In response to a parade of complaints, including bullying staff members, Mark Driscoll, a major figure in contemporary American evangelicalism, took leave last Sunday from his Mars Hill megachurch headquartered in Bellevue, Wash.
In a just released Aug. 22 letter, in which nine Mars Hill Church pastors did not mince words, they complained of insufficient layers of accountability at the congregation of an estimated 14,000 people at 15 locations in five states.
The Mars Hill pastors said that power was consolidated at the top with Driscoll given free rein to do what he wanted. Other accusations include plagiarism, misusing church funds and creating a culture of fear at his church.
The pastors quoted Paul Tripp as saying, “This is without a doubt, the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I’ve ever been involved with.” A widely respected evangelical pastor who is seen as a pastor to pastors, Tripp was on the Mars Hill Board of Advisors and Accountability before resigning in June.
“Storm clouds seem to be whirling around me more than ever in recent months,” Driscoll said when he stepped away.
“I am very sorry for the times I have been angry, short or insensitive,” the 43-year-old minister said. “I am very sorry for anything I have done to distract from our mission by inviting criticism, controversy or negative media attention.”
Driscoll said he would take a leave for at least six weeks as he decided what to do next and while Mars Hill reviewed complaints against him. He said that he would use the time “for processing, healing and growth” and meeting with “mature Christians” for counsel.
One of those apparently is Mark DeMoss, an Atlanta public relations consultant and former adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
DeMoss, who represented the late Jerry Falwell Sr. and now Franklin Graham, said he was brought in to work with the congregation.
“I think he’s a gifted, biblical communicator who has done effective church work in an unchurched part of the country,” DeMoss said. “I like him, I believe in him, and if I only worked with ministry leaders who were faultless, I would be out of business tonight.”
Driscoll’s known for his early critique of what he saw as the overly consumer-friendly and watered-down nature of mainstream megachurches. He’s also been a leader of New Calvinism, which embraces the doctrine of predestination.
He drew admiration for creating a thriving megachurch in the Pacific Northwest, one of the most secular regions in the nation, and he was noted for his success at drawing young men to church, using rock music, frank talk about sex and sin, and an emphasis on the importance of masculinity to build a following.
Driscoll has survived years of criticism from liberals upset with his views on gender and sexuality — he is an advocate of the idea that wives should submit to their husbands, and a strong opponent of same-sex relationships.
But the criticisms of his management style and behavior, coming from fellow conservatives who had been longtime allies, friends and supporters, has proved far more damaging.
“You can’t have a church culture where you essentially have a very tight circle and everyone else is your enemy,” Tripp was quoted as saying.
The pastors suggest that there has been a lack of transparency from the leadership, especially surrounding Driscoll’s ouster from the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting coalition of more than 500 congregations that he helped found.
“We have been repeatedly told that no one from the A29 board talked to Mark or to our board prior to removing Mark from the network,” the pastors wrote. “The truth is that multiple members of both boards had been in direct contact with each other, and with Mark, exhorting and rebuking him over the course of months and years, and to say or imply otherwise is deeply misleading.”
A major Christian retail chain had stopped selling one of Driscoll’s books, and he was facing canceled speaking invitations and an exodus of staff members and congregants.
Driscoll said he would not do any public speaking, would delay the publication of his next book and would try to avoid responding to criticism.
“This is one of the paradoxes of being a pastor in the media age: The same media channels that can be used to carry a sermon to virtually anyone around the globe can also be used by anyone around the globe to criticize, attack or slander,” he said. “However, another part of it is simply my fault, and I will own it, confess it, and move on from it as God continues to redeem me.
“Some have challenged various aspects of my personality and leadership style, and while some of these challenges seem unfair, I have no problem admitting I’m deserving of some of these criticisms based on my own past actions that I am genuinely sorry for,” he said.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey of the Religion News Service contributed to this report.