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.


mhmolly said…
"He's got a great sense of humor, but (I) don't really trust him in church leadership because he's got such an authoritarian bent."

LOL..."Bent" (Meyer) isn' there anymore BECAUSE of the authoritarianism!

Another great blog is . A thoughtful, though damning discussion of the same matters.

Seriously, nice post. You and I would definitly get into some good debates as my doctrine is in line with Mars Hill. (Hence my name). Regardless, I don't trust Mark OR the Elders presently. The Executive 5 seem on board with Mark, and the emasculated remaining ones are too cowardly and perhaps self-interested to stand up to the guy. I am praying...God is greater than all of this human crap.
Unknown said…
Thanks for the comment mhmolly, and the direction to the other blog.

In terms of doctrine, I was raised as an Evangelical, and considered myself one until just a few years ago. Really only a few changes led me to where I am now, mostly coming as a result of friendships I've developed with people from outside of the Evangelical fold. I wouldn't really consider myself a liberal because I believe more strongly in uncertainty than classical liberalism does--I identify most strongly with the emerging church--and I don't have a problem getting along with Evangelicals, for the most part. Lots of my best friends are still in that community.

Mars Hill really is a bit of a different animal though because of the confrontational approach taken by the leadership. My impression is that Mark's concern is as much that we (everyone besides MarsHillites) are wrong and He is right as it is that we need God.

God bless you as your community struggles through this.
Anonymous said…
Hi, this is an interesting post. I'm not a member of either Mars Hill or St Mark's (love going to the Sunday pm Compline though). I am a member of another Seattle church but have followed the Mars Hill contorversy. Were the St Mark's Staff members fired or laid off? When you say that they were dismissed due to a budget shortfall, it sounds like they were laid off, but that St. Marks members are righfully upset and concerned because the budget process was not completed in an open and perhaps fair way. Also, losing staff members at a church (or any organization for that matter) is usually sad and upsetting.

However, the Mars Hill staff members appear to have been fired without due process and then the congregation were apparently instructed to shun the fired pastors, or at least one of them. I doubt they will be able to get a job at another church. This seems very different from what happend at St Marks, at least in long term damage done to the dismissed staff members.
Unknown said…

That is a fair point to make--that at Mars Hill there apparently wasn't due process, while at St. Mark's there was, at least to some degree. Still, at St. Mark's the decision was made behind closed doors, and sprung abruptly on the congregation. Personally, this was difficult since the priest I was mentoring with for ordination was one of the individuals laid off. I found out she was leaving a week before she was actually gone. There were lots of stories like that, and a lot of people negatively affected by the way in which the whole thing happened. The "budget shortfall" was anticipated up to 6 months in advance, so there's no clear reason why the congregation couldn't have had a clearer view of what was about to happen--particularly those who would be negatively impacted by the lay-offs.

Granted, there was no tone of slander or excommunication, as there was at Mars Hill, and you're right that the long term damage was probably less. Both of the priests, I know, are gainfully employed again. Not sure what's happening with the elders.
OTN said…
I think a key difference is that the Dean made a very poor financial decision at St Marks, while Mark Driscoll made an authoritarian decision in an attempt to quell dissent.

Nonetheless, I wonder if we should look at their work and message outside their actions. Robert Taylor and St Marks do so much more good work and preach a more more inclusive message than you will ever hear at Mars Hill.
Unknown said…
Yeah, I mean certainly overall I'm prone to give Robert more of the benefit of the doubt because of his track record and positive leadership in other areas--and because I like him as a person.

One thing I realized about the post is that I didn't break down clearly the ways in which the individual leaders themselves handled the situations, other than noting that Mark suggested that he'd like to punch some people in a sermon right before the firings.

In the case of Mars Hill, it's pretty clear that, as you say, the firings were authoritarian attempts to quell dissension--note the punch comment, discussion on various blogs, and effort at social excommunication from the Mars Hill Community. I think their congregation has more to be mad about than at St. Mark's.

However, at St. Mark's I've never been entirely convinced that it was just about money. The problem was that the question of "why these two (three, really, but people get less upset about administrators leaving than priests) in particular" was never addressed clearly. Staffing decisions had to be made, but why these members of staff who were central to so much that was happening in the life of the church? It might be that that question wasn't addressed out of respect for the individuals involved, or it might be due to a closed leadership style, but the congregation is left with an air of uncertainty in either case. (Particularly due to the extremely abrupt nature of the staff departures in church terms: here one week, gone the next.)

Ultimately, any time there's a staff departure in a church for any reason other than retirement, somebody's going to get upset about it. With these particular dismissals (St. Mark's), if it really was primarily a financial decision, fine--I understand how church finances work, I was potentially on the brink of losing my job at St. Marg's for similar reasons until some things panned out more positively than expected. However, the fact that the congregation wasn't in on this discussion demonstrates some real irresponsibility on the part of the leadership--both vestry and the Dean. (To their credit they have addressed this particular issue to some degree, with opening up the finances and making vestry meeting agendas and minutes more available.)

I doubt that the congregation will ever find out what more there was to it than money--if anything. The church obviously doesn't want to risk sounding like they're slandering people's names, with good reason, and it's probably not even leadership's responsibility to explain the ins and outs of their staff decision making processes. None the less frustrating...
stephy said…
This was interesting. Thanks.