After a meteoric rise and a drawn-out fall, embattled Mars Hill Church Pastor Mark Driscoll resigned Wednesday, leaving unanswered questions and an uncertain future for the megachurch he co-founded.
The church has been facing an avalanche of allegations against Driscoll in recent months, ranging from charges of bullying and abusive behavior to plagiarism and overseeing mismanagement of church funds.
So loud were the clamor and questions around Driscoll — who gained national prominence by combining a dynamic preaching style with controversial views about women, homosexuality and other issues — that church attendance and giving plummeted, and several branches of the megachurch closed.
It all came to a head Wednesday when Driscoll resigned, and members of a church board looking into charges against him released their findings.
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“By God’s grace I have pastored Mars Hill Church for 18 years,” Driscoll said in his resignation letter, printed on the Religion News Service site. “Today, also by God’s grace, and with the full support of my wife Grace, I resign my position as pastor and elder of Mars Hill. I do so with profound sadness, but also with complete peace.”
Driscoll, who had been on leave since Aug. 24 while church elders conducted an investigation of formal church charges brought against him by 21 former pastors, made a point of saying in his letter that there had been “no charges of criminal activity, immorality or heresy.” But, he allowed, “other issues, such as aspects of my personality and leadership style, have proven to be divisive.”
He and his wife “concluded it would be best for the health of our family, and for the Mars Hill family, that we step aside from further ministry at the church we helped launch in 1996,” he wrote.
The Seattle-based church noted that Driscoll was not asked to resign and said it was surprised he did so.
Still, a church board said it had found that Driscoll had, “at times, been guilty of arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech, and leading the staff and elders in a domineering manner,” according to a letter posted on the church website.
But, the board added, “while we believe Mark needs to continue to address these areas in his life, we do not believe him to be disqualified from pastoral ministry.”
The departure of Driscoll, and other elders in recent weeks, leaves in disarray the church he started with Bible study in his Wallingford home and that, at one point, had grown to 15 branches in five states with some 13,000 visitors on Sundays. As troubles escalated, the church closed several Seattle branches and cut its staff by 30 to 40 percent. It now lists 13 locations in four states.
The church board of overseers, in its letter Wednesday, asked for “patience as we now make plans for the first transition of pastoral leadership in the history of Mars Hill Church,” and noted that Pastor Dave Bruskas would serve as the primary teaching pastor “while we work on long-term plans and decisions.”
The church already has put four sites up for sale — two in Ballard, one in the University District and one in Sammamish — according to Steve Pelluer, the Colliers International broker representing the church in its sales.
The church has been trying over the past year to sell its corporate headquarters, located along 14th Avenue Northwest between Northwest 49th and 50th streets in Ballard. It’s asking $7.75 million for those properties it purchased in 2005 for $3.2 million.
Recently, the church put its worship facilities in Ballard and Sammamish up for sale, with the condition that the church wants to lease back part of the space. The church is asking $8 million for the 39,000-square-foot building in Ballard (which it purchased for $4.8 million in 2003), and $8.75 million for the 30,800-square-foot building and 22 acres of land in Sammamish (which it acquired from Evergreen Christian Fellowship’s merger into Mars Hill).
A fourth property, which Mars Hill bought in 2010 from the former University Baptist Church, is under contract and could close before the year ends, Pelluer said. It is listed for $4 million.
Donna Kostanoski, who has been attending Mars Hill Church for seven years, called Driscoll’s resignation “refreshing and depressing all at the same time.”
It’s refreshing for the church to get out from under the weight of all the questions about Driscoll and refocus on Jesus, said Kostanoski. “The church for me was more the people,” she said. “I don’t hang out with Mark Driscoll.”
But what’s depressing now, she said, is uncertainty about “who is going to lead this group of people. … The church needs to figure out how to be a church without Mark Driscoll at the helm.”
For some former members of the church, Driscoll’s resignation did not bring a sense of peace or closure.
Dave Kraft, a former pastor at Mars Hill Church who filed the first church charges against Driscoll last year, said: “My fear would be that he would just walk away and there would be all these unanswered questions about what happened” with allegations that he plagiarized material from another pastor for his book, or the discovery that the church paid a company to buy up and distribute his latest book in order to get him onto best-seller lists, and how much of the funds solicited by the church for overseas missions actually went to grow churches in the U.S. instead.
The church and Driscoll have addressed some of those issues, but not completely. Driscoll apologized for plagiarizing and church leaders apologized for paying the company to prop up book sales. Church officials have also apologized for using the fund designated to start overseas churches for regular church expenses, but have said the issue was a misunderstanding.
“If Mark just walks away, where will we get answers?” Kraft said. “There are still hundreds of people who would say they’ve been sinned against, hurt, or harmed by Mark. Are they going to be able to have any resolution? Any reconciliation? Or is Mark just going to disappear and all these things are going to hang in the air?”
Karen Schaeffer, a former church member and Driscoll’s executive assistant from 2002 to 2003, said Driscoll’s letter held “no hint of humility or understanding of the depths of chaos and grief he has caused. Furthermore, he has left those who are still at Mars Hill in a financial mess, as well as a spiritual one, and he has walked away, failing to stand up and acknowledge his responsibility.”
Schaeffer said “there was a lot of good” that came out of Mars Hill. “In the midst of it all, God’s words really changed a lot of lives. The tragedy is that the depths of pain that occurred — that has not been addressed.”
Dave Baerman, who has attended Mars Hill for the past 10 years, said that while the church board found Driscoll not guilty of “immorality, illegality or heresy,” many current and former members believe the Bible sets clear standards for an elder and that some of Driscoll’s conduct violated those standards.
“When we first started coming, there was a lot of refreshing openness and honesty about the failures of other evangelical churches. Unfortunately, over the years, we fell into some of that,” he said.
Lief Moi, a Mars Hill co-founder, called on church leaders to gather all the former pastors and current and former church members and have an open accounting of what happened and what went wrong.
“There’s going to be a lot of hurt and injured people, thousands of very confused people,” he said. “Leadership needs to move forward with humility and listen. Until there’s true repentance and reconciliation from the top down, things are going to continue on the same path.”
Reporters Sanjay Bhatt, Jennifer Sullivan and Lynn Thompson, and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which included information from Seattle Times archives. Janet I. Tu: firstname.lastname@example.org.