"Storm clouds seem to be whirling around me more than ever in recent months," said Pastor Mark Driscoll to his Mars Hill congregation last August, "and I have given much thought and sought much counsel as to why that is and what to do about it."
In the same announcement, he said, "I have requested a break for processing, healing, and growth for a minimum of six weeks while the leadership assigned by our bylaws conduct a thorough examination of accusations against me."
Those storm clouds raged harder. Gale-force condemnation whipped up tumultuous seas of public criticism until, as those six weeks closed, a Seattle Times headline read: "Mars Hill Church reeling as Pastor Mark Driscoll quits." Reporter Janet Tu attributed his departure to "an avalanche of allegations," ranging from "charges of bullying," to "abusive behavior," to "plagiarism and overseeing mismanagement of church funds."
Two weeks after Driscoll's resignation, Mars Hill's Dave Bruskas announced in an October 31 post on the church website that as of January 1 2015, "the existing Mars Hill Church organization will be dissolved." After the church lays its central structure to rest, its 15 local bodies will float alone, if possible.
Thousands of Christian worshipers gathering weekly across four states, their church boasting annual revenues of more than $30 million, dissolving. Done.
Considering the ruins
It's difficult to see much more than the still-soggy ruins and drowned hopes of the once booming megachurch. "How did this happen so fast?" asks Rene Schlaepfer, pastor of Twin Lakes Church, a megachurch in Aptos, California. Watching disgrace devour other celebrity pulpits is always grim, he says, but this story hits home even harder.
"Driscoll went to Western Seminary, where I went. And as I try to lead a large, theologically conservative, evangelical church in a super liberal, super progressive place [Santa Cruz, California], Driscoll was doing something similar in Seattle. He was obviously someone I looked to for guidance.
"I'm completely blown away," says Schlaepfer. "It does not seem real. It's like a nightmare … to have it all just go away, to have to shut it all down. It does not seem redemptive."
Bill Clem, campus pastor and elder at Mars Hill's West Seattle location, then later at the Ballard location from 2006-2012, says, "I knew something would eventually happen, but none of us would have ever predicted this."
However nightmarish ruins like these may be, a traveler in Proverbs 24 suggests that the wise person will pay attention. He stumbles upon another's ruin and says, "…I saw, and considered it well; I looked upon it, and received instruction."
No simple answer
Clem pastored alongside Driscoll for more than half a decade, and he refuses to single out Driscoll, church structure, staff culture, or any problem as the one that "necessitated wrapping the car around the pole," as he puts it. Perhaps no singular, simple answer will ever emerge.
Nevertheless, Clem says, the structure of Mars Hill—which over time consolidated power and financial decisions in the central organization—did play a role. "As the structure became more refined, the driving motive became efficiency and growth, and those two factors began dictating church policy."