Is Mars Hill Church “Toxic” or “Healthy” Under Mark Driscoll’s Leadership?

Toxic Churches
A toxic church exists when “doing” becomes more important than “being.” In a toxic church, service to God is viewed as keeping church systems functioning, God’s blessing is seen as bigger budgets for bigger buildings to accommodate more people, and looking successful replaces love as the key ingredient.  In a church like this, the church building is the place where God resides, and ministry success is measured by offerings received and the number of seats filled. A healing church speaks of Christ residing in people, not in buildings or programs. It encourages participants to be real and genuine, not appearance-oriented or performance-driven. As pastor and author Jerry Cook states, “Love means accepting people the way they are for Jesus’ sake.” When churches emphasize loving, caring, and “being;” staff associates can enjoy being part of a healing organization. However, when they emphasize performance, appearance, and “doing;” associates risk being abused by the organization’s wounding dynamics.

On the surface, it is impossible to know if a church functions as a healing or wounding organization. Even internally, the situation can be masked. This puts a prospective staff associate in a vulnerable position. It is only through active involvement that an individual can really discern the true nature of a church organization. If a person looking to work for a healing church joins one that is toxic, he or she is in for a rude awakening.

One young man’s experience while interning as a staff associate illustrates this dilemma. He had entered a church leadership program that promised senior pastor mentoring, Bible study, and a closer walk with Jesus, but once on the job, he discovered that his church was not the organization it had appeared to be. Instead of being loved and cared for, he  was treated like a slave and expected to facilitate the church’s promotional agenda. To his dismay, he realized that he had become indentured to a corporate minded leader intent on developing a growth-oriented organization. He felt betrayed and used. He ended his internship and stopped attending church. He explained that he loved God, but no longer viewed church as a safe place. Given his experience, it is hard to disagree.

Obviously, not all churches are religious machines. Most ministerial organizations genuinely desire to love God and serve people. However, toxic churches that put organizational success above the needs of people do exist and their numbers are growing. Staff associates who work for toxic churches are in danger of being exploited and mistreated. While there is no way to tell from the outside if a church is a toxic place or a place of healing, I believe the factor that most often plays a role in making a church toxic is when that church exchanges their spiritual paradigm for a corporate mandate.

Corporate Mandate vs. Spiritual Paradigm
God is Spirit, and His ways are unsearchable. His blessings, although very real, are not always tangible or even visible because by nature they are spiritual and organic. God’s blessings are not to be measured or analyzed, they are meant to be experienced and lived. Churches that forget this in favor of qualifying and quantifying God’s blessings ultimately abandon a “spiritual paradigm” in favor of a “corporate mandate” that measures success in terms of ever-increasing assets.
A corporate mandate is appropriate if the goal is measurable success; not so if the goal is to love God and serve people. This is because the aim of a corporate mandate is, above all else, to benefit the organization. Success for these organizations is defined in financial, material, and numeric terms. The feelings, hopes, and needs of people are of little consequence under this mandate. Of prime importance is making sure that the organization survives and thrives. A church, however, is called to embrace a spiritual paradigm, not a corporate mandate. As disciples of Christ, we are commanded in John 13:34 and 1 John 3:23 to love fellow Christians in the same manner that Christ loves them. Churches are called to exercise faith, trusting God to lead, guide, and provide. They are not to measure, strategize, or lean on human understanding (Prov. 3:5-7). When a church organization becomes preoccupied with such things as promotion, production, and ministry image, it abandons a spiritual paradigm.Churches do need to be organized. Whenever people come together there must be leadership, rules, and structure. The distinction between a healthy church and one being run under a corporate mandate is that instead of being served, people become slaves to a mindset that puts organizational need above the needs of people. Embracing a corporate mandate elevates the importance of the organization and motivates leaders to depreciate the value of loving God and serving people. Once this occurs, the organization takes on a self-serving mentality; meaning, whatever needs to be done to protect the organization is legitimized and spiritualized.

There are many ways for a corporate mindset to overtake a church. For example, it can happen when the hard work connected with a season of growth causes the church to lose sight of its original purpose. This happened to one church led by a pastor whom we will call Tom. He started the church by espousing such ideals as unconditional love and acceptance. The church’s vision statement emphasized joy, community, and commitment to Christ. The church grew because Tom was committed to these ideals. Everything went well until the church became prosperous enough to purchase a building. Once the building was purchased, it became Tom’s obsession. Money, remodeling, and filling seats were all he could think about. Subtly, ministry packaging and a promotional agenda became more important than caring for people. Today, the vision statement hangs in the foyer as only a sad reminder of what the church used to be. The promotional agenda still operates as a demonstration of what a church can become.

What happened to Tom and his church is not uncommon. Many churches begin by espousing spiritual and relational goals only to end up embracing a corporate mandate. It can happen slowly and imperceptibly, that in the name of doing “God’s work” conscience is violated, integrity breached, or a situation manipulated. Such things happen all the time. For example, on any given Sunday it is not uncommon for senior pastors to garner emotional testimonies that “capitalize on the emotional bonds that…take advantage of people’s warm feelings.” This is done in the name of leading people to Christ or raising money to continue the church’s ministry. Manipulating emotions for the purpose of scripting a desired response is antithetical to the teachings of Christ. Nevertheless, it is often accepted and justified as being in the best interest of the church. Leaders who use these techniques are blind to the fact that in so doing, they are exchanging a spiritual paradigm for a corporate mandate. For these leaders organizational success may not be the stated goal, but it becomes the goal by default. In this environment, the staff is especially vulnerable because the goals of the organization are set, not by associates, but by the leaders in the power structure.______________________________________________________________Broken Hearts Shattered Trust identifies causes while compassionately embracing both sinner and sinned against.For a free copy of the book please send an e-mail with your
mailing address to:
johnsetser@hotmail.com

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17 Responses to Is Mars Hill Church “Toxic” or “Healthy” Under Mark Driscoll’s Leadership?

  1. marianne miller says:

    I just read this article and found it incredibly refreshing. Putting accurate speech to muddled situations cleanses the heart and demystifies confusion.
    I was a part of a church that perfectly followed the pattern of descent into corporate mentality as described in this article. Having been a founding member of this organization, I was able to witness firsthand the step by step disintegration of a loving, caring gathering into a shark-infested sewage of verbal attacks and backbiting by the same leaders (husband and wife) who once seemed to care for people. It all went downhill when a building was acquired and then further declined when the building was added to.
    I actually volunteered to work in the church office in order to see if the sense of corporate mentality had taken root as deeply as I sensed it had. It broke my heart to see that there existed at this church no more love for the people, but criticism over a perceived lack of support for the leadership’s’vision’. To think that I had given so much of myself to this ‘family’ was excruciating in light of revelations of how the leaders had REALLY come to view their members.

  2. Army81 says:

    Setsers book is fantastic!

  3. Louie says:

    I have been in my church for 13 years and I have seen this exact same progression take place. In fact I was on staff part time so I saw the changes happen and even then was powerless to make a change. I would love to have a copy of the book mentioned in this article.

  4. prayingheart says:

    Dr. Setser is very happy to send a free copy of his book. Just email him at johnsetser@hotmail.com and ask. He is the founder of Baranbas Ministries: http://www.shatteredtrust.com .

    There is no workplace abuse that affects one so profoundly as that perpetrated by those who we have also entrusted our spiritual shepherding. Please do ask Dr. Setser for a copy.

  5. Nic nakis says:

    I think it’s toxic and unhealthy ANY time you put your name on the official membership list, when you put your trust in and subvert your existence to any earthly organization. Since the church councils of the first centuries, Christian religion has been perverted by formalized doctrines and memberships: in Constantinople, in Rome, in London, in Seattle. EVERY leader of a rigid religious hierarchy has abused and disenfranchised some members and constituents. It is the worst of human vanities to place belief in OUR politics, OUR organizations, OUR buildings. The true church is in the fellowship of the almighty, not in the constitutions and membership-rolls of humanity’s vain abominations.

  6. clamhead2003 says:

    I just left a church after allowing myself to be “volunteered” on staff. The first few months was a honey moon period. Then things started getting rolled over onto me as others left etc. Another means of control is placing people on staff then making them feel guilty if they object. Another thing that I see is Spiritual Witchcraft; prophesy has become a real loose cannon in the church. It is used to get peoples’ hopes up that they are “finally in the right place” where their gifts and abilities will be recognized. My pastor’s wife kept calling me and telling me how I was called to this church and she knew when I first walked in the door. When I told her I that God was moving me on and had in truth opened another door, all of a sudden it was “God tld me you were leaving.” Now it was sour grapes; I toled her I felt bad, like I felt like I was church hopping, my other church folded up after I had beed there 7 years, she grabbed onto that and actually said “that’s it, that’s it, you have a spirit of church hopping!”

    When you ask the Lord to show you what’s going on, he will show you; I was exposed to lies, gossip, manipulation like I couldn’t believe. These folks are all about a new building which they believe that someone will just come along and fund it for them and the building will magically appear. The church is busting out at the seams in the rented facility that they are in now, but the pastor won’t entertain an interim facility. Sad.

  7. Danny says:

    Excellent article. I’ve seen this pattern occur many times in my 25+ years as a Christian.

  8. sh says:

    it is a shame you hang your dirty washing out for all to see. sort it out privately

  9. Bart Breen says:

    Keep sorting that dirty laundry out John! These are organizational dynamics that are cutting edge and need to be sorted out with the light of truth shone on them to bring change and healing, not just for individuals but for organizations as well!

    It’s the culture of privacy and secret keeping that gives toxic systems life.

    Blessings!

    bart

  10. Michael says:

    While I believe you may be absolutely right that your home church is toxic under Driscoll’s leadership (as I believe my current home church is), you are being a force of division within God’s body by publicly airing your discontent. Scripturally when someone is out of alignment with God’s will we are to try and restore them gently. If that doesn’t work, we are to “hold on to what is good” and “flee from evil.” Check out Romans 16:17-19. You are right, you are righteous, and God is on your side if you are seeking him. Once you’ve confessed your heart and fears to church leadership, you have done your part and you are released if they ask you to leave. Trust God that others will come to the same revelations you have and trust that God will not continue to bless a broken ministry that is out of His will. But just as the broken pastor should not be placing himself in God’s position, neither should you. May you find peace and clarity about what actions you must take during this difficult time.
    I Thessalonians 5:21-22

  11. Crazy Seraph says:

    I cant tell you folks how much your stories move me. It all sounds so familiar. Thanks for sharing, it really encourages me to continue with my online ministry to the church exiles

  12. Eudoia says:

    ((There is no workplace abuse that affects one so profoundly as that perpetrated by those who we have also entrusted our spiritual shepherding.))

    Absolutely. We are still trying to recover from a toxic church. The pain is beyond words.

  13. Wes says:

    Ditto to Michael’s very graceful comments. You nailed clear scriptural teaching on this issue as layed out so many years ago in Gene Edward’s “tale of three kings.” Violence is almost always a function of human morality and uses injury and injustice as its alibi. Be careful here.

  14. Martin says:

    I am a former Senior Pastor-don’t read too much into the ‘former’ label-I resigned when a sudden personal and severe tragedy hit my family-it wasn’t sustainable. To those who say things shouldn’t be aired publicly, please think again. That is exactly the sort of approach that allows the covert, underhanded behind the scenes manipulation and abuse to thrive. If there’s an issue or disagreement with an individual then yes-go to the person. But we have to talk about the fact that this stuff happens, name it, get real about it. Matthew 18 vv15-18 anyone? If they won’t listen, it doesn’t say just hand it over to God. It says tell it to the Church. (If necessary via the internet).Toxic leadership requires as an absolute essential that people collude with it, live in a ‘Pollyanna perspective’, a denial laden worldview that through it’s exposure to intimidation allows the abuse to carry on. Believe me, it is not just leaders who do this. A bully is a bully in anyone’s language and there’s NO place for it in God’s economy. Well done all those who have spoken up-and to those who say ‘keep it quiet’ (you may deny it but that’s what you are saying) please think again. You are just helping to perpetuate the abuse.

  15. C-SERUM says:

    C-SERUM…

    [...]Is Mars Hill Church “Toxic” or “Healthy” Under Mark Driscoll’s Leadership? « Seeking Justice & Reconciliation at Mars Hill Church[...]…

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