SUMMARY. This article presents a critique of the three possibilities presented on October 31, 2014, by Executive Elder Dave Bruskas for individual campuses in the multi-campus system of Mars Hill, which tentatively will be dissolved by January 1, 2015.
- Becoming an independent, self-governed church.
- Merging with an existing church to create one independent, self-governed church.
- Disbanding as a church and shepherding current members to find other local church homes.
To gain the greatest potential understanding and benefit from considering this Capstone article, first read my series on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse and the Research Guide to Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. The former series looks at the theoretical issues involved in abuse, repentance, individual restoration, and organizational renovation. The latter series provides frameworks for understanding personal and organizational problems at Mars Hill, along with extensive documentation, analysis, and interpretation.
THE THREE OPTIONS LISTED
On Reformation Day – October 31, 2014 – an article entitled “Local Mission, Local Churches” was posted on Mars Hill’s website by Dave Bruskas. He is the sole remaining Executive Elder from before Mark Driscoll’s stepping down in August 2014 while under investigation for charges that would disqualify him from ministry. Here is an excerpt from the post by Mr. Bruskas:
[…] Following much prayer and lengthy discussion with Mars Hill’s leadership, the board of Mars Hill has concluded that rather than remaining a centralized multi-site church with video-led teaching distributed to multiple locations, the best future for each of our existing local churches is for them to become autonomous self-governed entities. This means that each of our locations has an opportunity to become a new church, rooted in the best of what Mars Hill has been in the past, and independently led and run by its own local elder teams.
We recognize this reorganization plan is a significant and complex undertaking on many fronts; however, our goal is to have the process completed by January 1st, 2015.
Please be in prayer for your local elder teams as they contemplate the following options in the next few weeks: (1) becoming an independent, self-governed church; (2) merging with an existing church to create one independent, self-governed church; or (3) disbanding as a church and shepherding current members to find other local church homes. This decision will be made by your local church’s Lead Pastor and elder team. […]
While the options from the dissolution of Mars Hill as a centralized multi-campus system may seem on the surface to be positive and constructive, I don’t see them that way. Looking deeper, I see all three options outlined by Executive Elder Dave Bruskas as being problematic. This is based on these dimensions of my work and ministry experiences:
- Working regularly over the last 20 years in church planting teams, church transition consulting, and social enterprise start-ups.
- Spending 17 of the last 40 years in five different church and ministry situations that turned out to be extremely abusive through misuse of spiritual authority.
- Doing research writing and extensive blogging since 2008 on subjects related to spiritually abusive leaders, toxic organizational systems, and those who survive being victimized by them.
Here are my main concerns that flow from those areas of expertise, plus specific concerns about each of the three options.
MY MAIN CONTENTIONS:
We Need to Start with the Assumption that Mars Hill Leaders
Will Implant Toxic DNA in any New Church/Ministry Situation
Questions about Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill have been around for a very long time – perhaps the core of them really being about whether the label of “controversial” actually should have been one of “contempt” instead. At any rate, I think we can trace increasing and intensified scrutiny of them to about a year ago. It was November 21, 2013, when Janet Mefferd presented evidence of Mark Driscoll’s alleged plagiarism during her radio interview with him. And the rest is history.
Since then, numerous organizational system issues emerged beyond the many questions raised about Mark Driscoll’s personal character and behaviors, and whether they disqualified him from public ministry. The organizational issues are important here, because they directly affect every current and recent Mars Hill leader who might be involved in a potential church spin-off or merger. Here is my basic contention:
The documented situations of spiritual abuse and organizational obfuscation make all current and former leaders suspect – including all who have served as an Executive Elder, on the Board of Advisors and Accountability, Board of Elders, or paid staff. We must assume they were/are all part of the leadership problem at Mars Hill until each can individually prove otherwise.
And, until each individual leader documents and demonstrates otherwise and clears his/her reputation, everyone else should assume that he/she brings the exact same, corrupt “spiritual DNA” to the table for any future ministry developed from scratch or joined in through a merger.
That DNA has been shown to create and support a severely corroded system where spiritual authority was misused constantly. There is now substantial evidence showing that the ensuing actions from that system were sinful, unethical, and potentially even illegal – and also that the resulting impacts led to a culture of fear, confusion, intimidation, and traumatization.
These individuals’ involvement with Mars Hill decision-making and implementation makes them culpable for harmful actions and inactions inflicted in the name of the institution they served. So, all who are outside and inside of Mars Hill have been given every reason NEVER to accept the word of ANY Mars Hill leaders at face value – until they willingly clear their reputation – and NOT to automatically accept the endorsement of their character or behaviors by any other individual or organization.
They worked for a church with a tainted reputation and toxic running of the organization, and this has been increasingly verified by documentation. So, we cannot simply start them off at neutral, offer them automatic trust, or give them the benefit of the doubt. No disciples, no elders, no organizations should “lay hands on” any Mars Hill leader until he/she adequately shows that he/she is NOT DISqualified from roles of public service in the Church.
We do not need to feel sorry for doing this. It may feel “unfair” to Mars Hill leaders. But the real issue now is discernment for the protection of others and the prevention of splicing into new or merged churches the DNA of abuse that will replicate toxicity.
So – these leaders bear complicity for harm committed in the name of Mars Hill until they clear they name and reputation. How do they do that? Disclose their roles and resolve remaining issues.
Unresolved Issues = Uncleared Reputation
I am calling on remaining Mars Hill leaders “to let the light shine in, and let full and accurate information out” before thinking that Mars Hill is ready for closure, transition, replants, and mergers. Many other voices are calling for similar actions as a precaution against spreading abuse elsewhere.
What Issues to Address
To me, this means dealing any personal involvement with at least the five potential legal/ethical problems detailed in this Research Guide post, plus several other important theological concerns that are related. I’m grouping them here into three clusters:
1. Mars Hill has failed to show robust transparency and accountability about significant financial issues, meeting relatively minimal standards. Leaders need to clear up details about:
- The ResultSource contract and apparent misuse of financial gifts to Mars Hill being used for the personal benefit of Mark Driscoll through purchase of Real Marriage.
- The Global Fund designation and alleged misappropriation of restricted funds.
- Where funds went that were raised for the Jesus Festival.
- Whether salary levels and severance packages to any individuals constituted “excessive compensation.”
- Theology of “prosperity gospel.”
2. Mars Hill has failed in its governance and organizational systems through misusing its by-laws and by exerting authoritarian dictates. Leaders need to clear up key remaining issues:
- Before it closes, Mars Hill leaders need to “finish well” by officially exonerating Bent Meyer and Paul Petry, two elders who were disciplined and shunned in 2007 during the by-laws rewriting and power take-over by Mark Driscoll. (For details of this watershed issue, see the Joyful Exiles)
- Before Mars Hill closes, the leaders need to complete and release the official investigation report on Mark Driscoll’s disqualification from ministry. Leaders also need to clarify definitively which statements about his disqualifications posted so far are fully or partially accurate, and where they left out conclusions in ways that created confusion.
- Individual leaders need to declare their theological positions about biblical qualifications for leaders, the authority of elders/leaders, the submission of disciples to those in authority, partiality and conflicts of interest, character issues and behaviors that constitute disqualification from leadership ministries.
3. Mars Hill created a long track record of untrustworthy communications through “spin,” issuance of conflicting statements, revision or deletion of online materials without notice, etc.
- “Spin” is often really just deceit. Leaders who know of any Mars Hill communications or media materials that were not fully true and/or have harmed the reputation of others need to bring the details to light and seek to repair the damage.
How to Address Them
Any leader who seeks to deserve being trusted needs to disclose what they did or didn’t have to do with any of the above issues. This is not a particular novel idea. Many people – especially those personally victimized by the anger, intimidation, control, and verbal abuse of Mark Driscoll and his key “enforcers”– seem to be suggesting the need for Mars Hill leaders to clear their reputation. The key mechanics include disclosure of facts, and repentance through resolving any outstanding issues, including personally repairing damaged relationships.
- Go on record about the issues and any personal involvement in them (or lack of involvement).
- Establish a track record of personal repentance by making things right for any relationships they harmed through damaging actions they took – or failed to take.
- Confirm any necessary repentance and repair of relationships by private actions over time, with public declaration of those if appropriate.
- Don’t skip over the realities of requalification for leadership, but engage in a repentance and restoration process that is overseen by others before there is any potential resumption in a role of public leadership ministry.
So, this process combines biblical concepts of repentance in the heart with a faith that then shows itself through one’s actions, restitution, and restoration.
What About Those Who Refuse to Address Them?
Any current leaders who refuse to do this continue to give every reason to trust nothing they say or do, from this point forward. Also, based on the past track record of Mars Hill Church, which includes the impact of their own actions and inactions as leaders there, we need to assume that their future actions will potentially put any non-profit they are associated with in jeopardy for issues that have allegedly come up with Mars Hill, until/unless they clear their own reputation. Such risk issues that could carry over include:
- Illegal use of non-profit funds to benefit private individuals.
- Illegal misappropriation of restricted funds solicited for designated purposes.
- Deletion, destruction, or alternation of evidence that could have potential legal consequences.
- Failure to disclose or avoid conflicts of interest.
- Failure to follow the organization’s required processes and procedures as laid out in its governance documents.
- Spin of information, posting of misformation.
- Direct or indirect infliction of spiritual abuse.
Surely this is sobering for any Mars Hill leaders. They need to demonstrate their discernment about how toxic organizational systems harms people in the congregation. But scrutiny of such issues is appropriate stewardship for any potential members/attenders who are thinking of joining them in a new spin-off, or leaders of other churches considering some kind of merger with them.
ISSUES WITH THE OPTIONS
Option #1 – Independent Spin-Offs/Replants
Spinning off a local campus as an independent church is a problem if it implants the same spiritual DNA overall as what was in Mars Hill. Given those bad seeds over time growing in a similar direction, it will produce clones of Mars Hill and thus, the same fruit as what happened to people there: authoritarian control, lack of more than minimal transparency and accountability, and spiritual bullying.
Only those leaders who can clearly and comprehensively show that they do not carry the corrupt Mars Hill organizational DNA, and that they have taken care of any remaining “spiritual business” of personal recovery and interpersonal restitution, should be potentially trusted to plant and lead a new congregation. Even so, leaders who prove qualified to serve by their character and behavior may still need a “time out” in “ministry quarantine” to detoxify from immersion in the infected fish tank that Mars Hill had become.
Option #2 – Mergers
Merging with another church is a problem for similar reasons. Any other potential church partner should assume that the shards of Mars Hill left in the wake of Mark Driscoll’s control are still covered with contagions.
So, if you merge a healthy, orthodox church with a church fragment consisting of leaders and congregants from a group demonstrated to be toxic, what do you think you will get? Such a merger does not automatically amplify the healthy trajectory of the one and merely stop the toxic trajectory of the other. Instead, it stops the arcs of both, and creates a new entity on a new pathway, with new needs.
If a healthier church decides to go through with a merger, hopefully the leaders from the host church can figure out how to care for those affected by the spiritual carnage of their former Mars Hill situation. However, they should give up setting any timetables or expectations for qualitative growth and new ministry development. Absorbing and serving a group of wounded people – especially those who may not yet realize how deeply their spirits were bruised by bad leadership practices – will bring huge unanticipated consequences, conflicts, and clashes of church-culture dynamics.
When I was a church plant strategist/designer, I gained a detailed insider view of the merger process where a relatively healthy church plant merged with an extremely unhealthy church in decline. This intensive real-world tutorial took two years of my insider participation and about five years of follow-up observation after I left. I was enthused and optimistic at first, but soon saw more clearly how it was not some “match made in heaven,” despite our attempts to describe it as such. It quickly turned out to be more like a troubled second marriage, and needed the community equivalent of “marriage counseling” from the outset, but didn’t get any. The church planting pastor sincerely seemed to believe he knew exactly what to do, and he gave only the appearance of considering ideas from other people.
Anyway, a key thing to consider for any potential partner for a merger (or perhaps even in welcoming in large numbers of ex-Mars Hillites) is the spiritual DNA of abuse that comes with them, especially with the Mars Hill leaders. 1 Timothy 5:22 is a biblical mandate for congregations, and for good reason: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.” (NIV) Leaders of existing churches fail to follow this requirement at their own peril, plus at the potential risk of harm to those they already oversee.
Merger? Not an optimal option when abusive leaders and “troublesome congregants” are a major part of the mix.
Option #3 – Disbandment and Former Members Find a Church Home Elsewhere
The potentially fatal flaws in the first two options mean I’m left with supporting Option #3 … while considering if there are other scenarios possible – and more preferable – and what their probable challenges and consequences would be.
But meanwhile, yes, it would likely prove safer and easier in the short term and more productive in the long term for relatively healthy local churches to take in small bands of refugees from Mars Hill than to merge organizationally and splice in the cultural DNA of abuse.
Still, other congregations ought to be very wary of any overtures for merging, and also aware of the baggage of abuse that ex-Mars Hill attenders inevitably carry – even if they don’t realize it yet. These men, women, and children may well need a significant season of relational help and healing. So, if they haven’t given such trainings already, leaders would do well to equip and empower their people to be welcoming, but also to go beyond hospitality and show greater “perseverance with the saints.” That’s because it’s likely at least some newcomers will have traumatic flashbacks, confusion, grief, depression, and other forms of cognitive dissonance and emotional eruptions, based in their past experiences with Mars Hill. At the very least, every disciple knows what it is to receive comfort from the Father (2 Corinthians 1), and so we all have something worthwhile to share, even if it is generic, because not everyone has a specific, first-hand understanding of victimization by spiritual abuse.
I have been in such a healing church, one which brought me back to life after a period of severe treatment for about four years by the CEO-style pastor in a church plant elsewhere in town. I had flashbacks and near anxiety attacks for another three years after I left that abusive church. Thankfully, these people understood. One of the elders in my new home church even shared with me later on that they saw their main ministry as helping survivors of my former church and one other local church, since there was a continual stream of victims coming out from under those churches’ authoritarian leaders.
If I didn’t have that community of truly caring Christians surrounding me, I’m not sure my faith journey would have survived. I was first a recipient of their immensely gracious care and long-suffering with me. Gradually I was able to share what I’d received with newcomers who needed the same kind of love that I’d been shown – true love that casts out fear. My hope, my prayer, is for all who have been associated with Mars Hill to find that kind of genuine community. They will need a church where whatever wounds they have are healed, whatever doubts that surface are transformed to confidence, that whatever relationships that have been torn apart get repaired. That is Christ’s Kingdom in action, embodied by His followers among us.
Capstone Series Links:
Capstone 2-7: Seven “-Ologies” in Mars Hill’s “Parasitic Paradigm.”
Capstone Article 3 – Answering the Original FAQ List About Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill
11-02-2014 – minor corrections of grammar and addition of a few words to clarify points.
11-03-2014 – additional corrections and minor changes, plus added links to other posts in the series.
11-05-2014 – added a few phrases to clarify that assuming suspect reputations for Mars Hill leaders includes assuming they would replicate elsewhere the same harmful organizational systems as they were part of, supported, enforced, and may not have challenged while Mars Hill was under Mark Driscoll’s control.