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A leading critic of Mars Hill Church founder Mark Driscoll said he’s skeptical that Driscoll’s decision to step away from the pulpit for at least six weeks means Driscoll intends to right past wrongs.

“He’s very good at saying that he’s sorry. Let’s see what it really means,” said Rob Smith, of Everett, a former Mars Hill deacon who left the church in 2007, when he says Driscoll strengthened his grip over the organization and forced out those who objected.

Driscoll, who has risen to national prominence as an evangelical leader, and watched the church he started in 1996 expand to 15 campuses in five Western states, announced his temporary departure near the end of Sunday’s 8:30 a.m. service in Bellevue, days after word surfaced that 21 former Mars Hill pastors, who cited a pattern of bullying, called for his ouster.

Earlier this month, Driscoll and Mars Hill were removed from the Act 29 Network, a national church network Driscoll helped found. Also recently, protesters picketed the church, calling for Driscoll’s ouster.

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An audio recording of Driscoll’s remarks Sunday was posted by blogger Warren Throckmorton, who has been tracking Mars Hill developments on the faith-issue website

On the recording, Driscoll said he admits and regrets mistakes and hurtful actions. He says church leaders can best examine the accusations against him “without me being in the pulpit or office.”

The break, he said, would allow him to “spend more time with God, my wife and my children.”

Driscoll did not indicate whether he expects the temporary departure to become permanent. Instead, he said, “I have begun meeting with a professional team of mature Christians who provide wise counsel.”

He said he would refrain from any public speaking in the near future and is delaying the publication of his next book.

Driscoll said he does not expect to address accusations against him in the media, because it would be unproductive and not help the church’s mission.

Church officials could not be reached for comment Sunday.

A short article on the announcement was posted on the Religion News Service website.

To Smith, Driscoll’s words rang hollow. Smith said it sounds like Driscoll intends to have his fate determined by people he himself put into power and over whom he retains control.

Smith, leader of a group of 75 members and ex-members of Mars Hill, said his group was ready to present more than 50 charges against Driscoll and his church elders, but delayed when Act 29 Network acted.

If Driscoll intends to make amends for past misdeeds, he should reach out to people he forced from the church, Smith said, such as popular pastor Paul Petry, ousted in 2007 when a change of bylaws strengthened Driscoll’s control.

The decision by 21 former Mars Hill pastors to seek Driscoll’s dismissal was reported late last week on Throckmorton’s blog.

Mike Wilkerson, former Mars Hill pastor who submitted the cover letter with the pastors’ report, Sunday confirmed it had been sent, but said it had been intended to remain confidential.

In the cover letter, Wilkerson, a Mars Hill elder for a decade, said, “I believe that the most important next step toward the renewal of Mars Hill Church is the removal of Mark Driscoll from the office of elder, so he can focus on personal change, reconciliation and healing for his own heart and for those he’s hurt. I don’t stand alone in this belief.”

Wilkerson said he had no comment on Driscoll’s announcement.

After news circulated about the pastors’ complaints, the church, in a statement to KOMO news, said:

“We take these allegations seriously and we are thankful that we have a process in place where allegations will be reviewed by our board and our elders. As it is relatively new that these former elders submitted this, at this time we don’t have any information on how long that process will take or what the outcome will be.”

Questions of church finances have also dogged Driscoll.

Mars Hill has agreed it used church money to have a company buy up one of Driscoll’s books to boost sales. And earlier this summer, it told church members it had confirmed some money to help start churches overseas had instead gone for Mars Hill expenses.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or Portions of this story came from Seattle Times archives.

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