Pastor Mark Driscoll Announces Plans For Phoenix Church, Faces RICO Lawsuit
At its height, his Mars Hill Church in Seattle had an average weekly attendance of more than 12,000 people, spread across several different campuses.
The megachurch-- a protestant congregation with at least 2,000 members-- fell apart when its leader, Mark Driscoll, resigned following allegations of emotional abuse and mismanagement of church funds. Now, a civil suit has been filed against him and another former church leader. Despite that, Driscoll has plans for a new church in Phoenix.
The Trinity Church is in its early stages of development. All it has is a website, some online supporters and a video message from Driscoll and his wife, Grace.
“Where are you gonna meet?” he asked in the video. “I don’t know.”
But, he does know his church will be based in Phoenix.
Driscoll isn’t the first pastor to start over in this state following a scandal, said Charles Barfoot, an Arizona State University religious studies professor.
“A. A. Allen: He was an assemblies of God faith healer,” Barfoot said. “He was busted in 1955 for a drunk driving conviction in the South.”
Barfoot said Allen moved to Phoenix and started anew.
“Thousands of people come,” he said. “He’s got a network. Here’s a man that was defrocked by the Assemblies of God, and he gets a whole new start — a new lease on his ministry.”
Barfoot lists other pastors who endured scandals and then spent time in the Valley, such as Ted Haggard, who advocated against same-sex marriage, and then allegedly hired a male prostitute. Haggard stayed temporarily in Arizona as he sought out counseling and searched for a way to restart his life.
“Redemption, forgiveness, I mean that’s the heart of the message,” Barfoot said. “Certainly ministers need that as much as anybody else.”
In Seattle, Driscoll had an unusual preaching style that made Mars Hill successful and ultimately led to its downfall. He dressed casually and spoke frankly about sex. Barfoot said this appealed to many younger people.
“The megachurch in many ways functions like Christianity 101,” Barfoot said. “It gets people through the door.”
But, Driscoll’s more aggressive actions sometimes had the opposite effect.
“Basically, if you didn’t like what he did, hey — there’s the door,” Barfoot said. “Don’t let it hit you on the way out.”
“So many young families have lost their faith in Christ and their faith in the church,” said Rob Smith, a former Mars Hill Church member who left in 2007 after Driscoll restructured the church in favor of a more top-down leadership approach. Smith said Driscoll cast out two church leaders who were opposed to the changes.
Driscoll was recorded speaking in a 2007 meeting with a small group of Mars Hill Church elders and local pastor candidates.
"There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus (laughs), and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done,” he said in the recording. “You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus.”
KJZZ reached out to Driscoll via Trinity Church’s main phone number and email address. The only response was an email pointing to the church’s website and markdriscoll.org.
“It’s hard to explain if this hasn’t happened to you, but it happened to me once before, this where a church shunned me over silly stuff,” Smith said. “The impact it has when you’re in a close community, where all your friends now turn on you, and you don’t have anybody to turn to— it creates havoc emotionally and psychologically with a man and his family.”
Smith wants Driscoll to publicly apologize to those who say they were wronged by him. Driscoll’s biography on Trinity Church’s website only alludes to Mars Hill and never mentions it by name.
But when it comes to allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement, former Mars Hill member Bob Sluys wants more than an apology.
“Action is underway to bring a RICO lawsuit to the leaders of Mars Hill Church,” Sluys said in an online video.
RICO is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a U.S. law that allows people to sue allegedly criminal organizations.
The lawsuit was filed Monday against Driscoll and another former Mars Hill leader, John Sutton Turner. The plaintiffs on the suit are ex-Mars Hill members Brian and Connie Jacobsen, and Ryan and Arica Kildea.
They allege Mars Hill leadership used donated money designated for global missionary work for other uses, such as expanding the church in the U.S.
Additionally, when Mars Hill dissolved, it was unclear where much of its funding went, said Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania who has been following and writing about Mars Hill for years.
Also mentioned in the lawsuit is how Driscoll used church funds to promote his book “Real Marriage” onto the New York Times bestseller list in early 2012.
To qualify as racketeering under RICO, the plaintiffs have to prove multiple cases of fraud. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
Editor's note (3/2/2016): This post has been updated to remove repeat language in the top of the story.