Megachurch Methods: Mars Hill Global Wakes the Sleeping Giant

Subtitle: “Mars Hill Global Cultivates the Giving Base.”
Like businesses and other organizations, megachurches like to brand things. They brand pastors (Mark Driscoll: “I am the brand!”), and brand ministries. Probably nothing really wrong with that if the brand accurately represents what is being done and offered. For Mars Hill Church, Mars Hill Global is a phrase that describes the Christian market outside of Seattle. According to the MHG web presence, Mars Hill has things going on in Ethiopia, India, and online which is everywhere else.
In addition to whatever else it is, MHG appears to be a source of funding for Mars Hill Church. In November 2011, Mars Hill Executive Pastor Sutton Turner sent a document to the Media and Communications Team touting Mars Hill Global as a way to cultivate the international “giving base.” The document is here:

Note the prime purpose for MHG is to cultivate donations to Mars Hill. The strategy involves what appears to be a lot of good things, but it is hard to escape the impression that the end game is an increase in revenue.
Mars Hill Global existed prior to this memo. However, this memo promoted a new strategy. As a part of that strategy, the Media and Communications team is urged to “Craft the Origin Story.” Everybody likes a good origin story. Perhaps Mark Driscoll really did receive letters requesting resources. But maybe he didn’t. It is hard to tell. I can’t tell from the current website what story was originally crafted.
Currently, MHG takes in about $300,000 monthly. This is a dramatic increase from when this memo was sent. Apparently, the sleeping giant is awake.
 

Mars Hill Church Wants $40 Million to Buy Bellevue College Building and Build New Church

According to a February 2014 communication from Mars Hill Church Executive Pastor Sutton Turner to MHC staff and elders that I obtained this week, Mars Hill Church is seeking to raise $40 Million to buy a Bellevue Community College building and build a new church. The building is in Bellevue, WA at 10700 Northup Way. Here is the pitch to buy the facility:

Why?

  • Jesus has called us to be a Jesus-loving, Bible-preaching, multi-generational church.
  • We want to see more people saved by Jesus, more people grow in Jesus, and more people be on Mission with Jesus for generations and generations.
  • It’s all about Jesus.

How?

  • We have a vision to plant 50 church across 50,000 people. It is a specific prayer of ours to see Jesus lead 4,000 people to get baptized in a single year.
  • We must serve and love all of our churches more effectively. We also must train up the next generation of leaders. Finally, we must continue to stay rooted in and faithful to the Bible and to Jesus.
  • It’s all about Jesus.

What?

  • To do all of these things, it requires a Ministry Center that will house Mars Hill Schools (College and Seminary), Ministry Development, Leadership Development, and all Mars Hill support staff. It will be critically important that we are all connected and rooted in a local church.
  • We need to raise $40M. This allows us to purchase the land, purchase the Ministry Center building, and build an 1,800 seat church building debt-free.
  • It’s all about Jesus.

Who?

  • Every staff member
  • Every leader
  • The entire Mars Hill family
  • It’s all about Jesus.

Please earnestly seek the Lord’s guidance about how he is leading you to join in this generation-changing opportunity. Pray, and then here to sign in to your global account and make your pledge. As of today, all staff and elders have the ability to post your pledge. You should see this pledge box appear when you sign in.

 

Mars Hill has been looking for a large property in Bellevue since at least last year. The current location is slated to be the site of a massive project managed by the Rockerfeller Group. Since they need to move, MHC made an offer on a building owned by International Paper in 2013 only to find that Seattle Sound Transit had first refusal on the building. According to an October 2013 Seattle Times article, Mars Hill spokesman Justin Dean said the International Paper building was the property God intended for MHC to have.  The church still has a page on the website where members can contact the Sound Transit Board to advocate for Mars Hill to purchase the International Paper building. The last tweet in the campaign #goodforbellevue was in November, 2013. I cannot find anything on the Mars Hill website which indicates that the congregation has been informed of the Bellevue College initiative.
I have asked MHC Executive Pastor Sutton Turner for comment and will add new information as it become available. A source with knowledge of the situation tells me that the real estate project could be jeopardized due to declining donations.
Note: Mars Hill removed most of the original links I used to research this post. I have saved many of the pages and have some archived pages substituted for the original links. It appears Mars Hill leaders would like to scrub the history of this incident.

Mars Hill Church Members Want to Know Why The Orange County Campus Violated Zoning Ordinances in 2012

On Monday, I established that Mars Hill Church in Orange County violated the city of Santa Ana’s zoning law for the better part of a year (2011-2012). In defiance of the city and at the direction of Mars Hill’s executive elders, Mars Hill Orange County continued to meet in a building which was not zoned for a church, even paying fines instead of moving to another location, or simply waiting until a suitable location could be found. Then when the church was facing enforcement, Mars Hill’s pastor Mark Driscoll claimed to lack understanding about the city’s actions.
Apparently, Mars Hill members care about this issue because they asked about it during a recent “Vision Breakfast” where members could ask the executive elders questions.  A May 18 email from Mars Hill leaders to members referenced the matter:

Turner’s reply to members is very close to the one he issued to me when I asked him when he became aware that the church in Orange County was in violation of zoning ordinance. Honestly, I don’t understand how the answer to that question would be influenced by a reconciliation with Kyle Firstenberg (the “person who is raising these issues publicly“). According to Firstenberg, he made Turner aware of his concerns on more than one occasion with no reply.
Furthermore, based on documentation supplied by the city of Santa Ana, it seems clear that the Mars Hill executive board knew that the church in Orange County was operating in violation of city ordinance. This is a matter of public record. I can understand why church members would ask about this and want their leaders to be accountable and transparent. As of now, that does not appear to be the stance of Mars Hill’s leaders.
 

Mars Hill Orange County and the City of Santa Ana: The Church That Didn't Want to Move

UPDATE (8/15/14) – A reader let me know that the video update from Mark Driscoll to the church was made private by Mars Hill Church. The transcript is below but the church removed the video. I have edited the video to provide the relevant segment.
…………(original post begins here)
In May 2012, there was a stand off between the City of Santa Ana and the Orange County campus of Mars Hill Church. At the time, Mars Hill was meeting in a concert venue known as The Galaxy (now called The Observatory). According to the city, the venue was located in a zone where churches were not allowed to meet. The city had informed the church and the building owner that a church could not meet in that place but Mars Hill continued to hold services there. Thus, in May 2012 the city threatened enforcement actions. Then on May 27, 2012, the city fined the church and building owner $100 each.
On May 26, 2012, Mars Hill Church posted an update on the situation with Mark Driscoll and Nick Bogardus informing the church about actions taken on behalf of the Orange County (CA) campus. The video of Driscoll has now been made private (not viewable) and Bogardus’ update has been scrubbed from the site. However, you can read it via the Internet Archive. Although the video is missing, several news sources watched it and reported on the story. The Christian Post’s Alex Murashko wrote that Mars Hill pastors were “struggling to understand why conducting worship services by way of rotating into the weekly schedule of an active rock concert venue in Orange County on Sundays is a problem with city officials.” The now missing video was the basis for that assessment. According to CP, Driscoll said:

“I honestly don’t understand this because it’s a concert venue and so it’s a huge room where people come in, a band plays on the stage, and the place packs out with people. On Sunday, a band takes the stage and it fills up with people,” said Mars Hill lead pastor Mark Driscoll during a video posted on the church’s website.
“They say we can no longer use the space. [However,] we don’t have our children in there. They are actually in a separate building next door. It’s not a parking problem. There’s plenty of parking. It’s not a traffic problem. It’s Sunday, lots of accessibility, no issues whatsoever. So, we’re not exactly sure what the problem is. The truth is we’ve been asking a lot of questions and we are not getting a lot of answers,” Driscoll explained.

According to CP, Driscoll then wondered if the church was the victim of religious discrimination:

However, Driscoll said Mars Hill has retained legal counsel, saying it’s needed “if we find that we are just getting bullied by a political discriminatory agenda against Christianity and the church.”
“If we find out as well that it’s just somebody on a council somewhere that has an axe to grind against Christianity we will hold our ground,” Driscoll said. “If we do, in fact, find that somehow we are violating laws and rules that don’t make a lot of sense to us we will obey the governing authorities like the Scriptures say.”

In CP’s reporting of this video (also OC Weekly, and The Blaze), Mark Driscoll appears unaware that the church had known for months that Orange County campus had violated Santa Ana zoning ordinances by meeting in The Galaxy. However, recently former Orange County campus executive pastor Kyle Firstenberg alleged that Mars Hill executive pastors were aware of the violation early on and prohibited the Orange County campus from making a move. In order to explore the various claims involved, I requested relevant documents from the City of Santa Ana and attempted to interview people involved.  On balance, the information I have supports Firstenberg’s account. The rest of this post presents this information.
The original yearly lease between Mars Hill and The Galaxy (owned by Jon Reiser) was signed on October 24, 2011. MHC pledged to pay $8,000/month for the first six months and then $10,000/month for the remaining months.  According to Firstenberg, the city contacted Reiser very soon after the lease was signed with the news that a church could not meet there. Initially, Firstenberg believed that the zoning law might not apply to them since the church was not doing anything at the venue through the week. However, soon Firstenberg understood that the church could not meet in the venue and alerted Sutton Turner, executive pastor at Mars Hill for direction. Firstenberg said that Turner instructed him not to move because the city would not want to risk a public relations problem by acting against the church. I contacted Sutton Turner for his perspective and he declined to comment saying that the issue was a “private matter.”
The documentation supplied by the City of Santa Ana begins in May 2012. However, the May 7 email from Alvaro Nunez to building owner Jon Reiser refers to prior conversations regarding the zoning violations.

Consistent with Firstenberg’s claims, Alvaro Nunez said in his email that he had previously made Reiser aware that the church could not meet in The Galaxy. I asked the Community Preservation Division representative Paula Courtade when the initial contact was made but she did not know. She told me that she asked Nunez but he could not remember when he first contacted Reiser. Firstenberg believes it was in 2011, with additional contacts in early 2012. In any case, the city had contacted all concerned before the flurry of activity in May 2012.
According to the CP, OC lead pastor Nick Bogardus said Mars Hill knew the church could not continue meeting in The Galaxy:

The city made it clear from the outset that the church could not stay long term, Bogardus said.

The outset was as early as October 30, 2011 when the lease agreement was signed. Bogardus said the city “made it clear” that church was not permitted in that location.
In reviewing notes Firstenberg kept during that time period, it appears that he investigated dozens of locations from late 2011 until he left the church in July 2012. On at least two occasions, the church seemed poised to move to a new venue. In April 2012, Mars Hill executive elder Dave Bruskas signed a letter of intent to occupy the Garden Grove Seventh Day Adventist Church. This document is significant in that Dave Bruskas is one of three executive elders at Mars Hill, the other two being Mark Driscoll and Sutton Turner. Furthermore, on the Mars Hill website, prayer was requested in April 2012 for the location of a new building for Orange County:

Pastor Mark asks for prayer for our five churches that are looking for new buildings: Orange County, Everett, Federal Way, Downtown Seattle, and Olympia. He asks everybody to pray, both individually and as a church family.

In the update video on the site (how long will it be there?), Driscoll told his listeners at 2:20:

Mars Hill Orange County is meeting in a club, the children’s ministry is in another zip code, and we just are losing our lease, and we’re going to be kicked out, and we got a problem, and so we’re going to be homeless like Jesus here very shortly at Mars Hill Orange County. They started on January 15th, they started with 800 people. Only 2% of churches in America are 800 so we rejoice in all that God is doing, but they need a home.

The original uncut video was made private by Mars Hill Church. An edited version with the pertinent segment is below.
[youtube]http://youtu.be/zbJNb11ddkw?t=2m20s[/youtube]
[youtube]http://youtu.be/0k5tBs8IDZA [/youtube]
 
It is obvious that Driscoll was aware that the church could not remain in the location but nothing is said about religious discrimination. As is clear from the documentation (see the documents from the City of Santa Ana here), the religious discrimination narrative emerged in late May when the city got serious about enforcement of the zoning issues which had been in play for months.
As noted above, Alvaro Nunez contacted the building owner, Jon Reiser, on May 7.  On May 8, Kyle Firstenberg wrote both Nunez and Reiser about a possible move to a new location. In April, a letter of intent was executed by executive elder Dave Bruskas and on that basis Firstenberg informed Nunez and Reiser that a move was imminent. According to Firstenberg, Mars Hill executive pastor Turner eventually nixed the deal, leaving them to scramble around for additional options.
According to a May 15 email from Firstenberg to Nunez, the lease was being considered by the Garden Grove church. Then on May 23, Nunez wrote Firstenberg to inform him that church services must cease at The Galaxy/Obsevatory location. The email threatened enforcement action if the church did not comply.

Then on May 24, a law firm, Anthony and Middlebrook, representing Mars Hill sent a letter to Nunez expressing disappointment over the city’s stance. However, the letter acknowledged that the church planned to move to the Garden Grove location and expressed hope that the city would allow the church a little more time to complete the move. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was not invoked to challenge the zoning ordinance but to ask for more to time in order to prevent disruption of services.
This brings us back to May 26 when Mark Driscoll told Mars Hill Church that he didn’t understand what the problem was and that perhaps someone at the City of Santa Ana had an “axe to grind against Christianity.” Given the events leading up to that point, it is hard to imagine how he didn’t understand the situation.
On Sunday May 27, in defiance of Nunez’s warning, Mars Hill met again at The Galaxy. As a result, the church and building owner were fined $100 each.

By this time, the Garden Grove property had been nixed and the church considered Woodbridge Community Church. However, according to an email from Mars Hill property management department, Sutton Turner did not want to move ahead with that property either.

From:
Date: Friday, June 1, 2012 9:25 AM
To: ”kyle@marshill.com” <kyle@marshill.com>
Subject: Woodbridge
Kyle
Sutton would rather us keep looking, and meet in a park if need be, than have only an afternoon time slot.  It sounds like this is the opinion of all 3 EE, no just Pastor Sutton.  I pulled the plug on the LOI.  We’ll keep focusing our efforts on other options.

(LOI stands for “letter of intent.”)
From there it is not clear from the evidence I have what happened. In June, the Firstenbergs were laid off from Mars Hill effective July 6, suffering personal and financial hardships. According to emails between Mars Hill’s attorney’s and Santa Ana, the church continued to express willingness to move but did not do so. The church and building owner were fined again on August 26th, this time for $200. Eventually, the church moved to Huntington Beach, CA.
While these materials do not prove all of Kyle Firstenberg’s claims, they do provide support for them.  It appears that the executive elders of Mars Hill Church were aware that the church was in violation of the zoning laws and advised staying in the building, even paying fines instead of leaving. The religious discrimination angle did not seem to be a part of the narrative until the city raised the possibility of enforcement. If anything, it appears that the city of Santa Ana demonstrated some restraint given the length of time the church was out of compliance with zoning laws.
As noted, I contacted Sutton Turner for his view and he declined to comment saying this was a “private matter.” If there is additional evidence that anyone involved would like to provide, please feel free to contact me.
 

Former Mars Hill Pastor: Mars Hill Leaders Ordered Violation of City Ordinances

I will have more to say about these posts later but for now, I want to provide the links to Kyle Firstenberg’s posts where he details his charges against Mark Driscoll and Sutton Turner.
Letter to Board of Advisors and Accountability
Charges Against Mars Hill Executive Pastors
There is much here but one surprising charge is that the Mars Hill leadership knew the Mars Hill Orange County church was out of compliance with the law but told the pastors there not to move, even authorizing the payment of fines.

A Former Mars Hill Pastor Speaks Out and Why Others Are Afraid: The Mars Hill Church Non-Disclosure Agreement

On Tuesday, Warren Cole Smith posted a brief note at World Magazine about the policy of Mars Hill Church to require staff to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to maintain their severance pay and health insurance. And then on Friday, Smith posted a copy of an agreement given to him by a former Mars Hill staffer.

I also have a copy of an agreement given to me by former pastor Kyle F.  Kyle F. was executive pastor at Mars Hill Orange County until about a year and a half ago. You can read more about the situation in Orange County at Wenatchee the Hatchet’s blog.

Kyle also provided me with a letter he wrote to Mars Hill regarding his experience as a pastor in Orange County. Given what he is saying in his letter, I can understand why Mars Hill leaders want departing staff to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Often non-disclosure agreements are signed in the business/tech world to protect proprietary information from leaking out. In this case, the main reason appears to be to keep departing staff from candidly describing their bad experiences.

Reading the NDA, it appears to me that MHC leaders hope to use fear of legal action and loss of severance pay to keep former staff quiet. Some who have been watching the Mars Hill saga unfold have asked me privately why few have been aware of the incredible tensions, discord and significant staff turnover at MHC. Furthermore, I have been amazed at how fearful staffers have been to discuss their experiences. I think both of these observations relate to the fear that the massive engine that MHC is will come down on individuals who have relatively few resources to defend themselves.

According to the statement from the Board of Advisors and Accountability, numerous staff transitions have been acrimonious and they have made changes to “detrimental management patterns.” According to Kyle, no sustained effort has been made to address his concerns. And according to Dave Kraft, the statement involving him is inaccurate and ignores the totality of his claims and concerns. The BOAA statement also defends the use of the non-disclosure agreement which really causes me to wonder if the “detrimental management patterns” have truly been addressed.
I asked Kyle for his reactions to the BOAA statement. He began by questioning whether or not Mark Driscoll and other executive elders have really faced the implications of the massive staff discord and turnover over the last 2-3 years. Kyle: “How have they “owned” their part?” According to Kyle, “There has been no response or repentance from those leaders, in fact no response at all from this accountability group to the very elders that they have sinned against. How is that owning their part?”

Regarding the effort to address concerns of staff, Kyle asked, “Why was Pastor Dave the only pastor that supposedly received a response from the BOAA? What about the other pastors who wrote in. I know of at least two others including myself who never heard anything back.”

Finally, Kyle pointed to the BOAA’s defense of the executive elders (“We deeply appreciate their endurance through false accusation, their submission to authority, and their humility where regrettable decisions from the past have come to light.”) and asked,  “What has been owned” by this statement?

As an observer, I am puzzled by the way MHC is governed. If the BOAA is a governing body, then it seems like a conflict of interest to have all three of the executive elders (Driscoll, Turner and Bruskas) as members. This seems especially relevant since numerous former staff are leveling serious and significant charges and the decision making board investigating those charges include those who are being charged. Given the reactions of former MHC pastors (Kyle told me that nearly all of the branch executive pastors who were in place two years are now gone), it seems that the BOAA has not come close to addressing the depth of the matter.

Read all posts on Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll here.