Hillsong's Carl Lentz tapes revealed

An audio recording of a Hillsong staff meeting reveals the behind the scenes discussions in the global church following the sacking of Carl Lentz, the high profile leader of Hillsong’s East Coast US operation. The recording leaked to the Daily Mail confirms previous media reports that Lentz “had more than one affair”. “Narcissistic behaviour” was also an issue.

Hillsong’s Global pastors Brian Houston describes how Carl Lentz, the pastor sacked from Hillsong East Coast US, was unmasked.

“What actually happened is that Tolu [Badders, the Chief Operating Officer, Executive Pastor at Hillsong Church] had a conversation with one of the staff members and that staff member had found a very compromising chain of text messages on Carl’s laptop or computer and so that person went straight to Tolu, and Tolu, to her credit, the first thing she did was call me.

“I knew it was an urgent call because it was very late at night and she needed to talk. And so we did talk, and then the next day Tolu spoke to John. And then, again, in what would have have been an extremely difficult thing to do, John and Tolu drove all the way across town and confront him. And that was the beginning of the process where we’re at the point we’re at now.”

Houston also clarified the nature of Lentz’s offence.

“So, when we talk about “an affair”, these issues were more than one affair. They were significant. And at least some bad moral behaviour had gone back historically, but not necessarily those affairs. So, I can honestly say before God the first time I have ever heard any moral complaint against Carl, was when Tolu contacted me. And so, if anyone’s wondering whether this was something that we knew about, no it’s not.

“And to be honest – I’m not downplaying the seriousness of it all – but if it was just about a moral failure, perhaps it would have been possible to work with Carl and Laura, and work our way through it, and have a period of restoration. That may have been possible.

“But the nature of where my relationship with Carl already was up to, and then add the significant nature and the serial nature of the moral issues, just meant that I believed and our global board believed the only way to go was to terminate Carl and really start with a fresh start in New York. And so, that’s where we are at.”

Houston said that stories of hurt and pain are coming forward now in the personal accounts of Hillsong East Coast staff. He said a member of the global board, Darren Kitto, has spent 2 or 3 days listening to these stories. Houston said he doesn’t know the details of them himself.

The tape reveals that the headstrong Lentz had been causing problems for Hillsong for some time. Lentz was a “difficult man to have any type of a direct conversation with,” Houston tells the meeting, “because it would always be put back on the other person as if they were the one with the problem. I was already at the point at the end of summer that I felt like … the time for Carl and Laura in New York was coming to an end.”

Hillsong has appointed what is described by Houston as a “neutral investigator” – a New York law firm Zukerman Gore Brandeis & Crossman, who are specialists in “corporate governance and employment law” according to the recording. This suggests that a concern for Hillsong is making sure they have disciplined Lentz lawfully.

“The leadership issues we talked about are just general narcissistic behaviour. Manipulating, mistreating people, breaches of trust, constantly lying… unaccountable.”

“The leadership issues we talked about are just general narcissistic behaviour. Manipulating, mistreating people, breaches of trust, constantly lying… unaccountable.”

“We are very proud of the way we are one house, many rooms, all around the world. There was always a sense with Hillsong East Coast that they were, to a degree, running their own race.”

Houston is talking to East Coast USA staff on the tape – this is made clear when he goes on to sympathise with them if they have grievances that did not appear to be heard.

“Carl is an extremely hard man to confront. It’s a situation where it is hard to get an issue wrapped with getting drill down on, bored down on… the messenger is the person that became the enemy.”

Houston asks for staff to be patient while a process of negotiation and with Lentz, and an investigation takes place over the next month. New lead pastors will only be appointed after that.

“With a line in the sand, we can start a healthier church, where people are valued and honoured and respected… We want to value our volunteers and the sacrifices they make,” he says.

The tape goes into a questioning answer session, with the normal difficulties of zoom or another system. First up is the question of how Hillsong is looking after the Lentz family.

“We haven’t fired Laura [Lentz]. That is a media story that is actually just not true,” – Brian Houston

“We haven’t fired Laura [Lentz]. That is a media story that is actually just not true,” Houston says. “But Laura was in the process of resigning. And all I know is that they have moved to California. And so her role comes to an end anyway.

“But we did not just ruthlessly fire an innocent person because because of her husband… it is just not an accurate narrative.”

George Aghajanian, Hillsong’s General Manager, adds, “we have been talking to them, I know that there have been a number of people in their world talking to them. I know that John [Tremini, an Executive Pastor at Hillsong NYC] and Tolu [Badders] have. There have been others staying in touch with them as well.

“We are trying to care for them, as far as they are letting us care for them. Our heart is to look after Laura, to look after the children, and even Carl, who needs a lot of help. We are working on a severance package that we are negotiating with them on. They have not accepted that at this point in time.

“We are doing a lot of things behind the scene. It’s not something we were going to promote publicly.”

Asked whether any financial issues were involved in Carl’s termination, George Aghajanian says, “we have no evidence of anything inappropriate with finances, but it is part of our investigation.” He points out that the Lentzes had no access to Hillsong bank accounts.

Asked by John Tremini what things need to be unlearned in the Hillsong East Coast culture, Houston speaks of volunteering as something that should be “a pure beautiful thing,” which gives an insight about anxiety about the local NY church culture. Houston says that he spoke strongly to all the lead pastors last year about making sure people were not treated badly but adds “Carl did not come to that meeting unfortunately.”

“I just want people to know that it is not Hillsong culture, as far as I am concerned, to speak roughly to people, to treat people harshly. Or to use people for your own ends… If it is there we need to challenge it.”

He adds “it is only when that investigation is concluded that we will know what we are dealing with.”