After 18 years of explosive growth, officials at Seattle megachurch Mars Hill say financial pressures in the wake of recent negative media attention are forcing them to cut staff and eliminate some branches, including consolidating the downtown Seattle and University District congregations with the Ballard church, leaders announced Sunday.
The church, which had blossomed to15 branches in five states and had followers around the world, also plans to cut 30 to 40 percent of its paid staff of about 100. That staff already had seen layoffs last spring and a string of departures in recent weeks by pastors angry or uneasy about the church’s direction.
The downtown and U District churches’ pastors told their attendees about the coming changes Sunday and said those three Seattle branches will all meet as one in Ballard on Oct. 12.
The downtown branch in January 2013 moved from a remodeled Belltown nightclub to the century-old First United Methodist Church building.
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Also closing or possibly reconstituting in some other form is a Mars Hill branch in Phoenix. A branch in Huntington Beach, Calif., is in jeopardy if its financial picture does not improve.
The announcements about the influential and controversial organization Pastor Mark Driscoll started as a Bible study class in his Wallingford home in 1996 come after six months of often-public questions about his management, leadership style and forthrightness.
The decisions also come just weeks after Driscoll announced he was stepping down for six weeks while accusations against him were investigated, and suggest the constant debate about Driscoll and Mars Hill leadership has had an enormous impact on the church’s once-booming popularity.
At the start of the year, attendance at all Mars Hill branches combined was about 12,000 to 13,000 a week, said church spokesman Justin Dean, but is now down to 8,000 or 9,000 a week.
And most of the drop has come this summer.
“We’ve basically found ourselves in a tough financial position,” Dean said. “We started the year the strongest we’ve ever been, but since then we’ve seen a decline in attendance and giving, and we saw a steep decline over the last two months.”
A blog post on the church’s website more than a week ago made clear leaders were racing to close a financial gap. The post urged congregants in Washington and elsewhere to dig deeper.
“We have done much this year to prepare for a decline in giving, such as two rounds of staffing reductions and the cancellation of various events and projects, but we now find ourselves in a tougher financial position than we expected,” the website announced Aug. 29. “The drop in giving revenue has exceeded what we have been able to cut in expenses. This has required us to now consider further ways we can reduce expenses, such as additional staffing reductions.
“The reality is that just because we are a church does not mean we can defy economic gravity — we can only operate the ministries and programs our members and attendees provide the resources for. We simply cannot spend money we do not have; this is true for any church.”
Sunday’s announcement made clear the situation was more serious than even many within the church had expected.
“This is definitely something we’ve been looking at for quite some time, but not to this level,” Dean said. “I think the last two months have shown us that it’s gone deeper than anticipated.”
While the Aug. 29 blog post says bad press contributed to the precipitous decline, Dean said that isn’t to suggest church leaders see themselves as blameless.
“A lot has contributed to it,” he said. “We’re imperfect people. Some of this is our own sinning. Some of it is our own mistakes. I think that what we’re looking and trying to learn from all this is about how we can change and grow going forward.”
The problem, many critics within or who have left the church said, is that more hasn’t happened already.
“I’m very sad,” said Dave Kraft, a former Mars Hill pastor and Driscoll confidant who left in 2013, months after he filed a formal complaint accusing Driscoll of bullying and verbally abusing many in his charge behind the scenes and of being evasive in the face of criticism.
“I’m disappointed,” Kraft continued. “I’m discouraged. I’m bummed over the way this thing is going. But I anticipate it’s going to get even worse.”
The preaching of the charismatic, jeans-clad Driscoll has been controversial for years, particularly his views about homosexuality and the roles of women.
But the recent storm really started forming late last year, when an evangelical radio host accused Driscoll of plagiarizing some passages in one of his books. When Driscoll defended the pages, a handful of religion bloggers found other instances.
Then critics revealed Mars Hill used church money to have a company buy up one of his books to boost sales.
Later, the church admitted that some money congregants thought they were giving to start churches overseas was being used for regular church expenses.
And then things got worse.
Driscoll issued an apology, but alienated some churchgoers when he suggested he couldn’t respond to “anonymous” critiques.
Some angry members protested outside the church on a Sunday.
In August, a network of churches Driscoll had helped found removed both him and Mars Hill, saying neither had responded forcefully enough to the criticism.
They and others called for Driscoll to step down.
A group of pastors complained church leadership had never bothered to fully investigate Kraft’s original complaint, and said “there is no dearth of examples in the last two years of very questionable transparency and truth-telling.”
Two weeks ago, near the end of services in Bellevue, Driscoll announced his temporary departure as the church’s leader. He said he would take a six-week sabbatical while many of the issues were investigated.
Kraft said that what happens next will have ramifications across a sizable swath of the new wave of youth-oriented evangelical ministries.
“There are thousands of people all over the world that download his sermons,” he said.
“There are thousands of other pastors who used to look up to Mark Driscoll. They’re all watching with raised eyebrows and saying, ‘What is going on here, and where is this headed?’ ”
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.orgMaterial in this report came from Seattle Times archives.