Once one of America’s fastest growing churches, Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, announced this week the closing of three locations and warned that another would be closed if donations fail to increase. The church also laid off around 40 of their 100 church staff, including several pastors who had expressed public disagreement with church leaders.
Co-founded by controversial pastor Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill leaders closed two Seattle locations: one in the University of Washington area and the other in downtown Seattle. The members from these locations have been urged to go to the location in Ballard, WA. The fourth campus, Huntington Beach, CA, was informed that an increase in donations by local attenders might prevent the closing of that campus.
Driscoll is one of the best-known figures in the evangelical Christian movement in the United States. He is a long-winded preacher with a hard edge who has been accused by former Mars Hill Church pastors of being domineering and intrusive, including unwelcome comments about the sex lives of pastors and their wives. He is also accused of using the pulpit to further a cult of personality surrounding himself. As the Daily Beast wrote about him back in 2012: “He’s developed a reputation as a testosterone-oozing Calvinist bruiser who shouts down his congregation, swears from the pulpit and sometimes seems to think that if you’re not cut out for the locker room, you’re not cut out for heaven. If you’re a woman, you’d better make sure you keep your husband fed and serviced.”
The closings and layoffs come amid unprecedented opposition from former pastors and church members. On Aug. 3, between 60-70 former and current members held a demonstration outside the church. Jan Carlson attended Mars Hill Church between 2009 and 2012 and left because of problems that became clearer the longer they stayed. She said Mars Hill “engages in heavy-handed discipline through a hierarchical structure.” She added that her experience has taught her that "spiritual abuse exists," and that one should "know what it is, and keep your eyes and ears open. When you see red flags, be willing to walk away.”
On Aug. 21, twenty-one former Mars Hill Church pastors and twenty-one other anonymous witnesses lodged a broad range of charges against Driscoll. The detailed letter also outlined concerns surrounding a contract with a consulting group to use church funds to rig the sales of Driscoll’s book with his wife, Grace, Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, in order to secure a spot on The New York Times bestseller list.
The focus of the former pastors was accusations of workplace bullying, and the creation of a culture of fear among church workers and ministers. One former member of the Mars Hill Church governing board, Paul David Tripp, called Mars Hill Church, “the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I’ve ever been involved with.”
Tripp delivered that assessment in a meeting with nine Mars Hill Church pastors who were still employed by the church at the time of the meeting. Then on Aug. 22, those pastors delivered a letter to their remaining fellow pastors asking Driscoll step down and enter a process of repentance and restoration. Instead of complying with the direction of his pastors, Driscoll announced to the church on Aug. 24 after his Sunday sermon that he would take “an extended focus break” in order to heal and allow the church to examine the allegations against him.
Since Driscoll announced his leave, several pastors have resigned amid criticism of how the church plans to investigate the charges against Driscoll. According to Mark Dunford, who was dismissed as a volunteer pastor from the Portland, Ore., campus, the executive elders of Mars Hill, which includes Driscoll, chose the committee that will examine the charges against him. Indeed, the committee is composed of pastors who are subordinate to Driscoll and were not elected by their fellow pastors. Dunford wrote:
…the Executive Elders (of which he [Driscoll] is one) added three additional members to the board that would adjudicate his charges and having created/restored the Board of Elders to investigate those charges. I want to be clear that the elders themselves are not involved with selecting who would serve on those boards. Again, it was the EE [Executive Elders] who made those decisions.
In addition to the recent charges involving Driscoll, the church has also been under fire for most of 2014. For instance, church leaders have failed to disclose specifics about how donations designated for church work in Ethiopia and India were spent. Instead of the donations going to international purposes, much of what was donated to the church’s Global Fund ended up being spent on expansion in the United States.
Perhaps the most crippling blow to Driscoll and Mars Hill came on Aug. 8 when the board of Acts 29 Network, an organization designed to promote the development of new churches and co-founded by Driscoll, removed Driscoll and Mars Hill Church from membership. The board asked Driscoll to resign and seek counsel.
Mars Hill Church leaders blamed bad publicity for the precipitous drop in attendance and tithes. According to church representative Justin Dean, attendance is down to between 8,000 and 9,000 from a high of 12,000 to 13,000 people. Some locations have seen attendance plummet over 70%. Donations are off in similar fashion. Due to the financial crisis, leaders of the church resorted to this week’s closings and layoffs, calling the current situation the “most serious budget challenge” in the history of the church.
Many ex-members I spoke with felt like financial matters were off limits from the laity. Former churchgoer Mark Yetman told me that financial information is “hidden” and that “questioning is discouraged and considered divisive."
Despite the current decline of the Mars Hill, former members of the church see some lessons in the situation. Dave Lester, who attended from 2008-2011, told me, “The big takeaway lesson here is there has to be legitimate accountability for a supremely gifted leader in any organization.”
Lester, who was a community group leader while at the church, added, “The church should never be about the building of a celebrity platform for a person and the subsequent celebrity worship.”