“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”― Anne Lamott
This is not the first time I have told the story of my experience at Mars Hill, but it has been 2 ½ years since I have, and so much has transpired since then. I have been reticent to post my story on We Love Mars Hill. If I am honest, I don’t love Mars Hill Church. I don’t love Mark Driscoll. I don’t even know the guy. However, I do have empathy and compassion for those who have been harmed, whether they have left or not. I do know what it is like to go through it, and I know what it is like to lose community. I also know what it is like to lose faith.
In January 2011 our family decided to move to Orange County. This was a big transition for me, as I had never moved away from my hometown. I asked my pastor for guidance in finding a church, and he said the only one he could stand behind was Mars Hill. I trusted his opinion. They had built quite the empire with impressive media and great marketing. Mars Hill had the resources to help a massive number of people not only find Jesus but change their lives. I did not know anybody in our new town, and I liked that Mars Hill had community groups, as most of my friends back home were from church and I knew this would be the main way I would make new friends. In April we started attending the “Core Group Gatherings”. We made the 3 hour drive before our move to be a part of this. We were really excited to meet people who we believed to be passionate about Jesus and furthering the gospel. We attended regularly and joined a community group as soon as we arrived in July[a][b].
At one of the first gatherings, the pastor presented us with the four distinctives of Mars Hill: Reformed theology, complementarian relationships, Spirit-filled lives, and missional churches. On the surface, this seemed great! A church that knows where it is going and what it stands for. I was new to reformed theology, but open to learn. Complementarian relationships was a belief I had not previously held. It was presented well. Men and women are different. We do different things and have different qualities. Since my husband and I had chosen, for this season of our lives, traditional roles (where he works and I stay home with our children), complementarian roles seemed to affirm the choices we had made for our family. I respected that men were trying to step up and participate. It took me a few months to become uneasy. I began to have some serious concerns.
There was a definite sense of elitism, pride in Mars Hill, and belief in the clear perfection of their doctrine There was much talk of Christians who think they are saved but really aren’t or sleepy Christians who need to be woken up (which leaves the unstated concept that if they come to Mars Hill, then their doctrine would be right and they would really be saved or that we are the ones to help wake them with our doctrine). There was a hyper focus on sin and idolatry. It seemed to be all people talked about. Many women referred to themselves as “Daughters of Eve”, and any problem people had, whether in their marriage, finances, etc. was attributed to sin. Members felt it was their right and responsibility to look for and point out things they believed were sin in each other’s lives. This environment naturally breeds guilt, shame, and a lack of transparency because of fear of church discipline.The membership covenant emphasized submission to elder authority and being held accountable and church discipline. There is no provision for how one can hold a leader or elder accountable or question them in regards to inappropriate behavior (read ithttp://marshill.com/about/become-a-member/member-covenant).
My community group leader showed irritation when I spoke up at group or challenged him on things he said. I was often dismissed as making excuses or wanting an emotional experience. At this point I did not really understand the headship teaching and didn’t realize he considered my vocal participation to be out of line. The prayer time, separated by gender, was spent mostly talking about how we could please our husbands, submit to our husbands, or “serve them well”. As women, we were not allowed input as to what would be the first bible study we did. It was dictated to us by our leader. We were taught that if we had questions, we should go to our husbands. We were not directed to search the scriptures for ourselves, or to wrestle it out with God. Many of the women seemed oppressed, stifled and silenced.
The most alarming? That to veer from the expectations of complementarian relationships as Mars Hill defined them was considered SIN.
At the community group meetings, there was a lot of debate about doctrine, review of Mark’s teaching, and not a whole lot of bible teaching. My husband and I participated as much as possible. We often went home VERY frustrated, however we could reason that these were believers from many different churches coming together to be a part of a new church plant, and that it would take time for everyone to get on the same page. It came time for the community group to split into two groups, and the person who was chosen from our group to lead the new group was someone my husband and I felt was the least qualified in terms of having the integrity of someone who would be leading people. He was, however, very similar in personality to the original leader and very enthusiastic about Mars Hill. We decided to go ahead and break off with the new group, as our good friends were not given a choice (they were told they had to go to the new group) and we thought perhaps we could bring balance. We were in our mid 30’s and we were actually the oldest people in our groups. It was later revealed to us by other group members that our original community group leader was actually the “keeper of the gate”. He would report back to Kyle and another pastor about the people in the group and whether or not he thought they were fit for leadership.
Over time it seemed that being involved with Mars Hill took over our lives. I found myself with the women of my community group up to 4 days per week. We were in the midst of the “Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe” sermon series. One of the sermons and subsequent community groups talked about covenants. The term was used very loosely, and it was explained that members were required to sign a membership “covenant”. Our old church did not believe in membership, and so we had some questions about this. We knew that if we did not become members, we would be limited in what we could do as far as service. We asked some friends about the membership process as they had already completed it. They informed us that you did the “Doctrine” series and then you did a membership interview. In that interview they talked with you, I was told you made a giving pledge, and you had to confess a sin that you still struggle with. At some point we were told that your community group leader would “hold you accountable” if you were not meeting your pledge.
I reluctantly asked my husband if he had any concerns about Mars Hill. I knew he would, and I knew that these were irreconcilable. I feared that I would lose the only friends I had made in OC. The next week we both spent a lot of time in prayer and our Bibles. We weren’t sure if we were just rebels (that spiritual manipulation thing is no joke) or if what we were seeing was our sign to get out. We decided that we wanted to keep our reasons private and not cause division among our community group by challenging what Mark calls “open handed” issues. We sent a message on The City to our leaders and anyone whom we felt we owed at least a goodbye because of the friendships we thought we had built in community group. Our message was kind, we said that we felt we were being called elsewhere (we had not found another church yet), and that we loved them and wished them well. We were optimistic in thinking that the church is universal and that we would maintain the friendships we had built. One friend responded passionately and immediately, wanting reasons. I did not feel it was wise to share reasons so I said that we disagreed on some of what Mars Hill considered “open handed” issues and for us they were held tightly in our “closed hand”. We were trying very hard to leave well.
None of the leaders that I messaged responded to me. Our community group leader emailed my husband (which I found odd, since I had sent the message) and demanded that my husband call him so they could set a meeting. My husband did not feel that he needed to make himself accountable to the leader. He had a team of older men from different churches he went to for guidance. Based on the leader’s personality and ambition we knew that it would not end well. My husband informed him that he was welcome to email him his questions, but that we both felt resolute in our decision. He wanted my husband to meet with him so they could discuss all our reasons, and based on our experiences and some of the other experiences we read on the internet, we chose not to subject ourselves to such a meeting. We did not hear anything for a few days.
The silence from the leadership and the people I considered friends was deafening. I was crushed. This was my only group of friends in this town and I felt like I was getting everything taken from me and having to start all over. I was pressed for reasons again by a well-meaning friend and I conceded some of the reasons I was leaving. I left for a women’s retreat with my old church back home for the weekend. About a week later, our community group leader’s wife showed up unexpectedly at my front door. She had tears in her eyes and handed me a sweet card and ran off my porch. It was odd. About 3 hours later, my husband and I received the following email:
On Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 11:47 AM, [CG Leader] xxxxxx <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
[Pam’’s Husband] & Pam,
First off, I want to say that we love you both. Your family has been a blessing to us, the community groups in Irvine and Orange, and the rest of Mars Hill. We are very sad and surprised to see you go.I have no desire to for you to stay at Mars Hill if he’s calling you elsewhere. If he is calling you somewhere else, we want to bless you and send you out joyfully. If he’s not, then you are endangering your family and hurting the church for your own motives.
[Pam’s husband], I wrote to you last week in regards to Pam’s message and was shut down. You both have made some bold statements about the Lord’s calling. I wanted to discuss them with you, but you were unwilling. You said in your email that you believe the Spirit is calling you both, and that it has nothing to do with “human logic”. If it is the Spirit’s calling, you should not be intimidated by discussing how he’s called you and what he’s called you to - especially if it is “tested against scripture.”
You contacted xxx, but were unwilling to speak with me. Pam, Pastor Kyle has also left messages trying to get in touch with you which have been unreturned. Why are you hiding? TBD is not a new church. TBD is isolation from God’s people. You are essential to the body. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (I Cor. 12:21) You may not be official members of Mars Hill yet, but you are members of the body—being served and serving.
Peter calls our struggle as the body a war (I Peter 2:9-13). Our battle is not against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12). How will you wage war alone (Ecc. 4:9-10)? [Pam’s husband], how will lead your family without accountability (Prov. 27:17)?
At Mars Hill you were not merely obtaining a good or service, but you were part of an army of God’s soldiers, living out the gospel in community. Conviction comes in hearing the word of God preached, but confession and repentance come in community.
You fleeing community is not the biggest problem though. The biggest problem is you creating division through your hiding from leadership while calling those in the flock and venting your frustrations. Don’t you find it alarming that you are willing to contact anyone in the community except leadership to discuss this? Because of this, we are removing you from the CG and The City. You are welcome to come back to CG and Mars Hill anytime. Again, we love you and wish to discuss this in person with you both. My hope and prayer is that this message communicates that you are important to and loved by the community, even if the message is a tough one. [Pam’s husband], please call me at714.xxx.xxxx so we can sit down together. -[CG Leader]
Although we never became members, they were trying to require us to explain and hold us to a covenant we did not make. Based on the content of the email, we knew going to community group to be on the hot seat so they could decide if they agreed was unwise and unnecessary. My husband responded and pointed out the manipulation and twisting of scripture. He informed the leader that we would not be sitting down together. I responded with the following email:
Pam responded on Oct 26, 5:53 pm
Dear [CG Leader] and xxxxxx,
When I received your message I was in the middle of writing an explanation to xxxxxx. I was touched that you came by. I was confused by your silence as I value our friendship and wasn’t sure what to make of the silence. This morning after you came by, I felt bad because your note was so sweet and I thought that the sadness in your face was because you had mistaken our vagueness about our reasons as not respecting our friendship. I now realize that it was goodbye because you knew [your husband] would be sending this message today.
I do not feel the explanation I was about to give will be received with an open mind and a heart of love based on the tone of the email we received. Our reasons had nothing to do with the two of you. In the future though, [CG Leader], I would encourage you to LOVE first and question things more carefully. You made a lot of judgments about the condition of our hearts.
I would like to clarify that I did not receive any calls or voicemails from Pastor Kyle. I don’t know what number he was using to try to reach me. I have contacted xxxxxx and made sure that she would make my correct number available to Pastor Kyle. There is no hiding involved, only a simple wrong number. I informed xxxxxxx that I would be happy to speak with Pastor Kyle anytime.
[CG Leader], we are not isolated from God’s people. Being outside of Mars Hill is not isolation from God’s people. Mars Hill is not THE body of Christ, it is part of the larger body. It is dangerous whenever we get into an elitist mindset. Mars Hill (or any other church) does not have the perfect doctrine. Our church is TBD because we have not had the chance to go to ANY OTHER church other than Mars Hill. You spent two paragraphs questioning us and assuming that leaving Mars Hill meant that we were “fleeing community” and going to be rebels for Christ. We fully intend to find a church body that is a good fit for our family and to submit to the Holy Spirit and the pastors he places over us. We understand that OC is full of consumer Christians, but it is an unfair judgment to lump us into that category. We just moved here from a church we attended for 5+ years and would still attend had we not moved. I so much wanted to have what I had back there that I chose Mars Hill before we ever moved…I did not come here and ask God to show us where our family was to go or where He was leading us. And in all this I see that I ran ahead of Him because I was not truly trusting Him to provide what he knew I needed. Mars Hill does a really good job of offering ready made community, but we are in a season where God is calling us to really focus on our kids and our marriage. While that may not be what Mars Hill is teaching, it is what he is showing us nonetheless.
Finally, I am saddened that you all got together to compare notes. The only person I “vented my frustrations” to was Xxxxx. I thought that in friendship and community it is safe and okay to talk with those you trust about the things that are concerning you and for those people to help you work out your feelings and direct you to the Word. I did not know that in community it was fair game to share those “private” conversations.
As I am sure you could discern from [my husband]’s message, we are done. We do not feel it necessary to get together.
Xxxxxx, I LOVE you very much and appreciate your friendship and for all the sweet ways you made me feel loved. Considering the circumstances it is questionable if we will ever hang out again, but I want you to know that I hold you in the highest regard and love and respect you very much.
2 Thessalonians 3:5, 16 NLT
May the Lord lead your hearts into a full understanding and expression of the love of God and the patient endurance that comes from Christ.
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you his peace at all times and in every situation. The Lord be with you all.
After receiving this email, I contacted Pastor Kyle’s wife and let her know, through tears, that I was done and that I was only willing to talk to Kyle at this point. She cried with me. I was emotionally exhausted, and so my husband and I decided he would have that conversation with Kyle. I was done. We were disappointed when Kyle backed our community group leader. We thought that he would hear us out, and perhaps apologize for the leader’s behavior.
That was the last interaction we had with anyone from Mars Hill for quite some time. I was very, very hurt and very, very confused. Since I had lost all of the friends I had in Orange County, I spent a lot of time online trying to make sense of what had happened. In response to a comment made on The Wartburg Watch (a Christian blog), I decided to (anonymously) share my story. I had struggled with what to do with what had occurred. My husband and I wanted to just forget about it and move on, but based on stories we had come across, we knew that our experience was not an isolated incident. What kind of damage is this causing to others? How can we just walk away and be glad that we “dodged the bullet”?
I had already submitted my story several days before it came out. I simultaneously started the Mars Hill Refuge blog (in response to another comment that wondered when a site similar to Sovereign Grace (SGM) Survivors would pop up), which I thought would be some obscure little piece of the internet. I had no idea that just one day prior to my story being told, Matthew Paul Turner would write about Andrew’s discipline contract and shunning. I could not have imagined the chain of events that would follow. Shortly after the release of both our stories, The Stranger wrote an article about Lance. In that article, my blog was linked (without my prior knowledge). This was followed by The Slate Article, which was picked up by the Huffington Post. Then many of us were contacted to participate in the KOMO News Story.The result of all of this unsolicited publicity following the telling of my story has been a response I couldn’t have predicted. People have come forward with their stories in large numbers. Some have been posted publicly, and some have been shared privately. The response has been overwhelming, and each time I have wanted to quit, to walk away from it all, I receive another email, and I know that I must continue to speak out.
In March of 2012, Mars Hill posted “A Call to Reconciliation”. The statement seemed to blur the lines and imply that all of the people speaking out against Mars Hill were under church discipline and were taking those matters public. To clarify, this is the exception and not the rule, as in our case and most others that have been shared, we were not, in fact, under church discipline. And since, in this post as well as the last two responses PR issued, they continued to stand by their stance on church discipline, one which I do not now nor will I ever agree with, I was unable to be reconciled in the way that they wished to reconcile me. Up until this point, I had never been contacted by the CG leader, Kyle (yet), or my friends for apologies, reconciliation or the like. I did feel compelled to attempt reconciliation with people in my story, so I reached out to the friend who had pressed me for reasons. We met that night. This friend and I are still friends today. She was able to fill in some blanks and answer some questions for me. She told me that I was not officially shunned, but that the leader considered us to be under church discipline, even though we had never become members. That is like firing someone who quit yesterday.
As I reflect on my experience I see that in comparison to many others, I was fortunate. I left quickly, and managed to avoid church discipline (because we refused to meet with leaders). I understand why some might think that I have an ax to grind, that I am “bitter,” or that perhaps I am making a bigger deal than need be made. If that was the end of my story, I might agree. It is not.
For so long, I feared telling my friends (back home and new ones) about what had happened, the blog, and how much I was struggling. I had worried about losing more friendships for speaking out against Mars Hill. It is one thing to get nasty comments (like being called Satan) on the Internet or to lose friends you only had for a short while, but the fear of losing the people you love the most is paralyzing. Unfortunately, as I did begin to tell, and began to lose my faith, most of those friendships dwindled to nothing. I only retained one close friend from back home. My experience at Mars Hill and the loss of the friends was confusing and painful. I did not understand how Christian people could treat each other that way, or how the hunger for power could overshadow friendship. I did not understand how people could cut friends out of their life for no good reason. And for a while, I believed that it was one bad experience and that I should just put it behind me. That is what I intended to do.
After we left Mars Hill, we tried several churches, none of which we could call home. We were exhausted. My kids are introverts, and they were tired of going into different rooms full of strangers each Sunday. So were my husband and I. No amount of Starbucks or trips to Krispy Kreme was worth the anxiety that church now created for us. At that time, we planned to move home at the end of the school year. The decision to take a break from church came easy. We felt good about the decision to use our Sunday mornings for family time with our kids. We anticipated that we would return to our home church when we moved. So we rested. We enjoyed our kids. We went to Disneyland.
A few months later, I attended an Anglican church alone. I really wanted to regain what I had lost. As I sat in the seat, I felt like I was going to burst. I was anxious, my heart pounded. I wanted to run out of there. I wanted the sermon to be over and had a hard time following the deacon’s message. He spoke about the spirit giving us wisdom and discernment, and how we are different than normal people because of it. I get what he was trying to say, but it still bothered me. I am a normal person. I am just as confused, broken, lost, and hurting as anyone else. I am not any better, wiser, or more holy. My anxiety continued to build and I couldn’t stay. I went out of the sanctuary. I was at a crossroads. If I went back into the service, I knew what awaited me there. Comfort. Security. Certainty. Restraints. Elitism. Judgment. I looked to my right. It was a long hallway, and at the end was a door with a giant green exit sign above it. On the other side of the glass door was a wall. I could not see what was beyond it. Freedom? Loneliness? Authenticity? A slippery slope? Judgment? Loss?
I was aware as I walked down that hallway toward the EXIT sign that I very well may be walking away from Sunday morning church for the last time.
As the Mars Hill Refuge blog got more publicity, I received story after story similar to mine, and much, much worse. Joyful Exiles was launched. As if those stories were not enough, the thing that really did me in was the comments I received and the attack on my personal character and questioning of my salvation. My Mars Hill experience was the first domino in a series of events that began the deconstruction of my faith. For someone who had a blind faith (since childhood), the deluge of questions was alarming. What did I believe? What could I no longer believe? How do I get over the wall (see Stages of Faith)? Why isn’t this working for me anymore?
I have grieved so many losses. I have lost my “rose-colored glasses”, the belief that Christians play by a certain set of “rules”, the feeling of belonging. I have lost trust in leadership and become suspicious. I have lost the belief that friends will stick by me no matter where I am and not judge me. I have lost black and white thinking and the surety of absolute truth. I have lost the feeling of being truly known by friends and feeling the freedom to just be me, whoever that is, today.
What have I gained? I have gained an “underground railroad” of sorts…people who have been or are on this journey who understand me and are safe. I have realized that we are all wanderers, and that nobody knows all the answers. I have gained confidence in my own ability to discern truth. I have gained compassion for those that consider themselves outsiders and new perspective on political and social issues, such as LGBTQ rights. I have gained friendships with people whom I may not have become friends with (and would have previously judged)…and my life is richer for it. I have gained the conviction that women should be free to use their spiritual gifts and be treated EQUALLY and the empowerment to teach my daughter that she can do anything, she is not limited simply because she is female.
I no longer consider myself a Christian. For me, the most honest answer at this time is “I don’t know.” The idea that we are somehow better, more enlightened, really bothers me. Maybe I am oversensitive to the elitism that is prevalent in Christianity due to some of my experiences. But I have heard this type of thing before, in almost every church I have ever attended, no matter the denomination. I realize that each denomination and religion is a different box I am supposed to fit into and I just don’t. A very wise and trusted friend once explained that we pick what feels good to us and find reasons (theology or denominations) to back up our beliefs…And I have been thinking about that a lot. Isn’t that what everyone is doing, no matter the denomination or God(s)?
The decision to walk away from institutional church is a difficult one to make. I don’t think it is the right answer for everyone, I think it is personal. Many people have had bad experiences and have been able to find refuge in another church. And when children are involved, it is even more complicated. But for me personally, it is no longer life giving. I went through a really hard time. I was very depressed and sought out counseling. I found that I was experiencing a form of PTSD from the move, the Mars Hill experience, the unofficial shunning, loss of friendships back home, and a deconstruction of my faith. I stopped blogging and following what was happening at Mars Hill in an effort to move on and to heal.
Throughout this time, I had intermittent communication with Pastor Kyle’s wife. I learned that Kyle had been let go and that they had to move from OC quickly. Then communication stopped again. This was confusing for me. My husband and I concluded that the church had required him to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and that she was not allowed to speak to me (especially because of my blog). We understood.
When Kyle and others began to speak publicly, I started paying attention again. These were former pastors, and were men, and I had hopes that they would be able to do what I could not because they held more power. Kyle has since personally apologized to me and my husband. While we didn’t entirely blame him, we felt he was complicit for backing the leader. I cannot tell you how healing receiving an apology from him has been. I have been able to rekindle my friendship with his wife (whom I always loved) and I am very grateful for that. I am doing well now. I like who I have become. I am pursuing goals, going back to school, and rebuilding a life I enjoy. My hope is that those who have been harmed by their experience at Mars Hill can arrive at this place.