02.21.16 12:01 AM ET
Controversial Megachurch Pastor Mark Driscoll Finds a New Flock
There’s a new church coming to Phoenix, Arizona.
According to its website, the pastor, Mark Driscoll, is a “Jesus-following, mission-leading, church-serving, people-loving, Bible-preaching pastor…grateful to be a nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody.”
While he may wish he were less recognizable these days, compound adjective-loving Mark Driscoll could hardly be called a nobody. Though there’s no mention of it on The Trinity Church’s shiny new website, Driscoll built and presided over Seattle’s controversial Mars Hill Church, and he is one of the most famous and disruptive figures in the history of the evangelical mega-church movement.
Driscoll and two other pastors started Mars Hill in 1996. Before long, Driscoll was drawing crowds with a unique brand of hipster conservatism. He was a 25-year-old charismatic preacher with a Sam Kinison yell and a collection of ironic “Jesus is my homeboy” T-shirts, who talked freely about sex but offered a socially and theologically conservative message that introduced Seattle’s young unchurched to a macho, vengeful God. (He once described Jesus as “a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.”) The first services outside of the Driscoll living room were held in a music venue—owned by church cofounder Lief Moi—in a space aptly named the Paradox.
“Do they call you pastor here…or dude?” a Nightline correspondent asked in 2008.
Mars Hill was slated to become the biggest church in the country. In its heydey, it was welcoming more than 12,000 visitors every week to one of its 15 satellite campuses in five states and reporting $30 million in yearly revenue.
But as Driscoll’s star rose, he was dogged by allegations from church members and pastors as well as from outsiders—of bullying and spiritual abuse, misogyny and homophobia, plagiarism, and misuse of church funds, just to name a few. In 2014, after being asked to submit to a reconciliation plan proposed by the church board he organized, Driscoll quit.
Now, barely a year later and 1,000 miles away, Driscoll is back. And though he may be fresh off an apology tour on the megachurch circuit and backed by a roster of celebrity pastors and online supporters, many of his original followers—a dozen of whom spoke to The Daily Beast, not counting at least 100 others who have shared their stories online—are still wondering if Pastor Mark will ever address the damage he allegedly wreaked on the people at Mars Hill or the church he left in ruins.
In his new bio, without naming any controversies specifically, Driscoll writes that he and his family “faced the most challenging year of their lives.”
Driscoll declined to be interviewed for this article, but in an email response, “The Trinity Church” directed us to his personal and church website. “Our church plant is in the infancy stages and as more details come together we will let everyone know in our weekly church newsletter,” Trinity wrote. Several follow-up requests seeking more information about the period between Driscoll’s resignation from Mars Hill and his new venture at The Trinity Church were not returned.
“I don’t know why he’d hide [his history with Mars Hill], or think that he could,” saidWarren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and perhaps the most prominent of a handful of fastidious religion bloggers who have documented the particulars of Driscoll’s troubles. “Given that he built his brand on going public with things, being a celebrity, and marketing, I would think people would want to know what actually happened at Mars Hill before they welcomed a similar church in Phoenix.
“There are a lot of loose ends.”
So, as prospective parishioners might be wondering, just what did Driscoll do?
The first and easiest thing to digest, because the media so readily reported the juiciest bits, is the large groups of people whom Mark Driscoll has offended. Usually the aims of his ire were women or gay men. Sometimes, he hit both at once, like the time he suggested Ted Haggard’s wife “letting herself go” might have had something to do with the rival evangelical pastor’s proclivity for male prostitutes and crystal meth.
The largest repository for his most offensive remarks comes from early 2001 in his church’s members-only forum, where he posted under the Braveheart pseudonym “William Wallace II.” In one particular thread, Driscoll rants (in part) that: We live in a “pussified nation” where men are “raised by bitter penis envying burned feministed single mothers,” homeosexuals are “Damn freaks,” and women, (unpoetically described as “homes” for a man’s penis), “will be ignored,” because Driscoll “[does] not answer to women.”
These writings resurfaced some 14 years after Driscoll wrote them, and he has on several occasions apologized for his “angry-young-prophet days,” calling the posts “plain wrong.” But former congregants tell tales of a bullying Driscoll not so far in the distant past.
In 2003, former congregant Jennifer Roach had a disagreement with Mark over whether men and women could be friends. In response, Driscoll posted a letter to the forum addressed to her husband that read, “You better shut your wife up, or I’ll shut her up for you.” What surprised Roach, she said, even more than her pastor’s anger, were the “mini-Marks”—young men who took it further. “I got direct emails telling me I was an adulterer and a whore,” Roach told The Daily Beast. “One said that I was just trying to ‘take down a good man.’”
But personal stories of alleged mistreatment by Driscoll aren’t why Mars Hill imploded. As unbelievable as Driscoll’s statements could be, the more vicious the evangelical firebrand got, the more popular he became. Driven by a doctrine of manifest destiny and surrounded by struggling smaller churches happy to turn over their assets in order to join the Mars Hill brand, the controversial megachurch continued to grow.
The beginning of the end, according to most accounts, came after what may seem like an unremarkable event to outsiders. Driscoll wanted to change the church’s bylaws and organizational structure. As reported by The Stranger, by 2007, Driscoll claimed he had grown frustrated with the bureaucracy of running a multisite megachurch with his board of executive elders, whose approval was necessary for moves like hiring and firing pastors, spending tithes, and other day-to-day decisions involved in the business of organized religion.
So, according to former church members, Driscoll decided to circumvent the board he allegedly found so tiresome. He convinced a small team of executive elders to resign—and filled the tops spots with loyalists who could rubber-stamp his decisions.
“He had always made very clear that he was accountable to a board of elders,” said Ron Wheeler, who attended Mars Hill briefly in the late ’90s and worked alongside Driscoll, together starting the church-planting organization, Acts 29, that Mars Hill was latersacked from. “He said that if at any point he needed to step down or change, he would submit to a democratic process. But on the sly, he had the bylaws rewritten, reconfigured the elders, and pushed out certain people.”
In fact, a couple of elders balked, according to documents posted online by one of the ousted leaders, when Driscoll went to revise those bylaws in a way that would have put even more power—over thousands of people and millions in tithes—into his hands. When they made their concerns known, Driscoll had the pair fired.
Then, former church members say, he danced on their graves. After the firings, Driscoll took to the pulpit at a pastors’ conference and delivered the now infamous (in Mars Hill circles) “Mars Hill bus” speech. “I am all about blessed subtraction. There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done,” he said.
When the two sacked elders refused to go quietly, Driscoll and the remaining elders submitted them both to ecclesiastical trials, and eventually found them to be in “violation of the biblical qualifications of eldership” and ordered that they and their families be shunned. At least 18 former elders have formally apologized for their role in the brutal inquisition. “The harm permitted by our failure to protect you has had a devastating and lasting impact on you, your families, Mars Hill Church, and the watching world,” theywrote in 2014.
In the summer of 2014—after his online forum comments had become public—Driscoll posted a video responding to the newest public relations disaster in which he expressed frustration that “a lot of the people we are dealing with in this season remain anonymous—so we don’t know how to reconcile or how to work things out with people because we’re not entirely sure who they are.”
And though Driscoll claims in his new bio to have taken “over a year off from local pastoral ministry to learn, repent, grow, heal, and meet with many people involved,” one of the fired elders, Pastor Paul Petry, claims that neither he nor the many ex-Mars Hill members and elders whose lives were publically upended by Driscoll’s power grab have been contacted by Driscoll for any sort of reconciliation.
On his blog, Petry has documented in great detail his experience at Mars Hill. In his appeal to Driscoll’s firing of him, Petry wrote about a recurring daydream that Driscoll would show up and invite him for a beer to talk things over. It never happened.
“That’s still exactly how I feel today, but the reality is Mark never showed up at my door, he never called,” Petry told me. “I still have the same address. I have the same phone number. I was never anonymous and neither were all the others.”
While the firing of any dissenters allowed Driscoll the freedom to rule and spend as he saw fit, former members say it couldn’t shield him from the fallout when questionable decisions—greenlighted by a board of alleged “yes men”—were made public.
In 2014, Throckmorton, the religion blogger, claimed that the lion’s share of millions supposedly donated by members of Mars Hill to missions in Ethiopia and India through the church’s “Global Fund” actually went to feathering the church’s own Seattle nest and funding its relentless expansion. Driscoll never addressed these allegations but church leaders later apologized for any “confusion” without admitting any deliberate or intentional misuse of funds.
This came on the heels of other journalists reporting findings of plagiarism in Driscoll’s books (“Mistakes were made,” Driscoll admitted), and World Magazine reporting that Mars Hill Church had spent approximately $210,000 to buy Driscoll’s 2012 book, Real Marriage, its place on The New York Times’ and other best-sellers lists from a list-fixing company called Result Source. Due to the non-transparent nature of Mars Hill’s financial accounting, and a disjointed collection of Driscoll’s personal corporate entities which don’t require public disclosure, just where the profits went for Real Marriage—for which the Driscolls had received a $400,000 publisher’s advance—isn’t entirely clear. For his part, Driscoll has said he put 100 percent of the profits back into Mars Hill.
In August, Driscoll took a leave of absence from the church so that a group of Mars Hill elders could investigate a list of charges brought by 22 of his pastors. After two months of deliberation (and one prominent Christian author on the board quitting, and calling Mars Hill “the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I’ve ever been involved with”), they found that Driscoll had been guilty of “arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech, and leading the staff and elders in a domineering manner.” But, they said, this did not disqualify him from ministry.
“They offered him a plan of restoration—where he would step out of the pulpit and be in the elder’s care to restore and recover—basically to get his act together,” Throckmorton said.
Instead of submit to that plan, as Driscoll tearily explained in a 2015 interview with the Australian megachurch Hillsong’s senior pastor Brian Houston, though it was “not what we wanted, not what we had agreed to, not what we planned for,” both he and his wife were told (audibly) by God to quit the church.
“The Lord revealed to me that a trap has been set. There’s no way for us to return to leadership,” Driscoll said. And so he offered his resignation. Two weeks later, Mars Hillannounced it would shut its doors.
In the 16 months since he left, Driscoll has been busy. He’s traveled from Florida to Alaska, attending conferences and speaking at local churches. A week after his resignation, he took the stage to give his testimony at Gateway Conference, led by megachurch pastor Robert Morris (who now sits alongside megachurch pastor Jimmy Evans, and a media VP for a Christian marketing company, on the board of Driscoll’s new church). In December, around the time Driscoll’s reported one-year’s severance pay would have run out, he was registering his new church with the state of Arizona.
In the meantime, Mars Hill leadership has been managing the dissolution of somewhere near $30 million worth of assets, with little public accounting for who gets the spoils of the failed enterprise. And for almost a year, former members have been talking about filing a lawsuit to find out where just where all their donations went.
Driscoll’s new website lists more than two dozen church leaders who are “praying for The Trinity Church.” Among them is Mark DeMoss, owner of a Christian public relations firm who worked for Mars Hill in 2014 during the church’s many crises. DeMoss is not working for The Trinity Church, but said he’s just trying to “be a friend,” and offered insight into what he says are Driscoll’s plans.
“I think he’s very realistic and he realizes that he might launch a church speaking to 100 people. I don’t think he’s under any big idea that he’s going to open the doors and have a megachurch immediately. But, I think he has the potential to do that again.”
Although DeMoss wouldn’t name anyone in particular, he says Driscoll “spent a considerable amount of time reaching out to people that he knew or thought he had offended or hurt in some way and did whatever he could do to right those relationships. He’s had some success with that, but there have been some people who were not receptive to a restored relationship.”
I reached out to dozens of ex-Mars Hill members and elders to ask if Driscoll had contacted them to reconcile. Of the 11 who responded, all said they hadn’t heard from him since his resignation, and they didn’t know of anyone else among them who had.
In a video promoting his new church, Driscoll says he’s met with “around 50” pastors in the Phoenix area to have coffee, dinner, or go on double dates in preparation for The Trinity Church’s launch. Meanwhile, the hundreds from the husk of Mars Hill wait.
“He never owned up to [what happened to the elders],” Ron Wheeler told me. “What’s telling is that there’s not one of his former friends or ministry partners who support him, outside of his wife.”
“Had he submitted himself to the process he had put in place, it would have all gone much differently. As a brother in our faith, we would have loved him and walked beside him and supported him,” Wheeler added. “That was our hope, but instead he chose to bail. And now the concern is: Do we have an existing responsibility to the people of Phoenix?”