Just when controversial pastor Mark Driscoll was hoping to make a new start, former members of his old stomping grounds at Seattle’s Mars Hill Church have filed a lawsuit alleging Driscoll and his chief elder ran the now-shuttered megachurch like an organized crime syndicate, in which church members became unwitting participants.
The lawsuit was filed on Monday in the Western District of Washington U.S. District Court in Seattle under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law originally created for prosecution of Mafia figures.
Former members have been threatening to file such a lawsuit for months to find out just where the members’ tithes—some $30 million yearly, according to church reports—actually went.
Mars Hill closed its doors in 2014, following a number of scandals involving allegations of Driscoll’s bullying and spiritual abuse of members and church leaders, misogyny, and homophobia espoused on a church message board, plagiarism, and misuse of church funds—which this lawsuit seeks to redress. Since its closure, the details of the organization’s dissolution have been opaque, with little public accounting, and a group of remaining leaders who have refused to comment on who gets what from the failed enterprise that not so long ago passed the collection plate around to more than 12,000 visitors every week at 15 satellite campuses.
According to the complaint, ex-pastor Mark Driscoll, and general manager and then-executive elder John Sutton Turner, allegedly defrauded Washington churchgoers Brian and Connie Jacobsen and Ryan and Arica Kildea, along with thousands of other individuals who tithed at Mars Hill, by soliciting donations for one purpose, then using them for unauthorized ones. The Jacobsens say they gave over $90,000 to the church from 2008 to 2014 while the Kildeas report over $2,700 from 2011-2013.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Brian Fahling, declined to comment, but emailed a statement that read in part, “Driscoll and Turner engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity so deeply embedded, pervasive and continuous, that it was effectively institutionalized as a business practice, thereby corrupting the very mission Plaintiffs and other donors believed they were supporting.”
Elder Dave Bruskas, Mars Hill CFO Kerry Dodd, several corporations believed to hold some profits from Driscoll’s book Real Marriage, and a supposed financial standards watchdog—the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability—are all named as co-conspirators in the complaint.
Among the fraudulent spending alleged in the complaint—which includes accusations of mail and wire fraud—is the $210,000 the church supposedly spent to buy a place for Driscoll’s 2012 book on The New York Times’ and other best-sellers’ lists by using a list-fixing company called Result Source. (These allegations were first reported by World Magazine.) It’s unclear where the money from book sales went, though Driscoll has said he put 100 percent of the profits back into Mars Hill.
“This scheme has been fairly described as a ‘scam,’ and resulted in personal inurement to Driscoll and Turner,” the complaint states.
Also at issue are millions donated by church members who were told offerings went to missions in Ethiopia and India through the church’s “Global Fund.” In reality, those tithes appear to have stayed right at home. To “woo new donors,” the complaints says, Driscoll “intentionally deceived all potential donors by marketing Global Fund as a fund for international missions, when, in fact, they intended to use the majority of the donations for domestic expansion of MHC.”
The complaint cites an internal memo in which Mars Hill allegedly outlines the benefits of the Global Fund, from which a percentage would be designated for “highly visible, marketable projects.”
“Besides the obvious gain of increased funding,” the memo states, according to the complaint, “for a relatively low cost (e.g. $10K/month), supporting a few missionaries and benevolence projects would serve to deflect criticism, increase goodwill, and create opportunities to influence and learn from other ministries.”
Church leaders have previously apologized for the “confusion” over the Global Fund, a repository that by 2014 was taking in a self-reported $300,000 a month, some $10 million total, according to the complaint. At the time the allegations over the funds surfaced, the leaders said they never meant to mislead the church’s followers about where the money was going.
Additionally, nearly $3 million for an outdoor “Jesus Festival”—a revival with outdoor baptisms—never came to be and funds allocated to specific campuses allegedly ended up in the general fund.
“The Jacobsens were astonished at the lack of transparency and the lack of a sense of accountability,” the complaint states.
“Because of those concerns, they came to the conclusion they were unable, in good conscience, to continue to donate to MHC, or to continue to serve in the church.” And so they quit the church.
An email to Driscoll requesting comment was not returned.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year that Mars Hill Church closed. In fact, its final service was on December 28, 2014.