecy," where he would lie and hide things from his parents and loved ones.
"For a long time, I defended everybody . . . And it took me a while to get out of that headspace and realize that there were some unhealthy mindsets that I was intertwined with," Lentz added. "[W]hen I really started unwinding what had happened to me as a child, it was really rough. I'm able to talk about it now . . . barely. But I pushed it down for a long time because I didn't want to hurt my parents."
Lentz also revealed that he was diagnosed with ADHD after college and was prescribed medication, which he began abusing during his time at Hillsong. His grueling work schedule coupled with pressures from Hillsong leadership fueled his addiction to a breaking point.
"Any sort of drugs mixed with any sort of sexual addictions mixed with any sort of pressure, it'll create a storm of problems," Lentz said.
Following his departure from Hillsong, Lentz went to rehab and therapy as part of his healing journey.
"Unfortunately, sometimes in our Christian community, we have neglected logic, neglected science, neglected therapy, neglected help," Lentz said. In his therapy sessions, he said, "We prayed. We talked about God. But then we talked about stuff that prayer in and of itself and talking about Jesus is not going to fix."
In addition to his affair with New York designer Ranin Karim — which resulted in his Hillsong firing — Lentz admitted that there were several other affairs. The most notable one was with Leona Kimes, who worked as the Lentz family nanny and currently serves as a lead pastor of Hillsong Boston.
Lentz's wife, Laura, recalled finding both Lentz and Kimes "in a compromising position" one night. She then "ran into the room and shoved Carl and hit him, then I jumped on top of her and punched her."
"Something came over me and I was angry and I definitely freaked out," Laura said.
On May 31, 2021, shortly after Lentz's firing, Kimes penned an essay titled "Writing My Voice Back," in which she accused Lentz of "manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power, and sexual abuse."
"I didn't speak up. I felt uncomfortable and I also felt guilty for feeling uncomfortable. I wondered if I was the problem, and I wasn't sure anyone would believe me, anyway," Kimes wrote. "Like many women in the workplace, I never dreamed I would have to guard myself from my boss. And, in my case, my boss was also my pastor."
Although he admitted to the affair, Lentz denied the allegations from Leona, saying in the documentary, "I am responsible for allowing an inappropriate relationship to develop in my house with someone who worked for us. Any notion of abuse is categorically false."
He continued, "They were mutual adult decisions made by two people who lied profusely, mainly to my wife. It's an issue because I was a boss and this person was an employee. I am responsible for the power dynamic and the management of it and the wisdom that goes with it. And I failed absolutely miserably."
Amid news of Lentz's infidelity, Lentz's daughter attempted to take her own life. For the sake of her daughter's mental health, Laura asked Hillsong leadership to not release explicit details of Lentz's affair.
In a string of text messages shown in the documentary, Laura wrote, "If the way this is announced is detailed it could push our traumatized child over the edge." Another text read, "If the language is vague enough to allow us to handle our own personal family crisis that would help the safety of our children."
Hillsong, however, disregarded Laura's pleas when they leaked the details of Lentz's affairs. In an audio recording obtained by The Daily Mail, Brian Houston is heard detailing a timeline of improper behavior by Lentz.
"When we talk about an affair, these issues were more than one affair," Houston said. "They were significant moral failure."
In addition to Lentz's firing, Laura was fired by the church, which Houston denied in the leaked audio. Instead, he asserted that she resigned, saying, "We didn't just ruthlessly fire an innocent person because of their husband's sins."
"We were fired," Laura maintained in the documentary. "It just felt like I was fired because it wasn't really an option."
Although Lentz was one of the only Hillsong leaders who voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, many Hillsong congregants of color believed Lentz had given up in his attempts to diversify Hillsong's overwhelmingly white leadership.
Alex French, a Vanity Fair contributing editor who covered Hillsong and Lentz in the bombshell exposé "Carl Lentz and the Trouble at Hillsong," said many churchgoers had told him, "What Hillsong did was colonize the city, and I don't know if I want them here anymore."
As for Lentz's efforts, he spoke up about the church's lack of Black pastors and blatant disregard of race within a highly diverse city. Lentz also advised the church to not have an all-white panel at a women's conference in Harlem. But, he was met with backlash and decided to stay mum about such issues.
Black congregants, like Mary Jones, felt as though Lentz hadn't followed through with his promises.
In response, Lentz said, "To the people who say I dropped the ball when it comes to the whole question of race in church, that I didn't do enough, I would reject that completely."
He continued, "I do find it ironic that I'm being asked about those questions when I feel like those were one of the things we did the absolute best. Is it enough? I don't know. What is enough?"
Despite the lack of change, five female congregants from Hillsong NYC attempted to make a difference themselves. In 2017, the group wrote a letter asking leadership to formally address the alleged inappropriate sexual affairs between staff and interns. The women met with Lentz and other leaders, but when no change came out of it, they all left the church for good.
Former Hillsong Boston volunteer Tiffany Perez said she was asked to take care of the top pastor Josh Kimes' daughter, Lyla, for just $150 a week.
Perez worked up to 25 hours a week babysitting, which means she earned about $6 an hour, or half the minimum wage in Massachusetts. In addition to looking after Lyla, Perez was asked to clean the Kimes' home and care for their dog. She was not compensated for those additional duties.
Perez also attended Hillsong College in Australia in hopes of fulfilling her dream to become a pastor. In the documentary, she said the college "didn't really teach me much" and "was not what I thought it would be."
"I wanted to be a pastor, but the closest I could get to it was being a pastor's nanny," Perez said.
Geoff Bullock, who was one of Hillsong's founding members and its worship pastor, said he grew wary of Houston's leadership once Hillsong became less "fun" and more "corporatized."
"I said to Brian, 'Look, we worked together for the past 12 years,'" Bullock recalled. "'You are my family, but I've gotta tell you we are doing things where we are pushing all our people to the limit.'"
He continued, "Brian just said to me, 'It's not your job to come to senior management to represent the rights of the workers. No, if they don't like it tell them to go to another church, and they'll find somebody else.'"
Bullock said Houston described his own anger as "strong leadership." He recounted an incident when Brian reduced his secretary to tears when she was unable to find him a business class seat on a flight to Los Angeles. As his relationship with Houston progressed, Bullock said he was "struggling with the intense pressure on me to be somebody that I wasn't. I just couldn't go on."
In three months' time, Bullock said he was ostracized by the Hillsong. He lost his friends, his community and his own wife. As if that wasn't enough, Houston also prohibited Bullock's new music from being played at all Hillsongs.
On March 22, 2022, Houston resigned from the megachurch after internal investigations found he had engaged in inappropriate conduct of "serious concern" with two women.
Earlier this year, the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission launched an investigation into Hillsong Church and its executive members following allegations that the church engaged in mass money laundering, tax evasion, and fraud, and used church money "to do the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian," per independent MP Andrew Wilkie.
The church is under fire for hiding millions of dollars — up to $80 million — that they didn't declare publicly. "These documents show former leader Brian Houston treating private jets like Ubers," Wilkie said in court. "Hillsong followers believe that the money they put in the poor box goes to the poor."
"Whatever happens with Hillsong, whatever happens with Brian Houston, they have provided a template for churches all around the world, to charismatic Christians to exploit and to convert their personal careers and art into financial acquisition," said journalist Lech Blaine. "That doesn't end with Brian Houston."
The documentary noted that at its peak, Hillsong boasted locations across 30 countries around the world and over 150,000 congregants. As of March 2023, only six out of 16 Hillsong U.S. locations remain.
The verdict for Houston's court trial for the alleged concealment of child sex abuse is expected in June 2023. Additional charges are also expected in regard to Hillsong's alleged financial malfeasance.
All four parts of FX's "The Secrets of Hillsong" are now streaming on Hulu. Watch a trailer for the documentary below, via YouTube: