I met Carl Lentz once. It was at a protest in Harlem. He was kind, encouraging, and spent more time with his family than with other people. He offered encouragement and support to local pastors. He was patient and willing to engage with anyone who wanted to talk.
I was surprised, saddened, and grieved as pastors around NYC started texting me about the news that Carl Lentz had been terminated by Hillsong. We all found out in the same way that has become common for bad news in the church world — twitter. Brian Houston’s letter was vague enough, but had that “moral failure” language that can only mean 1 of 2 things.
Sadly, it was true. Carl confessed to being unfaithful in his marriage on Instagram the next day and the woman he was having an affair with has made sure to claim the publicity.
Carl follows a pattern of large pastors with sad endings to the ministries they started. Carl, like many others, will likely be back.
As a pastor in NYC and someone who has watched founding pastors leave well, leave poorly, and fail miserably, I see the same grief pattern taking place.
I see 5 layers of grief that we need as Christians, humans, and as people who care for the church.
1. Grieve for his family.
Lost in the media’s obsession with the woman Carl had an affair with is Carl’s family. Lara Lentz has been ignored and disregarded by Good Morning America. She’s only grabbed the attention of photographers looking to spread gossip and speculation.
The Lentz family left their home —yes, it was quite a nice home, but thats not the point — it was THEIR home. A place of many memories gone with the mistakes of a husband and father.
If you’re a member of Hillsong, the church at large, or those who love to throw stones at “hypocrites,” remember that your betrayal, pain, or anger means nothing compared to the family sorting through life’s changes.
Grieve for the family, weep and pray for them. Pray with hope, that their family would be better outside the spotlight of Hillsong, celebrity congregants, and articles with slanderous gossip.
2. Grieve for his church.
Hillsong is moving on to their next chapter with the hope that the best is yet to come. Skeptics and cynics will claim those are platitudes, but those inside Hillsong have a chance to pursue a best that God will define, not their past or outsiders expectations.
Hillsong NYC could be a better church on the other side of the pain. But first, they must grieve. Every church that loses a pastor for good or bad reasons must grieve. Loss demands grief and grieving well leads to life again.
I grieve for the people of Hillsong that have to answer questions that have no answer. I grieve for the people who found a community of love, hope, and refreshing truth.
NYC churches and pastors benefitted from Carl’s boldness on racial justice, Hillsong’s freedom in worship, and their pursuit of those farthest from God.
I grief for their church in hope that God’s best for them is truly yet to come.
3. Grief for the NYC church.
The church throughout NYC is also grieving. As a pastor in NYC, you grieve any pastor who leaves and especially those who leave through mistakes and pain. Pastoring is a privilege and a gift, but it is also difficult and painful. Right now, over 50% of pastors nationally are considering leaving their ministry under the stress and pressures of the pandemic.
Few of us have or will ever have the spotlight Carl did. Most of us would fail under those pressures.
Pastors I know are grieved to see another fellow worker fall into sin that destroys families and churches fast. We also grieve because it’s one more loss for NYC in a series of losses in the epicenter of the pandemic.
Every week, we hear of another church that is closing or a pastor moving out of the city to another calling. We need more pastors that preach truth, struggle with nuance, and love those far from God. Carl did that well and his legacy in NYC is to preach boldly, freely, and with hope to those who need it. We grieve the loss of a fellow pastor.
4. Grieve for those far from God.
Carl had a gift in his preaching and personality to connect with those far from God. Hillsong was a place where people found the preacher real and relatable.
Few churches and pastors embody their humanity in a way that draws others to true authenticity. I grieve for those far from God because this gives them one more excuse not to listen to the church. One more reason to see God as a folktale and all of us pastors as phonies.
It’s easy to say the church is full of hypocrites, because we stand for convictions that are hard for humans to keep.
Grieve for those who can’t find a place of hope when they thought they could.
5. Grieve for celebrities
This is a strange one but it came to mind when I saw a number of celebrities including Justin Bieber discuss his bouts with depression. Celebrities, it turns out, are humans too. Carl Lentz is famously associated with Justin Bieber through Bieber’s baptism.
In Carl Lentz, celebrities and sports stars found a pastor that could relate to their unique struggles. They found a pastor who could connect with the expectations of a watching public, a critical eye everywhere they went, and the pressures to perform at every moment.
Carl gave them a pastor and the fruit is obvious. Celebrities shape culture and more cultures has been created that inspires faith over these last few years than I’ve seen in a long time. (I’m a big fan of Bieber’s Holy & Lonely songs being on repeat in the apartment.)
I know there are a list of other pastors to fill the gap — Judah Smith, Levi Lusko, Chad Veach, Mike Todd and so on — but finding a new pastor to trust is hard.
Grieve for celebrities who felt they had a safe place to explore the tension of their celebrity and their faith. Grieve in hope that they find a place to be human and grow in their own faith again.
Two final thoughts…
First, I never knew Carl enough to understand him and why he did certain things. You can question all you want what others do, but you never really grasp their lives unless you walk in their shoes. It sounds like his problems extend beyond an affair and Hillsong will seek out new levels of repentance and change for them.
But the scriptures say we are all a lot more like Carl than morally superior. Don’t miss that log in your eye while you point out the specks in his.
Second, one person I left out is Ranin Karim. She is the woman Carl had an affair with. I struggle to bring her up because she kept the relationship going despite knowing he was married and seems to pursue the spotlight and attention this is gaining her. But her pain is out in the open and she needs us to grieve for her as well.
Grief takes many forms and the grief cycle allows for anger, sadness, disappointment. One form it doesn’t take is judgment.
Grieve. Grieve for your own story that connects to this story, but grieve for those closer to the situation. For the Christian, we are those who grieve with hope.
So we can hope and believe that God’s best is truly yet to come.