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What I have learned, and am learning, from my experience at Mars Hill Church

I spent eight years as a pastor at Mars Hill church, both in Seattle and here in Orange County CA where my wife, Susan, and I now live. There were some good-to-great things that happened and some sad/bad things that happened during those eight years. I have reflected a great deal about my years on staff since leaving a little over a year ago. I want to share four lessons I’ve learned (and continue to learn) and am applying to my current leadership responsibilities and opportunities.

These observations are mine, and mine alone. Some who are still at Mars Hill, and some who have left, may not agree with some of my conclusions. These observations  form an acrostic for ACTS.

One more thing before I jump into the ACTS. The observations and lessons learned came mostly from my experience at Mars Hill; but as I read about what’s going on in Christian leadership as well as what I’m learning in my coaching high- level leaders at other churches, I’ve come to understand that my experiences at Mars Hill are not unique.

What I saw first-hand while on staff at Mars Hill is happening in other churches and Christian ministries around the country/world. I deeply regret that I didn’t speak up more often sooner than I did.


There were numerous situations and instances where top leaders had almost no accountability in their lives and ministries.  They had it on paper, but not in practice. The tough questions were not asked. There wasn’t a willingness to defer to others on staff who had experience and wisdom. A certain degree of pride and arrogance set in and ruled a lot of the time. There wasn’t openness to being genuinely accountable to others for attitudes and behaviors that were sinful and harmful.


Sin was committed over a number of years (in clear violation of I Timothy 3, Titus 1 and I Peter 5), but that sin was not adequately owned and confessed.  There was a good amount of excuse-making and casting blame. We didn’t have a confessional culture where the leaders who were confronted accepted responsibility for their sin.


Top-level leaders were not open to receiving honest inquiries from other pastors on staff. Decisions were not discussed but rather announced with very little dialogue or input. There was defensiveness when an idea or direction was questioned or challenged.  Asking good questions, listening well and being on the hunt for new and better ideas and ways of doing things were not a part of the culture.


The pace of ministry and functioning in crises mode a good deal of the time, due to hurried and last minute decisions without time to think through and adequately process things, resulted in a lot of exhaustion and an unhealthy work-life balance. The speed at which things happened and the lack of time to make better decisions was, and is, an unsustainable model. The principle of Sabbath was very much absent with people working insane hours at an unsustainable pace. There were many on staff who experienced, or were on the verge of, burnout a lot of the time. We survived on the adrenalin rush, which hurt and harmed people. The pace and the work environment is, and was, unsustainable, unhealthy and unwise.

As l live my own life as a leader and as I coach other leaders, I am much more aware of doing what I can to make sure there is:

1.  Good and genuine accountability, coupled with vulnerability and transparency.

2.  A clear value in keeping short accounts, with sin being quickly confessed and owned.

3.  An attitude of being teachable and open to new ideas and ways of thinking.

4.  A culture of pacing that is realistic and sustainable, resulting in good morale and joy.

As always your feedback is welcome!


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Reader Comments (16)

Great post Dave. I have been in several churches over the last 40 years and with those who have congregations over a thousand I have seen little to no accountability when it pertains to the senior pastor. Before Mars Hill I attended a Seattle Presbyterian church with membership over 4000. When I asked who the senior pastor was accountable if there were problems I was told the church elders but in the same breath they said it was just on paper and not in practice when it pertained to conflicts. After Mars Hill we visited another church that an ex MH pastor recommended and the first thing I asked a long time member was who the senior pastor was accountable to and the couple said "that's a good question.....and something that many here have also wondered". So accountability of senior leadership is sadly lacking everywhere. My take on this is that this isn't because many pastors take control of their church because of pride and a lack of humility. . Its because church members blindly follow those pastors with an unhealthy respect that gives the pastor more power than he can handle. Just as much as the local pastor should repent, the church member should also repent. .
October 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike Laughlin
So, (honest question) - what does actual "accountability" of Senior Leadership look like? What resources would you suggest to point churches in the right direction?
October 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoger
When will you ever get enough of putting this church down. Mark is not speaking anymore the church is practically starting over and you still cant just say what i have learned from my life experiences? Why do you have to add their name to it? Doing this now kicking them when they are down is not godly in anyway. I feel bad for you and your quest for there persecution.
October 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJack ima
Thank you for putting the truth up Dave. I know showing the light on this is hard for many. I believe what has happened at Mars Hill has, is and will serve as an example to 1000s of church bodies. To not learn from this situation would be a greater travesty then the situation itself. The type of insight that you are sharing helps to sharpen and clarify what that lesson is.
October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDwayne Forehand
Great post Dave, thanks for sharing from your wisdom and your heart. The subject is incredibly relevant and important more so than ever. It needs to be told, to be shared, without hindrance. Keep up the good work.
October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVan Rue
Jack Ima: "Doing this now kicking them when they are down is not godly in anyway. I feel bad for you and your quest for there persecution." Sorry to see that you are just like the remaining members and Elder/Pastors that refuse to believe that Mark Driscoll and others committed grievous (and unrepentant) sins against thousands at MHC. The FACT that MD and the remaining EE's are hiding, deflecting, refusing to answer legitimate financial questions, and calling any Godly person who has the rightful courage to speak out as "Rebellious and in sin" is the most vulgar epitome of arrogance that can be dumped on a congregation. Driscoll and the EE's are not being "kicked while they're down" here. They are being held accountable. Jack, you're the one that needs to re-evaluate your own thinking and not be so naive.
October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSeattle_Guy
We are still sorting out what happened and the lessons learned.
Thank you, Dave, for sharing some of what you are learning - for your stepping out and speaking out. It is my prayer that others will have the courage to do the same. In light of your post above, I believe you will appreciate the article below.

"[L]eaders were willing to sacrifice the good of the group in order to ensure that their subordinates would not be able to outshine them and possibly take over their leadership role. Among leaders with a strong desire for dominance, the desire to protect their power overwhelmed the desire to help the group perform well." - John K. Maner, Ph.D. and Charlene R. Case, MS.
October 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Petry
Thanks to all for your feedback. Now that Mark has resigned, pray for the current elders to take back MHC and lead in a biblically honorable way.
October 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdave
Thanks for publishing worth sharing post.
December 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLaura
Thanks for publishing worth sharing post.
December 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLaura
Thanks for publishing worth sharing post.
December 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLaura
Nice post .Thanks for sharing
December 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterZuhra
Once again thanks to all of you for you comments and engagement on this vital topic
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