Thursday, April 26, 2012

Excerpts from two Seattle P-I articles on former MH pastor James Noriega

Updated 10:00 p.m., Tuesday, June 1, 2004 dated 10:00 p.m., Tuesday, June 1, 2004

James Noriega didn't know he'd sold drugs to an undercover police officer until the day he was baptized.

Recognized by a member of the congregation who happened to be a an officer, Noriega was escorted from the church, his face still dripping.

It wasn't a setup, Noriega said, unless you appreciate the Almighty's sense of humor. It was karmic payback, his life catching up with him -- and his own yearning to put despair behind him.

Like many of the homeless and formerly homeless men who come to Seattle's Union Gospel Mission legal clinic, Noriega had been seeking legal advice, but hoped for transformation. Like many others, he has found both.

"Meth made me someone I wasn't," says Noriega, 37, who went to prison for a year, instead of the five years he might have served, helped by Union Gospel Mission's legal clinic and a substance-abuse program run by the faith-based mission.

When she got the children, he [Noriega] discovered drugs. Then he discovered unemployment. He hit the streets, still masking pain with meth.

"She couldn't -- and didn't -- claim domestic violence or anything like that," Noriega said. "It came down to the fact she didn't love me anymore. I loved my kids. My heart was broken. I quit going to work ... I didn't have anything, yet I was supposed to pay $900 a month in child support."
The legal clinic has helped Noriega, now a counselor with the mission, repay child support, get out of debt and start anew.

On New Year's Eve last year, he married a woman he met through a Christian dating service and "has a chance to be a dad again" to her 10-year-old daughter.

"God works through the cracks of our lives," Noriega said. "I've learned not to be afraid of cracks."

The above article mentions James Noriega's baptism in June 2004. The following article indicates Noriega was newly ordained in November 2004.
Published 10:00 p.m., Thursday, November 25, 2004

Years in and out of jail, shuffling through foster homes and living on the street made the thought of marriage incomprehensible to Brian Ostertag.

He couldn't find his own way, let alone finding that kind of connection with someone else.
James Noriega had found it once, before divorce sent him into a drug-fueled tailspin that ended in a Pioneer Square park one cold December night.

Back then, neither could have imagined the path of despair and redemption, of faith and friendship, that would bring them together in a downtown Seattle church yesterday.

It was a first for both -- Ostertag's first marriage, and newly ordained pastor Noriega's first wedding ceremony -- but they seemed calm

... The chain of events that landed Noriega at the same shelter was set in motion in 1996, when his high school sweetheart and the mother of his two children divorced him. His whole identity was wrapped up in being a husband and a father, and when that disintegrated, Noriega lost his grip.
"I just never really got over the divorce," the 38-year-old said.

Drugs became a salve, and Noriega was soon in the throes of a serious methamphetamine addiction. At its peak, he was using about $100 worth of drugs daily. He lost his job at a Puget Sound shipyard. The felonies followed, and the former family man, who'd never had so much as a parking ticket in his life, ended up in prison.

After being released, Noriega turned to family members and friends. But he was a liability, and no one would take him in. One chilly night in December 1999, he found himself sitting on a bench in Occidental Park -- the same bench he'd walked by years earlier on his way to a football game with friends. A homeless man was there at the time, praising the Lord. What a pathetic sap, Noriega thought to himself.

I’ll give you an example. In the middle of our reorganization as a church – we go to multiple campuses – we’ve just reconstituted what we’re calling a Board of Directors. It is sort of a senior level of eldership that oversees a lot of the policies and procedures for the whole church, and I was meditating on it this week. And I could tell you about all the men on the board. I’ll just tell you of a few. These are new men that were recently added to this board, and the one common thread which I see weaves all their stories together is this, humility. Not that they are humble, but they are pursuing humility by God’s grace.


The last one is James. He was running a drug and alcohol treatment center, I think for the Union Gospel Mission. He was an elder at Doxa Church in West Seattle. He and Pastor Bill were there and I approached them and said, “I think we should partner together,” and turned that building into Mars Hill West Seattle. I don’t know what the building’s worth – $4 million, whatever. He said, “Well what’s the deal?” I said, “Give us the building, resign as elders, work through the membership process, work through the eldership process. I guarantee you nothing – no power, no job, no eldership. If you meet the qualifications and the men vote you in, we’ll make you an elder, but I guarantee you no job. Nothing. If you believe it’s right for Jesus, give us the building, resign, give up all power of authority, give up your position. Walk away from it all for the cause of Jesus.”

He said, “Okay, I think it’s best for Jesus.” He resigned, voted to hand us the building and the people. Humbly went through the eldership process. After he finished the membership process, oversees our drug and alcohol addiction recovery. We just voted him onto the Board of Directors. Why? Because God opposes the proud and he gives grace to the humble.

What's the baseline for "pursuing humility" here? If you go read the sermon transcript the base-line for seeking humility seems to be, by Driscoll's stories about these men, that they agreed to quit their old jobs and go work for Driscoll. In some cases Driscoll told them he thought that was what was best for Jesus.  So Noriega (and Tim Beltz and Zack Hubert and Steve Tompkins, also mentioned in the sermon) quit his job at Doxa and went through the eldership process at Mars Hill. Apparently Noriega met the qualifications and got voted on to the Board of Directors and placed in charge of addiction and recovery despite having, it seems, only been a believer for a few years.

Noriega's story is inspiring but it also suggested a man who was not yet ready to get any elder job if we take 1 Timothy to heart.  Didn't Driscoll preach from these text in 2004?

1 Timothy 3:1-7 (NIV)
Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.  Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,  not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.  He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.  (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)  He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.  He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

1 Timothy 5:22 (NAS)
Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.

Now maybe it's just me but couldn't six months between a reported baptism and a reported ordination seem like a remarkably fast track to eldership? Maybe even a disastrously fast track?  I'd like to think that Mars Hill wouldn't have fast-tracked anyone that way.  Noriega wasn't, so far as I can tell, ordained by Mars Hill but Doxa, which was an Acts 29 church plant, right?

And yet Noriega was not only accepted into eldership despite this background, he got voted on to the Board of Directors and put in charage of drug and alcohol recovery groups.  I'm glad if he's not an amphetamine junky any more, really, but giving a new Christian that much power and influence that quickly seems like it would have been a recipe for disaster.  Giving someone that new to the faith status on the Board of Directors in what functionally amounts to a denomination looks like a slowed down promotion track but increases influence. Giving that person a role contributing to what is now Redemption Groups expands the potential influence even further.

As I've noted earlier this week:

Mike Wilkerson credited Noriega with coming up with the mixed group model redemption group prototypes that became important to the Redemption Groups content Mars Hill has been using and promoting over the last few years.

But during the process when this development was taking place (it seems around 2007 into 2008) Noriega had been a baptised Christian since ... June 2004? Would someone who had been baptised as a Christian in 2004 and was on the Board of Directors of one of the fastest growing churches in America co-leading a ministry to the most broken and wounded Christians in the local church have been jet-setted a little too quickly into a position with a large amount of influence and power? All the above is simply publicly accessible content but what's not publicly accessible is this, what were the reasons men affiliated with Doxa and Mars Hill had for fast-tracking Noriega into such high levels of leadership so quickly? 

If Noriega's rise to pastoral leadership in an Acts 29 church and later within Mars Hill was meteoric it would appear that the same has been true about his disappearance and/or fall. This seems sad to me because it would seem as though anyone who had actually bothered to read the Bible and took seriously what it said about the qualifications and installation of elders would not have rushed the project so swifly in the first four years so that the next four years would not have to have come to a point where Mark Driscoll isn't even mentioning James Noriega's name in public discussions of Redemption Groups and Noriega has vanished from the elder listings. 

Whatever the reasons Noriega is no longer an elder at Mars Hill now, given what the Scriptures teach about elder qualification and installation, it's a shame to think that whatever did happen might have been avoided if people in Doxa and Mars Hill had not been so quick to lay on hands and then promote through the ranks of power. Whatever "pursuing humility" was now in hindsight looks like little more than agreeing to do what Mark Driscoll asked. Futhermore, the very point in 2007 at which Driscoll announced Noriega was voted to the Board of Directors and put in charge of alcohol and drug addiction recovery should have been the point at which Driscoll and the other Mars Hill elders should have put on the brakes and assessed whether the jump from baptised Christian to elder wasn't a little too quick, let alone promotion to the Board of Directors or having influence of ministries to the most broken and wounded (and often new) Christians. A four year old Christian (if Noriega was baptised soon after his conversion, which maybe isn't what happened) doesn't seem ready to be put in charge of tending to bruised reeds when he may still be a bruised reed himself and not yet ready for ministry.

It's too bad.  I may not know all of what happened but considering what is publicly available and what it indicates about a preciptious set of moves that seemed to be done in willful ignorance of scriptural instruction it still seems too bad.


Anonymous said...

WHOA! Did I sense a hint of humility in your comments there? I caught a few qualifying statements about your lack of complete knowledge of the situation and a presentation of your opinion as just that, your opinion. This post actually raises what may be a legitimate concern over a situation that could have or should have been handled differently. It also leaves open the possibility that due to the circumstances as they were, the best thing to do was to remove Noriega as an elder or reassign his responsibilities, but I don't want to speculate too much there :) I'm sure my opinion means little to you, but I wanted to commend you on this post.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I've got a somewhat different take. The entirety of 1 Timothy can't be evaded or sugarcoated here. Noriega should never have been ordained so soon after baptism and he shouldn't have been grandfathered into MH eldership. I doubt the majority of MH knew Noriega was such a novice to the faith with felonies in his history or that his second marriage was so new.

Sure, people could say that all this was covered in the Seattle P-I but anyone who's lived in Seattle over the last ten years already knows why so many people DON'T READ the Seattle P-I. They would also probably remember the P-I switched from being a print paper to being only on-line over the course of the last eight years. So I can understand a number of possible reasons why many MH elders simply wouldn't have known about the various red flags about Noriega's elder candidacy.

Unfortunately even when I consider those reasons they don't do anything to dispel 1 Timothy 5:22, do they? At least if elders voted in Noriega NOT knowing his history they did something in ignorance. Scripture indicates that inadvertant sins are able to be disastrous but are inadvertant. But were there elders who KNEW Noriega was a spiritual novice, had a history of felonies, and had only recently entered his second marriage after converting and still voted him onto eldership anyway? If there were then those men, if there were any such men, are completely without excuse for ignoring multiple red flags about a lack of a man's qualification for eldership, aren't they? I hope there aren't any such men.