Friday, June 29, 2018

Warren Throckmorton has a Q&A with Sutton Turner about MH--Turner doesn't say a lot but it says something he's talked to Thorckmorton, a bit more than can be said for others

Slightly surprising at first, Turner is part of the Vanderbloemen group now, which makes it seem ... less surprising.  It's a name that goes back as far as early 2014 in terms of mentions here.

So has Mars Hill Church actually found their Chief Sales & Marketing Officer yet?

In 2014, I could not get a comment from anyone at Mars Hill Church in Seattle about anything. I am sure that most of the leaders there saw me as a serious problem since I wrote so much about the church and problems in leadership there. Eventually, the church closed and distributed assets to several autonomous churches which had been part of the Mars Hill network of locations.

Sutton Turner was one of the executive pastors who presided over growth and decline of the church. Since the closing of the church, Sutton and I have had several friendly conversations about the church and his role in the situation. Because of that, I felt comfortable calling on him to discuss a recent positive move in his life.

Yesterday, I saw an announcement that Sutton has joined Vanderbloemen Search Group, a Christian job search company as Vice President of Candidate Relations. In the announcement, Mars Hill Church is mentioned but there is no direct mention of the downside of the organization. Curious, I asked Sutton some questions about what he had learned at Mars Hill. He was kind to answer them today.


Now for those unfamiliar with the Vanderbloemen Search Group or the name Vanderbloemen we have a few posts from the past that mention William Vanderbloemen pieces and thoughts.

William Vanderbloemen has a captain obvious op-ed on "3 reasons why Mark Driscoll's resignation changes everything", which won't change things

Vanderbloemen misses what Mark might have called the big E on the eye chart, the smaller controversies still had a center, the use of power and money to promote a brand rather than serve the church

The Faults in Our Stars featuring some ... interesting explanations for the resignation of Mark Driscoll

That was a rumination on a Relevant magazine article you can find now via The Wayback Machine.


Driscoll’s style of leadership was, in one sense, part of his pastoral persona. He was the rebel pastor, not afraid to swear or call out sin, sexual or otherwise, and charismatic in his call to “be a man.”
“Mark is a polarizing figure in Seattle and in the Christian community, and that’s kind of his trademark,” says Jennifer McKinney, a professor of sociology at Seattle Pacific University who has studied Mars Hill for the past decade. “That’s partly why he’s so popular, particularly among younger
evangelicals: He says what he wants.”
Driscoll’s polarizing personality was evident particularly in the early days, says Gerry Breshears, a professor at Western Seminary in Portland who mentored Driscoll from about 2000 to 2010 and co-wrote four books with him, including Vintage Church, Vintage Jesus and Doctrine: What Every Christian Should Believe.
“That was back in the days when he got joy from saying he got hate mail from Rick Warren and Mother Jones loved him,” Breshears recalls. “The arrogance was palpable. He was, at that point, the shock jock of preachers.”

So what happened? How did Driscoll go from pastoring an innovative, growing megachurch in 2013 to tendering his resignation before Thanksgiving of 2014?
The events of the past year have been a tipping point, but there were cracks in the foundation years before.
Around 2010, Mars Hill restructured to operate more like a centralized business than a decentralized network of churches—a choice that may have hastened the church’s dissolution, Breshears says.
“The goal was always, ‘We’re going to win more people for Jesus.’ The goal was good. And Mark as a preacher was pretty much right on target, but the high-pressure, performance-driven, get-results culture was deadly,” he says. “The underlying culture increasingly became, ‘We must be business efficient in all we’re doing.’ More and more, Mars Hill became a brand.”

Did Breshears actually ever read that Mother Jones piece that was published about twenty years ago?  The magazine and the contributing author didn't exactly love Mark Driscoll.  Only someone who had not bothered to actually read the MJ article from twenty years ago could have gotten the impression Mother Jones loved Mark Driscoll.  But perhaps we can address that later in a different post.  No, we're looking at something else at the moment.  We still have to get to some of the Breshears commentaries about the decline of Mars Hill at some point ...
That restructuring to go from campuses that had purportedly decentralized leadership to a centralized system happened in 2007, not 2010.  Now maybe something DID happen in 2010 that changed things but whatever it was it wasn't consolidating power into a central management body because that had happened in 2007, notoriously for Mars Hill members and leaders, when the bylaws got revised.  That Breshears thought it happened in 2010 might tell us only that, perhaps, there was a key change within the centralized leadership base at Mars Hill ... but that, too, might be for some other time.  It's germane in the sense that Turner has been willing to talk to Throckmorton and Turner has blogged about how by the time he showed up the finances at MH were a mess and it didn't seem there were necessarily helpful structures in place.  Given how much Driscoll and others talked about the financial transparency and stability of the systems designed by a former MH elder circa 2008 or 2009 ... anyway, that's perhaps for later.  We're looking at comments from William Vanderbloemen in said article. 
“You can love him or hate him, but I don’t think anyone argues with the fact that Mark is just a phenomenal communicator,” says William Vanderbloemen, founder and CEO of the Vanderbloemen Search Group, which oversees pastoral replacement searches for large churches. “When a church finds themselves with a communicator who’s that good, they can leverage that to reach people and run the danger of becoming a personality-driven church, or not leverage it. But if you’re given a gift, you’re supposed to use it.”
Driscoll’s resignation is unusual, Vanderbloemen says, as it was not prompted by serious misappropriation of funds or an inappropriate sexual relationship, but rather by a steady stream of criticism from popular bloggers, some of whom lived nowhere near Seattle.
Unless someone who served as an executive elder at Mars Hill explicitly says for the record to the public that bloggers played a role in informing Mark Driscoll's resignation or, more plausibly, some kind of advice that Mark Driscoll resign, it seems improbable that Mark Driscoll's 2014 resignation could be explained as being any kind of response to a steady stream of any popular bloggers, however "popular" is defined. 
It hasn't been clear how close a relationship, or what kind, Vanderbloemen himself had to Mars Hill or anyone in its leadership that gave him a position from which to make such a statement.  Not saying he "can't" have said what he said, he said it, just that it seems hard to establish that anyone in the Mars Hill BoAA (which included executive elders) ever said that bloggers had anything to do with Driscoll's resignation.
A somewhat more plausible accounting Vanderbloemen gave in a different context.

...Driscoll‘s recent resignation from the church he founded was followed by another shocking announcement: Mars Hill is dissolving by year’s end, with its 11 congregations becoming independent houses of worship.

And Vanderbloemen said that the stunning situation carries with it a plethora of lessons to be learned.

“Mark stepped down at his own choice, but it wasn’t without a lot of pressure,” he said. “Mark’s departure didn’t contain any of the normal elements of a scandal.”

There wasn’t an extramarital affair nor any other explosive singular event that contributed to his downfall, he argued, calling Driscoll a “brilliant communicator.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” Vanderbloemen said, noting that Driscoll ended up leaving over a wide variety of smaller infractions and debates that were perpetuated on the Internet. “We have seen a lot of guys have to leave, but never from the death of a thousand cuts that happened online.”

He continued, “There was a weird sort of perfect storm of critics and disorganization.”
A perfect storm of public criticism (that was, if I mare dare to say, presented with a formidable level of primary source documentation here, and at Throckmorton's blog and a few other places) combined with internal disorganization could make more sense.  If the leadership culture was in turmoil because of high turnover rates at the lower tiers and any level of musical chairs in the upper echelons, both of which can be observed from coverage from the time, that makes a bit more sense.
Still, the death by a thousand cuts explanation falls short of finding a unifying thread that would explain how those thousand little cuts clustered around, if you will, the heart of questions about the integrity and competence of the leadership culture at Mars Hill.
While there may be no consensus as to what the "E" on the eye chart is (and, just so you know, it isn't necessarily always going to be the letter E these days, some places shake things up a bit), it can be argued that the most emblematic focal point for a number of controversies would be the 2012 book Real Marriage. What was in the book, ,how it was promoted, who helped promote it, how it was deployed as a church-wide series and the issue of what footnotes and what thanks weren't in the first edition that showed up in the second edition all coalesce into a potential summation of the crisis of credibility Mark Driscoll in particular and Mars Hill leadership more generally faced--it began to look more and more as though basic competence and ethics were set aside along with the long-term welfare of the local and regional church so as to promote a book published by Mark and Grace Driscoll so as to cement Mark Driscoll's celebrity, in a possibly quite sincere belief that doing so would reach more people for Jesus. 
Now before we get to Turner's Q&A with Throckmorton it seems worthwhile to mention that I've blogged about Mars Hill and its history for ... a few years.  I wrote that I had concerns and mentioned them in a post back in 2012 in response to a post by Jason Blair at the Boar's Head Tavern which ...
But let me quote myself from 2012 about what I considered to be one of the more dangerous and disastrous elements of the MH culture, which had to do with its counseling.
For people who never got any counseling at a church like Mars Hill you may not be aware that there are things you may be asked to sign called waivers.  The things that get waived are stuff like:

1. That this is actually professional medical, psychological or legal advice
2. That this is actually confidential (it's not, they reserve the right to inform law enforcement if what you share turns out to be a matter of breaking a law)

What this means, in essence, is that if you're a regularly giving church member you're obliged to give financial or warrant a talking to but you have no voting rights as a member about things like the appointment of deacons or other matters of church polity at a local level. You have also been given a situation in which to get a counseling session with a pastor you will likely be asked to sign waivers that indemnify them against legal liability for whatever advice they may give you.  They are not required to certify competence in mental health, medical knowledge, or the law and in a non-denominational setting there is not even any need for academic credentialing in theology or the study of biblical literature. 

You have basically tithed for what is considered binding in terms of spiritual discipline within the church but that at a purely legal level might as well be entertainment.  Should it happen that a pastor decides what you have shared should become public knowledge throughout the church, well, we've just been notified of that, haven't we?  If you were asked to confess to some sin that you regularly struggle with as a part of the membership application process you may come to the conclusion, as a friend of mine did, that what this amounts to is leadership having ammunition for a database so that if at some point you dissent from leadership there's something to hold over your head. If the tables are turned and you were to ask the people in authority over you if they have any recurring sins would you get an answer?

And if after all this you go to a pastor for counsel in a church setting like what I saw at Mars Hill what you may get is someone who might be listed as a "biblical living" pastor so there's no misunderstanding about competency. As Steve Hays put it over at Triablogue years ago the tricky thing about "biblical counseling" is that it will only be as good as the exegesis brought to a situation by the nouthetic counselor.  It is not always clear that those nouthetic counselors are competent exegetes.  Some of them are but in the case of a church like Mars Hill what you could get is someone who was appointed to be a "biblical living" pastor whose formal education may have stopped at high school, or an undergraduate degree in business, and who pleads the Holy Spirit and maybe the approval of Mark Driscoll.  I think a thinking man or woman will be forgiven by both God and men for deciding those qualifications just aren't good enough.
When I stopped attending Mars Hill I shared with a local leader at the time that I felt that the Mars Hill approach to pastoral counseling was potentially a disaster waiting to happen in terms of church discipline and in terms of the nature of the counsel. 
I also shared that I was concerned that by committing to constant expansion Mars Hill was acquiring operating liabilities (campuses in lieu of any other concerns) beyond its demonstrable ability to cultivate a stable donor base.  When documents connected to Turner began to be leaked it was only a surprise that the concerns he or associates raised mirrored my own in the sense that the documents began to get leaked.  Anyone who had any time spent in a responsible non-profit could probably have worked out that Mars Hill was anything but a healthy non-profit just in terms of the numbers but I don't want to bore you with too many numbers. 
In the sense that my blog here and other blogs are out there for consideration and consultation the reasons for how and why Mars Hill collapsed are expressed "out there" as well as here for those interested in studying the matter. 
I think Turner himself was able to see some of the reasons, so I don't think we should be too quick to dismiss or praise what he may have to say.  For people with really long memories who have read this blog regularly you might even remember that Turner made a couple of clarifying comments here at Wenatchee The Hatchet, so I hope the record is clear that although comments are moderated (even rather tightly) people can and have made comments about MH stuff here.  I just found it necessary to default to moderation in consideration of people who published stuff I considered immoderate. 
On the whole I haven't read anything by Vanderbloemen that has convinced me he had any particularly accurate understanding or close relationship to people at Mars Hill Church.  So in that sense Turner's presence at the group could be very beneficial to the organization.  Attempting to ensure that everything possible to reduce the likelihood of another Mars Hill style leadership culture fiasco is a worthy goal.  Whether it's achievable ... remains to be seen ... or ... perhaps I should say that I no longer regad it as a given that the old "ideas have consequences" bromides are going to be of much help here.  If Catholics were to suggest that Calvinistic determinism explains the power madness they'd best consider what's been reported of Catholic scandals around power and disclosure.  NOt that Protestants or Orthodox are better, really, and my point is that orthodoxy by itself cannot be construed as a comprehensive preventative measure against abusive conduct by leaders.  Even atheist groups and scientific communities are clearly not immune, either.  We need to aspire to a point at which we refuse to "no true Scotsman" whatever "our" or "my" team is with respect to the abuse of power and trust. 
If folks from the Vanderbloemen group want to read this blog or Throckmorton's as a chronicle of what was perceived to be going on that might be something the group could find useful. 
As to the questions themselves, we'll pass over the first question.  Anyone with an interest in church history might want to see what can be learned about how to not manage a church as a social system or culture from Mars Hill. While no doubt "culture" gets used a lot it's one of those in-jargon terms where once you have a clear sense of what it's used for it's not especially alienating or irritating.  I did, after all, just read through Jessica Johnson's book Biblical Porn and managed to work out the reasons why she used "affect" in light of contemporary academic nomenclature rather than "charisma" but that's just an example--every field of study has some alienating jargon but someone with an actually scholarly bent knows you have to slog through the jargon. 

If anything in the wake of the publication of Johnson's book I would suggest that if Christians of any kind but evangelicals in particular want to get a clearer understanding of what happened then the scholarship and historiography simply needs to be done.  My concern in the last few years since Mars Hill collapsed is that too many evangelicals have, it seems, tried to pretend that what happened at Mars Hill was a fluke or so far off the "norm" that it wasn't something to talk about.  Even some coverage of Driscoll in the last few years has said that he was alleged to have plagiarized.  Well if it was just alleged what accounts for the difference between first and second edition printings of Real Marriage?  Anyway ...
Throckmorton: Many on the outside and inside at the time have questioned the health of Mars Hill. First, do you agree that Mars Hill while you were there was not a healthy church? In what ways did that lack of health manifest itself?

Turner: I believe until we get to heaven, there will not be a “perfect church” with a “perfect culture.”  All churches have areas to improve, just like all Christians have areas to improve.   I loved Mars Hill and I love the people of Mars Hill Church.  During my time there, I saw a faith family grow in their knowledge of the Bible, their heart for worship, and their service to others.  But Mars Hill had many areas to improve that were never addressed, some of which led to its closure.  Culture quickly is created by the decisions of leadership, and once the culture is created, it is very difficult to change.  Culture can be changed, but it takes committed leadership to make that happen.

Now anyone can say that there will never be a perfect church this side of the eschatological closure of space and time and this universe as we know it.  :)  Culture is important ... and I've blogged a bit about how some of the clarifying explanations Turner gave in the post-collapse moment had me wondering whether the people who told him the history of Mars Hill told him accurate accounts.  It was strange to observe that when Turner revised the leadership systems he brought back into the formal fold some men who had played an advisory role in the 2006-2007 reorganization.  For instance, Larry Osborne had played an advisory role to Driscoll during the earlier re-org
Throckmorton: What can you tell us about what you learned in your position at Mars Hill which can help you help others develop a healthy church?

Turner: Over the last 4 years, I have studied the culture from Mars Hill and talked extensively to people that were negatively affected by the culture and its leaders.  I am building a set of material from this research to help other organizations which I have shared with several pastors and leaders.  They have identified one or two of these areas they see in their own church culture that needs improvement.   I hope to use my experience to help other leaders and pastors in the future while at Vanderbloemen.
As in a book?  Something that could be made available to the public? Or something for use within the context of Vanderbloemen Search Group?  It's possible that we could say that Mars Hill's explosive growth might be like explosive growth in other companies, wherein an explosion of growth in a company can often be linked to an explosion of debt ... but we're getting ahead of the questions here.

Throckmorton: The growth of the church was remarkable, and yet the implosion was also remarkable. What observations can you offer about the rise and fall of Mars Hill?

Turner: Well, this is exactly the material I have been working on.  Trying to research the elements of the culture of Mars Hill and see what can be learned by its dramatic rise and fall.   Mars Hill started in the late 1990s.  The culture was created over the decade before Pastor Dave Bruskas and I joined senior leadership.  However, I fully believe that as John C. Maxwell says “everything rises and falls with leadership.”  In 2015, I wrote several blogs about what I learned and stated:
I have written about my personal journey of repentance and forgiveness (Part 1 & Part 2). Many will say that Pastor Dave and I did not do enough to change the culture; which is fair and certainly true, but only those who worked within the inner circle know how hard we tried.
Right now, I continue to research and document what I have learned from the Mars Hill experience.  I continue this effort to help people heal and help other leaders learn from the culture of Mars Hill.   No one wants to see what happened at Mars Hill ever happen again.  As a leader that was front row to the last 4 years of the church and created the plan to disband the church into independent churches, I have a good perspective to hopefully use my experience to help others.

So the answers were, a bit plain and I can't say I expected them to be very detailed.  If Turner is working for the Vanderbloemen Search Group there's probably only so much he can really say.  A consultation group has its IP issues and so on and one can only guess that unlike the punitive non-disclosure agreements Mars Hill seemed to put in place AFTER they canned people, it's more common in businesses to have a non-disclosure as one of the preliminary conditions of steady employment. So if there's a bunch of stuff Turner can't say yet because his material collation is part of a process he's doing as an employee, well, hey, understood. 

If there's going to be a book about the rise and fall of Mars Hill that's not an academic monograph or a business resource that book remains to be written.  Not so sure I feel like doing it myself a good deal of the time.  Regular readers will note how much this blog has shifted toward arts and music in the last few years. 

So it's interesting Turner was willing to talk to Throckmorton.  In that sense the question that springs to mind is would Driscoll be willing to talk to Throckmorton at this point?  Probably not.  Would Bruskas?  Would Bruskas consider it?  For that matter might a Matt Rogers or a Jon Phelps or a Michael Van Skaik?  Or a Tim Smith?  Or a Jamie Munson? 

As tempting as it is for some to propose that Turner didn't really answer the questions I frankly wouldn't expect him to just knowing the tiny bit about where he works for.  There's a lot he may not be at liberty to say.  That is not in itself any proof that he's hiding something for bad reasons.  I know of someone who once had a temporary job at the Census Bureau and that involved promising to not disclose stuff.  it's common enough in contemporary work.  So the question behind the Q&A that I'm directly asking is whether other people who have been associated with or in advisory roles to Mars Hill leadership would be willing to talk to Warren Throckmorton?  Would Larry Osborne be game?  Would C. J. Mahaney be game?  This is less a question about whether the statements given in answer to questions by Throckmorton if an interview happened would be substantial and more a question of if any of these aforementioned men would even agree to talk on the record to begin with.


It does seem as though what Turner basically gave by way of the interview was an advertisement for his current employer. I suppose that in some lines of work promoting things is part of the job, many a job, but it seems as though whatever lessons there are to be learned about the demise of Mars Hill should not automatically require consulting with an organization like the Vanderbloemen Search Group.  It's not that you "can't" pay people like that to tell you stuff, it's that I was not persuaded that the "lessons" Vanderbloemen had for church leaders about 1) how you should have a succession plan and 2) the internet is so fierce these days and pressure from bloggers had anything at all to do with Driscoll's decision to resign (which, to this day, I'm not sure Driscoll has ever even once said informed his decision to resign from Mars Hill)  really can be drawn from the demise of Mars Hill. 

I would say it's probably more accurately said that if your church is a brand and that brand lives by the social and mass media sword then expect it to be possible for the brand to die by the social and mass media sword. 


While at one level it would be easy for someone to be cynical about Turner promoting Vanderbloemen Search Group as his new employer there's such a thing as not forgetting international issues, foreign policy concerns, and the like.  Does anyone who is familiar with what Sutton Turner used to do think that the age of Trump is really the best time to try to return to United Arab Emirates or Qatar?  Anybody forget that part? Wenatchee The Hatchet sure didn't.

Before I got hired at Mars Hill, I spent a few years in Qatar and the U.A.E. working for Middle Eastern royalty. These were billion-dollar businesses with thousands of employees. Money was no object. We could ring up the charges, rack up personal expenses, and the Sheikh just kept filling the account. It was awesome.

Working for a church, my salary is no longer what it used to be, nor is my job. I’m analyzing $4.90 lattes and scrutinizing nearly every dollar that goes out the door to ensure that our staff stewards the church’s resources well. It gets tedious at times, but the little stuff matters to me, because it matters to Jesus.

Going back to work in the UAE or Qatar might not be the greatest move for a family man who spent the last near-decade with his family in the United States.  There's such a thing as being skeptical about the Christian industrial complex while not forgetting that a guy has to have a day job that can pay the bills if he's set on bein ga family man.   

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