Q&A With Former Mars Hill Church Executive Pastor Sutton Turner

In 2014, I could not get a comment from anyone at Mars Hill Church in Seattle about anything. I am sure that most of the leaders there saw me as a serious problem since I wrote so much about the church and problems in leadership there. Eventually, the church closed and distributed assets to several autonomous churches which had been part of the Mars Hill network of locations.

Sutton Turner was one of the executive pastors who presided over growth and decline of the church. Since the closing of the church, Sutton and I have had several friendly conversations about the church and his role in the situation. Because of that, I felt comfortable calling on him to discuss a recent positive move in his life.

Yesterday, I saw an announcement that Sutton has joined Vanderbloemen Search Group, a Christian job search company as Vice President of Candidate Relations. In the announcement, Mars Hill Church is mentioned but there is no direct mention of the downside of the organization. Curious, I asked Sutton some questions about what he had learned at Mars Hill. He was kind to answer them today.

Throckmorton: In the Vanderbloemen announcement, what you learned at Mars Hill is credited with fueling your passion for healthy churches. Could you expand on that?

Turner: I have 23 years of experience leading different organizations in business and ministry.   I have seen the best and worst cultures.   I have been a part of start-ups where I was able to create the culture and walked into cultures that I did not create but tried to improve.   All leaders find themselves in these two categories today.

After Mars Hill was divided up into independent churches in 2014, I began to meet with former members and staff from Mars Hill who wanted to meet with me.  I had moved to Texas, and some of these conversations first took place on the phone.   I also flew back to Seattle several times at my own cost.   Many people were former members before my time and Mars Hill, some were leaders that worked alongside me, and some were faithful members of the church.  The deep hurt felt by these members over the loss of their church cannot be understated.  It was a HUGE loss in their lives that continues today.   It affected their kids, marriage, and community.   Some people walked away from attending church all together from their Mars Hill experience.  These face to face meeting profoundly affected me and motivated me to help avoid another Mars Hill experience in the future.  I then wrote a series of blogs in 2015 to bring another perspective to what happened at Mars Hill and perhaps help others in their healing process.

Over the last year, I read William Vanderbloemen’s book “Culture Wins.” I absolutely love the focus around creating a great environment and culture of an organization. William’s company, Vanderbloemen Search Group (Vanderbloemen), has a great culture and wants to help other organizations create culture.  I am grateful to be able to join a culture and company trying to help others.   Vanderbloemen provides search and consulting for churches, non-profits and mission-based businesses.   As I join Vanderbloemen, I hope to use all of my experience to assist other leaders and organizations.   However, my first role at Vanderbloemen will be to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their search process.

Throckmorton: Many on the outside and inside at the time have questioned the health of Mars Hill. First, do you agree that Mars Hill while you were there was not a healthy church? In what ways did that lack of health manifest itself?

Turner: I believe until we get to heaven, there will not be a “perfect church” with a “perfect culture.”  All churches have areas to improve, just like all Christians have areas to improve.   I loved Mars Hill and I love the people of Mars Hill Church.  During my time there, I saw a faith family grow in their knowledge of the Bible, their heart for worship, and their service to others.  But Mars Hill had many areas to improve that were never addressed, some of which led to its closure.  Culture quickly is created by the decisions of leadership, and once the culture is created, it is very difficult to change.  Culture can be changed, but it takes committed leadership to make that happen.

Since the closing of Mars Hill in 2014, I have made many trips to Seattle to meet with hurt former church members.  Some members attended Mars Hill before my time.  I have learned a great deal through these meetings about how their lives were affected by the church.   I wrote several blogs to communicate what I have learned and help people with their healing.   As I stated in 2015,

Early on in my time at Mars Hill, I unfortunately operated in a sinful way that was consistent with the existing church culture that had grown and been cultivated since the early years of the church (late 1990’s). Instead of being an agent of change for good, I simply reinforced negative sinful behavior.  (I am responsible for my own actions, and do not blame my actions on the culture.)

I am planning another trip back to Seattle this fall to meet with more leaders and former members to continue the healing process.  I hope to continue to learn from what happened at Mars Hill and use this experience, along with my other leadership experiences, to help churches, non-profits and mission-based businesses while at Vanderbloemen.

Throckmorton: What can you tell us about what you learned in your position at Mars Hill which can help you help others develop a healthy church?

Turner: Over the last 4 years, I have studied the culture from Mars Hill and talked extensively to people that were negatively affected by the culture and its leaders.  I am building a set of material from this research to help other organizations which I have shared with several pastors and leaders.  They have identified one or two of these areas they see in their own church culture that needs improvement.   I hope to use my experience to help other leaders and pastors in the future while at Vanderbloemen.

Throckmorton: The growth of the church was remarkable, and yet the implosion was also remarkable. What observations can you offer about the rise and fall of Mars Hill?

Turner: Well, this is exactly the material I have been working on.  Trying to research the elements of the culture of Mars Hill and see what can be learned by its dramatic rise and fall.   Mars Hill started in the late 1990s.  The culture was created over the decade before Pastor Dave Bruskas and I joined senior leadership.  However, I fully believe that as John C. Maxwell says “everything rises and falls with leadership.”  In 2015, I wrote several blogs about what I learned and stated:

I have written about my personal journey of repentance and forgiveness (Part 1 & Part 2). Many will say that Pastor Dave and I did not do enough to change the culture; which is fair and certainly true, but only those who worked within the inner circle know how hard we tried.

Right now, I continue to research and document what I have learned from the Mars Hill experience.  I continue this effort to help people heal and help other leaders learn from the culture of Mars Hill.   No one wants to see what happened at Mars Hill ever happen again.  As a leader that was front row to the last 4 years of the church and created the plan to disband the church into independent churches, I have a good perspective to hopefully use my experience to help others.


These are probably hard questions to answer. It is difficult to address the culture at Mars Hill without talking about Mark Driscoll. Although much water is under the bridge, Turner gives witness that there are still people who went to Mars Hill who are not over it. There is unfinished business for Driscoll to attend to in the Northwest.

On the bright side, in 2014 I never thought I would be reflecting back on Mars Hill with Sutton Turner (I have also had some nice exchanges with Dave Bruskas).

To read my posts on Mars Hill Church, see this link: Mars Hill Church

To read my posts about Mark Driscoll, see this link: Mark Driscoll

Like this article and want to see more like it? Support this blog at Patreon.com.

22 thoughts on “Q&A With Former Mars Hill Church Executive Pastor Sutton Turner”

  1. Take a group of people, add a pastor and male elders and male deacons, then follow the Belgic Confession article 29, making sure that pastor, elders, and deacons are intimately involved with member’s lives, confronting their sin and leading them to repentance. That is called church. Now compare that to Mars Hill. There is no comparison. It isn’t hard to know why MH failed. You don’t have to make this any more complicated than it is.

  2. Prior to MH, Sutton was a founding CEO collecting desperate poor people from Nepal, Philippines, India, and Bangladash and exploiting their labor and misery for immense profit in Abu Dhabi. He brags about it on his linkedin account – exploitation and capitalism at its best.

    Here’s a video of him talking about leadership and hiring the “right people” prior to MH.

  3. The center of the problem is our tendency to take men and place them up on pedestals. I agree with Rick Joyner that the day will come when hardly any large churches that are built on the charisma and preaching abilities of a single man will continue to exist. Jesus is the center of our faith. Any leader who spends more energy pointing to himself and his wallet than Jesus is not “a man of God” but more accurately a tool of the Devil. These leaders have treachery written on their foreheads, which is just a symbolic way of saying that their actions draw Mammon and worship to themselves instead of to God. There is a judgment from God coming towards those who do this, and the sheep who participate in the idolatry of “Christian” celebrities. This is nothing new, but has been repeating over and over throughout history. Mars Hill was not the first, far from that, and also far from the last. What is needed is repentance, which means to stop the idolatry and the worship of celebrity by throwing more Mammon at them. Repentance will bring life as Jesus is The Life. The day is coming when Jesus will be the center of attention again and men like Sutton and Driscoll have been judged with the same severity as the ancient Israelites endured. We need to turn back to the source of life for our choice of substitutes just brings us destruction. We are our own worse enemies here…

  4. “No one wants to see what happened at Mars Hill ever happen again.”

    So what is Turner doing to try and protect the people of Arizona? What efforts has he made to prevent Driscoll from repeating history with his new church? Or has he been too busy setting himself up in his own new “leadership” position?

    1. Excellent question. Yes, Turner should share what steps he is taking today to address Driscoll’s unrepentant, destructive, financially predatory behaviors.

  5. Now on to Sutton. I get that Sutton is a remarkably charming man who is capable of making anyone forget what he did to hurt, not just the 12K flock members, but the hundreds of thousands of outside followers of Mars Hill. It is his special gifting.

    Sutton now claims he is feeling “fueled to create healthy churches” yet he is signing on with one of the top firms that specializes in turning churches into mercenary corporations with grossly overpaid executives. There is no “church health” or godliness in the Vanderbloemen models. It seems the new Sutton is just a rebranded version of the old Sutton, but now he will be in a position to do damage that is exponentially worse as he recruits hundreds of new mini-Driscoll wannabes for the new Mars Hills of the world. Those heart-rending trips to Seattle… he can dress them up as much as he wants, but going forward, those are now recruiting gigs for him, not acts of repentance. So let’s review some historical facts, lest we get drawn into his faux-benevolent yet vague narratives:

    In this Q&A Sutton deftly reflects on the fall of Mars Hill as though he was an outsider sipping a latte while watching the plumes of a volcano, one island over – hundreds of miles away. He is very sympathetic that the people in the path of the volcano were devastated – but not in a personal way. He never takes real ownership for his role in this disaster.

    Sutton carefully mentions, multiple times, that the toxic culture was already in place when he came to Mars Hill. But he STILL chose to become the Senior Executive Pastor over Mars Hill despite all that toxicity, and he knew plenty about the toxic culture in 2011. He certainly knew about Caligula’s bus of death and Driscoll’s anonymous William Wallace II online debacle. Despite all that he was lured by the siren song of fame and fortune. Over a quarter million podcast listeners a week? Who has access to such a captive audience? Sutton wanted to publish his books and what better way for him to get plugged instantly into the Big Eva Industrial Complex book selling machine?

    Speaking of books… let’s look at his big book INVEST. The book is all about how utterly essential it is for any proper megachurch to employ an Executive Pastor to do all of the things that Sutton did at Mars Hill. One third of the book is spent literally explaining why that Executive Pastor is the KING of that megachurch kingdom. Make no mistake, Sutton was justifying his sudden rise to power and influence at Mars Hill, as he was promoted over the heads of many other pastors. He wanted to cement in everyone’s mind (flock, peers, coworkers, subordinates and the Head Pastor) that he really was the KING of Mars Hill. And if you read Mark Driscoll’s memos to Sutton you will recall Mark referring to Turner as King Sutton. Sutton was hired on 4-01-11 specifically to oversee the operations of Mars Hill. He was the CEO of Mars Hill. When Mars Hill imploded, he was their Captain Smith, blinking while “Nearer My God to Thee” played in the background as the ship sank, drowning thousands of souls needlessly due to the arrogance of leadership – Turner’s leadership included.

    As the KING of Mars Hill Sutton was also the man who signed that reprehensible, corrupt Result Source contract that spent nearly a quarter of a million in tithe dollars all so Mark Driscoll could be personally enriched by cheating the bestseller list, and be booked on the best national television shows. Nothing in his charming speech can erase that it is HIS signature on that contract and HIS lack of morality and corruption that enabled this dishonest transaction.

    King Sutton was also the man who paid for the Capin Crouse study to bump Driscoll’s salary up by several hundred thousand to $650K a year, not including all his ill begotten royalties from his Result Source Real Marriage books. It seems likely now that it may have been Vanderbloemen himself, handling the Capin Crouse studies to justify that increase. Vandy certainly seemed to be intimately acquainted with Mars Hill during their fall. That big salary increase for Mark not only endeared Sutton to Driscoll, but it resulted in Driscoll reciprocating by giving Sutton three raises in just one year ($100K more). What “fueled” that “healthy church” decision?

    King Sutton knew Mark Driscoll’s temperament. He knew that nearly tripling Mark’s salary was the equivalent to feeding a goonie after midnight. He claims he tried to rehab MHC, but in reality he was doing the worst possible thing to reinforce the power mad behavior of an ego maniac.

    Sutton also references his blog posts. And they are such wonderful benevolent blog posts. But if you squint your eyes a little you might see something else. Something that no doubt drew Vanderbloemen to Turner like a moth to a flame – sheer PR finesse.

    During the time frame between when the MHC RICO lawsuit (where Sutton was personally named as a defendant) was first being discussed (Feb 2015) to when it was finally dismissed (late August 2016) Sutton posted non-stop about his love and concern for the destitute people of Ethiopia. While I do believe that Sutton had a real interest in Ethiopia, I find it interesting that shortly after the dismissal of the RICO suit, which was based on Mars Hill emotionally raising funds for Global Missions work in Ethiopia then using those same funds for speculative real estate investments in Seattle, Sutton seemed to suddenly lose interest in Ethiopia.

    Sutton continued to make posts on Ethiopia for a couple of weeks, then suddenly went quiet with only two posts in the following two years. Neither were about Ethiopia. One was on taking stuff to the next level and the other was on taming your tongue (and yes, Sutton, I did read it and prayerfully consider it. However, on balance, I found that people being destroyed by CEO style entrepreneurial churches are more important than the hurt feelings of highly paid executives).

    I found it enlightening that Sutton’s constant concern expressed for Ethiopians mysteriously dried up a couple weeks after the lawsuit was dismissed. Maybe something else was at play there, but it seems like Sutton was following the very wise advice of his lawyers and was striving to publicly portray that he genuinely wanted to help out the Ethiopians. Once the lawsuit was no longer a threat, he no longer needed to do damage control for the trial. The intensity of the posting while the case was alive followed by dropping it like a burnt Hot Pocket once the threat had passed, seemed corollary to me. I could be wrong, but the timing is suspicious at the least.

    This move is not a good one for the church as a whole. Sutton Turner is a silver-tongued self-serving executive who is opportunistic and thinks that churches should be run as giant entrepreneurial corporations, focused on growth and profit, with minimal oversight by just “the boys club.” He was drawn to a toxic megalomaniac before, what has changed to make us believe he can discern a healthy, godly pastoral candidate now? Why would we believe that he would think that a humble, godly servant would make a good head pastor? Read his book Invest – it’s not what he thinks.

    Sutton will now be recruiting pastors. He claims he was an innocent victim at MHC who was merely sucked into bad behavior. What makes anyone think he will care about the integrity of any of his candidates? Sutton takes no real blame for the MHC debacle. He is completely silent as to how the total lack of independent elder oversight fed that dark machine. He certainly won’t be looking for it or requiring it for his clients. He says he wants to help others learn from his mistakes yet he fails to make any strong statements on accountability. Now he is going to work for the consulting group that helps churches behave more like mercenary corporations. This is really bad news for the American church. As if we needed more of that right now.

  6. Let’s look at Vanderbloemen first. What a perfect marriage for both Turner and Vanderbloemen. Only Leadnet could outdo this partnership and Leadnet and Vanderbloemen already partner on loads of stuff so this is pretty close. For those not that familiar with the Texas based Vanderbloemen firm, basically, William Vanderbloemen is a 48 yr old PR whiz who briefly pastored at three churches before going to work in human resources for a petrol company, followed by a brief stint at Faith Search Partners, where he stayed only long enough (2008-2009) to learn the trade, so he could go into business for himself in 2009.

    Vanderbloemen took his fledgling company and rode the tide of the fall of Mars Hill for all it was worth, and his quotes on the subject were covered by major news sources. He seized the MHC failure as his chance to become a “leader” on the topic of “church succession planning” which he claims is the next megachurch “silent tsunami” that will be hitting just about…. now, due to the aging of the baby boomers. Vandy is a hardcore PR, self promoting spin meister who never lets any good crisis go to waste. He’s also one of the biggest name droppers in the industry. See how many Outreach Top 20s you can spot in this brief interview https://pastors.com/an-interview-with-the-vanderbloemen-group-about-church-staffing/

    By hiring Sutton Turner, Vandy gets to constantly remind all of his current and prospective clients about that lurking “silent tsunami”/”emergency organ transplant procedure” that is lurking in the shadows, ready to strike with no notice. Vandy really knows how to evoke fear in his clientele. Mars Hill imploded because, after expanding far too rapidly using debt, Driscoll’s sudden and surprising abandonment of his flock, resulted in a severe financial crisis. Most churches won’t be facing anything like that when they lose their head pastor (unless they spend like drunk Driscolls) but Vandy will hold Sutton up as the ultimate poster boy for lack of succession planning doom. What a ringing endorsement of Sutton’s qualifications.

    Vanderbloemen also provided an essential service which Sutton was desperate to take advantage of; the corporate justification for paying pastors outrageous Fortune 500 CEO level salaries, thus ensuring that the pastors at the top will be seduced by ego mania and avarice and be willing to literally do anything to keep those attendance numbers up. It’s one of Vanderbloemen’s largest selling services. Go figure. Senior Pastors use tithes intended for spreading the gospel and helping those in need to hire Vandy to pad files with data to make massive 6 figure wage increases seem legal and justified, so that more flock tithe dollars can needlessly fly out the window paying for those massive salaries. What a deal.

    This also ensures that once Vandy places a pastor into one of his larger clients, such as Hillsong, Lifechurch.tv etc, they will be the first to sign up for Vandy’s colossal wage justification studies/reports. Everyone wins! Except… the flock who foot the bill and have an actual need for a servant shepherd. This move is not good for the body of Christ.

  7. Sutton used the words “leader” or “leadership” 14 times. As I see it, the obsession with leadership and leaders was a major problem at Mars Hill. It creates a caste system, an inner circle, that separates and elevates itself above the peons and creates a culture of favoritism. I can imagine how intoxicating that must have been and how difficult it would be to give that up.

    I’m sorry Mr. Turner, I can’t take you seriously as a reformed leader who has earned a right to share your wisdom.
    And yes, I’m one of the people who fled MH after facing overt spiritual abuse from the leaders.

    1. To me, his comments felt like he was shilling for Vanderbloemen. Kind of a yellow flag right there.

  8. I’m glad you’ve had friendly conversations with Mr Turner and I’m glad that he is recognising that he and others did things that were sinful at Mars Hill, and that he seems to have some desire to heal these wounds. I haven’t read the linked pieces or anything else he has written so what I am about to write may not be fair, but it’s my response to your post.

    Despite his admission of wrongs and statement that what happened at Mars Hill should never happen again, his comments seem rather full of PR-speak, with phrases like “Mars Hill had many areas to improve”. I get the feeling of him glossing over the events to some extent, admitting what is well known but trying to avoid getting into awkward areas too deeply. I may of course be totally wrong about this (and I hope I am), but that’s my impression. Also, he emphasises the role of leadership – which is important – but doesn’t mention the role of all church members. I cannot agree that “everything rises and falls with leadership”. It seems to me that underlying his comments is a business model of the church as an organisation with consumers (i.e. the congregation), and that worries me.

    Ian Paul wrote a well-considered, more balanced and Biblical piece on leadership here https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/is-anglican-leadership-biblical/ a few days ago. Although it has a slight Anglican slant it is worth reading for Christians of any denomination.

    1. I don’t know anything about what happened at Mars Hill, but I agree, there was no substance in Turner’s replies, just vague admissions of culpability without identifying any specific causes for its failure, or lessons learned, really.

    2. Yup – his mention that “no church will be truly perfect until we get to heaven” or whatever is a complete shifting of the goalposts. No one is asking churches to be perfect – they’re just asking them to be not utterly toxic.

  9. I’m an organization development professional. It’s not hard to understand that the culture of Mars Hill relied on in groups and out groups. They succumbed to the need to be included (see: Jesus), but also the human need to exclude. Books about LMX theory exist. It’s just not that hard to grasp. Turner’s responses are just more of the BS he peddled through the whole ugly, heartbreaking demise of Mars Hill.

  10. Buy that man a bigger horn of his own to toot—he’s gonna need it. Lots of words, lots of jargon and lots of non answers here IMHO. Avoided all the real answers, avoided accepting responsibility….so much fluff and obfuscation.

    1. The answers from Mr. Turner did seem long on chat, but short on specifics. His responses were mostly non-answers. Maybe he’s saving his explanations and advice for the “set of material” he’s forming to help other churches avoid the mess of Mars Hill? /s

    1. Organizational culture is an actual thing. “Season” is Christianese word for having to deal with the fallout from the awful shit they did to other people.

  11. Glad to hear that he’s attempting to own up to his complicity, listen to and make amends with the victims, and take the lessons learned to other churches.

Comments are closed.