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It’s Unloving to Quickly Restore Fallen Pastors

On Carl Lentz's predictable and tragic return to church ministry.

Michael Todd published “Crazy Faith” with WaterBrook in 2021; Carl Lentz published “Own the Moment” with Simon & Schuster in 2017 / Photo via The Beaty Beat

OPINION—On September 27, 2022, Religion & Politics published an essay of mine on why evangelicals love redemption stories. Reflecting on fallen Hillsong NYC pastor Carl Lentz, I wrote:

As for Carl and Laura Lentz, I’m not a betting woman, and I can’t speak to their personal lives or transformation off the screen and the stage. But I’ve seen enough to wager that Carl will announce a return to church ministry within six months, and that he and/or Laura will announce a book detailing their experience within a year.

Then, on March 28, 2023—six months to the day—Religion News Service reported that Lentz would be joining the staff of Transformation, a nondenominational megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma, led by pastor Michael Todd.

Maybe I need to spend a weekend in Atlantic City.

Gambling jokes aside (I have been to Las Vegas once, with my parents; we spent a lot of time birdwatching in the desert), it brings me no joy to see disgraced pastors return to church ministry, when church ministry was the context that likely spurred their downfall in the first place.

When people of faith raise concerns about disqualified leaders returning to ministry, it can seem mean-spirited or hard of heart. Christians, of all people, are to be gracious and quick to forgive, since we believe God has extended immeasurable grace to us in the person of Christ. Everyone deserves a second chance. No one is the sum of their darkest moments. God is in the business of redeeming lives. And so on.

But redemption is not the same as restoration to church leadership. Personal transformation is different from public responsibility. And it’s not loving to quickly* bring a fellow Christian back to the spotlight, when it’s the spotlight that quickened their fall from grace in the first place. (*I’ll get to questions of timing shortly.)

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Qualifications for Pastors

Lentz is among a crop of deeply V-necked megachurch pastors, virtually hired by Hillsong to be a celebrity pastor to celebrities. He was a big reason Hillsong NYC drew Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Chris Pratt, and the Kardashians.

In late 2020, Lentz was fired over “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures,” according to the statement from Hillsong founding pastor Brian Houston. (QUICK HILLSONG RECAP: Houston himself resigned in 2022 after the church launched an investigation into inappropriate behavior. He is currently awaiting a ruling from an Australia court for failing to report his father’s molestation of a minor to authorities. In addition, last month Hillsong found evidence of lavish spending among former top leaders, such as $150,000 in church funds being used for a retreat in Cancun, $16,000 being used for custom skateboards (???), and $37,000 on flowers. If the Hillsong story sounds messy, it very much is.)

Later, Hillsong leaders said they found evidence that Lentz had had multiple affairs. A former nanny of the Lentzes has accused him of sexual abuse. And, a leaked report on the leadership culture of Hillsong East Coast found evidence of abuse, secrecy, and misconduct.

The day after his firing went public, Lentz wrote,

“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.”

Carl is right. The church is to be set apart; it isn’t just another human institution or, God forbid, another business. It’s called out to be the very people of God to proclaim the Good News to a watching world. As such, its leaders called to be set apart. Paul writes about qualifications for pastoral leaders in 1 Timothy 3. Character traits mentioned there include being above reproach, self-controlled, sensible, able to teach, gentle, not greedy, and having “a good reputation among outsiders” (3:7).

None of us can know whether Lentz resembles Paul’s pastoral qualifications two-plus years after his leaving Hillsong. It’s important to remember that most of us don’t actually know these platformed leaders. We may get a sense about them, a whole vibe, from afar. But liking someone’s podcast or books or Instagram presence is not the same as personal knowledge of their character and integrity. That takes time — to witness, and to cultivate.

Further, most of us aren’t in a position to prevent fallen pastors from returning to ministry. I have my little Substack where I share my little thoughts, but Michael Todd, the “preacher-influencer” at Transformation, is gonna Michael Todd. One reason I predicted Lentz’s return to church ministry is that these men seem to inevitably find a network of men who can vouch for them, give them another chance, and play a key role in their redemption story.

It’s possible that Lentz has practiced true repentance. We can and should hope for that. In the New Testament, though, to repent means to turn around, to go in a different direction, to amend one’s life. As such, a megachurch is the last place Lentz needs to be — especially if he has spiritual authority over people whom he could hurt. And especially a megachurch led by a spotlight-grabbing pastor in his own right.

‘When can the pastor come back?’

When we talk about celebrity pastor scandals, inevitably the question of timing arises. How long does someone need to be out of public ministry before they can return in a healthy way, that gives them time to address pathologies and sin patterns and wounds, and also to make amends with anyone they have harmed?

I have my own hunches about what’s too fast and what’s appropriate. When people ask this question, I often point to wisdom from Chuck DeGroat, professor of counseling and Christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary and author of the excellent book When Narcissism Comes to Church. He spoke with me and Roxanne Stone for our special podcast series on celebrity. He has met with hundreds of pastors coming to him because they have had some moral failure and are out of the pastorate, or because the people around them perceive that they are on the brink.

Chuck counsels 10 years. Ten years out of public ministry. Ten years to heal, to rest, to make amends, to repair one’s marriage and family life, to rediscover one’s belovedness apart from the adoration and performative spiritual guru-ism that we like to project upon church leaders. Ten years to lay down the appearance of being uber-spiritual, uber-competent, uber-attractive, the perfect “husband. father. pastor.” (There’s a kind of Christian subculture that’s happy with the performance of godliness among leaders without caring to learn whether that godliness goes very deep.) Ten years to simply be rather than do, to rest in God rather than produce for God.

Ten years, I’m sure, would feel like a terribly long time to be out of pastoral ministry. If someone told me I couldn’t write or edit for the next decade, I’d feel that an essential part of my identity and vocation were dying. But this is what God has called me to do! Look at the fruit! Surely God wouldn’t deny me to express my talents (for him of course!)?

But what if dying is the point? What if staying out of the spotlight is supposed to feel like a death of self because it is — because dying to self is part of our deep transformation and, indeed, freedom? What if the cycles of nature that Jesus pointed to in his parables, that are so beautifully on display this time of year, display the deep truth that “unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it will only be a seed. If it dies, it will give much grain” (John 12:24)? What if new life is always preceded by death?

Whether or not 10 years seems too long to us to ask a fallen pastor to remain out of ministry, perhaps the deeper question is: Why do they want to come back? Isn’t the desire to come back a sign that they are not ready?

Obviously Carl Lentz is responsible for a lot of what went down at Hillsong NYC. But there’s strong evidence that Hillsong leaders also made him a fall guy to distract from deeper cultural and spiritual toxicity throughout the global network. Someone can actively perpetrate harm in a church culture, and also be a victim of it. As such, I hope Transformation Church is actively invested in his and his family’s well-being and holistic flourishing and, crucially, accountability.

I’m not a betting woman, but I’ve seen enough to wager that there’s more going on at Transformation, and that it’s way too soon for Carl’s return. —Katelyn

This article was originally published at The Beaty Beat. It is reprinted with permission. To see the original or more articles by Katelyn Beaty, click here.

Katelyn Beaty

Katelyn Beaty writes The Beaty Beat about the power and pitfalls of the American church + the occasional rant, recommendation, and bit of lady wisdom