It looks like former Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll is gearing up for a comeback.
Is Mark Driscoll planning a comeback? The signs seem to be pointed that way.
The former Mars Hill Church pastor, who resigned in October amid allegations of plagiarism, misogyny and emotional abusiveness, leading to the collapse of a megachurch that once counted 13,000 members in five states, has been making a series of public appearances around the country. He plans two this summer in Sydney, Australia, and London.
The appearances are sparking speculation that Driscoll is bent on returning to the pulpit — an idea that found resonance on the stage of Mill Creek’s Gold Creek Community Church on May 17. “I know you’re probably not going to stay in the area,” Gold Creek Founding Pastor Dan Kellogg told Driscoll after a fulsome introduction that included a hug. “You’re going to go somewhere and start a church.”
Driscoll, clad in his characteristic bluejeans but evincing less swagger than in the days when he called the U.S. a “pussified nation” and his critics a pile of “dead bodies” in the making, didn’t confirm the hunch. “I’m still in the middle of it,” he said in a speech that lasted nearly an hour. “OK, Lord, what’s next? What do you have for us? What are we doing? Where are we going? I don’t know.”
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Yet his appearance was enough to spark a protest by a dozen former Mars Hill members, who voiced concern that Driscoll has neither acknowledged wrongdoing nor sought reconciliation with those they believe he has harmed.
“Mark is unrepentant,” says Brian Jacobsen, a protest organizer and a former Mars Hill deacon. Should Driscoll try to get a new church off the ground, Jacobsen adds, there would be an “awful lot of people who would oppose him in any way they could.”
In the meantime, Jacobsen and onetime fellow congregants are threatening a lawsuit as they seek a full accounting of alleged financial impropriety at Mars Hill. Others are asking what, if anything, the evangelical community has learned from Driscoll’s spectacular rise and fall (and possible rise again).
“Made himself the victim”
Driscoll’s public re-emergence came just days after he resigned from Mars Hill. Delivering remarks at the Gateway Conference, put on by a Texas megachurch, he declared himself in a “season of healing up, praying and asking the Lord Jesus through wise counsel to show me any blind spots where I can grow.”
Rather than dwell on his blind spots, though, he recounted the difficulties he, his wife and his five kids, ages 9 to 17, have been through. They include, he said, death threats, the discovery of rusty nails on his driveway, the need to move three times “for safety issues,” a family camp-out in the backyard that ended with rocks being thrown at his kids and stalking by a TV-news helicopter that spooked his then 8-year-old, who wanted to know whether the military jacket he was wearing was bulletproof.
The audience gave Driscoll a standing ovation, and he went on to repeat the anecdotes to a sympathetic crowd at the Thrive Leadership Conference in early May, held by a megachurch in California.
The speeches, which quickly went up on YouTube, played less well in Seattle. “He’s made himself the victim,” says longtime critic and onetime Mars Hill deacon Rob Smith, who expresses skepticism about whether Driscoll’s harrowing tales are true. (What is certain is that late last week, a Swiss-chalet inspired, Snohomish County estate recently owned by a trust controlled by Driscoll and his wife — now belonging to a different trust registered to a woman believed to be the pastor’s sister — was put on the market for $1.6 million.)
In any case, Smith says, Driscoll should focus on “the hundreds of families who have been shunned” by Mars Hill after questioning or criticizing Driscoll.
Driscoll could not be reached for comment. “Pastor Mark is currently unavailable for speaking requests and media inquiries,” reads an email from Mark Driscoll Ministries, which maintains a website sporadically updated with event listings and online teachings.
As Driscoll’s most famous ministry fell apart last fall, some called for soul-searching within the evangelical community. If a pastor as arguably authoritarian and misogynistic as Driscoll could rocket to superstardom, they said, something was broken in the megachurch model that his multibranch empire exemplified.
Rose Madrid-Swetman, lead pastor of the small Vineyard Community Church in Shoreline, questions whether much has changed given Driscoll’s recent embrace by prominent pastors nationwide. “It is astounding to me that they would overlook this,” she says — this being “the very credible people” who have spoken out against Driscoll.
Indeed, two of Driscoll’s recent hosts vigorously defended the former Mars Hill pastor. “I know the behind-the-scenes story,” declared Robert Morris, Gateway Church founding pastor, in his introduction of Driscoll in Texas. “Everything you read on the Internet is not true. … Most of what you read is not true.”
Morris’ remarks cast aside dozens of former Mars Hill members who have talked and blogged about painful experiences with Driscoll, and findings by a church board that the famous preacher had at times been arrogant, quick-tempered and domineering.
Gold Creek’s Kellogg also dismissed criticism of his colleague, saying much of it was based on gossip. He added that Driscoll had been “unfairly treated by former staff people and by the media.”
“A more humble version”
Ray Johnston, whose Bayside Church in Northern California hosts the Thrive conference, delivered an introduction of Driscoll that was not captured on audio of the event posted to YouTube. Interviewed this week by phone, Johnston says he made no attempt to discount Driscoll’s mistakes but focused on the fallen pastor’s “humbling process and healing process.”
That’s what Johnston says he noticed about Driscoll when the two talked by phone in advance of the conference, for which the Mars Hill pastor was already booked. “He said: ‘Look, everything fell apart here,’ ” Johnston recounts. “He was very clear with us about his shortcomings.” Johnston said Driscoll told him he was willing to back out.
“This guy’s a more humble version of himself than he’s ever been,” Johnston said he concluded. “I wanted to encourage that process to continue … I thought it would be good for him to be around us and our people.” Likewise, the Bayside Church pastor says he thought it would be good for his people to hear Driscoll talk about what he was learning.
In Driscoll’s speech, Johnston recalls, “He said, ‘Sometimes a shepherd hits himself in the head.’ ” The California pastor deduces that Driscoll was alluding to problems he created for himself.
As for the large passages of Driscoll’s speech that blamed his suffering on others, whether it be the media or malicious rock-throwers, Johnston observes: “He was not like that on the phone with me. He was not like that in person with our staff.”
Johnston concludes: “There are probably some things he can’t say at this point until whatever legal things are happening are done.”
Following the money
In late December, a lawyer for four former Mars Hill members, including Jacobsen and his wife, Connie, sent a letter to an attorney representing the former church, now an entity in the process of selling real estate and dissolving. The 11-page letter laid out the case for a civil racketeering lawsuit against Driscoll, various trusts and businesses affiliated with him and several other former leaders of the church.
These potential defendants, the letter charged, had used the enterprise of Mars Hill to defraud church members by redirecting congregant donations intended for specific purposes, such as global missions.
Echoing allegations that first emerged as Mars Hill was imploding, the letter charged that some of that money went to buy thousands of copies of Driscoll’s book “Real Marriage” in order to propel it onto The New York Times best-seller list.
While his clients were prepared to sue, Brian Fahling, the attorney for the would-be plaintiffs wrote, they would prefer to have their claims brought before a Christian mediator. Jacobsen says he wants to see Driscoll go through a period of restoration and accountability that would finally provide answers as to where all the money that passed through Mars Hill — including as recently as March, when the organization sold its church in Ballard for $9 million — has gone.
Mars Hill attorney Ronald Friedman, who says he is working to make sure Mars Hill “is closed out ethically and correctly,” contends he offered to bring all the parties together for mediation. “That was declined,” Friedman says.
Fahling counters that Friedman said he didn’t represent Driscoll or any other potential defendants — Mars Hill itself is not listed in the letter as one — and that a mediation, while still possible, likely would take months to arrange. “It was effectively a non-offer,” Fahling says.
Pitching a new tent
With a possible lawsuit and a storm of controversy behind him, could Driscoll really set up shop somewhere else? It’s possible, says Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and a blogger who has doggedly chronicled the Mars Hill saga.
“That’s one of the features of evangelical culture,” Throckmorton says by phone. “If you have a problem, you can move on down the street and start again.”
That’s especially true of megachurch leaders, observes Madrid-Swetman. Unlike her church, which belongs to the evangelical Vineyard denomination, megachurches tend to be independent entities, with no outside authority to which they are accountable.
“Anybody can start a church in America,” she says. “You can blow up a church and the next day file the paperwork” to start a new one — paperwork, she adds, that would give the fledgling organization nonprofit, tax-exempt status.