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Hillsong founder Brian Houston opens up about church's controversies, ex-pastor Carl Lentz

In a TODAY exclusive, the Hillsong Church founder addressed the problems with the church’s celebrity culture and disgraced ex-pastor, Carl Lentz, whom he said displayed “narcissistic behavior.”
/ Source: TODAY

Brian Houston, the founder of Hillsong Church, is opening up about the scandals — most notably popular pastor Carl Lentz's affair and subsequent firing — that have recently plagued the global religious organization, whose attendees include celebrities like Justin Bieber, Vanessa Hudgens and Chris Pratt.

“I do think that we did allow a culture to develop where it was one rule for celebrities and a different rule for other people,” Houston told Savannah Guthrie in an exclusive TODAY interview Wednesday morning.

But, Houston said, "there's another side to it."

“One person who's obviously been well reported is Justin Bieber," he said. "If you think back several years now, when he was wrecking hotel rooms and basically on the edge of getting deported to Canada. And look at Justin Bieber today. Anyone who's being fair could see a radical change, and so not everything about it is bad.”

2017 Aces Charity Celebrity Basketball Game
Justin Bieber and Carl Lentz in 2017 in New York City.Shareif Ziyadat / Getty Images

Still, Houston denied the idea that he was more lenient with Lentz because of his relationships with celebrities like Bieber, to whom Lentz was a spiritual adviser.

“I find it annoying that people thought that it was important to me and my wife, Bobbie, to attract famous people to church,” Houston said.

Last year, Lentz admitted he cheated on his wife of 17 years after he was fired as lead pastor of the church's New York City location.

Houston also addressed what he believed went wrong with the celebrity pastor, who was fired in November for "moral failures" and "breaches of trust," as a statement from Houston put it at the time.

Hillsong NYC Pastor Carl Lentz Portrait Shoot
Hillsong NYC pastor Carl Lentz was fired in early November. He later revealed in a statement that he had cheated on his wife, Laura, of 17 years.Toby Zerna / Newspix via Getty Images

"People described Carl Lentz as somewhat aloof and removed from the actual ministry. Does that bother you?" Savannah asked.

"It does to a degree, for sure," Houston responded. "Carl was Carl. He's a unique character. There's a lot of things I miss about Carl. But having said that, there were leadership issues that I believe included lying, included what I would call narcissistic behavior."

Asked when he first noticed Lentz exhibiting this behavior, Houston replied, "I've had concerns and many conversations over the years with Carl."

Savannah then questioned whether Houston should've intervened with Hillsong's leadership prior to early November.

"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," Houston said.

Some have suggested that Lentz’s missteps were a reflection of Houston and the culture he created when he founded Hillsong in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, in 1983.

“On one level, if people say Carl was like me, I'd see it as a compliment because (he’s an) incredibly gifted guy, but on another level, I don't think Carl really is anything like me,” Houston said, adding, “I am ultimately responsible. I am ultimately accountable.”

Other recent controversies for the church have included a senior Hillsong staffer in New Jersey resigning in April over an inappropriate message on social media, and the same month, its Dallas branch closing. A letter to the New York location's leadership from 2018 has also surfaced, alleging abusive behavior by church leaders. Multiple former congregants have told TODAY that volunteers were overworked.

“(This season in the church) has been difficult, clearly, because of a lot of disappointment in some of the things that have emerged,” Houston said. “Some obviously are false. Other things are real.”

“In my mind, if one person is treated badly, that's one too many,” he continued. “If it's true that people have been treated badly or that people have been bullied, I am 100% committed to moving that out of our church.”

“I have reflected many, many times, and I'm acknowledging that mistakes have been made and that there are things where we need to get far better, much better. I'm not shrinking back from that.”

Asked if the church’s problems stem from it becoming too large — it boasts locations in 28 countries and 150,000 weekly global visitors — Houston explained, “I'm not sure a church can be too big. I just think we have to grow into ourselves.”

Another controversy for Hillsong has been its alleged treatment of LGBTQ people as a conservative, evangelical church. Some gay members have said they had difficult experiences in the church and felt suicidal.

“I want us to get better a the way we communicate and embrace and work with people who are gay,” Houston said. “I don't have any personal bias at all against gay or lesbian people. But unfortunately, as a pastor, you don't represent what you think. You represent what the Bible says. And so at this point, we're still a conservative one on the subject of active gay relationship, et cetera.

"But it's a journey," he said. "Everyone's welcome. Many, many people who are gay come to Hillsong Church.”

He added that the struggles of church members over its recent controversies “keep me awake at night."

"I think larger churches everywhere are needing to scramble to put the things in place for a 21st century mindset that enable us to be stronger," he said.

“But Savannah, I look you in the eye and tell you I genuinely believe in my heart Hillsong is a good church,” he said.

Days after Lentz’s firing in early November, Houston announced that Hillsong was launching a probe into its New York City and other East Coast locations.

"We need a solid foundation for a fresh start and new beginning. The best is yet to come," Houston tweeted.

The organization revealed in a follow-up statement to TODAY at the time that the investigation was prompted, at least in part, by "a number of people (sharing) their experiences and concerns."

When Lentz was fired, Houston explained in a statement that the decision "was not taken lightly and was done in the best interests of everyone, including Pastor Carl."

"This action has been taken following ongoing discussions in relation to leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures," he added.

Later the same day, Lentz made his own statement on Instagram, writing, in part, "Our time at Hillsong NYC has come to an end. This is a hard ending to what has been the most amazing, impacting and special chapter of our lives. Leading this church has been an honor in every sense of the word and it is impossible to articulate how much we have loved and will always love the amazing people in this church."

"I was unfaithful in my marriage, the most important relationship in my life and held accountable for that," he continued. "This failure is on me, and me alone and I take full responsibility for my actions."

Controversies within Hillsong are not the only ones Houston is currently facing. He’s also under investigation relating to a report released by a royal commission in Australia in 2015, which said he failed to refer child sex abuse by his father, another prominent pastor, to authorities. After the report was released, Hillsong said Houston acted appropriately and legally.