As the Australia-based institution continues to come under fire for allegations of “slave labor” and homophobia, ex-congregants and staff are now claiming that pastors used tithe money to help fuel their decadent lifestyles.
At Hillsong NYC, many pastors frequently splurged on fancy restaurant meals, designer clothes and weekly manicures while living in the same Kent Avenue Williamsburg high-rise and zipping around the neighborhood on ATVs, disgusted former members told The Post.
Indeed, it appears once-celebrity-beloved star pastor Carl Lentz — who was canned in November after admitting to cheating on his wife — wasn’t the only one with a fondness for costly kicks and million-dollar real estate.
Pastors and staff apparently freely used debit-like “PEX” — or pre-paid expense — cards for whatever their hearts desired, several former members and staff told The Post. The source of the funds was money donated or “tithed” by members, said former Hillsong LA service pastor Nicole Herman, who personally loaded the funds onto the PEX cards.
“I was instructed to fill them,” said Herman, who helped found the church’s California branch in 2013. “We had a team count the tithes after every service and they would allocate X amount of money for the PEX cards.”
The PEX cards were reloadable and given to volunteers to make purchases for the church and pastors, said Herman, who left the church two years ago. Pastors, including Lentz, got their own Hillsong credit cards in addition to the PEX cards they handed out to their volunteers.
While the pair are now acrimoniously divorced, Herman’s former husband was the CFO of Hillsong LA, “so everything on the PEX cards had to be refilled through him,” she told The Post, confirming that “none of that money was coming from anywhere else” besides church tithes. Herman’s ex did not respond to a request for comment.
Former Hillsong congregant Jenna Babbitt, 27, began attending the church’s NYC branch in August 2011 and soon started nannying for various pastors, including Reed and Jess Bogard, who recently left the church under unknown circumstances. She was given access to a card, for the purpose of buying food for the children she baby-sat.
Recently, lawyers involved in the internal investigation into Hillsong’s East Coast branch — launched after the firing of the adulterous Lentz — contacted Babbitt and asked if she ever had to explain the purchases she made with PEX cards, a typical step for all business card use. She was never told to reconcile anything, she said.
Tithe money is by far the biggest funder of Hillsong, according to the church’s various annual reports: Of the $12.7 million that Hillsong East Coast made in 2019, 88% of it came from “tithes & offerings.” Over 66% of that revenue went to a combination of staff salaries, benefits and expenses ($3.8 million) and operating expenses including venue rentals, staffing and production costs ($4.9 million). And as a church, Hillsong is exempt from paying income tax in the US.
Hillsong did not return repeated requests for comment on the many instances of excessive spending that former members claim they witnessed throughout years of administrative work at the beleaguered church.
What they bought
During her time in New York, Babbitt watched the cards get used on decadent purchases, from luxury presents to Manhattan hotel stays.
Before every single Sunday service at Hillsong NYC, volunteers would buy huge quantities of food for the pastors, from sushi spreads to Chipotle. Often, staffers such as Babbitt were also asked to roll out the red carpet for visitors.
“I bought a designer purse and $100 or $200 of food from Dean & DeLuca for visiting pastors,” said Babbitt, a Texas native and current Dallas resident.
Courtesy Jenna Babbitt
Babbitt and the other former members interviewed for this story were not aware of any procedure for or expectation that pastors reimburse the church for personal purchases made with PEX cards. Herman confirmed there was no such reimbursement expectation for personal use of the cards, which, she adds, were phased out from Hillsong LA in 2016 after the Bogards — who worked there following their Hillsong NYC stint — were found to be overusing them. Herman could not confirm whether the cards had been discontinued by the other Hillsong chapters.
Babbitt recalls tithing thousands of dollars to Hillsong over her years there — even when she was far too poor to be doing so. At the times she gave, she said, it felt like the right thing, but now the recollection makes her “feel terrible.”
“The exploitation of free labor while these pastors are making bank is just crazy to me,” said Babbitt, who spent months working without pay for the Bogards. She left the church in 2017 and today is a director at a faith space Dallas nonprofit.
Megan Phalon also began attending and volunteering at Hillsong NYC in 2011. From the start of her membership, tithing was a very important part of church, she told The Post, with calls to give made twice a service and a proprietary app created to make digital offering easier.
After a year of membership, Phalon, 30, began baby-sitting for Hillsong New York pastors Kane and Karla Keatinge. “All the pastors lived together in this high-rise apartment complex in Williamsburg,” she said. Average two-bedroom rents in the building hovered at $5,600 a month in 2019, according to StreetEasy.
13Former Hillsong member Megan Phalon in 2018.
Courtesy Megan Phalon
A lack of documentation
Eventually Kane had Phalon start doing light personal assistance work for him. She was also given access to a PEX card, but was explicitly told to use it only for his kids — never on herself.
“I was the person Kane would give his receipts to at the end of the month, and try to figure out what was spent on what and why, because they had to send a report” to Reed Bogard, who was the head of finances, she said. Phalon and the other pastors’ personal assistants maintained an Excel spreadsheet into which they’d compile the details of monthly purchases. Except Kane could never remember what the receipts were for.
“It was like I was baby-sitting him,” she said. “He’d be spending all this money and at the end of the month he’d be like, ‘I don’t know what this was for.’ ”
Receipts consistently included “hundreds” of purchases at Williamsburg eatery Cafe Mogador and charges from church meetings held at Kane’s now-shuttered North Eighth Street restaurant St. Balmain.
“He would have all church meetings at St. Balmain so he could use the church card for his business,” Phalon said. “Any time he’d meet with friends, or go out to lunch, so long as they’re talking about church, that’s considered a church expense.” He would give her receipts including his own food and drink purchases, paid for with church money at his own business.
“He’d be spending all this money and at the end of the month he’d be like, ‘I don’t know what this was for.’ ”Megan Phalon