The darkest, most destructive and most hurtful aspect of Mars Hill’s ministry culture…the “ad hominem narrative”

The Letter of Pastor Steve Tompkins

Steve Tompkins served as an executive elder of Mars Hill Church, Executive Director of the Acts29 network, lead pastor of the Mars Hill Shoreline campus, and just before the collapse of Mars Hill served as the Director of Mars Hill Schools, a partnership between Western Seminary (Portland OR) and Corban University (Salem OR). Steve wrote the following letter on October 27, 2014, which he emailed directly to many former members of Mars Hill Church. 

Dear Former Members and Attenders of Mars Hill Church, especially those of you for whom I have had shepherding responsibility at Mars Hill Shoreline:

I am deeply sorry that so many people have experienced profound hurt over the years at Mars Hill. It breaks my heart that many continue to live with deep emotional and spiritual wounds, even long after leaving the church.

I also realize that in my role as an elder, including as Lead Pastor at Shoreline, I share responsibility and complicity in some of the ways you have been hurt, disappointed, and sinned against at Mars Hill. For me this has been an ongoing process in which the depth of conviction and realization of my own sin seems to grow almost daily as does my sorrow over how people have been hurt. This has especially been so as I have had opportunity to sit down and hear people’s stories directly. My purpose in this letter is to share some of the ways my perspective has changed, to confess my sin, to spell out my ongoing process of repentance, and perhaps – should God allow – play some role in his work of healing.

Let me tell you a bit about the journey bringing me to write this letter. Eight or nine months ago as I was reflecting on Revelation 2-3 (the letters to the seven churches), I began to feel that Jesus was placing Mars Hill under discipline and calling us to repent. Over the course of these past months this text of scripture, especially the first and last letters (those to Ephesus and Laodicea), have consistently formed the paradigm through which I have come to view events, attitudes, and decisions at Mars Hill.

In these letters we see Jesus walking among his churches. He knows what is happening. He speaks his words of commendation as well as rebuke. He calls the churches to have ears to hear. He calls them to repent, and puts them on a timeline of his choosing. If they prove to have ears to hear, choose to humble themselves, confess their sins and repent, then the corporate outcome is joy and fruitfulness. If however, they fail to repent then the consequences are serious and severe, including the removal of the lampstand of his presence and his light. What strikes me as significant is that our sovereign King places the outcome in the hands of the church itself. This has profound implications.

First of all it means that what has been happening at Mars Hill is the work of Jesus in our midst. It means that the root of the problem is not satanic opposition or attack, nor is it social media or vocal online critics, nor is it the members or attenders of the church (past or present). Nor is it elders, deacons, staff and leaders who have called for change from within. In fact the root of the problem has been the leadership of the church who have been blindly committed to maintaining the status quo as if we simply need to push through what has so frequently been referred to as a “difficult season.”

All such attempts at crisis management and damage control are futile, foolish, and in fact create more harm since they are the polar opposite of repentance. I am convinced that Jesus is bringing his word of rebuke to the leadership (including me) through the Spirit. This is his word of loving discipline. In Rev 3:19 Jesus says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” I personally must have ears to hear and a heart to respond.

I have been at Mars Hill for over 12 years, on full time staff for more than 11, a pastor for 10, and served as Lead Pastor of MH Shoreline for more than eight years. Jesus’ call to repentance therefore is spoken to me as much as anyone at Mars Hill, for I have helped to build and perpetuate the culture of this church. Through sins both of commission and omission at various times I have been complicit. Recognizing this, I have been seeking over the last eight months to respond diligently and humbly. I have been asking Jesus to reveal my sin and show me where we have gone wrong as a church. He has proven faithful, progressively removing blinders and exposing my own MH-specific blind spots. He has been giving me new eyes and I now look back on my years at MH very differently. I see my sin in ways that previously I simply did not. It has been simultaneously painful and good.

For example, if the leadership and ministry culture at Mars Hill has been marked by arrogance (and it has), then I am coming to see how I have been marked by that same arrogance, and how I was blind to it, both in others and in myself. I now see how my own sin of arrogance within our arrogant culture therefore went unrecognized and unchallenged. In saying this, I am in no way blaming my sin on others or on the culture. On the contrary, my sin is my own sin which I freely confess. That is what I am now seeing with painful clarity.

The same is true with the sin of domineering leadership. In fact, if you mix ministry arrogance together with top-down domineering leadership along with idolatry of church growth and numbers, then inevitably you create a ministry culture where many end up hurt, burned out, feeling used. I see this now, and I see how I helped to build such a culture. In fact, I am now beginning to see how my own idolatry of performance and ministry “success” played so well at Mars Hill. Again, I do not blame my sin on others or our culture. Rather, I am now seeing how I contributed to the hurt of faithful and trusting members, attenders and leaders. Please forgive me.

But there is another – and related – area of great sin and blindness that I need to address. In fact, I would say I consider this to be the darkest, most destructive and most hurtful aspect of Mars Hill’s ministry culture by far. I call it the “ad hominem” narrative.

Ad hominem is the Latin term for a tactic used when facing off with an opponent over an issue, whereby one seeks to win by attacking and discrediting their opponent rather that honestly debating the issue at hand. In one form or another, ad hominem narrative (which can sound very reasonable, especially because it can contain elements of truth), has been consistently used for years to discredit voices of dissent and to silence accusation of wrongdoing and sin.

What I have seen on multiple occasions is that when a leader raises an issue with Mars Hill or Mars Hill leadership, they themselves soon become the issue rather than the issue they raised. What they said, for example, is invalidated by how they said it, or because they did not follow proper procedure or protocol. Then, almost inevitably it is not long before they are gone from their position, their job, or the church itself. Often, their integrity was then slandered and their character maligned.

Resorting to ad hominem narrative as a response to conflict is horrible and devastating in the extreme. Ad hominem narrative is essentially to defend one’s own righteousness rather than to trust the righteousness of Another. It never confesses or takes responsibility for sin. It is inconsistent with humility. It resists repentance at any cost. It is therefore antithetical to the gospel. Sadly, I confess that I bought into this narrative in many ways and for too long. I trusted our leadership and sincerely believed their words. I sincerely led others to believe their words. Perhaps our leadership believed their own words, but this consistent narrative over the years became woven into the core of the culture of the church. It is profoundly dark and ugly. I see that now, but for a long time I was blind to it. I am so sorry.

I have frequently chosen, when things get hard, to put my head down with my eyes forward, and simply to work hard. As a result I have had almost no rear view mirror, which I now realize contributed to my blindness. There are so many things I frankly did not see.

Looking back prayerfully however, I now realize there were also a few situations where I did see but did not speak up or stand up when I should have. My silence in those situations was sinful and cowardly. In our coercive culture of fear I gave in to fear of man. I am so sorry. Please forgive me. May God have mercy on us. With blind Bartimaeus I continue to call out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (see Mark 10:46-52). May God bring true repentance, redemption and healing to me, the church, and indeed all of us.

Some may wonder why I have stayed at Mars Hill if indeed these are my convictions. The answer is quite simple and brings me back to Revelation 2-3 where Jesus calls – not just individuals – but entire churches to repentance. And if Jesus is calling Mars Hill to repent, then it is incumbent upon the elders to lead the way as those who must give an account. Therefore, I must repent as an elder in the office of elder taking responsibility for my sin as an elder. I must also seek to lead repentance and call others – especially among the elders – to join me every chance I get. This is what I am doing within Mars Hill as Jesus graciously continues opening my eyes.

In addition, I have felt conviction before Jesus that I need to apologize and repent personally, face to face when possible, to former members, leaders and staff. I have therefore been revisiting situations that are years old as well as recent. I have been seeing them with new eyes and coming face-to-face with my own sin. This includes, for example, the events in 2007 ensuing from the (what I now believe to be the unjust and unfair) firing of pastors Paul Petry and Bent Meyer. I was involved in the subsequent events which included the official investigation process, the trial conducted by the elders, and the official shunning of the Petry family which followed.

These events were profoundly devastating and damaging to both the Petry and Meyer families. I deeply regret my actions. I sinned against them through my participation as an elder, and desire to publicly redress these wrongs. I have recently reached out and apologized, repenting to them and seeking the beginning of reconciliation. From them I have received only grace and forgiveness. I am so grateful and humbled.

In many ways I feel like I am late to the table, but I am grateful to be here now. I have been reaching out to and meeting with a number of other former members, leaders, and staff as part of this ongoing process. God’s grace has been profoundly present each time. Recently, I had the chance to stand on the stage at MH Shoreline, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow elders in front of gathered members as we each expressed our own repentance. I therefore intend to continue as an elder at Mars Hill as long as the process of repentance continues moving forward, and as long as there is hope for a more biblical and healthy plurality of elders to arise.

In light of Mark Driscoll’s resignation I believe this is a crucial time, representing an opportunity to truthfully acknowledge the destructive elements of the legacy of Mars Hill’s leadership. Leaders need to confess sin specifically, taking full responsibility. Apologies need to be given in person where possible. Now is the time for genuine open-hearted face-to-face repentance. I would love to see healing come to thousands of former and present members, attenders and leaders so that we can all embrace a more healthy and joyful future. We have hope for this through him alone who is our loving and risen Savior. For this reason I intend to continue down this road inviting others to join me. It is because this is so important that I have decided to put my thoughts in writing at this time. I intend to personally send this letter to as many people as I can. I freely give you permission to forward this to other former members and attenders of Mars Hill.

Brothers and sisters, I humbly ask your forgiveness for my sin in my role as a Mars Hill elder. I am deeply sorry for your suffering, and pray that Jesus will grant emotional, spiritual, and relational healing. I do realize that this letter represents a blanket confession, which in and of itself is inadequate.

I do realize that confession and repentance needs to be specific and personal. So, I want you to know that I am not simply asking for blanket forgiveness from a distance as if that will result in the healing grace you need and long for. I do hope to reach out personally to as many as I can, but please know that you are welcome to contact me directly, or through someone you trust (just drop me a line on Facebook). I would be happy to speak with you or meet with you as soon as our schedules allow.

Sincerely,

Steve Tompkins

October 27, 2014

Fired Mars Hill Church Pastor Releases History

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Those who do not remember the past will have it rewritten for them.               Well, not in this case. Not anymore. Four and half years ago, I was fired from Mars Hill Church because I refused to resign under pressure. I was a pastor on staff, an elder, and an officer of the corporation along with a group of other men.   I spent months seeking formal reconciliation and years hoping for a better course.   I have not spoken about these matters publicly until now. With the mounting stories and “histories” coming out regarding Mars Hill Church, it no longer seems right or beneficial to remain silent.

This website serves as a depository, a historical record of the events I and others  experienced at that time – including documents, written correspondence, and personal narrative – with the hope that greater love and reformation will emerge    and transcend our weaknesses and failures.

In addition to the straight history, my wife, Jonna, has written a personal narrative describing these events.  It is an important story and I am thankful she had the courage to write it. Our journey with Mars Hill Church began as a wonderful season God used to grow and strengthen our marriage, our children, and me – then came a very dark time, but by God’s grace, our marriage, our family, our faith (and our noses) remain intact, though forever changed.

For my part, what was written in these letters and documents speaks volumes and is enough for now. Perhaps at a later date I will have the time and inclination to contribute more. There are many fellow sojourners with their own stories yet untold. Though we are “joyful exiles,” we do not take joy in sharing this sad history. It is much like uncovering “hidden abuse” the family was unwilling to talk about for years, yet is necessary for healing and freedom.

“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” — Ephesians 4:14-16

My Story

By Jonna Petry

This past summer I saw the movie, “The Help”, and a seed of courage was planted in my soul. One of the last lines of the movie:

God says we need to love our enemies. It hard to do. But it can start by telling the truth. No one had ever asked me what it feel like to be me.     Once I told the truth about that, I felt free.

This story is an earnest attempt to speak the truth in love that freedom and new life may flourish.

My husband Paul and I started visiting Mars Hill Church back in the summer of 2001. I had recently read and loved J.I. Packer’s classic, Knowing God, and was finding great solace and security in a deeper understanding of God’s sovereignty. In those days, Mars Hill Church was about 400 members. There were not many families with children. And we came with five – our oldest 12 and our baby just turned one. We were very warmly embraced. Our family was rather ooo’ed and ahh’ed over. We seemed to have found a place where we were wanted and where we could lovingly serve (even if the music was completely unfamiliar to our ears). And, what we didn’t realize, where our pride would be amply fed as well.

We were not without caution or discernment. We had seen enough upheaval in churches to know you’d better look closely at who’s in charge, how the leadership is structured and where the money goes. A year earlier, we had come across Alexander Strauch’s fine book, Biblical Eldership where he instructs about church government:

“By definition, the elder structure of government is a collective leadership in which each elder shares equally the position, authority, and responsibility of the office.”

In comparing this structure to what we had experienced previously, it was easy to embrace the premise that shared leadership, authority, and accountability are necessary for the healthy functioning of the church. For us, this became an essential for any future commitment to a church. And, our first Sunday at Mars Hill, there on the book table was a copy of Strauch’s book.

So we started attending regularly, heard a number of the pastors preach (because in those days they took turns preaching), listened carefully to what was said and mostly delighted in what we experienced. Mark Driscoll stood out then, as a persuasive speaker with a strong attitude but, we had confidence the leadership team, Mark included, was committed to the distinctive of biblical eldership. Though Mark was young, he was surrounded by a group of godly older men – Bent Meyer being one who also had years of pastoral experience behind him. This was very reassuring to us.

The church was growing and we became completely immersed in loving, serving and teaching. My father (who had not been in church for almost 40 years) and my sweet stepmother joined us monthly and then weekly for worship services – ferrying over from Poulsbo, Washington, to spend the day with us. Mark often used the expression that our church was “family” and we rather believed it – so effective in building a sense of belonging.

These were happy fulfilling years for us. My husband and I hosted a weekly home fellowship group that quickly grew to be the largest in the church. We had the space to welcome people in and hospitality was ministry for us. We hoped to demonstrate to the best of our ability the sacrificial love of Jesus because we believe this is the foundation of our lives as Christians. We were delighted to find a church home and thought we’d be there always. We loved and gave our very lives to the people in this church. Strong bonds of commitment and love were made and reciprocated. (We thought.)

After two years had passed, in the spring of 2004, Mark approached my husband, Paul, and asked him to consider serving as a pastor/elder. Mark at this time had become the primary preaching pastor in Ballard and Lief Moi, who bought an old theater for the church in Seattle’s University District, became the primary preacher at that venue – the Paradox Theater – which featured concerts by local bands on weeknights and was active in street ministry. Each venue had its own feel and crowd and we were blessed to see the diversity and unity in the Body of Christ.

After much consideration and prayer, Paul started the elder process and was confirmed a pastor/elder – before the entire church with the laying on of hands by the eldership. How excited we were, I was. I was so proud of my husband and the ways God was moving in our lives. Paul served as a pastor, unpaid, almost full-time, while he continued to work as an attorney in private practice to support our family. It was a big commitment, a lot of work, but we loved it. We loved the people we were with. It was a great season for awhile…

→ Continue reading HERE.