“God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called.”Some anonymous mediocre white man probably.
John Termini is a nice guy. I remember when he first showed up at Hillsong NYC. Not like the exact date or service, but I remember the general vibe. Partly because the appearance of any eligible bachelor was cause for conversation, celebration and/or competition. (Lady Whistledown would EAT at Hillsong.) And partly because he was so out of place. At first. A smiley, earnest, nice guy. In a tan wool coat and tight, ever so slightly high-water pants. But not like cool pants, like business pants. We didn’t know where he came from, but we all assumed he was somebody or somebody with money, because he and his brother arrived one service and seemed to be in the inner circle by the next. As a stage manager, I ended up collaborating with JT consistently on the evergreen project of trying to keep Carl’s tablet charged. Week after week, Carl would show up ready to preach from a tablet that was not ready to be preached from. Usually with just enough charge to indicate that it was about to die. One Sunday it was so dead, JT and I had to rig up an elaborate extension cord system during the 3 minute turnover song between the M.C. spot and Carl’s sermon. It was a madcap dash of ingenious inspiration with the two of us crouched in the dark behind the band, connecting the cords that were about to connect hundreds of people with the salvation inducing words of Carl Lentz. It was heady, important work and I remember looking at JT with the music rising all around us; he was smiling and I was falling in love. Temporarily and completely one-sidedly. It was a standard Hillsong crush, it was almost required – he was single, he was Christian, he was starting to dress better and he was a nice guy. That was what people would say about him and his brother, often in a tone of relieved disbelief, “They’re so nice!” Because they really were. And they really didn’t have to be. That was the unspoken part. Because they were handsome. And rich. And in the in-crowd. All the things others in Hillsong leadership were still aspiring to be while not even pretending to be nice.
So I remember clearly when my crush started, I don’t remember exactly when it ended, but I know it didn’t last very long. It couldn’t have. JT started ascending and his seams, for me, started showing. He’s a nice guy, (really nice, so nice!) but not very… how can I say this… We all know there are different types of intelligence, right? And JT, I assume, is very business smart, but my impression of him over time, was that while he was socially nice (so nice!), he was sociologically inept. He came from a very wealthy, WASPy background and it showed. I remember him “preaching” a “sermon” that included a lengthy story about sailing with his dad. In a sailboat with sails. He’s talking about leaving his office early to start a long weekend of boats and docks and private beaches and I remember thinking, “Woah… read the room, dude.” But he couldn’t. When it came to relating to the actual demographic of Hillsong NYC he was functionally illiterate. And he wasn’t the only one. The preaching roster of Hillsong was a regular rotation of white dudes who were not from New York City, did not live in New York City and did not know New York City. Not the New York City most of their volunteer force was living in. So they all struggled to relate, to some extent; Carl was obviously better at it than most, but he had his moments too. I remember him complaining in one service about having to wake up “early” to go to one of his kids’ school presentations during the week. Completely oblivious to the number of working parents in his congregation who would have killed to have that kind of “problem.” And someone must have said something to him because he cut that bit from his routine for the rest of the services. And by 2016, when the news was full of Black men being killed by police and the cult of Trump was starting to rise, there were Sundays that I actively avoided church to protect my own emotional well-being, because if something racially or politically charged had happened during the week and Carl wasn’t there on Sunday, there was a high HIGH probability that someone was going to say something problematic from the platform, and it was probably going to be JT. Bless his heart. Because he really is a nice guy, he just didn’t know any better. And maybe he knows a little better now. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. The rise of JT is a perfect encapsulation of the pastoral side of Hillsong culture. It was easier for JT to become an “Executive Pastor” than it is for most people to become an Executive Assistant in New York. Hillsong pronounces people “pastors” like I pronounce people “cool”, it is completely arbitrary and based on nothing more than a feeling. No shade, (or shade, whatever) but after marrying Joel, his wife, Esther, was referred to as one of our pastors. There are no qualifications required to be a pastor at Hillsong.
Because God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called.
That’s a Hillsong standard reply for anyone, such as myself, who might have watched JT go from palling around with Carl to preaching, while they were ghostwriting sermons and going nowhere. Who heard the testimony of how JT’s previous employer kept paying his salary for a year while he transitioned into full-time ministry with Hillsong, while many of us were working full-time for Hillsong for free, on top of our survival jobs. Had to listen to him be allowed to be bad at preaching while we had to be good at honoring and just accepting that God had made His choice. And God’s choice was JT. And Matt. And Blaze. And Steve. And ::insert standard white dude:: over and over and over again. The Hillsong God definitely had a type. So He couldn’t have qualifications because a couple of those guys went to Hillsong International Leadership College and a couple didn’t, some of them had been saved for many years, some for a few; some of them knew some Bible, some of them had heard of it; some of them were bad at preaching, some of them were boring; some of them were Trump supporters, all of them were probably. It was real grab bag of men who might not be qualified to preach anywhere else, but were definitely called to Hillsong.
And they’re all nice guys. But nice doesn’t pay the bills. So I wouldn’t read too much into JT being the Executive Pastor. Like literally, stop reading after “Executive”. JT is the businessman keeping Hillsong NYC running but I wouldn’t bet a single Game Stop stonk on him being the Lead Pastor. Because, and this where Hillsong’s seams start to show, to be a successful Lead Pastor you can be light on qualifications or on charisma, not on both. With his pop cultures references, his tattoos and his carefully curated image, Carl was that rare blend of charm, charisma and cool, a Christian bad boy who seemed like a nice guy. Lead Pastor? Carl Lentz was a leading man. And I’m not saying Hillsong can’t find another one; but can they find one that can pull a big enough crowd to pay those NYC venue rents? I don’t know about that. Especially if people start asking questions they should be allowed to ask, like: What qualifies this man? Where is he from? What does he care about in NYC? Why? And how is he going to be different under the leadership of a Senior Pastor who somehow allegedly had no idea that Carl was a problem, and was also allegedly disrespected and manipulated by him for years, and either way, takes no responsibility for a corrupt culture that has hurt countless people?
I almost wish Hillsong would make JT the Lead Pastor. But keep it honest, by keeping his title as is: Executive Pastor. Because at the end of the day, JT is taking care of what matters most to Hillsong: the business. And that’s fine. Actually, it’s kinda nice. To know that sometimes, at least when it comes to money and buildings, God does actually call the qualified.