Wayward pastors and the problem of the franchise player 17

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.

Two members of Mars Hill's board covered their eyes and headed for the hills rather than deal with Mark Driscoll's problems.

Two members of Mars Hill’s board covered their eyes and headed for the hills rather than deal with Mark Driscoll’s problems.

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:

  1. They were founded by the pastor who built them into megachurches and who still leads them.
  2. They are either nondenominational or part of a denomination with no functional oversight of the local church.
  3. They have either no or weak internal governance over the founder/pastor.
  4. 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.

17 thoughts on “Wayward pastors and the problem of the franchise player

  1. John Aug 4, 2014 12:53 am

    Hi there,
    Some context on your statement re: Michael Van Skaik…

    He was a pastor… Michael Van Skaik was a former Pastor of Discipleship Coaching at Mars Hill Bellevue, itself. You can find it in the cache (below):

    He was also known for doing the baptisms at MH Bellevue. You can see him baptizing an elderly woman on his own FB page:

    link to facebook.com

    Pastor references:

    link to zoominfo.com

    link to zoominfo.com

    link to zoominfo.com

    AFAIK, he still lives in North Bend, WA, with a nice view of Mt. Sai.

    • James Duncan Aug 4, 2014 1:50 pm

      Thanks, John. Though he once had the title of pastor, I wouldn’t consider him a pastor in the same sense as the others where they are the face of their church or ministry. Until recently, someone like Van Skaik would have been considered a senior elder or deacon, not a pastor, which is a title that many churches throw around too cavalierly these days.

      • Mark S Aug 6, 2014 12:25 pm

        Although Mr. Tripp was not in the visible teaching pastor role like Phil Ryken was, I do not think 10th Pres. is a church that exactly cavalierly or capriciously applies the title of pastor.

  2. Jesse Aug 4, 2014 10:14 am

    Tripp’s connection is especially troubling since he is (or at least in the past has been) ordained in a denomination (the PCA) whose doctrines and polity are in direct variance with Mars Hill at critical points. He’s taken vows to say he believes in presbyterian church government, regulated worship, and covenant theology, yet he serves on the board of a church (not a parachurch group) that rejects all of these.

  3. Whozep68 Aug 4, 2014 11:11 am

    Van Skaik does have history with Mars Hill. He was involved the 2007 Meyer/Petry firing as a Ministry coach. See link to wenatcheethehatchet.blogspot.com

    Actually, he might be the most biased of the bunch but also the one closest to be an elder.

  4. Joshua G Aug 5, 2014 8:27 am

    Welcome back Dr.Duncan. Driscoll, like Furtick, Noble and his BFF Clayton King are nothing but ego and narcissism. I don’t know if it’s the money or attention, or both? I don’t believe these men were called to ministry by the Holy Spirit but by their own desire for acceptance and importance. Thoughts?

    • James Duncan Aug 6, 2014 12:59 pm

      If a pastor or elder didn’t meet the biblical requirements for the office of elder, he can’t have been called by the Holy Spirit, who can’t violate his own standards. If a pastor or elder once did, but no longer does, he ought be be considered “recalled.”

  5. Charles Grant Aug 5, 2014 12:00 pm

    One thing of interest to me in this article is the supposed financial health of Elevation Church being tied to Steven Furtick. For that matter, let’s also consider Newspring with Perry Noble, Northpoint with Andy Stanley, Saddleback with Rick Warren, Lakewood with Joel Osteen, Mars Hill with Dirscoll, and any number of other multi-site mega churches with well known pastors. Sooner or later these guys will die, retire, or be forced out and then what? It will be interesting to see what happens with these mega churches in the coming years.

    • James Duncan Aug 6, 2014 12:55 pm

      They generally don’t pay any attention to church history, so it’s not surprising that they’re not really thinking about the church’s future, either. Focus on the now!

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  7. Mark S Aug 6, 2014 12:21 pm

    Paul Tripp was until fairly recently on the pastoral staff of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, as “Minister to Center City” according to his bio. So, presumably, he remains an ordained Teaching Elder in the PCA, and likely a member of the Philadelphia Presbytery (PCA) – though he is not currently on the staff at a given church. While accountability to one’s presbytery or even the GA has sadly become something of a joke in some parts of the PCA, he would at least in fact be accountable to the courts of the PCA. His doing ministry work in the territory of the Pacific NW Presbytery, even on a consulting basis and outside the context of the PCA, would fall under their jurisdiction.

  8. Mark S Aug 6, 2014 12:30 pm

    If you’ve been paying attention, James MacDonald falls outside of his own published requirements to be an elder at Harvest Bible Empire — Fellowship, I mean — for most or all of the same reasons Driscoll would fail to qualify.

    I honestly believe that there is no longer a “lampstand” at most of these churches. Their Sunday light shows just give the mistaken appearance that there is.

  9. Elevation Watch Aug 6, 2014 4:27 pm

    James McDonald is no stranger to controversy. He has had his own battles with former staff and members of his church. I suggest you read http://theelephantsdebt.com which provides full detail of the Power he has over HBC. James is running for cover as his past dealing with similar issues only provides fuel to the fire and would do more harm to Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill than good.

  10. Matt H Aug 7, 2014 3:52 pm

    One megachurch pastor that did have a successful transition and a good sense of accountability built within his church was Bob Russell at Southeast Christian Church. While he wouldn’t be considered the “founder” of the church, it was only a few years old and had about 120 people when he came as a young preacher. His ministry there was 40 years and the church grew to about 18,000 under his leadership. He wrote a book about the transition from him to Dave Stone. Russell is an example of how to do it right in a myriad of examples how not to.

  11. Humblylearning Aug 11, 2014 11:48 pm

    Professor Duncan, there was an article posted in the Huffington Post today about Mr. Driscoll (link to huffingtonpost.com). Have you seen it? His books are being pulled from a major Christian book retailer and a group that he helped found is asking him to step down from his church for a period of time. Interesting developments. There’s also some interesting accusations in the article about him that I hadn’t heard before.

  12. Daniel Aug 25, 2014 9:37 am

    Long comment, but hang in there. I am from a very small town. Plentiful of churches, but only one “real” youth group when I lived there. Youth people that went to other morning worships always attended my church’s youth group in the evening. The youth minister was just that good and each Sunday night it was packed with about 80-100 youth. And this is a very small town. In the middle of my junior year, on a Sunday evening the youth minister announced that he was moving to another church out of the state. He essentially gave us his 2 week notice. The next 2 weeks were packed with over 150 youths. The 3rd week, there were less than 10 of us! The church quickly filled the position, but even 3 months later, still less than 15 youth attended. About 6 months later, it was announced that the old youth minister would be coming back to preach the morning service and to youth that evening. Once again it was PACKED! That night he told us how disappointed he was that no one was coming on Sunday nights, going on mission trips, getting involved in other Christian activities in the community like everyone was when he was there. He said one thing I will never forget “In this church and specifically this room, I was teaching you to follow Jesus, but instead you followed me, a small and weak man.” He cried as he said he was not only disappointed in us, but mostly in himself for not seeing what he was doing at the time.
    I attended Newspring several times in college back when it was only one location. I remember thinking at that time how great it was, but I was also wondering why in the world don’t they have their own building, they had to have the money. (Of course I did not know the vision of the franchise church) Out of college, my wife and I joined a church, but we started seeing Newsprings pop up everywhere around us. And we had several friends that didn’t normally attend church start going to Newspring. ANd when we would have conversations with those friends – all you ever heard was “Perry, Perry, Perry”. I quickly told my wife exactly what happened when I was in high school. And I said I fear that Newspring’s flock is just that, Newspring’s or Perry Nobles flock. And not Jesus’s. I would guarantee if Perry Noble was to resign from NewSpring tomorrow, Newspring would be a 10th of what it is with in 6 months, maybe more like 3 months. I pray Perry Noble will teach his congregation to follow Jesus and not a small weak man like himself.

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