If a network or denomination decides they can’t overhaul their systems to eliminate an inordinate bias for maverick leaders, they now have an even greater responsibility to care for their planters and church plants. Those who oversee church planters now have to ensure that the ones they recruit, endorse, and fund are appropriately supported so as to not end up having to be the sole visionary and decision-maker on a church planting team.
You don’t have to limit a church planter’s gifting but you should know the limits of their gifting.
Of course, this does not guarantee against potential future abuse. But toning down the qualities of a maverick leader can help reduce the pressure planters unnecessarily put on themselves, and it also may detract away from church planting those who have strong narcissistic tendencies.
3. Structure and Accountability: The Body Really Does Keep Score
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk released his landmark book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which has been used by some church leaders to better understand what is trauma, and how it is experienced in the body and acted out. By way of analogy, the Body of Christ has stored negative experiences of church leadership and the accumulated trauma is on display through hashtag movements, conferences on spiritual abuse, denominational investigations, and very public publications and exposés, such as this podcast. The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill serves as a reminder that the church planting world in America is not unaffected by abuse and trauma.
Although the podcast names several other church network scandals besides Mars Hill, every one of us involved in network leadership should humbly seek the Lord and ask where in our systems and structures are we 1) intentionally or unintentionally causing harm to church planters and church members, and 2) creating bottlenecks where it is difficult to report abuse and hold abusive leaders accountable.
I don’t make this point to raise suspicion on all networks and denominations. Many have feared that is what the podcast has done. In exposing one pastor and his church, some are concerned that this could create a wave of false allegations toward pastors and church leaders. While it is not an illegitimate concern, I don’t think any sort of wave like that is coming. However, in the case where abuse is rampant in a church or a network of churches, then I do hope this podcast gives courage to people to call it to account.
One of the things pointed out in the podcast was the repeated attempts to get the attention of executive and network leaders to take seriously the experiences of other Mars Hill pastors and church members. And while outside help was sought, it took further escalation before Mars Hill was removed from its network. Even then, Driscoll continued to lead. Many faithful women and men, staff and non-staff, led the charge in doing what they knew to do in order to bring their leaders into account. As the podcast unfolded to us, this would take seven to eights years before their efforts culminated in the resignation of Driscoll, and eventually the demise of the church, none of which was planned for or thought would happen.
The energy of Mike Cosper and Christianity Today would be utterly wasted if network and denominational leaders weren’t intentionally allowing the Holy Spirit to lead them to identify areas in their organization that could potentially perpetuate or cover up abuse. Abuse is usually not something blatantly done or programmed into an organization. (Although, sometimes it could be intentional through things such as re-writing constitutions and bylaws to concentrate power.) Many times the environment for rampant abuse happens because of organizational blind spots, outdated business practices, idolizing a particular person or tradition, or maintaining a culture of fear where many feel they cannot speak up. To the degree these things exist in a church planting organization, it is likely to be multiplied on to its church planters and church plants.
Again, this isn’t to stir up fear or suspicion about any one particular network or denomination. But it is to make the implicit more explicit: Networks and denominations should want to do better at holding church planters and churches accountable without creating a culture of fear.
When viewed wrongly, the podcast is merely a spectacle about the failure of a man and the church he helped start. But when viewed as a catalyst, the podcast is a part of a plethora of voices that have been trying to get the attention of church higher-ups to hear stories of pain and hurt.
Ultimately, the rise and fall of Mars Hill isn’t simply a “lessons learned” for church planting leadership. It is about the survivors and the Savior that wants to heal them. It is about the systems of hurt and the structures that need to change. And it is about the care of God’s people and how that has a direct impact on the witness of the Gospel to a watching—and podcast listening—world.