St. Mark's Cathedral and Mars Hill Church
I'd planned on cleaning the house right now, but I have a blog post that's been just itching to get out for several weeks now. It's no wonder that my wife hates me:
Seattle (my Seattle anyway) has two religious organizations that really matter: Mars Hill Church (denomination, hipster baptist) and St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral. (Full disclosure: my membership is at St. Mark's, and I have a lot of friends at Mars Hill.) The two places couldn't be more different, but have interestingly gone through parallel leadership crises in the last year. In both cases, two well-respected senior leaders were dismissed under the ultimate authority of the most senior leader--Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill and Robert Taylor at St. Mark's. I'm convinced that there's an interesting religious lesson in the processes and aftermaths, and I've been trying to sort out what that lesson is.
The players in the two dramas couldn't be more different--Mark's a rugged "muscular Christianity" type, and Robert is a liberal gay South African champion of the homeless. The leaders dismissed at Mars Hill were straight white male elders named Paul and Bent, while at St. Mark's they were both women--one a lesbian liturgist and the other an African-American academic who later made headlines by declaring "I am both a Christian and a Muslim". You couldn't have planned a better typecast for the liberal/conservative divide.
In both cases there was a strong congregational outcry, and some degree of media attention (a Google search will turn up what you need), as well as a general series of non-answers from Church leadership about the why's and how's of the firing processes. In both cases nothing terribly exciting or controversial has come out. To me, the disimpassioned observer, it just looks like there were probably simmering issues, and leaders were removed when the opportunity arose. In both cases the leadership apparently acted irresponsibly and shortsightedly in their method of dismissal, and in neither case has their been sufficient explanation given to the congregations for the firings. Interestingly, both cases have drawn up discussion about the nature and legitimacy of present church authority structures, which are relatively different between the two congregations, but which both seem to concentrate too much power at the top.
There are some intriguing differences in the way members of the congregation have responded, and the issues that have risen to the top in the processes. Again, you probably couldn't have scripted things any more stereotypically:
At the outset, the Episcopalians at St. Mark's have been mad about money. The dismissals, firings, layoffs, whatever you want to call them were initially attributed to a budget shortfall: pledging was down $100k, so something had to be done, and thus leaders were removed. That was okay with some people, but when it came out soon after that Robert had also recently received a significant raise to somewhere in the range of $150-200k annually, and that the dismissed leaders were being underpaid prior to their dismissal, there was the proverbial tempest in a teacup. (Incidentally, St. Mark's didn't make their budget available to the public until after the layoffs, which is really unusual for a church, and seems generally sketchy to me.) Still, a lot of the ongoing arguments at St. Mark's are centering around money and the proper use of it.
The Baptists at Mars Hill are mad about the sinfulness of Mark's behavior. (Immediately prior to the firings, he suggested in a sermon that he'd like to punch a couple of his elders, which I think is just classic.) There's a big ongoing dialogue at The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill which generally focuses on whether or not Mark acted biblically, and whether he's a righteous individual, and whether he's allowed his ego to lead him away from promoting Jesus. Also, whether maybe it is the fired pastors who need to repent and return to Jesus.
In the end, who's handled things better? I don't know. I have much more respect for Robert than for Mark, and really see him as, at least in some ways, a sort of tragic figure in all of this. He's made some mistakes that he might not be able to dig his way out from under, and a lot of people (including me, and Ann, who I consider a mentor) were significantly hurt by the firings. However, he has done really important things for the Seattle homeless community, and the worldwide Anglican community. He's got a closed leadership style, but I think generally is a good person. (Again, full disclosure, I personally like and respect Robert, and have maintained an amiable relationship with him throughout the process.) Mark strikes me as quite the narcissist. He's grown some big churches--gotten some people to heaven if you think that's how it works--but also has generally promoted arrogance and misogyny as spiritual virtues, and seems to lead like a bully. He's got a great sense of humor, and I could see having him as a buddy (at least until we got in a fight about religion, homophobia, or whatever), but don't really trust him in church leadership because he's got such an authoritarian bent. You could see this sort of thing coming at Mars Hill a mile away.
At a congregational level, it seems to me that neither group has really known how to deal with the problems coherently. The Episcopalians are calling in help from the top, and the Baptists have a revolt simmering at the bottom. There has been significant opening of communications at St. Mark's between the leadership (vestry) and the congregation, which I think has been generally positive. At Mars Hill? They dumped a huge document on the congregation explaining the bylaws and partially addressing concerns, but haven't made any real changes. In both cases, some feel reconciled to the leadership, while others have left, or are in the process of leaving.
Where's the lesson in all of this? I don't know. You can't win? Don't put people on too high of a pedestal? Liberals and conservatives both have their problems? I don't know. I would like to say that this has been less of a spiritual crisis for St. Mark's than it has been for Mars Hill, because we don't beatify our leaders, and we don't see them as a sort of direct mouthpiece of God. I'm not entirely convinced that that's true though. Certainly it's true for some, but for others this has been a real crisis of faith. Maybe it's a foundational characteristic of any type of religion to place faith in leadership, as well as in God. That, of course, is a precarious position to put oneself in. Maybe that's just a step along the stages of faith, and this sort of crisis is actually beneficial to help people stop beatifying other humans? Maybe, ultimately, disappointment is the inevitable cost of hope?
As a St. Mark's Christian, I like to think of myself as above the petty disputes of the Mars Hill Christians. Of course, through all of this, I've seen that I'm not, and St. Mark's is not. Hopefully on the Mars Hill side they'll also see that there's "no one holy, not even one". I'm definitely going to keep arguing with the fundamentalists and the homophobes, but I guess it's good sometimes to step down off the high horse and remember that my people aren't always so perfect either.