Two weeks after its flamboyant pastor resigned under fire, Mars Hill Church announced Friday that it was dissolving and urged its local branches to try and become independent churches.
Church officials said they plan to sell Mars Hill’s buildings and other assets and use the proceeds to pay its staff members before letting them go, according to a post on its website. What money remains, church leaders said, would be used to help existing churches reorganize as independent congregations.
“The board of Mars Hill has concluded that rather than remaining a centralized multisite church with video-led teaching distributed to multiple locations, the best future for each of our existing local churches is for them to become autonomous self-governed entities,” Pastor Dave Bruskas wrote on the church blog.
“This means that each of our locations has an opportunity to become a new church, rooted in the best of what Mars Hill has been in the past, and independently led and run by its own local elder teams,” he wrote.
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Church officials declined to comment.
The move comes after months of controversy trailed the combative Mark Driscoll, the pastor who co-founded Mars Hill in a Wallingford basement. Driscoll was accused of bullying church members and staff and allowing church funds some congregants thought were earmarked for global work to be spent on day-to-day operations.
Driscoll stepped aside in August for six weeks while church leaders said they were conducting an internal investigation into allegations by current and former pastors that he was unfit to lead Mars Hill. Driscoll announced on Oct. 15 that he was stepping down for good.
“It sounds like what I was expecting would happen,” said congregant Dave Baerman, who attends a Mars Hill Church in Sammamish. “I would say it’s inevitable news. It’s been coming for quite awhile.”
Friday’s decision seems finally to signal the end for a church that Driscoll helped build from nothing into a global religious powerhouse. At its peak, Mars Hill boasted 15 branches in five states with more than 13,000 attendees.
Thousands more watched video feeds of Driscoll’s sermons from around the world. Hundreds of other churches were started by pastors who modeled themselves in some way after Driscoll, who also helped found an organization that started hundreds of churches around the world.
Driscoll was funny and irreverent and tried to make church cool, preaching in jeans amid rock music. On stage he spoke about everything from masturbation to oral sex while referring to mainstream depictions of Jesus as “an effeminate-looking dude” and a “neutered and limp-wristed Sky Fairy of pop culture.”
But his conservative Calvinist leanings often caused a stir, especially in not particularly churchy Seattle. He preached that homosexuality was a sin, suggested a wife’s role was to be subservient to her husband, and was often caught writing or saying things even more controversial.
But it was his leadership style that ultimately seemed to bring about Mars Hill’s downfall.
Behind closed doors, employees, former pastors and some congregants said, Driscoll could be arrogant and mean-spirited, ridiculing people’s appearance or perceived toughness, and running the church like a fiefdom.
When accused by a Christian radio host of plagiarism in his books, Driscoll reacted partly with scorn, prompting critics to dig further.
When some discovered the church had paid an organization to buy up copies of his book to get it on The New York Times best-seller list, Driscoll pleaded ignorance.
But by early this year the damage was profound. Church giving and membership had plummeted, so much and so fast that the church was forced to cut staff. Former congregants were protesting outside church buildings on Sunday. One by one, pastors and former leaders accused Driscoll of misbehavior or resigned in protest.
Even after Driscoll announced he was leaving the church, critics complained his departure lacked appropriate contrition and left too many questions unresolved.
Now, Bruskas wrote Friday, every church building will be sold, or loans on individual properties may be assumed by the new, independent churches.
“My heart is shattered for those who had such high hopes for this church,” said Karen Schaeffer, the former executive assistant Driscoll forced out and then shunned more than a decade ago.
“It didn’t have to be this way, as countless people have tried throughout the past decade to speak the truth about the vital changes needed to turn Mars Hill around. But Mark Driscoll and the church’s leaders simply would not listen.”
Schaeffer, who is writing a letter to Bruskas outlining her thoughts on the church’s dissolution, said instead that Mars Hill’s leaders chose to “arrogantly proceed on their chosen path of butts in the seats and money in the coffers” as the ultimate symbols of success, wounding thousands of people in the process.
The church has been trying to sell, for $7.75 million, the Ballard corporate headquarters it bought in 2005 for $3.2 million. Three other properties are also for sale, with a combined price tag of more than $20 million.
Church officials said in their web posting that they hope to have a complete transition plan in place by January 2015.