I guess Carl Lentz said 2020 three times, because she recently came for him in the shape of a sudden announcement from Hillsong Global Senior Pastor Brian Houston that after a decade as the Lead Pastor of Hillsong NYC, he’d been let go for leadership issues, breaches of trust and moral failures. (The three branches of government.) Setting off a still rising tide of speculation and revelations that have led to the opening of an “independent” investigation to help determine how deep the troubled waters are. So that’s something. What exactly and how much good it will do is unclear, also unclear: how “independent” an investigation can be when the contact email address belongs to a longtime Hillsong Global staff member. I guess we’ll find out. But in the meantime, we all have our stories. And we all have the right to tell them. So if you’ve been wounded by Hillsong NYC, whatever form it took, I’m sorry. I’m sorry we weren’t able to stop it before it got to you. And whatever you choose to do with your story, whether you want to use that email address to add to the investigation, and/or share it with someone you trust, and/or use it as fuel to remove yourself from an unhealthy environment, know that you’re not alone. By the time you read this, I will have already pressed send on an email adding this post, my story to the “independent” investigation. And I’m posting it here to show that there are levels to church hurt and all of it matters.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”Anne Lamott
Where do I even begin? I became part of Hillsong NYC in 2010. I was part of the original launch team. Well… the original launch connect group, let me not overstate my role, because from its earliest days a hierarchy was firmly in place. If I were to comb through my old emails, I could probably tell you the exact date the rungs on the ladder snapped into place; because before the connect group was Hillsong NYC, it was the launch team for Urban City Church. A church plant of R & J, a friendly enough couple, I had first met at Hillsong Bible College. Oh yeah… before being part of Hillsong NYC, I was part of the Hillsong Sydney Hills Campus from 2005 to 2009. So I was in deep. Completely sold on the mission. And was already pre-conditioned to not only overlook, but expect certain nonsense. So the only thing that was really surprising about the way the posture and attitude of R & J changed, was how quickly it happened. Once they no longer had to be friendly to convince people to build their thing, we were no longer friends, we were all servant leaders, emphasis on leader for them, and servant for the rest of us. Being tasked with cleaning their apartment and rearranging furniture (before and after meetings), bringing snacks (“And we know most of you are on struggle street, but let’s do everything with excellence and steer clear of store brands, hey?”) and showing appropriate deference to them at all times. I remember J inviting me to coffee to take me to task for a tweet that she felt was “dishonoring” toward her. Imagine that, me, dishonoring some dumb twenty-something and then being so insufficiently apologetic (because I’m grown and you’re ridiculous) that she felt the need to tell me, “I’m your leader and it doesn’t matter who ends up leading this church, I’m still going to be your leader.”
Because we didn’t know who the Lead Pastor was going to be at that point. The first time we heard the names Carl and Laura Lentz, they were listed as people who were going to be part of the team, but it wasn’t until weeks later that it was officially announced that Carl and Joel would be the Lead Pastors… and Laura, (kinda?) by default. (Flourish, baby… maybe?) Anyway, I only mention these early early days to point out that the toxic leadership culture of Hillsong NYC was not a creation of Carl Lentz. It’s a preset of the structure. And he, unfortunately, ran with it. We all did. Through actions and through acquiescence. Because to speak up or to question was to dishonor. To not give sacrificially of your time/money/energy/talents was to be half-hearted (and fully dishonorable). And to want to be recognized, paid or promoted, was to be doing things for the wrong reasons (dishonorably). To be ungrateful. Jesus gave his all. And we would too. And lucky for us, Hillsong NYC was there to take, take, take it all. (Can you believe we get to do this?! #BESTLIFEEVER)
So what did I get to do? I got to work backstage, leading the Stage Managing team. I got to be part of the worship team as a BV (one of the ones with a mic, but not one of the ones whose mic was on). I got to lead a Connect Group of wonderful women in upper Manhattan. I got to write: the weekly connect group studies used across all the Hillsong NYC connect groups. I got to ghostwrite: church emails and sermon stuff, first jokes and then hefty portions of messages for Pastor Josh Kimes. I got to know and love Carl Lentz. Working in my capacity as a Stage Manager, I interacted with him all the time in the early days and for whatever reason, we clicked. And knowing that issues of infidelity are what ultimately brought his pedestal crashing down, let me be clear that there was never any of that type of impropriety between us. Any abuse of power in our relationship was the good old-fashioned-irritating-mansplaining kind. So much so, that when I first saw the email about this “independent” investigation, I wasn’t sure about adding my two cents. Because I wasn’t treated that badly by Carl specifically. He was a diva with a tendency to text recklessly (Like… dude, you know screenshots are a thing, right?) and he was annoying, but he was also funny and warm. And the less enchanted I became with Hillsong itself, the less regard I had for his ego. And so I would fight him, about dumb things like his disdain for cats and real things like the issues of inequality at Hillsong NYC. As a single, Black woman who had given so much of myself, my time, and my talents, it stung to watch lesser qualified white boys waltz into positions I would never even be considered for. (Because God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called, right?) But it wasn’t just about me, the lack of platform diversity in the most diverse city in the world was stunning. So I would question him: Women make up more than half of this congregation but only preach from platform 3 or 4 times a year. Why? This congregation is full of people of color and full of single people but every time “God” adds a new pastor to the staff/preaching rotation, it’s a married white male. Why? I would say we have to do better. He would say he agreed, but we had to wait; for “God” to someday bring a single and/or female and/or Black (or POC) person with the skills needed. (Meanwhile, this single, Black female could write studies good enough for the whole church to use and sermons good enough for someone else to preach, but… nevermind,)
How does that old saying go?… Gaslight someone and they’ll serve for a day. Teach them to gaslight themselves and they’ll serve forever. It works. I kept thinking my frustrations were my fault: I was too arrogant, I was missing the point, my motivations were bad and that was why I couldn’t be used. Plus no church is perfect. And God was testing me. And the best was yet to come. So I should have just been happy to serve. And thankful to have the level of access and privilege that I did. Because most people didn’t. Most people had to line up early in all kinds of weather for a chance at decent seats, because most people didn’t have a seat in the reserved section. Most people never got to meet Carl, much less trade passive-aggressive texts. And most people had no recourse when they were being mistreated by their leaders, while I was able to move pretty freely and the times someone did flex on me, I could get my complaints heard. Not that it did much good, because within the Hillsong hierarchy, people are great at appearing one way to the people above them while being completely different to the people they deemed themselves to be above.
Maybe even me, I hope not, but I can’t say for sure, because I was definitely part of the problem. I let my privilege keep me complicit. By convincing myself the gross inequities and abuses of power were just bugs in a system that was doing enough good to outweigh the bad. Because people were meeting Jesus and that was the main thing, right? And somebody had to speak up about equality and if not me, who? And I had put so much time in, so even as it got harder and harder to unsee how emotionally and spiritually manipulative the Hillsong structure is, I was so close (maybe) to being in a position to effect real change (maybe). In the end, I realized that Hillsong was never going to change. That even if Carl really wanted it to be an equitable place, (and maybe he did) it wasn’t really his call. Ultimately, Hillsong wasn’t his church. And Hillsong isn’t built for equality.
It thrives on inequity. Imbalances of power, access and opportunity. Hillsong is all about being blessed and anointed as evidenced by being prosperous and powerful. So the people at the top are afforded levels of privilege, power and self-importance that keep them too comfortable to ask questions, or to fully engage with the questions of others, about anything that could jeopardize their place in the hierarchy. Goal number one is making sure the church machine has an unlimited supply of souls to grind by perverting the concepts of serving and of honor to take advantage of everyone involved, but especially volunteers. Constantly requiring them to rise above standards that their leaders weren’t required to meet, in exchange for paltry benefits their leaders would never settle for. How many choir members were told we couldn’t afford to give them bottles of water, while the weekly green room spread for the pastoral staff was lush? And then times that inequity by about four thousand for the difference between the meals provided for volunteers for Hillsong Conference and those for the platform guests/VIP visitors. Oof. It was unreal. And unchristlike. Because people can find a million ways to justify those decisions, but they can’t pretend it’s what Jesus would do.
And at the same time, I can’t pretend, won’t pretend it was all bad. Because it wasn’t. Which is why so many of us look back with such ambivalence. Because while being used by people who should have been caring for us, we were bonding with others in the trenches. The majority of my closest friends are people I met at Hillsong, volunteered with at Hillsong, was in Connect Group with at Hillsong. And I wouldn’t trade them for all the healthy spirituality in the world, so… all’s well that ends well, right? Except it hasn’t ended. The trauma is ongoing. Roughly, for every ten people I know from my time at Hillsong, three will still be there, two will be at some other church and five will be nowhere at all. Traumatized from their time at Hillsong NYC and struggling to trust another church. And maybe Hillsong Global doesn’t care because it knows it’s too big to fail, it will keep colonizing its way into sufficiently gentrified neighborhoods and burning through people. Just like any other global franchise – it’s not the healthiest option, not the best, but it has name recognition and it’s predictable. And there’s something comforting about that. So I hope Hillsong Global doesn’t think it’s too big to fix. I hope it doesn’t try to pin all the problems of Hillsong East Coast on Carl Lentz. He, like so many of us, was a victim and a villain of the framework he was handed. And he fumbled the ball (and the bag) badly. But culture isn’t taught, it’s caught, right? So even as I write this and know how much it might upset some of my friends who are still deeply sown into Hillsong, I say you can’t have it both ways: A leader CAN NOT be that corrupt within a good structure with nobody noticing for so long. Especially not Carl Lentz, emotional, spoiled, pampered and coddled Carl Lentz. Bless his heart. This investigation may label him Patient Zero, but if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that denying sickness doesn’t lessen its damage. Whatever he had, we need to be realistic about how many may be infected. Because hurt people hurt people. Empty people empty people. And Hillsong people hillsong people.
So I hope every Hillsong campus commits to treating its volunteers better; to leadership feeling/acting less entitled and more appreciative. To being more transparent and less manipulative. To stop abusing the concept of honor. And to start making Hillsong a space safe for honest critique, honest questions and honest answers. Or I hope it all burns down. Either way is good with me as long as people stop being abused.
While this is the first time I’ve publicly written this plainly about my Hillsong experience, it’s not the first time I’ve tackled it, for more artful interpretations, check out:
Tell your friends.
Janice Lagata was born in California, but born for New York. A writer, fighter, igniter and matron saint of cats; smirking is her favorite. She’s just a girl feeding herself to the world and asking it to love her – that’s a lyric from a song she wrote, you can probably find it and lots of other things she’s working on by asking the internets (insta/twitter/spotify/your mom) for @jani_the_cat.