Spiritual Abuse, Toxic Cultures, and a podcast review of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.

Over the last few months, myself along with thousands of others have been (im)patiently waiting for another new episode of the podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”, by Christianity Today, hosted brilliantly by Mark Cosper. If you are under 30, you may not be familiar with Mars Hill or the name Mark Driscoll. Those of us who were coming of age as this church was coming to fame, we know it well. For those of you who are in the dark, I’ll sum it up for you – The podcast covers the rise and fall (as titled) of a church plant turned mega church in Seattle along with their pastor turned Christian celebrity.

I want to give a trigger warning to anyone who has been impacted by poor Christian leadership in your church/ministry. If you’ve not processed that encounter thoroughly, you might want to tread lightly – and be mindful that you will likely need an outlet to process how their stories might relate to your own.

The most unexpected emotion felt as I listened to this podcast was that of sympathy – these stories and the ways that Mark’s poor leadership has impacted so many resonated in my heart in a way that I was not prepared. As a young woman in Tennessee serving in ministry who had been familiar with Mars Hill, I had heard the cliff notes of why Mark left Mars Hill – he was a jerk. He was hot headed, he was confrontational, he wasn’t kind to his people – he was a jerk. When I reflect back on scenarios in my journey where I’ve served under poor leadership, the one that hurt me most was nothing like a Mark Driscoll type at all and therefore, I was intensely caught off guard by the way in which my emotions were tied into this podcast as I listened to the stories of those hurt by Mark and the leadership at Mars Hill.

Here’s the wild thing about Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll’s ministry – God was on the move. People came to know Jesus. Lives were transformed. Churches were planted. Even in the midst of a toxic culture, God still worked. And hear me say, that speaks to God’s mercy so much more so than to the fruit of their labor but God will not be mocked and He ultimately will receive the glory. When we make the work of God about us, God may allow us to continue down that road but His word is clear – He opposes the proud. When our pride and our arrogance is in the driver’s seat, we stand in opposition to God because we are bringing Glory to ourselves. A rotted tree will only stand for so long before the whole tree comes down.

Just this week, I ran across an article revealing a similar leadership style from a nonprofit I’ve supported in the past – Preemptive Love. I’ve linked the article for you here. This one broke my heart because the work that they do is so unique to what we’re seeing among many relief organizations and so needed in the middle east. I’ve read and listened to how God is working through their organization to provide relief to families in need and yet it seems as if the underbelly of this organization is rotten. I want to be clear – the board of directors has been investigating the claims in this article and results from that investigation have not been made at this time. However, I do want to highlight a common thread that I’ve seen among the stories that have come out of both Mars Hill and Preemptive Love as well as the ministry where I’ve experienced poor leadership because I believe this is more common than is being talked about in a broader context.

Throughout the stories within The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and the Medium article regarding the team culture at Preemptive Love, Mark Driscoll and Jeremy Courtney’s leadership was described as “my way or the highway”, “if you’re not with me, you’re against me”, “get on the bus or get run over by the bus”. This quote from Ben Irwin in the Medium article linked above sums it up perfectly and it is this exact type of culture that wounded my heart.

“In many respects, I believe the Courtneys run Preemptive Love like a cult. They demand unquestioning loyalty and punish dissent, perceived or real. They act like people who will do anything to hold onto power.”

This all boils down to a need for control. Mark Driscoll demanded complete control of Mars Hill – so much so that he changed the bylaws of the church which gave himself and his executive team ultimate control, even over the eldership of their church. The Courtney’s as well as the ministry that I have referred to was seemingly led in the same way – if you show even a glimpse of behavior that is perceived as “not on board”, you’re out. Maybe not fired or kicked off the team but cast out of the fold. I’d never put cult-like language on my situation before but these stories have made me see it in a different light; hindsight is 20/20 after all. When you fall in line, you’re beloved and made to feel special but as soon as you walk your own path, you’re out. It’s one thing when you are in this type of culture in a secular workforce but when this is tied to your own faith journey, this is a form of spiritual abuse.

All in all, I wrote this piece for two reasons: 1. If you’ve been wounded in a similar way by spiritual abuse/toxic ministry culture – I want you to know that you’re not alone and that your story matters. I encourage you to seek counsel. I have and cannot speak highly enough about my experience with a licensed therapist. 2. This is a conversation that needs to happen. This is a topic that needs to be covered in our seminaries. This needs to brought to light because we have people in our congregations who are hurting and we have churches and ministries decaying due to this type of abuse.

God is good and he is merciful in the ways he continues to work despite our failure but that doesn’t mean that we should disregard the writing on the wall – we must bring it to the light so that our people are no longer hurting in the dark.