There was a thing Carl Lentz used to say: What walks in you, will run in the people you lead. And all eyes are on Hillsong East Coast now, as the celebrity culture that ran rampant is being attributed to Carl Lentz whose own Christian life has seemingly run off the road. And I get it, it’s a hot story because it involves real-life, real-world celebrities. But what gets lost in all the Justin-Bieber’s-Pastor-Carl-Lentz-Daily-Mad-Lib headlines, is that the celebrity culture of Hillsong never required “real” celebrities. And not one of the messages I have received from people hurt by the culture of Hillsong, whether from NYC or beyond, have been about Justin Bieber. It’s a deeper issue that just happened to land on everybody’s radar in a shallow way. And the people fixating on the removal of Carl Lentz as the fix for what was wrong are missing the point. Or actively hoping that other people will.
Which is why I am as skeptical as it is humanly possible to be about the “leaked” Hillsong audio. There are several reasons I fully believe it was purposely recorded and released as a public relations spin attempt, but I’ll just stick to the beginning and the end of it all.
In the beginning, Brian Houston reveals how Carl’s affair was discovered, and how it was essentially the final straw in what was already a troubled professional relationship. Brian says he knew nothing of any moral issues before this incident, but describes Carl as being difficult, defensive, averse to accepting responsibility and prone to lying, narcissistic behavior and manipulation. All great leadership traits, amen? Apparently so because Carl was allowed to carry on for years. Years where Brian either:
a) Didn’t notice those traits in Carl.
Possible I guess, but not a great endorsement for Brian’s leadership skills or ability to read a room.
b) Didn’t love those traits in Carl, but didn’t mind them. For whatever rea$ons.
This scenario seems much more likely. The Bible talks a lot about the one, the least, the few, the remnant, but Hillsong is definitely about the the many, the much, the crowd, the more. There is more. And Carl brought in more. Attention. Celebrities. Media. Butts in seats. On Sundays, at conferences. Carl was a money-maker.
Which was why him being let go was so shocking. Especially for it to, allegedly, be over an affair. One affair? Is that all?? The first clue that there was probably more to the story, was the fact that we were hearing the story at all. No man in Evangelical Christianity gets taken down for a first offense. There had to be more. And apparently there was. Brian also cited leadership issues and breaches of trust. On the recording Brian talks about Carl’s knack for shifting blame in conversations and his tendency to shoot messengers (metaphorically) and I was amused. I have definitely been bullied by Carl in conversation, I have been gaslit in person and via text, it’s a real thing. But am I to believe Brian Houston was bullied by Carl Lentz? Carl’s boss was more shaken by him than I was?
Carl was how he was and Brian may not have loved it, but he thought it was worth it. Which is disappointing in terms of Brian’s leadership when you realize he didn’t mind the danger of that behavior not only being replicated in people following Carl, but directed at them. I mean, playing devil’s advocate, I guess it is possible, he could have thought Carl’s difficult, defensive and unaccountable communication style was something Carl reserved just for him. Because who among us hasn’t saved our WORST behavior for our boss… Amen?
Anyway, towards the end of the mysteriously leaked and coincidentally comprehensive recording, Bobbie Houston acknowledges that Hillsong relies heavily on a volunteer base of “servant-hearted” people, but paints that system as something good, saying “If it’s not Christlike, it’s not our culture.” And as a catchphrase, credit where it’s due: that’s gold. But to say that, right now, with the woes of Carl Lentz sandwiched between painful testimonies of former Hillsong College students and former Hillsong church members; that’s bold. Where is the humility to acknowledge that if Carl was able to sneak past all the Hillsong Global culture sensors; it may well be possible that there are other leaders or aspects of culture in other rooms of the global house that could also be “secretly” troubled and problematic? Because Brian and Bobbie had no idea, right? Or wait… they did have an idea, but not of everything, just of a few things, that made Carl very difficult to lead, but that was fine for a while… a long while… for rea$ons? Either way, don’t worry about it, the problem was always only Carl and everything everywhere else is unquestionably fine, so no further questions. Except I’ve got inboxes full of messages that have me here encouraging everyone to keep questioning everything.
ce-leb-ri-ty /səˈlebrədē/ noun a famous person; the state of being well-known
For example, Brian Houston recently tweeted that celebrity is a “brass value”, while people are a core value of Hillsong Church, and I have questions. Because Brian saying that people are a core value of Hillsong, is like Jeff Bezos saying people are a core value of Amazon or me saying gummy bears are a core value of my writing. My situation is a little different because gummy bears are not my target audience, but if they were, at some point it would get awkward. I would have to admit the value I ascribed to them had less to do with their well-being than with them being able to help me keep doing well. But that’s just me and I am admittedly flawed, so don’t listen to me. Listen to Brian Houston. And determine for yourself how Hillsong values celebrity versus people by remembering the way Brian either didn’t notice or didn’t mind the deteriorating character of one of his most popular pastors; remember how he “immediately” (a week later when people wouldn’t shut up about it) opened Hillsong East Coast up to an “independent” investigation (that is not independent), to get to the bottom of what Bobbie already knows is definitely not a Hillsong culture problem (no matter how many people in Hillsong culture have similar experiences across the globe).
Someone needs to make it all make sense. Because Brian Houston shouldn’t be able to claim that leadership is his thing, but also claim very little knowledge and no responsibility for a whole wing of it that is currently on fire because I said it before and I’ll say it again: you can’t have it both ways: A leader CAN NOT be that corrupt within a good structure with nobody noticing for so long. And as more people come forward and more stories come out, it is becoming more and more evident how many people did notice, but stayed silent or were silenced, for the sake of the Hillsong celebrity culture. Not the one Carl Lentz reigned over, but the one he rose and fell in, because ultimately, the greatest celebrity of Hillsong Church, is Hillsong Church. Which is why, personally, I’m tired of talking about Carl Lentz. I think it’s time we all follow the example of Hillsong Global and disregard him now that he has served his purpose. Let’s not keep mistaking a mascot, for the main thing. Because if Carl was right about leadership, if what walks in a leader, will run in their followers; now that he’s run off to California, it may be a good time to start looking more closely at Hillsong Global and paying more attention to where, when and how he learned to walk.