Mark Driscoll has a knack for drawing crowds—and dividing them. The brash pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle has more than his share of fans and critics. But we weren't interested in his latest controversy or faux pas. Leadership Journal's Drew Dyck talked to Driscoll about coping with busyness and burnout. What emerged was a picture of an introverted family man with a blue-collar work ethic and a heart for the local church.
Early in your ministry, you suffered a bad case of burnout. What happened?
When we planted the church, I didn't get paid by the congregation for about three years. We were broke as a joke. We were meeting just at night in the cheapest room we could find. By the time I got paid by the church, we had two kids. So I was doing side jobs and some outside speaking to bring in money. Nothing big, just a college retreat here and there, trying to make ends meet. Then as the church started to grow, quite frankly, I didn't know how to run an organization. And the next thing you know, we got a building given to us, and we start adding some staff. But I was the only pastor until we had 800 people.
With 800 people and you were doing all the pastoral work?
I did all the preaching, all the premarital preparation, all the counseling, all the hospital visits. I had a few other leaders who were volunteers, but I was the only pastor on staff. Later we got a building that seated a lot more, and we had another surge where we grew about a thousand people a year. And a lot of those people were new Christians. It takes 10 minutes to see somebody become a Christian, but 10 years to see them become a viable leader. And so you've got this leadership vacuum.
I come from a blue collar background. My dad was a drywaller. One grandpa was a diesel mechanic. The other grandpa was a red potato farmer. So we don't have a lot of organizational experience. But we can work hard. So I just worked. Put my head down, worked seven days a week. I preached, gosh, 48 or 50 Sundays a year, five or six times a Sunday, an hour or more per sermon. And I traveled to speak, to make ends meet, because I was still supplementing my income. I didn't even have a full-time assistant until we hit 6,000. And by then my wife and I had five kids.
It was go, go, go, and at some point my body just couldn't go anymore. I once had an old car and the ignition would get stuck. You'd have to literally pop the hood and disconnect the battery to make it stop. I was like that car. I couldn't shut down. I couldn't sleep. I'd fall asleep for an hour, wake up, and then be up all night. I'd be exhausted but unable to sleep. I had adrenal fatigue.
What finally happened?
First I went to a conventional doctor, who told me I needed blood pressure meds, heartburn medicine, sleep medicine, anxiety medicine. I'm like, Man, I'm in my 30s. That's a lot of medicine! So I went and found a naturopathic doctor, who said, "You need to quit your job and find a different vocation."
I said, "Well, Jesus said to do this, so that's not really an option." So I found another naturopathic doctor. He gave me supplements, vitamins, minerals, IV treatments for adrenal support, and custom tailored vitamins. He put me on a regimen for wellness and recovery. His approach was to naturally rebuild the body, to not just treat the symptoms. He told me, "You've got to work really hard to change your lifestyle and your organization, everything."
Were you depressed?
I never went in and saw a professional to get diagnosed. Probably because I was afraid of what the diagnosis would be. So I don't know. I can tell you this. I was really looking forward to my vacations and getting out of Seattle and seeing the sun.
Living in Seattle is really hard. When those winter months hit, man, the days are super short. You get weeks at a time where you never see the sun. It's always rainy and cool. And that affects me. I'm a hardcore introvert, too, so that probably doesn't help. My family energizes me, but other people drain me.
What helped you turn the corner?
I had to change the way we were structured. When we first started the church, it was basically a small team of elders, and we all had to agree on every decision. Well, when you go multisite, and you've got dozens of elders, your structure has to change. Different guys need to make different decisions. We need to share the authority and the load. But in the absence of a good system, I was basically everyone's direct report. A couple of years ago, I got two new guys to join the executive eldership. They're godly, seasoned men. One runs a very large company, a Harvard business guy, and the other is a veteran pastor. They've been an absolute lifesaver. Before they came on, I had 18 direct reports, and that was just a couple years ago.
You're a strong personality. Was it hard for you to delegate and release some of the authority?
Not really. I come off as a wild-eyed, crazy prophet, but the truth is when I get up on the stage I'm trying to move tens of thousands of people. It takes a lot of energy to try and move that many people. But most of the time, I'm a father. I feel about the church like I do about my kids, and that's why, even though things have gotten hard, I stick it out. I genuinely love the people of the church and I feel very committed to them. In 1 Corinthians 4 Paul says that when he preached the gospel and people got saved, he became their spiritual father.
I feel like Mars Hill is a family. A lot of these people got saved here. They look to me as a spiritual father, and Dad's got to love, he's got to serve, and he's got to hang in there. But it can't be about Dad. It has to be about the kids and it has to be about the family. And if Dad doesn't have the help he needs, Dad's going to probably kill himself trying to take care of everything. If dad doesn't know how to organize it, because that's not Dad's strength, then Dad really needs some other Dads to come alongside and help him. And by God's grace, over the years, I think we've gotten better at doing that.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
Like I say, being an introvert, I work from home most of the time so I can be around my five kids. I spend a lot of time at baseball games and track meets. I was at another baseball game last night, and I've got five or six more on Saturday alone. I'm a husband and father first. I've written most of my books, and done a lot of my research, while sitting in a chair at a little league game. And I love that. I love to take my kids. I love to support them. I love to sit on a bucket and play catcher and let my boys work on their curveball. All I've got is work and family. I have zero hobbies. I don't hunt. I don't fish. I don't have a motorcycle. I don't golf. It's just family and ministry. They take 100 percent of my time.
Is striving for prominence a problem for a pastor?
I've seen so many young guys go up fast and come down hard. Some years Rick Warren invited me down to California. I had dinner with a couple of other young leaders and pastor Rick, and I said, "Okay. So like why am I here? Did I do something wrong? Usually I get called into meetings when I've said something wrong." Rick said, "No, you didn't do anything wrong. Years ago I put together a list of young up-and-coming evangelical pastors, and I prayed for them. And every time a guy disqualifies himself or quits or whatever, I cross his name off the list." And he said, "More than half the list is gone, but you guys are still on the list. So I wanted to see how you are doing." Sometimes I think ministry is like MMA. If you're just still standing at the end, there's a good chance you're the winner.
What's it take to increase your influence?
I deal with a lot of guys who talk about the movement they're going to lead, and they're not even in phase one for a church plant yet. It's like when I met a guy and he says, "I'm going to run an organization for parenting." I want to say, "Why don't you get a girlfriend first." I appreciate a vision for reforming the family, but how about you get a girlfriend, you get her to marry you, maybe the two of you have a kid, and see what happens.
I don't want to discourage anyone, but Paul tells Timothy, "Fulfill your ministry." I think it's so important that guys get an idea of what their ministry is—and focus on that. And the truth is anybody who has a ministry beyond the local church that lasts for any duration of time, it's because they have something locally that's still thriving. If you don't have that, you lose credibility. A lot of guys will have a local church, but then they write a book, and leave their local church. They become a speaker and a writer. But then every six months their stories are just older. They're talking about people that used to meet Christ and the ways they used to serve, and things that used to happen. I'm probably at the point that I could write books and speak and hang out by my pool and coach Little League. But I don't want to do that because I really love our church. I'm a local church guy. My belief is that Jesus gave his life for the church and he honors those who do the same.
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