Hillsong's Carl Lentz: What to Know About the Megachurch's Former Celebrity Pastor
Carl Lentz founded Hillsong NYC in 2010 before being terminated from his position a decade later
Former Hillsong Church pastor Carl Lentz played a pivotal role in bringing the megachurch to the U.S. — but just a decade later, he was ousted from the organization.
The 44-year-old spiritual leader's journey with Hillsong began in the early 2000s while he was attending their leadership college in Australia. There, he met his wife, Laura and founder Brian Houston. While interning for Brian, he also befriended his son Joel Houston, who would later become his Hillsong New York City co-founder.
In 2010, Carl and Joel officially opened the doors to the first Hillsong branch in the U.S. Over the next few years, they expanded the church from gatherings in apartments to major theaters, welcoming thousands of congregants every Sunday. The church became known for its high-profile celebrity followers, while Carl became known for his famous friends, like Justin Bieber. The megachurch pastor served as a spiritual adviser to the rich and famous and, in turn, became a celebrity himself.
But after a decade of serving at Hillsong, he was suddenly fired from his position. In a statement, Brian shared that Carl had been terminated following "ongoing discussions in relation to leadership issues and breaches of trust" as well as a "recent revelation of moral failures."
"I've had concerns and many conversations over the years with Carl," Brian later said in an interview with the Today, adding that he believed there were leadership issues that "included lying" and what he called "narcissistic behavior."
"I think there's a lot of things I should've known earlier, and hopefully, moving forward, we'll make sure we have far better systems in place and better accountability," he concluded. Brian himself later resigned from the church in March 2022 following complaints that he behaved inappropriately towards two women in two separate incidents.
While Carl has mainly stayed out of the public eye since his firing, the former "rockstar pastor" is finally opening up about his cheating scandal in FX's new documentary series, The Secrets of Hillsong. The series features the first interviews with Carl and his wife Laura since they were pushed out of the church.
So who is Carl Lentz? Here's everything to know about the controversial pastor that once led the celebrity megachurch.
He grew up in Virginia and attended North Carolina State University
Carl was born on Nov. 6, 1978, to Stephen and Cathy Lentz. He grew up in a religious family: his father was both a pastor and business law attorney specializing in church-related matters, according to his website. In Carl's book, Own The Moment, he shared that, as a child, he accompanied Stephen as he preached at prisons and juvenile detention homes.
After spending his adolescence in both Chicago and Virginia Beach, Virginia, he enrolled at North Carolina State University, where he studied criminal justice and played basketball. Carl has admitted that he had lost touch with his faith at the time, but during a trip home, he had a life-changing moment at church. At that moment, he decided to rededicate his life to his religion.
He attended Hillsong International Leadership College
Following Carl's eye-opening experience in church, he dropped out of college in order to study theology full-time. He briefly moved to Los Angeles and worked at a Gucci store in Beverly Hills while attending the King's College and Seminary in Van Nuys, California. While he struggled to save enough money to achieve his goal of attending Hillsong International Leadership College, Carl wrote that a Gucci customer took a liking to him and funded his trip. At age 20, he enrolled at Hillsong's school and moved to Sydney, Australia.
During his time at the school, Carl interned for Brian Houston, the founder of Hillsong, and befriended his son Joel — whom he later teamed up with to launch Hillsong NYC.
Carl met his wife Laura in Australia
Carl met his wife, Laura Lentz (née Laura Brett), while they were both students at Hillsong College. In his book, Carl wrote that he "honestly knew" that he was going to marry Laura from the first moment he saw her and even called his mom to say that he had met his future wife. After a short courtship, Carl proposed, and on May 5, 2003, the pair tied the knot.
Since then, the couple have welcomed three children: daughters Ava Angel, and Charlie Jayne, and son Roman Shepard.
He co-founded Hillsong NYC with Joel in 2010
After graduating from Hillsong College, Carl and Laura moved back to Virginia, where Carl led a youth ministry and later became a pastor at Wave Church, another nondenominational megachurch. While serving at the church, he was contacted by Joel, who had devised the idea of bringing Hillsong stateside during a trip to New York. Joel presented his vision of providing spiritual guidance to the Big Apple, and Carl signed on to become the co-founder of Hillsong NYC.
In 2010, Carl and Joel officially opened the doors to the church, which began as a series of small group meetings held in apartments. Soon, they expanded and started welcoming attendees every Sunday at Irving Plaza, a venue typically reserved for concerts. The church grew quickly, moving to Hammerstein Ballroom and then United Palace. The church now has outposts in New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and in 2019, Hillsong NYC welcomed upward of 7,000 people every weekend, according to the New York Times.
Carl was once a close friend of Justin Bieber
Throughout his time serving Hillsong, the church became popular among celebrities like Selena Gomez and Kevin Durant. While some criticized Hillsong for catering to the rich and famous, Carl told GQ that he believed "celebrities deserve a place to pray" like everyone else.
Carl also became close with many of the church's celebrity attendees — particularly Justin Bieber. The pair developed a tight-knit relationship after being introduced by their mutual friend and fellow pastor, Judah Smith. In Own The Moment, Carl recalled Smith reaching out to him, asking for help in supporting Bieber.
"I met Justin through Judah," Carl wrote. "He called me one day and said, 'I'm working with this young guy, Justin Bieber. His mom used to play my preaching to him as a kid. He's a really awesome young man. I think you can help me support him.' So over the years Judah and I have had the blessing of being in Justin's life, in many different chapters."
Over the course of several years, Carl served as a spiritual confidant for Bieber, and the pair were often spotted spending time together. In 2014, Bieber even moved in with the Lentz family for a month and a half while he worked through personal issues. Around that time, Carl baptized Bieber at the singer's request. Since the last-minute baptism was unplanned and in the middle of the night, the ceremony took place in an oversized bathtub at former NBA player Tyson Chandler's home.
"I have a special role in Justin's life, spiritually, but … I'm not a life-motivational guy," Carl told the New York Post. "We're talking about making sure his life remains a blessing, not a burden."
Sources told PEOPLE that Carl was by Bieber's side after the singer canceled his Purpose World Tour in 2017, but the duo allegedly had a falling out within the next year. In 2018, TMZ obtained a video in which Carl appeared reluctant to congratulate Bieber on his engagement to Hailey Baldwin. Although Carl did not comment on the status of his relationship with Bieber at the time, he later attended the Biebers' 2019 wedding. On Instagram, Carl shared a congratulatory message to Bieber.
"Love you @justinbieber ... you are a loyal friend, a kind hearted human being, a musical genius and continue to grow into a fantastic HUSBAND! Congratulations to you and @haileybieber," he wrote.
Whether Carl and Bieber have remained friends is unclear, but in 2021, the musician clarified that he was no longer a member of Hillsong.
He was fired from his position at Hillsong following "moral failures"
In November 2020, Carl was suddenly terminated from his position at Hillsong. In a statement, founder Brian Houston explained that Carl had been fired following "ongoing discussions in relation to leadership issues and breaches of trust" as well as a "recent revelation of moral failures." On top of that, the location would be subject to an "in-depth review and investigation into all concerns and any wider cultural issues."
Although Brian did not mention it at the time, it was later reported that Carl had engaged in a months-long affair throughout 2020. In a candid Instagram post about parting ways with Hillsong, Carl confirmed that he had been "unfaithful" in his marriage and that he took "full responsibility" for his actions. Less than two weeks later, a woman named Ranin Karim came forward, alleging to be the woman with whom Carl had an affair.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Karim alleged that she had tried to break up with Carl multiple times over the course of their five-month relationship, but he continued to pursue her. Karim said that Carl eventually called her to say that his wife had discovered the affair and told her, "My life is over." Karim told the outlet she wished she had "never met him."
In the months after Carl's termination, more details emerged about his actions in leaked audio from inside the church. In a recording published by Page Six, an individual alleged to be Brian spoke of Carl's "narcissistic" and "manipulating" behavior and explained that his relationship with Carl had deteriorated over time. Brian also said that Carl was "a difficult man" to speak to and often got defensive, according to the report. He also suggested that Carl had been unfaithful on more than one occasion in what he considered "significant" affairs.
"They were not easy meetings and I already [was] at the point at the end of summer that I felt like Carl and Laura's time in New York was coming to an end," he said in the recording. "Not just general narcissistic behavior, manipulating, mistreating people … other hurtful things, the breaches of trust connected to lying, constantly lying … basically, broken trust."
Carl sought treatment for depression and anxiety after leaving Hillsong
Following Carl's termination, he entered treatment for his mental health. A source close to the former pastor told PEOPLE that Carl was seeking help at "an outpatient facility that specializes in depression, anxiety and pastoral burnout."
"He wants to be better for his family and is dedicated to doing the work. His family is supporting him and hopes their privacy will be respected on this journey," the source said. "He has no ill will towards the church and recognizes that they needed to take some course of action to address his missteps."
He was accused of sexual abuse by his family's former nanny
In May 2021, the couple's former nanny, Leona Kimes, accused Carl of sexual and emotional abuse. In an essay titled "Writing My Voice Back," Kimes alleged that early on in her employment, "boundaries between personal and professional blurred" and an "unhealthy bond and attachment was formed."
"During the years I spent serving them, I was subjected to manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power and sexual abuse," she wrote. "Having told almost no one before this, I am just now able to share what I experienced in their home as the result of intense therapy."
Kimes alleged that Carl made inappropriate comments and stared at her body "in a way that felt predatory" to her, even in the presence of his wife and children. She wrote that when she took the children to the family's hot tub, Carl would join, "positioning himself close to me so his hands could graze my legs."
"Then the physical encounters escalated," she added. "While he never had intercourse with me and never kissed me, I was physically violated by his unwanted and repeated sexual touching of my intimate areas. I froze. Every time, I froze."
Kimes noted that Carl and Laura addressed the harassment with her on two separate occasions. She was fired in 2017. "I was told that if his reputation was ruined, my reputation would be, too," Kimes wrote.
Following the essay's publication, Carl and Laura's attorney denied Kimes' allegations.
"Laura and Carl Lentz vehemently deny the allegations and, in addition to that, have irrefutable proof the events did not happen as Leona Kimes has described," their statement read. "Further, due to the high degree of the ongoing reckless and slanderous misstatements by Leona Kimes, Laura and Carl Lentz are exploring all legal actions available to them."
Carl and his wife have remained together throughout the scandal
Since the news of Carl's affair and accusations of sexual abuse were made public, his wife Laura has stood by his side.
"He messed up and is taking full responsibility for having an affair. He is taking time to work on his marriage, go through intense counseling with his wife and spend time with his kids," a friend of the couple told PEOPLE. "He is committed to rebuilding trust and fixing his marriage. In this time of COVID, they have been able to spend more time together. As a family watching movies, game nights, reading."
In May 2021, Laura spoke out for the first time since Carl's termination on their 18th wedding anniversary. In a post that featured a photo of palm trees, Laura seemingly alluded to familial strife and resilience.
"There are many symbolic meanings to these amazing trees," she wrote. "A few that have resonated with me during this season of my life: they are strong, can weather the biggest storms, they always grow upwards. Freedom, righteousness, reward, resurrection just to name a few."
Laura also shared that she had learned a lot about herself over the past few months, writing, "Now more than ever I know the kindness of God, His grace, forgiveness & strength."
In September 2022, the couple publicly addressed their relationship for the first time, confirming that they were moving forward as a family. In separate Instagram posts, Carl and Laura shared pictures from a family photo shoot; Carl wrote that, despite the "challenging road," they were all still together.
"Not sure what the future holds for us, but we do know that we face it as a family and for that I am so thankful," he wrote.
Carl again reflected on the pair's future in a lengthy Instagram post in May 2023.
"For the last 3 years my entire focus has been fighting for my wife and my kids," he wrote. "In order to do that, seeking sobriety and healing had to run parallel with those goals." Carl also noted that he and Laura recently celebrated their 20th anniversary together, which he said was made possible "with a lot of work, a lot of honesty and a lot of prayer."
He and Laura gave their first post-Hillsong interviews in FX's new docuseries
Carl opened up about his various controversies for the first time in FX's new series, The Secrets of Hillsong, which chronicles the scandals of the famous megachurch. The docuseries features the first interviews with Carl and Laura since they were ousted from Hillsong, and the former pastor wrote on Instagram that they decided to participate after "healing from that heartache."
In the series' second episode, Carl discussed his cheating scandal, saying that while he is "responsible for allowing an inappropriate relationship to develop" with the couple's nanny, "any notion of abuse is categorically false."
"There were mutual adult decisions made by two people who lied profusely, mainly to my wife," he added. "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."
Laura also opened up about how she discovered the affair, sharing how she once caught Carl and the nanny in a "compromising position," leading to a physical altercation.
"I ran into the room and I shoved Carl and hit him and then I jumped on top of her and I punched her," she recalled. "Something came over me. I was angry and I definitely freaked out."
Following the incident, Laura said she was "in a really tormented place mentally." After Kimes denied being involved with Carl, they "never talked about it again."
"We were her pastors, we were her leaders; she was on staff. It got really messy," Laura shared. "Instead of talking about it again, I would just stuff it down."
If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to thehotline.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.
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