When a Fund Isn't a Fund: Mars Hill Church Tells Another Mars Hill Global Fund Story

Today’s Mars Hill lesson: Global doesn’t mean global, and Fund doesn’t mean fund.
Late last week (Oct. 8-9), a reader, Alex Terry, contacted Mars Hill spokesman Justin Dean with questions about the Global Fund. Alex asked Dean about the legitimacy of the November 2011 memo I posted on October 1 which called on Mars Hill Church to engage in “highly visible” mission projects as a way to fund other Mars Hill non-missions projects. Dean responded and Alex alerted me to the conversation and wanted my response to Dean’s side of the story. I got involved at that point and asked Dean several questions as follow ups to his comments. I encourage readers to view the entire conversation which is at this link.
Regarding the memo, Dean told Alex:

The memo posted on that blog is not an official memo or active working document, and to the best of my knowledge it never was. I’m not sure where it came from. Most likely it was a doc somebody on staff made as a proposal and it never went anywhere from there. I’d be happy to answer any questions you have about Global. Obviously it was never our intention to deceive donors, and to date we have received very few comments from actual donors who have been confused.

In response, I ask readers to again read the memo (available here). Dean says the memo “never went anywhere” and yet nearly everything the memo recommended has happened. The church did fund low cost but “highly visible” projects (e.g., donating Amharic Bibles to Ethiopian church planters, funding a pastors’ conference, supporting 40 church planters at $170/month each, etc.). The memo suggested that the public not know the extent of Mars Hill’s support for missions. As of today, Mars Hill has not told the public how much was spent on missions between 2012-2014.
Also, as the memo suggested, beginning in 2012, video footage of the “highly visible” mission projects was regularly played prior to sermons as commercials for the Mars Hill Global Fund. And as I point out below, Dean acknowledged in this conversation with Alex that the church internally did not consider the Global Fund to be “a fund.” The memo in question advised that only small amounts of money coming in under the Global Fund brand be allocated to missions. In response to Dean’s explanation, Alex went to the Global FAQ page and reproduced the following paragraph:

Where have past gifts been used? During fiscal years 2009-2014, over $10MM dollars has been given to Mars Hill Church by the Mars Hill Global Family. During that same time period $22.48MM has been spent on church planting in the US, India and Ethiopia. In 2009-11 over 80% of funds given by the Mars Hill global family went to Acts 29 church planting and funds were consistently spent in India for church planting in each of those years. In 2012- 2014 expenditures for church planting efforts in India and Ethiopia were increased with the preponderance of expenses related to church plants and replants in the U.S.

Alex then asked Dean:

I couldn’t tell from the FAQ on what the church spent on missions from 2012-14 and where it was spent. Is it possible to break down the yearly giving for those years to the Global Fund and what it was spent on?

Dean replied:

Despite what you may have read on blogs, we never had a separate fund for Global so we don’t have separate accounting for Global. We have used some confusing communications in the past, and have done much to correct that, but Global has never been a designated fund. We do spend money on church planters in Ethiopia and India (as indicated in the FAQ), but we don’t provide specific accounting of our different expenses. Just like we don’t provide how much we specifically spent on pens and tape, we don’t break out other expenses. I hope that makes sense.

No, to me, it doesn’t make sense. Dean later modified his statement about the Global Fund’s separateness, but even here the statement flies in the face of the statement on the FAQ page. On that page, Mars Hill claims:

In 2012- 2014 expenditures for church planting efforts in India and Ethiopia were increased with the preponderance of expenses related to church plants and replants in the U.S.

If there is no way to account for difference expenses, then how can the church be confident that expenditures were increased for church planting in India and Ethiopia? How do they know the preponderance of expenses went to U.S. church plants? Comparing expenditures for Bible donations, and support for Ethiopian church planters to pens and tape is not credible. First, I suspect Mars Hill could tell you how much they spent on office supplies and second, it is inconceivable that Sutton Turner did not keep track of those expenses. Re-read his memo to Mark Driscoll and Dave Bruskas on the 2011 financial crisis to see what kind of expenses Turner tracked. Second, Mars Hill church reported on the missions efforts in their FY 2013 Annual Report and surely could track how much was spent on those projects.
At this point in the conversation, Alex contacted me. I suggested he ask Dean some questions based on my blog posts which he did. Alex wrote Dean in response:

This is probably where my confusion lies – my interest in this first began when I read a blog post on Patheos where Warren Throckmorton quoted Rachel Macor, a former staffer with the Mars Hill Finance Department, saying that the Mars Hill Global Fund was restricted and had its own account number. Throckmorton also provided a link to this Mars Hill post titled “Where Were You on April 24, 2011”. There is a drop-down menu that lists the Global Fund as a fund separate from the General Fund, Campus Fund, Easter Fund, etc. Additionally, this video shows the Giving page on the Mars Hill website (pre-May 2014) that also lists the Global Fund as separate from the General Fund. If Global was never considered separate from the General Fund, then why list it on the website as a separate fund in a drop-down menu? Does this mean that the Easter Celebration, Campus Fund, Military, and Legacy Project all tie into the General Fund as well (since they appear to also be listed as separate funds in the drop down menu).

Dean’s response repeated the information contained on the Global FAQ page:

We used the term “global fund” to distinguish between donors online who attended our churches and those who don’t. We realized it was confusing and changed it. 6000 people donated using that designation. We contacted all of them and offered to designate their funds towards Ethiopia and India if that is what they intended for their donation and they were confused by our terminology. Only about 20 people asked us to designate their donations, and we gladly did that.

At this point, I wrote to Dean to ask him to confirm the conversation was legitimate and ask him again for an explanation of the statement that the Global Fund wasn’t a fund. His reply contains a new wrinkle in Mars Hill’s communications regarding the Global Fund. Dean said: Alex and Warren,

I was incorrect to say we never had a separate fund setup for Global. The details of this issue can be confusing, I was confused as well and I gave you a wrong answer, and I apologize. I have done some checking and prior to 2012 we did have a separate fund. However, since 2012 we have not had a designated fund for missions work or international church planting. Beginning in 2012 the term “Global Fund” was used on our website to distinguish between global donors and local church donors. We realized the terminology used was confusing so we changed it to “General Fund (Local & Global). This is explained on our Global F.A.Q. page.
For those that may have been confused by our terminology we contacted them earlier this year in an effort to make it right. We mailed 6,000 letters and sent 3,765 emails to anyone who had given as a global donor since 2012. We received 33 total responses; 7 people let us know that there was no need to change their gifts, and 26 indicated that they would like their previous gifts applied to ministry work in Ethiopia and India. We were happy to make these changes, totaling $39,399.

After months of avoiding the issue, this is a startling admission. Here Mars Hill acknowledges that they internally changed how they viewed the Global Fund without telling donors and without changing the name of the fund. However, as I have pointed out numerous times, the term “Global Fund” did more than distinguish Mars Hill members from non-members. This video makes it clear that one could be a member or a non-member and still give to the Global Fund as distinct from the General Fund:
Prior to May 2014, Global in one drop down menu referred to a non-Mars Hill location and Global Fund in another one referred to a fund different than the General Fund. The term Global Fund did not distinguish between global donors and local donors because both global and local church donors could give to the Global Fund. Very clearly the church portrayed the Global Fund as a fund until May 2014 and now admits that internally they considered it a fund before 2012. Why did it take two years and public scrutiny in order for the church to alert donors, members and non-members alike, that the Global Fund wasn’t really a fund?
If anything, Dean’s admission adds more credibility to the memo I posted on October 1. The memo said:

Flagship Projects Of the money that comes into the Global Fund, designate a fixed percentage internally for highly visible, marketable projects such as mission trips, orphan care, support for pastors and missionaries in the third world, etc. (ten to fifteen strategic operations in locations where Mars Hill wants to be long term). this percentage should be flexible (not a “tithe”), and not communicated to the public. Support for Mars Hill Global would be support for Mars Hill Church in general, but the difference and the d!aw would be that a portion of Global gifts would also benefit projects that spread the gospel and serve the needs of people around the world.

Dean said there was no fund after 2012 and that is exactly what this memo suggested should happen. However, in 2012, the church started referring to Mars Hill Global as the arm of the church that did missions (see image at the end of the post) and provided members and non-members alike with the Global Fund as a giving option. In the FY 2013 Annual Report, the only projects listed under Mars Hill Global were international mission projects. The church marketed the Mars Hill Global and the Global Fund as the church’s international mission ministry (just as the Global Fund memo suggested) but “the preponderance” of the money was spent on U.S. projects. This branding took place until May 2014 when I started writing about the Global Fund.
According to Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability guidelines, organizations have an obligation to be clear about where donations are going. Organizations should not be able to market a fund as a mission fund and then internally decide that those donations can go elsewhere.
Earlier in the correspondence, the importance of greater transparency from the ECFA was highlighted by the fact that Dean appealed to the ECFA as an proof of Mars Hills’ sound practice:

As an auditor I’m sure you’ll appreciate that we submit to outside CPA firms to review our financials, as well as submit to the ECFA who has reviewed our financials and in particular has reviewed in detail our donations from our Global audience and all communications and efforts around Global.

Dean here claims that the ECFA has reviewed the materials regarding the Global Fund. However, I suspect the ECFA did not review this memo. Since the ECFA will not comment, there is no way to verify what they have reviewed. In light of Mars Hill’s statement here, the ECFA should let the public know what they have reviewed and explain the rationale for approving of Mars Hill’s handling of the Global Fund.
The image above was captured from the Mars Hill FAQ page in July 2014. Mars Hill Church altered this page to remove the phrase “International Missions (Mars Hill Global)” shortly after I posted it.