The founder of Hillsong Church said he had concerns for years about Carl Lentz, the pastor who was fired from the megachurch last year due in part to “moral failures.”
“Carl was Carl; he’s a unique character. There’s a lot of things I miss about Carl,” Brian Houston, the founder and senior pastor of Hillsong Church, said in an exclusive interview with the “TODAY” show that aired Wednesday.
“Having said that, there were leadership issues that I believe included lying, included what I would call narcissistic behavior,” Houston added.
“I’d have to admit I’ve had concerns and many conversations over the years with Carl,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of things I should have known earlier, and hopefully moving forward we make sure we have far better systems in place and better accountability.”
Lentz was the lead pastor of Hillsong’s New York branch, a magnet for millennial and megastar Christians. He became a pastor at the church after launching its first U.S. location with Houston’s son Joel in 2010, according to Religion News Service.
About a decade into Lentz’s tenure with the church, Houston announced his firing, saying in a statement that the decision was made “following ongoing discussions in relation to leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures.”
Lentz addressed his termination in an Instagram post, saying he was unfaithful in his marriage.
“When you accept the calling of being a pastor, you must live in such a way that it honors the mandate. That it honors the church, and that it honors God. When that does not happen, a change needs to be made and has been made in this case to ensure that standard is upheld,” he captioned a family photo that included his wife and three children.
Houston said he learned about Lentz’s infidelity in October. He was fired on Nov. 4.
Hillsong, which describes itself as a “contemporary Christian church,” was founded in 1983 in Sydney, Australia, and has grown to include locations in more than 20 countries. Its locations in the U.S. have included New York, New Jersey, California, Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, Texas, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The Hillsong brand also includes a Grammy-winning record label, a training program and a television channel.
The church is known for attracting a number of celebrity worshippers including Justin Bieber, his wife Hailey, Chris Pratt and his wife, Katherine Schwarzenegger, Kourtney Kardashian and Kylie and Kendall Jenner.
Asked in his interview with “TODAY” about Hillsong East’s perceived practice of appealing to celebrity parishioners, like Bieber, Houston said “there’s another side” to it.
“He was wrecking hotel rooms and basically on the edge of getting deported to Canada,” Houston told “TODAY,” saying the pop star was living an “out of control life” with drug abuse.
“And look at Justin Bieber today, anyone who’s being fair could see a radical change,” Houston said. “And so not everything about it is bad.”
Pressed further on whether celebrities got better treatment, Houston said “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.”
Following Lentz’s departure, the pastors of two other locations resigned and allegations of abuse and overworking of volunteers surfaced.
“In my mind, if one person is treated badly, that’s one too many,” Houston said. “… That, 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.”
Additionally, gay members detailed difficult experiences at Hillsong.
“I want us to get better at — the way we communicate and embrace and work with people who are gay. We are an evangelical church, I would say a conservative evangelical church,” Houston said. “We’re grappling with these issues. The world has changed so quickly.”
“I love people. I love all people. And I love people from all walks of life. And 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,” he added. “But everyone’s welcome. Many, many people who are gay come to Hillsong Church.”
Houston said he doesn’t deny that Hillsong has suffered from leadership missteps.
“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,” Houston said.
But Houston said the size of the organization is not the problem.
“I’m not sure a church can be too big. I just think we have to grow into ourselves,” Houston said.