I recently talked with a couple who were members and leaders at Mars Hill Church from 2003 to 2012.* The couple was involved in leading Community Groups and the wife served as a Deacon in the counseling ministry. While there, they donated to the both the Global Fund and the General Fund and assumed that much of the money given to the Global Fund was going to support international mission efforts. The wife told me:
We definitely had an expectation that our gifts were going to global missions. My husband and I have always had a heart for missions. We have adopted from Uganda and for years tried to encourage the church to start an adoption or orphan care ministry. I started my career in international development and now work in social enterprise. We were always trying to encourage the church to do more in the area of mercy and justice. So when they announced the global fund we were hopeful it was the beginning of something.
When Sutton Turner introduced the Ethiopian ministry to the church in 2012, many assumed the Global Fund was going to be the international mission outreach of the church (just as the church said on its website). And as I have demonstrated with Mars Hill’s own video promotions, the leaders told the members that Mars Hill Global was the church’s ministry for international missions. It is no surprise that the members took that at face value. One former staffer in the finance department went on the record to say that the fund was a restricted fund. However, the church has not made an accounting of those funds available to donors or the media.
The couple had other concerns as well. The wife said they had questions about transparency around the church’s finances:
When we joined Mars Hill, there was an open book policy regarding church finances. We felt comfortable giving both because we trusted the Elders at the time and because we knew we could see how money was being spent if we had questions. This all changed. By the time we left the church in 2012, we felt upset about the secrecy surrounding Executive Elder salaries and spending on music videos, world travel, music and video production equipment, not to mention the promotion of Mark Driscoll’s books. We were frustrated that the church was cutting support for programs that were meeting real needs in our community, such as coat drives for the homeless.
At Mars Hill, we were taught that everything we have belongs to God and we are called to be stewards. This is how we try to live our lives, and we assumed our church would be doing the same. We feel both sad and discouraged as we discover more about how church has spent money from both the General Fund and the Global Fund.
The couple referred to a story I continue to explore. Multiple sources have told me that one Seattle campus was discouraged from holding a drive to donate coats to homeless individuals because other core functions were insufficiently met in the eyes of the executive pastors. Of course, Mars Hill won’t comment and those who have first hand knowledge prefer not to go on the record. However, the story is one I frequently hear.
Currently, members are being asked to give more to help make up for a financial short fall. The church is blaming the decline on “negative media attention.” However, in addition to problems which are now documented, I suspect giving is suffering because some members wonder where their donations are being used. In addition, I recently spoke to three current members who simply asked their pastors for a copy of the church by-laws. According to these members who remain anonymous because they fear retaliation, their request was refused. This is difficult to understand, and probably does not inspire confidence or enthusiastic support financial or otherwise.