Days after the world started reading Mark Driscoll’s nasty diatribe against his own church members, we discovered that two of the four outside members on Mars Hill’s Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA) had resigned. According to the church’s statement as reported by Warren Throckmorton, James MacDonald needed more time to spend governing his own church, and Paul Tripp suddenly discovered that it was a conflict of interest to be giving Mars Hill both advice and accountability on the Board of Advisors and Accountability, so resigned so that he could collect his consulting fees without troubling his conscience.
After a summer of scandals involving plagiarism, misspent church funds, manipulated book sales and obscene misogyny, instead of exercising their obligation to hold Driscoll and the other executive elders accountable, MacDonald and Tripp are being derelict in their duty as church overseers.
In a way though, the structure of the church government that Driscoll established was always going to serve his interests because of the type of people he appointed to it. Mark Driscoll is Mars Hill, so to have Driscoll resign would be to destroy his church. No board would be tolerated that could ever let that happen, so Driscoll found “outside” governors who were men just like him.
If you look at most of the megachurches that are still humming along, almost all are led by the pastors that founded them. Rick Warren has Saddleback. Steven Furtick has Elevation. Perry Noble has NewSpring. And Mark Driscoll has Mars Hill. Think about any of those churches (there are many others), and you think about their founder. The church and the pastor are one and the same, especially for most of the people who flock to them.
For all of the chest thumping that the megachurches do about their success, we have yet to see what happens when one of these leaders resigns or retires from the pulpit. The Crystal Cathedral couldn’t survive Robert Schuller’s departure, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether most of today’s megachurches will survive their leaders’ departure. NewSpring doesn’t have a succession plan for Noble, and Elevation’s auditors warned about the financial damage the church would face if Furtick left.
These churches have several things in common:
- They were founded by the pastor who built them into megachurches and who still leads them.
- They are either nondenominational or part of a denomination with no functional oversight of the local church.
- They have either no or weak internal governance over the founder/pastor.
- They cultivate strong cults of personality centered on the senior pastor.
You can see that there is tremendous risk to the entire system if the senior pastor were to leave permanently, or even for more than a few months. Their pastor is the franchise, and to lose him would probably imperil the entire empire. Steps must be taken to preserve the system, though subtly so it’s not obvious that the founders have created systems that virtually guarantee themselves well-paid and permanent jobs.
Getting back to the BOAA at Mars Hill, if we look at the four external members, we see that at least three are their own personal brands and are the face of their ministries, just like Driscoll. If Driscoll can be asked to step down from the church he built, so can the other church founders who are supposed to govern Driscoll. It would set a bad precedent that could one day imperil their own job security.
James MacDonald, one of the two who resigned, founded the church that he still pastors. His church is independent, though governed internally by a board of elders, among whom MacDonald is described as the “first among equals.” MacDonald’s church constitution doesn’t even consider or describe if or how the senior pastor would be subject to discipline or removal by the other elders.
(By MacDonald’s published requirements for elders at his own church, Driscoll would be disqualified, failing on the temperate, above reproach, not antagonistic, prudent, uncontentious, and respectable requirements.)
Paul Tripp, the second resigning board member, isn’t a pastor, though is the face of Paul Tripp Ministries. Because he’s a parachurch organization, he’s free to construct his own governance structures, though none are described on his website.
Larry Osborne, who remains on the board, is the lead pastor of a megachurch in California. Unlike Driscoll and MacDonald, Osborne didn’t start his church, though was called to it when it had just 127 members and is credited with building it to its present 9,500 members. Like MacDonald, Tripp and Driscoll, he is also his own publishing franchise, with a personal website promoting his work.
The fourth outside member and chairman of the BOAA, Michael Van Skaik, differs from the other three in that he does not appear to have a history as a pastor or speaker. His LinkedIn and Facebook profiles show that he is a former bank executive from Seattle, though he appears to live a relatively anonymous life in Bend, Oregon, now.
What we have, then, is a founder of a megachurch and a personal brand who has selected for oversight three of four people who are also independent personal ministry brands. A franchise player governed by franchise players.
Which means that when push came to shove last week, two of the governing brands decided that ruining someone else’s personal brand wasn’t worth the collateral damage that might come back to bite them. That’s not a precedent that independent franchises want to be setting.
MacDonald and Tripp, when they needed to govern a fellow franchise player who was out of control, simply walked away.
UPDATE: As some, including Wenatchee The Hatchet, have pointed out, Van Skaik was an elder at Mars Hill Church and once held the title of pastor. By saying that he was not a pastor, I meant it in the sense that he wasn’t a preaching pastor (“preaching pastor” should be redundant, but these days it’s not), and, in the context of this article, was never the face or identity of a church, be it big or small.