Postcards from Phoenix: Friends May Not Be Friends Forever at The Trinity Church

This postcard from Phoenix highlights the role of distrust in bringing people into the orbit of the church. Kim Thompson had a preexisting distrust of media and the leaders of The Trinity Church used that to reduce her critical thinking about the promises made by the church leaders.

This story also revisits the recurring theme of friendship as a weapon. Apparently, Michael W. Smith would not be at home at Mark Driscoll’s church. When people leave The Trinity Church, friends are not friends forever.

Kim summarized her thoughts about the church by describing common themes of “control, manipulation, and fear mongering.”

She closes her message by challenging those who feel the stories of those who are leaving The Trinity Church are irrelevant to them. Those hurt by The Trinity Church didn’t want to leave. Everyone felt distant from the problems until they came home to them. She appeals to those who remain to consider the common good.

Dear Warren:

Our story at The Trinity Church began in December of 2019. We were attending another church in the valley at the time. We had been there for nearly 5 years. While we liked the church and tried hard, we didn’t feel we could get fully plugged in. We are not people who normally sit on the sidelines at churches. When the head pastor left to go to another job, some friends of ours mentioned that they were going to The Trinity Church, so we decided to visit. We knew Mark from the past but had not heard that he had another church in Phoenix. After one visit, we were hooked. The preaching was dynamic, and we loved the people. We went to the “Team Trinity” meeting and were so impressed with how eager everyone was to get us involved and serving. Since this was what we had been longing for at our old church, it was almost too good to be true….

We had been involved in a small Acts29 church plant here in the valley previously and have followed Mark since the 90’s, listening to his sermons online. We knew a lot of what had happened at Mars Hill, but honestly he seemed repentant and we had high hopes that he had healed from all of it. We even bought in when he said from the pulpit, “don’t believe everything you read online” and how evil the media can be, which we all have seen to be true, especially this year.

I began attending the Flourish women’s groups at night, my husband and I began leading a life group, our son began serving in the children’s ministry and even was able to join the flagship “Jr. Intern” program that began last summer. “The Backyard” was such a welcoming place where we visited after church with the pastors and staff and on Wednesday nights ate hamburgers together before the groups that night. It truly felt like a family. When the pandemic hit and church was cancelled, we were so sad because this church had truly become home to us and we couldn’t wait to attend every Sunday. When the church reopened, it was such a sanctuary for our family; the only place we could go each week that was “normal.” Our kids and our family were truly thriving here. Our 15 year old son became best friends with Mark’s son. It was such a gift. They got baptized together along with many others on the Jr. Intern team. Our married daughter and her husband starting attending as well when they moved back here from Colorado and our older college age sons attended as well when they were home. What a sweet time for our family, we filled an entire row each Sunday at the 11 am service.

Everything seemed perfect…until December of this past year. We had the interns at our home for a sleepover when I got the call from Pastor Mark. He was concerned that we had left the interns alone for 30 min with some other teenage girls at our home. I was arriving home from an event and got back a little later than I had planned. I basically got reprimanded from him. His first question was “Is your husband home?” (not gonna lie I was a bit taken aback that he didn’t even seem to know my husband’s name when his son spent so much time at our house) Bruce was on a hunting trip so he was not there. Then the interrogation began. I felt like I was talking to the principal after getting in trouble at school. The conversation ended with him saying “We are coming to get (Driscoll’s minor son).”* Grace came to get the interns and ended up taking them to his house for a sleepover (which I was confused about because of his daughter dating one of the interns, it seemed strange that they could sleep in the same house yet his son couldn’t be alone with girls for an hour at my house….) When Grace came in my house I told her how the conversation made me feel. I even began to cry because I was so upset and felt so vulnerable due to his tone with me and the lack of grace shown in the situation. She was very apologetic and said that I would not have known their family rules, etc. and that they were “under attack” due to baptisms taking place that weekend so they were kind of on edge. (I now see that this is the tactic used when they sin against someone, it is all “spiritual attack”. Convenient way to not deal with their bad behavior) I’m not going to lie though I kind of expected an email maybe from him at least apologizing for how it was handled. I now see why that was a ridiculous expectation.

We then heard murmurings from people about Dustin’s [Blatnik – former woship pastor] mysterious disappearance from leading worship. We heard that “he wasn’t leading his family well.” We found it interesting that he just disappeared with no explanation from the pulpit. I have never experienced that before. Normally even when a pastor is dismissed there is something said, wishing him well or explaining if there truly was sin involved.

In the fall a guy that had been in our life group was asked to leave the church over an incident that happened with him and another life group. I only heard the story second hand and actually at the time thought “wow, I’ve never been at a church where they actually practice church discipline” and was kind of impressed. Little did I know this would become a common practice……Fast forward to March when the Manuele’s situation happened. Katherine and I were friends and I realized I hadn’t seen her for several weeks at church which was unusual because they were normally there every week. I reached out to her via text to check in and that was when I heard about what happened with the intern (Katherine’s son) and Mark’s daughter. I was shocked. I literally could not believe something like that could happen at a church?! (See these links for this story – here, here and here).

A few weeks later we had made dinner plans with another couple. The wife cancelled at the last minute and just told me that “something unexpected had come up and they could use some prayer.” I figured maybe someone was sick or something. After a few weeks went by of not seeing them at church, I reached out to her. You can imagine my shock when I heard their story that they were also asked to leave the church! Now this was getting weirder by the day…

I began noticing security following Grace on Wednesday nights. She seemed to have her own bodyguard watching her every move. It seemed oddly paranoid to me. My daughter and I didn’t like the way Caleb (Grace’s security guard) stared at the women from the side of the room while we were worshipping on Wednesday nights. One night my daughter and I arrived early and tried to go into the meeting room..we were stopped and questions by security. We noticed more and more security present on Sundays, including the ushers following people to the bathroom and then back to their seats! This seemed very paranoid to us. There were the security guys poised in the front near the stage just staring out into the crowd. It felt like we were at a rally for the president or something…

I also never liked the “resource list” that was on the website that we were directed to use as table leaders so as not to recommend any books that may not be “sound.” One time Grace forwarded me an email from someone at my table who was looking for help in reading her Bible I was called out on a separate email because I gave her a blog that was for scripture writing that was not “approved.” I understood the idea behind this but it always gave me pause…I now see it was just another form of control.

We began noticing more and more people disappearing from church. Then we heard the stories about how people were told who they should and shouldn’t be friends with. We heard about the Manuele’s being surveilled. Could this actually be true that a church would involve their pastors in following a family?? Bruce called Carl (a staff pastor) at this time to ask him what the heck was going on. He was told that all these people were just out to get Mark. He stated that “they knew they would lose about 1000 people over this.” He seemed unbothered by the amount of people leaving. We began to feel more and more unease about attending the church any longer. We were heartbroken to even have to think about leaving as our family had grown so much and our son was so involved with the Jr. Interns, serving 3 days a week and loving it.

We have now heard about the families of his married kids who are being shunned. This is totally unacceptable and straight out of Scientology and what they call “Disconnection” which is “the severance of all ties between a Scientologist and a friend, colleague, or family member deemed to be antagonistic towards Scientology.”

I decided to make my exit from Flourish on the second to last week as we were leaving for our son’s wedding and would miss the last week. I had heard how people were shunned once they gave notice that they were leaving the church and did not want to not be able to say goodbye to my group of ladies at my table whom I loved so very much. I waited until the end of Bible study to tell them. I simply told them that my husband and I had prayed and decided that we were leaving Trinity and if anyone wanted to talk about it I was not going to talk there but could be reached outside of church. I had planned to send my resignation email that night after I got home. God had other plans….one of the ladies at my table ran to Grace after the meeting and told her I was leaving. Grace literally chased me down asking to talk to me. She brought me into the main area where women were leaving Bible Study. She asked me what was going on. I told her we were leaving the church and proceeded to tell her every single concern we had. All she could say was “they are all lies” and that she couldn’t believe I was buying into all the lies. When I brought up the December incident about the interns and how shocked I was that Mark never apologized, she had the audacity to say “I apologized for him.” I told her that my husband doesn’t make me do his dirty work. 🙂 When I asked her who we could contact with our concerns about how Mark and his staff were treating people, she told me “the overseers” and “the pastors.” I told her I had heard that people were contacting the overseers and no one was responding. I told her about Bruce’s conversations with Carl and that all he could say was the same thing, “they are all lies.” I finally had to walk away from the conversation as I had to pick up my kids.

Later that night, my son, _____ received the sweetest text from ________ (Driscoll’s son)*. I was heartbroken knowing that most likely their friendship was over. But that did not seem to be the case at the time. Driscoll’s son affirmed their friendship and even told my son that he hoped they could remain friends and still get together. We cried that night tears of joy for this small miracle as their friendship had been so sweet. Fast forward two weeks when my son realized that both Driscoll kids had “unfriended” him on social media. When my son questioned this saying, “I thought you said we could still be friends?” Driscoll’s son replied with “I am getting rid of all the people I follow that don’t go to the church.” Wow. Can’t say this was unexpected, but it was painful. Seems that they are teaching their kids to treat people the same way they treat them. So sad.

Leaving was certainly not easy. Looking back, I see how the cultish aspects of Trinity really took a hold on me. I have left churches in the past (never for these reasons) and it was never this difficult or emotional. Now that we are “out,” I have spoken to so many more who all have very similar stories. They are unique but have  common themes to them – control, manipulation, and fear mongering. There is no way that these are all a coincidence or lies. None of these people were “out to get Mark.” They all loved the church as much as we did and did not want to leave. Many that I speak to who have remained at the church say things like “none of these situations affected me or my family personally”, or “he is just such a good teacher” or “look how much fruit there is at the church” or “these people just don’t like Mark.” These are all things coming from leadership and used to get into people’s heads so they don’t leave.

We are still heartbroken that this happened. We were so hopeful that this time around Mark was going to be able to handle the fame and attention of being a pastor of a large church but it is clear that is not the case. We pray that he steps down before he does any more damage to his followers.

Before I close, let me add some words to Trinity attenders who think none of these situations directly impact you. I don’t know how this can’t impact you knowing that your pastor, who is supposed to be your shepherd and actually protect his sheep is in actuality harming many of the sheep in his care. It may not be you, your family or anyone you know but how can you ignore the stories of those who have experienced abuse? I know the answer everyone is being told to give is “It’s all lies” but what would be their motivation for lying? Everyone I know who has left did not wish to leave, they were either forced to or were like us and just couldn’t continue to attend a church that has no elders or accountability for the man that is in charge, especially when he has shown in the past to be dangerous to those under him. The heart of those of us who have left is for open eyes and to put Jesus back on the throne that Mark is currently sitting on. Mark frequently says “It’s all about Jesus” but how can that be when so many are getting hurt and no one seems to care? Just some thoughts for you to ponder on as you sit under his elderless leadership.

Kim Thompson

*I decided to remove the names of minor childen (Throckmorton)

To read all of the Postcards from Phoenix, click here.