Hillsong Church boasts many celebrity attendees, churches in 30 countries, and an average global attendance of 150,000 people a week. But controversy and allegations of sexual abuse, homophobia, and toxic leadership have followed the megachurch since it was founded in 1983. Now, Leona Kimes, a pastor at Hillsong Boston, is coming forward about the abuse, bullying, and exploitation she faced while working for a Hillsong New York pastor. Although she did not mention disgraced Hillsong New York figurehead Carl Lentz by name, Religion News Service confirmed that he was Kimes' employer and pastor at the time.
In a May 31 statement published on Medium, Kimes wrote that she and her husband, Josh, moved to the U.S. from Sydney, Australia to help build the Australia-based megachurch's New York chapter in 2011. Today, Kimes and Josh are both pastors for Hillsong Boston, but at the time, only Josh worked as a pastor. Kimes, meanwhile, was tasked with working as a nanny, housekeeper, and personal assistant for Hillsong New York's co-founder, 42-year-old Lentz, and his wife, Laura. She says that while working in that capacity, Lentz subjected her to seven years of bullying, manipulation, and sexual abuse, and she felt powerless to speak up as Hillsong New York grew bigger and bigger.
Everyone at Hillsong had "a 'do whatever it takes' attitude," Kimes wrote. According to her, she was expected to work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and she says that the Lentzes started giving her more and more tasks, making fun of her and her husband, and calling her Cinderella. "I started to feel like I was actually part of the lead pastors' family, and they reinforced this idea by telling me that I was," Kimes wrote. "The boundaries between personal and professional blurred early on."
In her statement, she claimed Lentz made comments that she initially wrote off as "flirty teasing." However, she said his harassment and abuse began to escalate. He reportedly made comments about her body, blatantly checked her out in front of his wife, and asked for massages and foot rubs. On multiple occasions, Kimes said he touched her sexually. "During this time, he was finishing his first book and being celebrated as he reached a new level of success. His elevated status made me feel like he had all the power, and I had no voice," Kimes wrote.
Kimes discussed the abuse with Lentz and Laura on two occasions. The first time, in 2016, she said she was "blamed and silenced"; when she brought up the possibility of leaving her job, Lentz allegedly pointed out that she had no college degree and led her to believe no one else would hire her. Kimes left the conversation determined to work even harder. The second time, in 2017, Lentz "took full responsibility for taking advantage" of Kimes. According to her, he said he considered confessing to Hillsong's leaders, but he and Laura had privately decided that wasn't necessary. Kimes claims she was subsequently fired, and Laura asked her to "repent" for her alleged role in the abuse.
Lentz left the church in November 2020. In a statement, Hillsong founder Brian Houston wrote that he had been terminated due to "leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures." Shortly thereafter, Lentz admitted to having an affair.
But Hillsong's problems extend beyond Lentz. Tiffany Perez, a former Hillsong Boston volunteer, told Business Insider that the Kimeses asked her to babysit, dogsit, and clean their house for around $6 an hour. Other volunteers were expected to babysit for free. In December, some former members told the New York Post that volunteers were subjected to "abuse" and "industrial slave labor."
A legal representative for the Lentzes told Religious News Service that they "vehemently deny the allegations and, in addition to that, have irrefutable proof the events did not happen as they are being described."
"Abuse of any kind, in any circumstance, is always deplorable. As a church, we are committed to learning more about how to identify such trauma and bring meaningful support to anyone who has experienced it," Hillsong's global senior pastors, Brian and Bobbie Houston, said in a statement. "As we work to rebuild Hillsong East Coast, Leona's experience will be central in our processes."
Refinery29 has reached out to Hillsong and Hillsong Boston — where Kimes still works today — for further comment.
"The discussion of abuse within evangelical churches isn't normalized. So, I hadn't heard about many people’s actual experiences. It's something that really isn't talked about until someone finds 'victory' over their shame," Kimes wrote. "We can do better. We can have these difficult conversations. It's time."