More turmoil for Seattle's Mars Hill Church

Religion | Worship leader Dustin Kensrue’s resignation caps two difficult weeks since Pastor Mark Driscoll announced a six-week sabbatical
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 9/05/14, 02:24 pm

Two weeks ago, Pastor Mark Driscoll announced he was taking a six-week sabbatical from the pulpit of Mars Hill Church. It was reasonable to think the church would then go through a cooling-off period, and things might return to normal. But the last two weeks have proven anything but that.

The first jolt came just days after Driscoll’s announcement: Nine elders at Mars Hill Church—out of approximately 30 on the Full Council of Elders (FCE)—wrote a 4,000-word letter to their fellow elders calling on Driscoll to step down “not just from the pulpit, but from all aspects of ministry and leadership.” The letter called on him to submit to a “restoration plan … under the authority of the elders of the church. He will continue to receive his salary so long as he continues to cooperate with the restoration plan set before him by the elders of Mars Hill Church.”

Although the letter was leaked after Driscoll’s sabbatical announcement, it was dated Aug. 22, two days before the pastor told his congregation of his plans.

It’s not clear if the letter influenced Driscoll’s decision to take a break. What is clear is that within a week at least four of the letter’s signers had left the church. Among them was Mars Hill director of worship Dustin Kensrue, who resigned on Monday and issued his own 3,000-word statement Wednesday, saying, “Because of the letter, my voice within the leadership is so sufficiently tainted that I believe I can have a bigger and more helpful impact by resigning and raising a red flag for the people who remain.”

Kensrue said five of the signers of the letter were from the church’s main campus in Bellevue, Wash., a suburb of Seattle.

“It was made clear we weren’t going to be fired at this point (I am assuming for PR reasons),” he wrote. “But it was also made equally clear to us where the door was, and that it would be just fine if we chose to walk through it.” He added, “Mars Hill is not on a good trajectory. … If Mars Hill is to survive even another six months, it needs to be a place of radical repentance: repentance of pride, deception, domineering attitudes, lazy and self-serving hermeneutics, and a slew of other sins.”

Representatives from Mars Hill Church did not respond publicly to Kensrue’s resignation, but the church did issue a statement about the elder letter through its newly engaged public relations consultant, Mark DeMoss.

“This letter, as with past letters voicing accusations toward Mark Driscoll will be processed in accordance with Article 12 of the church’s bylaws,” DeMoss wrote. “This means the accusations will be thoroughly examined and a report issued when the review is complete. In the meantime, it does not seem appropriate to comment on specific accusations before/while they are being formally reviewed as we don’t want to circumvent the process prescribed by the governing body of Mars Hill.”

But the church did comment on its current financial position. A statement posted on the Mars Hill website Monday said recent events have had a negative financial impact on the church. “While we were able to end the fiscal year [June 30] strong, giving and attendance have declined significantly since January,” the statement said. “Specifically, we have seen a substantial decrease in tithes and offerings these past two months, due to the increase in negative media attention surrounding our church.”

Mars Hill has gone through two rounds of layoffs since the beginning of the year, and it has canceled a number of events and projects, including its flagship Resurgence Conference. Despite these cost-cutting moves, the statement said, “We now find ourselves in a tougher financial position than we expected. 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.”

Whether Mars Hill Church can survive this crisis depends in large part on how it responds. The church has taken some significant steps. Two members of its Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA)—Paul Tripp and James MacDonald—have resigned, and the church has replaced them with local church members, a move recommended by Tripp as a way to create a “biblically functioning internal elder board.” But Mars Hill critics—including those elders who signed the letter released on Aug. 28—say the Full Council of Elders already exists and should fill that role.

The two new members of the BOAA, who will replace Tripp and MacDonald, have long ties to Driscoll, though they do meet the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability’s definition of independence because they are not on the payroll of the church. 

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is president of MinistryWatch and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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