How to Communicate When Leaders Fall from Grace: Church Crisis Communications

Sydney-born Hillsong Church, with locations in 28 countries and 150,000 weekly attenders, just gave us a masterclass in communicating about leaders’ moral failures with its recent firing of Pastor Carl Lentz. While this scenario will hit home for faith-based organizations and churches, we can all learn lessons from Hillsong’s timing and transparency.

Some companies, whether faith-based or not, try to hide the moral failings (or any failings) of their leaders by attempting to keep all problems isolated internally. Often, this results in a sweep-it-under-the-rug approach and praying no one finds out, media or otherwise. This can even mean remaining tight-lipped to employees and those impacted. I have counseled executives and leaders on a variety of sensitive matters about reputation and issues management, along with crises that threaten the business’s future. I have heard everything from executives’ embarrassing actions and poor choices to criminal employee behavior, natural disasters and workplace accidents. The reality is, very few things will remain a secret and the more sensational those scenarios are, the greater the chance people will find out internally and externally—especially the broader public and media.

Always remember, if you do not control your narrative, someone else will. That urgency is particularly heightened by crisis, or a highly visible and/or controversial scenario that is about to go public (or likely to become public). When that moment arises, and stuff metaphorically hits the fan, don’t stick your head in the sand! Be proactive, be factual and nip the problem in the bud. Your reputation, credibility and organizational livelihood are on the line. While there are some exceptions, “no comment” is never a good comment. Every church should have a plan for crisis communications and an experienced communicator to assist in strategic messaging.

Carl Lentz, who was the lead pastor at Hillsong’s NYC location, is known for a celebrity following that included being a spiritual advisor to Justin Bieber. Abruptly firing any executive will get tongues wagging, and gossip and speculation will run rampant. Hillsong understood this predicament and decided to set the record straight by swiftly communicating to congregants before anyone else could.

Over the past few weeks, a series of events unfolded that ultimately led to Lentz’s dismissal, including previously unnamed “moral failures,” which Lentz subsequently admitted as being “unfaithful in his marriage” via Instagram. Hillsong’s Founder and Senior Pastor Brian Houston issued an email to Hillsong NYC campus congregants on Nov. 4, 2020. The email, obtained by Religion News Service, cited “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures” as the reason for Lentz’s firing, acknowledging that revealing more details “would not be appropriate.”

A Nov. 5 statement posted to Hillsong’s website provided further details, including these excerpts below. You can read the full statement here.

“Today Hillsong Church East Coast advised our congregation that we have terminated the employment of Pastor Carl Lentz. This action was not taken lightly and was done in the best interests of everyone, including Pastor Carl. We thank Pastors Carl and Laura for the way they have served faithfully and sacrificially since the start of Hillsong NYC and for contributing so significantly to the countless lives that have been transformed for Jesus Christ through this ministry. They have a heart for people and we are confident that after a time of rest and restoration, God will use Carl in another way outside of Hillsong church. In terminating his tenure, we in no way want to diminish the good work he did here.

This action has been taken following ongoing discussions in relation to leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures. It would not be appropriate for us to go into detail about the events that led to this decision. Our focus at this time is to honor God and pastorally care for our East Coast church community as well as the Lentz family.”

Hillsong stated the facts and what immediate actions it was taking, gave deference to Lentz’s privacy by not airing details, while simultaneously grieving the situation and honoring the work that Lentz accomplished during his 10-year-tenure at Hillsong NYC. That same day, Lentz admitted the affair via his Instagram feed, confessing his failures, apologizing, and acknowledging that Hillsong made the right decision to fire him.

On Nov. 12, Houston tweeted that there will be an internal investigation of Hillsong NYC’s “inner-workings” to establish “a solid foundation for a fresh start and new beginning.” Given that, it is quite possible there may be other indiscretions or inappropriate behaviors as part of that campus’s culture that they want weeded out. If Lentz’s behavior is an isolated incident, a further investigation would not be necessary.

It remains to be seen whether more fallout will come, or if Lentz is truly repentant, but only time will tell. What is refreshing to see is that Hillsong valued its congregation by sharing that news internally before anything went to the broader public. When the people affected are the last to know and learn those details from anyone other than your organization, it undermines your credibility and trust. From a communication standpoint, that is not something any organization or house of worship should take lightly. Hillsong also took it a step further by launching an independent, third-party investigation, which shows the congregation and public they are taking these actions seriously and are willing to examine the culture of the NYC Campus.

Too often houses of worship wait until after the public is aware of a scandal to comment, if they decide to comment at all. Recognizing that some of the most heinous coverups have come from religious institutions, houses of worship and faith-based organizations must work at regaining trust and understand the inherent skepticism that may be present. One way to do that is by communicating in a timely manner, consistently, truthfully and with compassion. It also means knowing how to communicate when you, or someone in your organization, has done something wrong. That is the real litmus test.

Faith-based organizations, like faith leaders, are always held to a higher standard. Any time there is a discrepancy between what you say and what you do, or a reputation-reality gap, people will be quick to point that out. That response is even more voracious when viewed through a religious lens and perceived as hypocrisy. Proactive, timely and transparent communication is essential to fostering trust and working through problems, especially for church crisis communications. As a clarification, transparency does not mean you have to share every detail, but rather be candid and forthright about the situation at hand.

Remember that nothing stays secret for long, and if you want to save or manage a reputation and control your narrative, you must take a proactive approach to communication. As subsequent months unfolded, more came to light about the challenges and alleged misconduct at Hillsong, resulting in additional staff departures, legal investigations and even Senior Pastor Houston stepping down. While the initial response was proactive, several subsequent communication missteps only further fanned the flames of discontent. Hiding something, or worse, covering it up, only deepens the divide between your organization and those you serve. Not only will it tarnish your organization’s credibility and your personal credibility, in many cases, these behaviors are a bellwether for a leader’s downfall and a company’s demise.

Is your church or faith-based organization prepared to weather the storm of crisis? If not, contact Spark + Buzz Communications today.

Spark + Buzz Communications is a woman-owned strategic communications consultancy helping brands tell their story to inspire audiences and galvanize growth, leveraging a variety of creative and integrated branding, marketing, and public relations solutions.