The Secrets of Hillsong, a new four-part Hulu documentary series from FX and Vanity Fair, explores the rise and fall of a megachurch — and the charismatic pastor at the center of it all.
Most of the public first heard of Carl Lentz over a decade ago. He made headlines as the “spiritual advisor” spotted hanging out with Justin Bieber, who was in the midst of a notorious spree of minor arrests and public altercations (remember the mop bucket?).
Lentz co-founded and served as the head pastor at Hillsong NYC — an offshoot of the original Australian megachurch — from 2010-2020, eventually becoming something of a star in his own right as A-listers flocked to the casual and contemporary services and membership numbers skyrocketed.
While Hillsong projected an image of a progressive church for a new age, many interviewed in the series paint the real story in a different light. Services may have featured pastors wearing expensive sneakers and a band with electric guitars, but the ministry at the heart of Hillsong was as conservative as most traditional evangelicalism: anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, and headed up primarily by a cadre of straight, white men.
However, Hillsong USA wasn’t plunged into the harsh spotlight of controversy until Lentz was unceremoniously fired from his position in November 2020, with Global Senior Pastor Brian Houston citing a “revelation of moral failures” after Lentz admitted to an extramarital affair.
The Secrets of Hillsong offers a closer look at what happened behind the scenes at the megachurch, from the controversy surrounding Lentz’s swift dismissal to allegations of hypocrisy and retaliation by Houston, who has been accused of covering up bigger scandals within the church, including alleged sexual abuse against minors by his father, Hillsong founder Frank Houston.
Read on for some of the biggest revelations from The Secrets of Hillsong.
After he confessed publicly to two affairs, Carl Lentz and his wife, Laura, are still together.
The series features the first interviews with Carl and Laura following the announcement of the affairs and Carl’s dismissal from Hillsong, and the pair tearfully recount the days and months following the public airing of their dirty laundry.
For Laura, Carl’s infidelity — and their swift dismissal from Hillsong — had a lasting impact on not just her marriage, but also her relationship with religion.
“Church is very triggering for me right now,” she shares. “I’m getting better. I still can’t sing. I don’t think I’ve said a word in church in a year and a half.”
“I know God knows my heart, and he knows where I’m at,” she adds. “And I know it’s a process. It makes me sad, because I love the church. I love what I was a part of, but I see a lot of unhealthiness in church life now that I’m out of it.”
“It’s hard,” Carl says of making his amends with his family and friends. “I let down, genuinely, a lot of good people. And I can only apologize and change. My story is now one of recovery, and it hasn’t been without failure… It’s a pretty humbling road to be on every day.”
Carl says childhood sexual abuse and prescription pill addiction were underlying issues that contributed to his downward spiral.
In his emotional sit-down, Carl alleges that a family friend sexually abused him as a child — he attributes that trauma to his habits of secrecy, lying and cheating, saying, “I had such deep shame.” Therapy, the pastor explains, has since helped him start to deal with the old wounds, as well as the harm he caused himself.
He also confesses to abusing pills that were prescribed to him for ADHD and hyperactivity, sharing how he secretly started taking more and more to cope with the pressure of Hillsong’s rapid expansion in the 2010s.
“Any sort of drugs mixed with any sort of sexual addictions mixed with any sort of pressure, it’ll create a storm of problems,” Carl says in his interview.
While Carl confessed to one affair, Laura found out about the second on a Zoom call with Hillsong leadership.
After coming clean about his affair with a woman named Ranin Karim to Hillsong senior pastor Brian Houston, Carl and his wife were asked to meet with church leadership over Zoom, a meeting in which Carl says he now feels he was “way too vulnerable” about his indiscretions. “I never thought that anything from that meeting would be twisted. Ever,” he shares. “So I told them everything I could.”
“Everything” included a second affair with the family’s nanny, Leona Kimes. Leona and her husband, Josh, were church leaders at Hillsong Boston, but she served in the Lentzes’ household for years, which eventually led to the affair developing between her and Carl.
“You’ve got someone in your house all the time, and I would sometimes get these little feelings,” Laura recounts. “One night, I found them in a compromising position. I know I’m seeing something that is not right. I ran into the room and shoved Carl, hit him, and then I jumped on top of her and I punched her… Something came over me, and I was angry, and I definitely freaked out.”
Laura explains that Leona stayed on as their nanny, but they never addressed the situation again — saying she felt “tormented mentally” and gaslit by the pair.
Six months after news of the affair came out, Leona Kimes penned a personal essay alleging she was a victim of sexual abuse by Carl.
“I was physically violated by his unwanted and repeated touching of my intimate areas,” she wrote. “I froze. Every time, I froze… I never dreamed I would have to guard myself from my boss. And, in this case, my boss was also my pastor.”
For his part, Carl maintains the affair was consensual. “I am responsible for allowing an inappropriate relationship to develop in my house, with someone that worked for us,” he says in the doc. “Any notion of abuse is categorically false. There were mutual adult decisions made by two people who lied profusely. Mainly to my wife.”
“It’s an issue, because I’m a boss and this was an employee,” he adds. “I am responsible for that power dynamic and the management of it and the wisdom that goes with it. And I failed, absolutely miserably.”
Leona declined to comment on her allegations in the series.
Some believe Carl’s firing from Hillsong was retaliatory, and accuse Brian Houston of hypocrisy.
Currently still on trial for covering up allegations of child sexual abuse against his father, Brian Houston himself resigned from his post at Hillsong in March 2022, after it was found that he “breached the Hillsong Pastor’s Code of Conduct” in two separate occasions involving inappropriate behavior toward women.
“There are some people at Hillsong Church who face scandals, and those scandals are swept under the rug. And then there are other people who are valuable assets, or even shining stars, and they end up getting buried,” says Vanity Fair reporter Alex French of allegations of hypocrisy surround the Houston family coverup as compared to Carl’s firing.
But was that the only issue between Carl and Brian? Some former Hillsong NYC attendees open up in the series about rumors that had been circulating prior to Carl’s dismissal, speculating that the pastor might be planning to leave the church and strike out on his own, risking a “hefty number” of congregants changing their allegiances.
“The first rule of power is don’t outshine the master,” French says. “You don’t show up your boss. And that’s 100 percent what Carl had done.”
“Carl overtook the brand,” agrees former Hillsong NYC congregant Janice Lagata. “Brian went scorched earth just to ruin his chances of surviving outside of Hillsong.”
Parts 1 and 2 of The Secrets of Hillsong are streaming now on Hulu. Parts 3 and 4 debut on Friday, May 26.