Mars Hill Church Leaders Respond to the Concerns and Critical Information Letter

Earlier this afternoon, current lead pastors and the newly formed Board of Elders (more about that later) sent a response to the congregation. The subject was the document released yesterday titled “Concerns and Critical Information for the Elders of Mars Hill Church” and signed by nine current Mars Hill elders.

From Mars Hill Church:
Dear Mars Hill,
Yesterday, a private document and conversation between all the elders of Mars Hill Church was leaked to the media. Because we, your 16 lead pastors and the Board of Elders, love and care about you, we want to provide you with some information and context so that you can be in prayer for your church.
We know that this letter has raised concerns and questions that will be examined and taken very seriously.
Last week, some current elders brought forward their concerns about the integrity of Pastor Sutton Turner and Michael Van Skaik (our BoAA chairman) as well as Pastor Mark Driscoll. There was some discussion of these concerns privately, but then last week these elders brought forward their questions/concerns on our Full Council of Elders group on The City that remain unresolved. Unfortunately, in recent months it has been proven almost everything that goes on that City group is leaked publicly to online media. We simply do not know who is passing these private conversations along to the media, but the fact is, it keeps happening.
Your elders are deeply grieved over the manner in which this has happened. In particular, we are grieved because 1 Corinthians 6:1–8 gives us a very clear (and even stern) command that when we have grievances against one another, we are to work them out in such a way that non-believers are not invited into the discussion. This passage shows us that even in cases of serious wrong or disagreement, God wants us to exercise appropriate discretion. We are terribly sorry because this is incredibly distracting and harmful to the cause of the gospel. Please forgive us for our division and lack of unity. We know this hurts all of you deeply and we are eagerly working toward the unity that we have in Jesus.
We know that in recent months there have been questions, concerns, accusations, and charges brought against the senior leadership of Mars Hill Church. To address these allegations and concerns, a newly formed Board of Elders, made up of trusted lead pastors, has been appointed to examine these charges. These men have already met for many hours this week to begin this important process.
Regarding the letter, it is extremely regrettable that it has gone public, for four reasons:
Whoever is passing these documents along to the media is in clear, defiant violation of 1 Corinthians 6.
It puts what should be spoken of as “questions” or “concerns” or even “opinions” about Pastor Sutton and Michael van Skaik as “fact” in the mind of the watching world. There are important verses that speak to due process (Matt. 18:15–17), fact-checking (Prov. 18:17), and investigating claims before rendering judgement (Deut. 17:8–9).
It has caused harm to the body. “When one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
Those elders who wrote the document clearly stated that this conversation was for the elders of the church, not the general public.
Despite the way the letter was sent out, please know we take its contents very seriously and will be taking the appropriate actions to honor Jesus, address the allegations and concerns, and work toward becoming a healthy church.
If you haven’t yet seen the letter, you will more than likely see it online. Some of you, if you see the letter, will be unsure as to how to feel or respond. We would like to shepherd you away from some ungodly responses and toward some godly responses.
Please do not:
React in fear or anxiety. Even as Christians we may be tempted to give place to fear. Remember, no matter what does or doesn’t happen with our church, you will still be a Christian, you are still loved by Jesus, and you will still spend eternity in the loving presence of God. The words of Romans 8:35–39 are so valuable to us in a time like this.
Pronounce judgement before the time. We must allow God to bring to light everything that he wants to have brought to the light. Just because someone brings forward allegations and concerns about a leader does not mean we should presume guilt. Any and all allegations and charges must be treated seriously, with impartiality, and without jumping to conclusions. Your elders will seek to honor Jesus as we proceed forward.
Slander, gossip, or pick sides. Our “team” is Jesus, not one group of elders or another. We must control our tongues, including our “digital/online” tongues. “I said, ‘I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence’” (Ps. 39:1). Scripture has many warnings about engaging in controversies, quarrels and other’s disagreements because of the intense hurt that comes for all those involved.
Please do:
Pray. Pray that the elders will seek the Lord, be led by the Spirit, and proceed forward in confession, repentance, love, and godliness. Pray that the watching non-Christian world would not be given opportunity to discredit not only our church but the very gospel of Jesus. Pray that Jesus will be glorified through all of this.
Seek wisdom. The book of James speaks a lot about wisdom. James 3:17says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” Seek this type of wisdom from God.
Walk in godliness. Our prayer is that wisdom, love, truth, kindness, reasonableness, patience, and a myriad of other godly characteristics would be what marks all of our lives in the middle of continual, difficult, and challenging circumstances.
Trust. Mars Hill belongs to Jesus (Col. 1:18). Let us trust Jesus with our lives and his church.
We love you, Mars Hill, and we are here to love, serve, and care for you. At the end of the day, our only hope is in Jesus, and our only job is to point you to Jesus.
In Christ,
Your Lead Pastors and Board of Elders
Pastor Tim Birdwell
Pastor Ed Choi (Board of Elders)
Pastor David Fairchild
Pastor Aaron Gray (Board of Elders)
Pastor Bubba Jennings (Board of Elders)
Pastor Alex Ghioni (Board of Elders)
Pastor Matthias Haeusel
Pastor AJ Hamilton (Board of Elders)
Pastor Scott Harris
Pastor Drew Hensley
Pastor Thomas Hurst
Pastor Donovan Medina
Pastor Matt Rogers (Board of Elders)
Pastor Miles Rohde (Board of Elders)
Pastor Tim Smith (Board of Elders)
Pastor Matt Wallace
Pastor Ryan Williams
Pastor Seth Winterhalter

According to several current members, the Board of Elders listed above are slated to examine the charges against Mark Driscoll, and possibly now Sutton Turner and Michael Van Skaik. This newly constituted Board of Elders is not mentioned in the bylaws and appears to be a outside-the-bylaws creation of the independent members of the Board of Advisors and Accountability. In a separate post, I will examine this move. From my reading of Article 12 of the bylaws, the independent members of the BOAA may develop procedures for investigating charges but they are charged with conducting the investigation.
I think the use of I Corinthians 6 is a stretch. That section of Paul’s letter refers to lawsuits not some nebulous “court of public opinion.”

Mars Hill's Board of Advisors and Accountability Hints at Secret Meetings

In today’s Mars Hill Church newsletter (as posted on a ex-Mars Hill members Facebook group), a statement was made by Michael Van Skaik, Chair of the Board of Advisors and Accountability about the silence from the church on mediation and reconciliation.

In the current season, Michael [Van Skaik] explained that the BOAA is focused on meeting with individuals as opposed to releasing public statements. Unfortunately, said Michael, public communications are often wielded as ammunition against the church, regardless of the motives of those communications. So the board invests its time into meeting with people one on one and limits its public communications. It’s a slow process, but Michael warned against being in a hurry to see change. Things didn’t get where they are in six months and they won’t be buttoned up that quickly either. The board is after long-term culture change and health.
“The fact is, spiritual growth can be slow,” Michael said. “[The reconciliation processes] are going well, but take time.”
That said, Michael is encouraged by the fruit that he’s seeing in the hearts and lives of the Executive Elders. He believes that God has certainly anointed Pastor Mark’s preaching and Mars Hill’s influence and views the current issues surrounding the church as ways that God is refining the leaders, working in their hearts and minds to further his message.
“The best days of Mars Hill are ahead,” he said. “Everyone on the Board is feeling like we need to go through these issues and learn from them deeply and have them affect the culture of the church for the future.”

This piece raises more questions than it answers. In private, 20 former pastors asked for mediation via a March 17 letter. Many days went by with no response. Then in early April, when the pastors started to make problems public, the BOAA made an overture to bring in an employee of one of the BOAA members to help mediate. Since then there has been silence from both Mars Hill and the twenty pastors. Now, Mars Hill speaks on the matter of reconciliation but still doesn’t mention the public overture made by the pastors.
Van Skaik appears to acknowledge that there are significant issues which “didn’t get where they are in six months” and which can’t be “buttoned up that quickly.” The message here seems to be that the situation is so bad that we need lots of time to clean it up but at the same time, things are good and getting better.
When Mark Driscoll and the Mars Hill leadership fired Paul Petry and Bent Meyer, the process was pretty public with Driscoll talking about the firings in sermons just before the deeds were done. He disparaged the work of those men in a sermon that left little doubt to whom he referred. Now, that charges have been filed the other direction, the BOAA wants a secret process.
Secret meetings may be appropriate for many situations but there are public issues which the church appears to be ducking. Meyer’s and Petry’s situation is one. A public exoneration of those men is in order. The legal matters relating to Mars Hill Orange County in 2012 is another one.  Most aspects of that situation are matters of public record and yet the church refuses to address questions from observers and members.  Mars Hill’s leadership has pretty ambitious goals and via Mars Hill Global wants donations and participation from the broader community of evangelicals. However, when it comes to being accountable to the broader community, in my opinion, they continue to fall short.

Mars Hill Church and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Part One

On March 7, Mars Hill Church’s Board of Advisors and Accountability issued a statement about several matters of controversy involving Mark Driscoll and the church. One issue was the change of governance in 2007. The BOAA said:


For many years Mars Hill Church was led by a board of Elders, most of whom were in a vocational relationship with the church and thus not able to provide optimal objectivity. To eliminate conflicts of interest and set the church’s future on the best possible model of governance, a Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA) was established to set compensation, conduct performance reviews, approve the annual budget, and hold the newly formed Executive Elders accountable in all areas of local church leadership. This model is consistent with the best practices for governance established in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability standards. Mars Hill Church joined and has been a member in good standing with the ECFA since September of 2012.

The BOAA invoked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. At the time the BOAA statement came out, I initiated several contacts with ECFA’s president, Dan Busby. I learned that Mars Hill Church is a member in good standing and that ECFA considers Mars Hill to be in compliance with ECFA guidelines. This puzzled me since it appeared to me from a reading of the Mars Hill bylaws that the executive elders are allowed to vote on their own compensation. Such a practice, if happening, would be in violation of ECFA guidelines. I asked Mars Hill’s Communications Director Justin Dean about this with no answer. Mr. Busby declared that MHC was in compliance, but declined to explain his reasons. His most recent words to me on the subject were:

I can only say that we have very carefully reviewed this matter and we are absolutely confident of the compliance of Mars Hill with our standards with respect to this issue.  More detailed information on this would need to come from the church.

This is an unsatisfying answer. I expected a bit more from an organization which is set up as an accountability group. This answer says – we can’t tell you why, but just trust us and trust Mars Hill. For their part, Mars Hill Church is one of the most frustrating organizations I have ever dealt with. They do not acknowledge legitimate questions from media and often engage in spin when they do speak. They have threatened employees not to disclose information while employed and thereafter as well.
I asked Nicholas Romanello, a lawyer whose practice includes considerable experience in not-for-profit governance and who is a trustee of a religious school in West Palm Beach, FL for his opinion. After he reviewed the MHC bylaws, I asked Romanello if the bylaws allow the executive elders to vote on their own compensation. He said their actual practice isn’t clear from the bylaws. On the other hand, he said, “There is nothing in the bylaws I looked at which would prevent this. They might have a board policy which would prevent it, but the bylaws would allow it.”
Eventually, I found this statement on the MHC website:

The independent members of the Board of Advisors and Accountability set executive elders’ compensation. Additionally, an independent compensation study is done for our executive elders by an external accounting firm.

This statement seems to address the matter. Although the bylaws do not require the compensation to be set by the members alone, the website claims they are handling it in a way that meets ECFA guidelines. If that is how it is being handled, then Busby’s confidence would be correct on that point. Nevertheless, for other reasons, I am still not convinced that Mars Hill is in compliance on all points.  More specifically, I wonder if all of the independent members of the BOAA meet the ECFA’s criteria for independence.
The ECFA defines independence as follows:

Board independence.  The organization should take care to maintain the reality, not just the appearance of independent board governance. Requiring the predominance of independent board members helps ensure the board will take official action without partiality, undue influence, or conflict of interest.
To assess the reality of board independence, ECFA looks beyond the majority of independent board members on the board roster. ECFA is just as concerned about the reality of board independence as with the mathematical determination of a majority of independent board members.
ECFA defines independent board members as:

  1. Persons who are not employees or staff members of the organization.
  2. Persons who may not individually dictate the operations of the organization similar to an employee or staff member. A person who is an uncompensated CEO, for instance, is not independent.
  3. Persons who are not related by blood or marriage to staff members or other board members. Blood or marriage relationships are defined for the purposes of the standard as being his or her spouse, ancestors, brothers and sisters (whether whole- or half-blood), children (whether natural or adopted), grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and spouses of brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
  4. Persons who do not report to or are not subordinate to employees or staff members of the organization.
  5. Persons who do not report to or are not subordinate to other board members.
  6. Persons who do not receive a significant amount for consulting or speaking, or any other remuneration from the organization.
  7. Persons who do not have relationships with firms that have significant financial dealings with the organization, officers, directors or key employees.
  8. Persons who are not the paid legal counsel, related to the paid legal counsel, or are employed by the firm that is the paid legal counsel of the organization.
  9. Persons who are not the auditors, related by blood or marriage to the auditors (see definition of blood or marriage in #3 above), or are employed by the auditing firm of the organization.

Given the size of the board, only one member who is not truly independent could create a majority voting bloc (one independent and three executive elders).  Mars Hill is run by the BOAA so the entire church is dependent on four people (Michael Van Skaik, Larry Osborne, James MacDonald, and Paul Tripp) who do not attend Mars Hill and the three executive elders (Mark Driscoll, Sutton Turner and Dave Bruskas). According to sources within MHC speaking on condition of anonymity, there may be some issues with the current BOAA on points 6 and 7.
Regarding point six, James MacDonald and Paul Tripp are speaking at this year’s Resurgence conference and have spoken at other Mars Hill events in the past. According to my sources, they get around $5k for a brief session, plus whatever book sales bring in.
On points six and seven, Michael Van Skaik’s consulting firm relationship with Mars Hill could be relevant. I have spoken to two former leaders who were coached by people from Van Skaik’s firm. If indeed all pastors were/are mentored by coaches from Van Skaik’s group, than that would have to be a significant contract.
James MacDonald deserves additional mention. MacDonald is the pastor Harvest Bible Church based in the suburbs of Chicago. As noted, he is speaking at this year’s Mars Hill Resurgence conference and has spoken at previous conferences. MacDonald and Driscoll moderated some of the Elephant Room discussions and are co-founders of Churches Helping Churches, a benevolent non-profit organization helping churches hit by disasters. They are currently on the board together. MacDonald was with Driscoll at John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference. They certainly appear to be friends, peers and co-workers which could complicate the independence aspect of the BOAA role.
I realize that my concerns may be completely misplaced. Perhaps the fees or other compensation might not be considered “significant” by the ECFA or Mars Hill. Perhaps my sources are incorrect about the fees. There may be circumstances which make these apparent issues of no consequence. However, given the ECFA’s vague “trust us” responses, the ECFA’s tight definition of independence, the lack of information from MHC, and the small size of MHC’s BOAA, I think these matters are worth considering.
If Mars Hill truly is in compliance with what ECFA considers to be good governance, then I should also turn my attention to the ECFA. I think the ECFA guidelines seem reasonable for a non-profit organization that is not a church. However, I question how a local church can adopt these guidelines and still be a church. To me, Mars Hill and other stand alone megachurches seem more like mini-denominational organizations than local churches. I will explore these ideas in my next post on the ECFA and Mars Hill, probably tomorrow.