Monday, June 18, 2012

Mars Hill selling The City an overview of the role of Zack Hubert in Mars Hill

November 4, 2007
Pastor Mark Driscoll

Third man I’ll tell you about is Zack Hubert. He’s working at I think he has a master’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in theology. He’s smart. He was making very significant money writing code and doing programming for the website. Loves Jesus. We approached him. He was an Elder candidate. Said, “Would you take over all of our web development at Mars Hill Church? To do that, you would need to finish the eldership process. You would need to resign your job. You need to take a significant pay cut. And Mars Hill has a nice website, but it’s not nearly as cool on your resume at And it will come to you and your family at the expense of your life’s earnings. Millions of dollars – you will give up millions of dollars.”

Here’s what he said. “It’s best for Mars Hill Church. That’s my church. I love that church. I’d love to do that.” Resigned, walked away from a prominent job, millions of dollars, to humbly serve at Mars Hill. We make him an Elder at the level of Director. Why? Because God opposes the proud and he gives grace to the humble. That’s how he works.

Zack Hubert designed what is now The City.

Zack Hubert's Experience 

The City 

Public Company; 11-50 employees; NWS; Computer Software industry 
November 2008 – April 2011 (2 years 6 months) Greater Seattle Area 

Founded and built The City (, a social network for churches. Built part of every aspect of a Facebook-like social network with hundreds of thousands of active users.

The City was acquired by Zondervan/HarperCollins/NewsCorp in 2008 and I remained through 2011 leading product development and as a VP within Zondervan. I spent about 80% of my time actively writing code.

The City has continued to grow and remains number one in this social networking niche.

Pastor of Technology 

Mars Hill Church 

Nonprofit; 51-200 employees; Religious Institutions industry 

March 2007 – November 2008 (1 year 9 months) Greater Seattle Area 

Following the incredible experience at Amazon, I wanted to take a position where I could dedicate my background towards the common good. Mars Hill was a great fit as it's similar to Amazon in it's high rate of change and innovative drive, being ranked as one of the fastest growing and most innovative churches in the country for several years running.

In my time there, I led a multidisciplinary team through many technology projects ranging from IT to Software Engineering while also serving on the Board of Directors.

You can go read up the rest at his profile if you like.  Now when he stopped being a pastor was in November 2008.  For those who didn't hear the news at the time, this was because Mars Hill sold The City to Zondervan and Hubert left to join Zondervan.  The sale of The City
Zondervan Takes On The City
By Pastor Jamie Munson
November 24, 2008

The City began last spring when we introduced the custom online network to Mars Hill members. Pastor Zack Hubert built The City as a resource for our church community, a way to enhance the real relationships within our ministries, staff, and congregation. Last week, Zondervan purchased The City and plans to make it available to churches throughout the world. On Thursday I sent out a letter to the Mars Hill Church congregation (PDF) to announce the news and explain some of the details. In addition, Zondervan distributed a press release that has been published by many news outlets, including MarketWatch and Yahoo! Finance. At Mars Hill, we’re excited that The City now belongs to somebody who will be able to improve this useful resource for the benefit of the greater church. Visit for more information about the vision and purpose of The City.

Driscoll mentioned that the 2008 year was the year they didn't make budget.

According to the FY09 Annual Report total income were $10,788,624 and total expenses were $10,880,067. That's a negative $91,443.  So they didn't make budget but in a budget in the zone of $10.78 million failing by 90k might not be too bad, would it? Given all the controversies about firings and leadership decisions and property purchases that wasn't much more than a drop in the bucket.

In the 2008-2009 numbers from the FY09 report, even discounting revenue from the sale of The City, things seemed to be looking fine.

Still, it seemed that the sale of The City to Zondervan was considered a helpful thing.
Part 4 Generous (Part 2B)
December 21, 2008

Pastor Munson:

So, a couple things I want to hit. You guys are all familiar with The City. Anyone not familiar with The City? That’s our custom, social, online network that Pastor Zack Hubert developed. This is real exciting. We were able to build this in-house. It’s a custom network for Mars Hill. It allows us to communicate. To interact as a community. To reinforce the community that is Mars Hill Church – the daily life of the church.

We set out to build this, ‘cause some of our old systems were just not working for us.[emphasis added] And never set out to sell the thing, but in God’s grace, a couple months ago, as we’ve been using this, a bunch of people have taken interest. Zondervan, a big company, a big Christian media company, came to us and said, “Hey, we’d like to buy that.”

What problems those were Munson doesn't explain.  There was that press release sent off by someone to The Stranger but The City was getting brainstormed before any of that came up. It may simply have been that entrepreneurial spirit carried the day for Hubert, who had also made a fantastic site called Re:Greek. If there were problems with the old platforms known as Midrash, a php discussion forum, it was often that virtually none of the moderators seemed all that genuinely interested in moderating discussions that sometimes got out of hand.  At least one pastor at the time would know I thought this because I told that pastor this was what I considered to be the problem.  Rather than have pastors take more initiative to moderate on a php setting perhaps it just worked better to have a top down access point.  Okay, fair enough.

If one of the problems was a belief that documents were getting leaked and that The City was going to be a way to tamp down on that then Andrew's disciplinary case in 2012 showed us that didn't work.

For that matter ...
Jeremy Echols says:
October 18, 2008 at 2:50am

Just go read it.  If this guy was a Mars Hill member in 2008 what he wrote should feel a bit awkward to read.  If this guy was a real person I hope he's become a different sort of person than the sort of guy he was when he made that comment.  If it was posted on The City rather than announced in some other Mars Hill associated setting that "might" have been a tip-off that they wanted that news to remain undiscussed.

Now with that out of the way, back to Munson explaining the sale of The City.

So, we started working with them, negotiating with them, figuring out, “Okay, what would this look like? How do we make this work?” Tons of details. We wanted to make sure that the church is protected in it. That it’s not something where we’re selling our data, or anything like that, but that they want to take the tool and leverage it for other churches to go use.

This is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in terms of a church developing a piece of technology that a for-profit company is then coming in and purchasing.

We get to continue to use it free as a church. It’ll continue to be private. Our data is not being sold, nothing like that. We’re not gonna have banner ads.

It’ll exist how it is, plus they’re putting a lot more staff into it than we were able to. We had Zack and another part-time – or a couple employees that were working very part-time on The City.

They’re gonna build a staff in Seattle of about 15 people that Zack’ll go and oversee and work with. And they’ll make the tool even better. So, we get to use it. In that, we’ve been given $4 million to steward. It’s a gift that’s come to Mars Hill Church, and we want to share with you what we’re going to do with those funds.

So, we’ll walk through this quickly. The escrow and potential taxes – 1.6 million. There’s a chance the proceeds will be taxed. Our accountant doesn’t think so, but we want to be sure. We want to be safe. We want to put some money in the bank that can just earn interest, that can protect us. In case it is, we’ll have that money set aside.

So, we’ll know that in the next few months. But for – in the meantime, we’re just gonna safeguard and put that in the bank. In addition, we’re gonna bolster up our cash reserves. We always have a cash reserve to float us in times of lean giving. To float us in times of seasonal giving, when the summer’s down or the winter’s up. It allows us just to continue to operate.

Later in the presentation Munson mentioned:

Next piece--what is our economic plan for 2009? We want to finish 2008 as close to being on budget as possible. We had a $200,000.00 deficit going into December. We'd like to make that up if possible. Given the weather, given the economy, we're not sure that we will, but we'd like to. That's what we're praying for.

If we don't, and regardless of we're reducing our budget and scaling back for 2009, just running as lean, as tight, as nimble as we possibly can, Ballard is going to take the biggest hit on that. And so, you guys are gonna have to step up more than ever to serve, to get involved, to give, to just be a part of what's going on.

Our base budget will be about $210,00 a week. And in that, we'll continue to give 10 percent of the money away to church planting and Vision Nationals, which is the orphanage minsitry and church planting ministry in India. 

I don't know if any of you were ever actually on The City in 2008 but it honestly was not that cool.  Compared to the Re:Greek website Hubert had been working on around the time he seemed to be working on The City, The City was just an insider Christian hybrid variant of MySpace and Facebook. Its bells and whistles were that it was invitation only and allowed for top-down information access and control.  If Hubert had fun designing it and it's useful to churches that's great. I found it to be mostly useless and of virtually no value.  If one of the big disciplinary moves regarding Andrew was to block him from The City he didn't lose anything of the slightest value.

To go by the annual reports the financial pinch of `08 wasn't a disaster if you just look at income over expenses.  Why I'd end up hearing reports of layoffs and so on in subsequent years is a puzzle to me.  What exactly were people at Mars Hill doing that people would get laid off as soon as eight to ten months after being hired? For those who have read about how Mars Hill prepares video relay preaching red cameras are not exactly cheap, are they?  The sale of The City was a boon for Mars Hill but I admit I'm not sure what was so big about the financial crunch Mars Hill faced just going by annual reports.  Was it possible they were just expanding faster than they had budgeted for or something?  I don't know.

In case readers may have wondered about how I manage to dig up so much information, no, The City isn't of any relevance to the research I've done. For instance, I figured out Noriega stopped being employed by looking at publicly accessible campus pastor listings and the general pastor listing (which some may have noticed can't be linked to from some in-process MH sites). A great deal can be found out simply by considering transcripts of Driscoll sermons; some consultation (in the past) of the now-suspended campus blog archives; and a lot of digging around the internet for external coverage; much of which can make reference to primary sources.  That and Mars Hill pastors love to blog and tweet.  They can't help themselves apparently.  If you have the interest and patience for a lengthy discussion of that topic ...

Now Hubert doesn't seem to be a pastor anywhere and he doesn't even seem to be employed.  The economy has been rough so I hope he's gainfully employed somewhere or at least not in bad financial straits. Yes, people may think that this is a blog that writes critical this and that but I don't want fellow believers in financially bad spots.  I don't get why anyone would have thought The City was actually cool but I have written a lot of stuff that a lot of people don't find interesting so different strokes.

Zack Hubert, like James Noriega, appears to be one of the men Driscoll mentions in the "Joy in Humility" sermon who doesn't appear to be employed in any way by Mars Hill and whose whereabouts are largely of no concern for public discussions and presentations by Mars Hill leadership.  When he designed The City and the sale of The City got Mars Hill a substantial sum of money there was some mention of him.  But how's he doing now?  How's Noriega doing now?

With this post I have covered three of the four men mentioned in "Joy in Humility" from 2007.  I don't know much of anything about Steve Tompkins. He's still pastor at the Shoreline site and that for a surprisingly long time, maybe five or six years? Each of the four men were described by Driscoll as men who were seeking humility.  It seemed that seeking humility meant doing things for Mars Hill at the expense of their previous careers, at least the way Driscoll seemed to tell it.  I can only guess as to whether or not Zack Hubert, James Noriega, Steve Tompkins and Tim Beltz can all look back on the last five years and say everything they did was totally worth it and what was best for Jesus was exactly what Driscoll and Mars Hill leadership suggested it was.  Was it?  Honestly I don't really know.

I'm sure there are plenty of stories people would like to share. Hubert played an apparently tiny role in the story of Paul Petry's firing mentioned over at Joyful Exiles.  I'm aware of people who ended up afoul of him.  This post is mainly about The City and Zack Hubert's role in that and handling website stuff for Mars Hill, apparently at the request of Mark Driscoll and others.  "Joy in Humility" is another sermon from "The Rebel's Guide to Joy" that doesn't seem to offer a whole lot of exegesis or even much application.  On the other hand, as a testament to the life and times and anxieties and boasts of Mark Driscoll the Phillipians series remains a fascinating and highly informative excerpt of Mars Hill history if you're willing to cross reference a few sentences in sermons to correspondence, documents and testimony from Mars Hill members from that time.

Well, where ever Zack Hubert may be I hope he's gainfully employed or is so soon. It's a miserable job market out there.  Just because I have had had a few concerns I'm willing to blog about doesn't mean I want fellow Christians or just fellow humans in general stuck in a jobless rut.  It's not a good place to be.

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