Thursday, June 07, 2012

Mars Hill Downtown and the not quite secret shopper

The history of Mars Hill going multisite has been presented to us by Mars Hill as what has been for Jesus' fame.  We got tales of amazing gifts of real estate that land in the lap of Mars Hill in Driscoll sermons in 2006 and 2007.  Driscoll specifically mentioned the West Seattle property and a sweet rent-free deal to use CRISTA Ministries' Schirmer Auditorium.

By contrast, the late 2007 acquisition of what is now Mars Hill Downtown was a quiet affair.  In contrast to the $1.5 million capital campaign of 2005 the nearly $4 million purchase of Tabella was not discussed much until after the purchase had been made..  In fact The Stranger was the first publication to document that a bid was even being made in September 2007, a month before the purchase was announced.  At least some Mars Hill members were left blindsided by the realization that the Mars Hill hating newspaper The Stranger appeared to be more informed about Mars Hill property acquisitions than they were.

In order to understand the potential significance for this purchase we'll have to take a digression into Mars Hill bylaws circa mid-2007, before the firings of 2007 went down.  They may shed some light on how to understand the property purchase.

But first let's begin with the initial coverage of The Stranger.
Jonah Spangenthal-Lee

According to a source, Mars Hill Church is buying…TABELLA. Yes, Tabella, recently caught up in Mayor Nickel’s nightlife holocaust, could end up as a new Mars Hill venue—much like the old Paradox—or as a new Belltown rock-a-church.

According to the King County assessor’s website, there hasn’t been a sale. We’ve got calls out to Mars Hill and Tabella and we’ll update soon.

The first update is so meaningless I won't bother citing the non-statement from Tim Gaydos.  update 2, however, is worth noting.

Update x2:

Tabella’s owner, Kauser Pasha, says Tabella hasn’t been sold yet, but he’s is in talks with Mars Hill Church and several other potential buyers.

It's noteworthy because, obviously, Mars Hill bought the property which has since become Mars Hill Downtown.

The above Aubrey Cohe article published at 10:00 pm on Monday October 22, 2007 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer established that Tabella Restaurant and Lounge at 2333 Western Avenue was up for sale.  Mars Hill agreed to pay $3.95 million for the site.

October 22, 2007
Sanjay Bhatt, a Seattle Times staff reporter, also confirm3ed Mars Hill was buying the property.

And on the same day Jonah Spangenthal-Lee reminded readers of The Stranger that they had speculated that Mars Hill was going to buy the property and that this turned out to be correct.

In their ever tasteful approach to coverage this was followed up by Dan Savage's commentary on October 23, 2007. Not for the squeamish. You can probably skip the commentary from Savage if you have any doubts and it's Savage ranting about Seattle Times coverage of gays, which has little to do with a discussion of Mars Hill real estate acquisitions.

The main point is that this this was news.  In fact it was bigger news to some Mars Hill members than to staff at The Stranger, The Seattle Post-Inteligencer or the Seattle Times because the newspaper outlets verified the bid and purchase before members even heard anything.

from page 3
Trevor Kapralos
November 1, 2007
Ask Your Elders Anything thread


Like the others who have posted earlier, thanks for the chance to pose a question.

... One additional, unrelated question, I recently read n the newspaper that our church has purchased/is purchasing a nightclub in downtown Seattle for the downtown campus. Of course it is no secret that we want to start a downtown church. Upon reading it in teh newspaper, I searched the Members site for mention of the intent to purchase the property, but I could not find any information on it. (Perhaps I missed it). My question is, would the elders consider finding a way (either on the website or some other appropriate means) to notify the members of the church when it makes public final decisions like buying property? It seemed strange to read about our church making the purchase in the newspaper, and not being able to find any information about it on the Members Site. I think the church should consider notifying members before we read about it in the newspaper.

So we've established that Mars Hill made a bid to buy a piece of property for $3.95 million.  The Stranger learned of this by September 21 2007.  It was confirmed a month later.

Now here's some bylaws trivia about Mars Hill property purchases in light of the by-laws in effect at the time.

By-Laws of Mars Hill Fellowship
A Nonprofit Corporation Without Members

Article VI
The Executive Elder Team

Section E

Except for those powers and duties reserved for the full Council of Elders under Article VII, Section A and RCW 24.03.112 or similar statute, the following issues are reserved for determination by the executive elder team and may not be decided by a Departmental, Site, or Ad Hoc Elder Team:

  • Establishing the overall vision for the entire church
  • Purchase, sale, or rental of real estate
  • Approving new services and venues
  • Comprehensive operational budget line items
  • Capital expenditures budget
  • Hiring and firing of elders who are also employees (the employment status of an employee who is also an elder may be determined by the executive elder team, but such person's status as an elder is reserved to the full Council of Elders)
  • Issues delegated or reserved to the executive elder team by resolution of the full Council of Elders

Section F
For an issue to meet the approval of the executive elder team it must receive a unanimous vote (abstention permitted). 

Okay, so the bylaws indicate that only executive elders could purchase or sell real estate.  Elsewhere in the bylaws it indicates that there could be no fewer than four and no more than seven executive elders.  All right, then, so in September 2007 who were the Executive Elders?

Mark Driscoll, Jamie Munson, Bubba Jennings and Scott Thomas as of October 1, 2007.

Tim Beltz was not an executive elder yet in September 2007.  Go read this if you want the background on that.

What this means for the sake of discussing Mars Hill Downtown is that Beltz could have been involved in the purchase by October 2007 after he was ordained and instantly an executive elder but  in September 2007 (when the bid was made) he wasn't even an elder yet, let alone an executive elder.  So the four parties we can consider are Driscoll, Munson, Jennings, and Scott Thomas.  Let's take them in reverse order.

In October 2007 Scott Thomas was an executive elder but he was also in Acts 29.  He was, most notably, involved in fielding questions about the firings of Paul Petry and Bent Meyer while overseeing what seemed to be a kangaroo court to ensure that the charges Jamie Munson made against Meyer and Petry would stick well enough to get the men fired. Driscoll preached a notorious sermon in late September saying that if he weren't going to end up on CNN he'd go Old Testament on some guys, even some elders in the church. Driscoll, however, bureaucratically insulated himself from the actual firing process.  Munson appointed Thomas to handle the firing process.  You can see a sample of Scott Thomas' role below.

Now Bubba Jennings was appointed campus pastor over Ballard at this point if memory serves.  He was managing things until, as Mark Driscoll would later put it, Bill Clem was ready to take over leadership of the Ballard campus.  So in October 2007 while Scott Thomas was making sure Meyer and Petry got fired, and Bubba Jennings was managing the Mars Hill Ballard campus, who was left to close the deal on Tabella?  Who was in a position to have bid in September 2007 and have followed that bid through in October?  Obviously Driscoll and Munson are the two guys left.

Munson was credited by Mark Driscoll with finding what is now the 50th street property in Confessions of a Reformission Rev (more on this later in this series).  It's possible that Driscoll and Munson handed off the firing process to Scott Thomas in part to politically insulate themselves from the charge that firing Petry and Meyer over their opposition to the bylaws revisions was purely a political move.  But it's also possible that not being directly involved in the firing process itself gave Driscoll and/or Munson time to focus their attention on getting more support for the revised bylaws; getting Tim Beltz installed as an executive elder (without running anything by the congregation per the Bylaws requirements of the old bylaws, it seems); and, perhaps most importantly, closing the deal on Tabella.

from Pastor Jamie Munson to the elders of Mars Hill Church on September 30, 2007

Some might conclude this is a political move to gain more support for the bylaws as Paul and bent were outspoken critics of the current direction. [emphasis added] This is not the case, the executive team wants to conduct itself in a way that is full of integrity, walking in the light, under full disclosure and in a decisive manner that best serves Jesus and His church through Mars Hill.  If the bylaws don't pass, so be it, we didn't want to wait on what we had determined were necessary and inevitable firings until after the bylaws had been voted into approval because that would have been deceptive. [emphasis added] We made the decision to terminate them now and givem them the option to resign or undergo the full investigation. We have a higher value of being men of integrity than playing politics to swing a vote in our favor. 

So it would be deceptive to have fired Petry and Meyer after a vote on the bylaws but not before?  If Petry and Meyer weren't fired until after the vote then their votes against the new bylaws could have been counted.  Their votes might conceivably have invited further discussion and debate about the bylaws (or not).

If the firings weren't a political move Munson comes across like an idiot, yes, I said it that bluntly.  Repeatedly members were told Meyer and Petry were fired over the bylaws and for disrespecting spiritual authority.  You see that shows that it still comes off like a purely political move whether the firings predated or postdated a vote on the bylaws.  If Munson levelled charges against Meyer and Petry after the vote went through it looks like a political move because it would be retaliation for their votes.  But if the firing is done ahead of the vote it still comes off as a political move because only the two elders who expressed disagreement with the bylaws got fired.  Since Munson was drafting bylaws at the time then it comes across like a purely political gambit in any event because Munson comes across as deciding to press charges against two elders who weren't on board with what he was drafting.

Munson's charges against Meyer and Petry were handed off for Scott Thomas to establish.  It looks curiously like Thomas just railroaded the process and lied to at least one Mars Hill member about what was really going on.  If the Mars Hill executive elders were really walking in the light about all this stuff why is Scott Thomas no longer employed by either Mars Hill Church or by the Acts 29 Network?  Munson wanted the process to be above reproach and walking in the light.  Well, it looks like the firing process was involved in a lot of darkness and in Scott Thomas' case involved outright deceit. Does Munson want to field questions about that now?

So Munson was not involved in the firing process in any observable way other than coming up with charges.  He had time to tackle the purchase of Mars Hill Downtown.  What was Munson doing in the month of October 2007 while the deal to purchase Tabella went down? Was he closing the deal on Tabella?

As for Mark Driscoll, his fascination with real estate and eagerness to discuss it circa 2006-2007 is easy enough to establish.  We know from a 2006 sermon that Driscoll was paying close attention to real estate.

We also know Munson could have been involved since Munson was credited in Confessions of a Reformission Rev with finding what is now the Mars Hill 50th street property (more on that later for those who care to keep reading this series).

The two most likely candidates for making that bid in September 2007 for Tabella seem to be Mark Driscoll and Jamie Munson.  They were the only executive elders who had formal distance from the firing process of early October 2007.  Jennings was doing campus stuff, if memory serves, and Thomas was running the kangaroo court.  Beltz wasn't on the team in early October that means if an executive elder (the only kind able to authorize property purchases and such purchases had to be decided on unanimously) then all it would have taken would be for just Mark Driscoll and Jamie Munson to have agreed on something in September 2007 and the purchase could be approved.  Munson was one of the earliest converts under Driscoll's teaching and if you've ever seen photos of the two men together you'll appreciate why Munson eventually got a nickname of "mini-Mark".

As it happens, Jonna Petry's testimony is that Driscoll urged all executive elders except Munson to step down in the spring of 2007.

Many drastic changes occurred in the spring of 2007. Mark pressured all the elected executive elders [with the exception of Jamie Munson] to resign their posts, saying a new structure was necessary. Mark also decided that Lief would no longer function as the pastor of the Ballard campus Othe primary and largest campus where Mark taught mostly in person) and as a result the two of them had a horrible falling out.  This was an ominous sign for me because Mark had often spoken about his love and appreciation for Lief's willingness to go "toe-to-toe" with him and how this was vital for the health of the church. 

By process of elimination, right?  However, the old bylaws required that there be no less than four and no more than seven executive elders.  Those remaining positions were filled by Jennings and Thomas by September 2007 and it seems that this was a formality to ensure that the executive team had just enough people to comply with the letter of the bylaws. Jennings was running Ballard and Thomas was quelling dissenting elders and firing them on behalf of Driscoll and Munson and Beltz was apparently not yet in a position to have bid on Tabella.  That means by process of elimination, at every level, Driscoll and Munson are the two people who could have made that late September 2007 bid.

Driscoll and Munson got the property they wanted.  Beltz, who was Chief Operations Officer for CRISTA Ministries in 2006 and may have lined up a rent-free two year deal for Mars Hill to use Schirmer Auditorium, was ordained in October 2007 as an instant executive elder. It looked like things  were going to whatever plan Driscoll and Munson had in the works.

But by December 2007 word was getting around that Mars Hill was facing financial woes.  A lot of people opted not to renew their memberships upon discovering that Paul Petry and Bent Meyer were fired for their disagreement with the bylaws Jamie Munson had been drafting.  They also weren't thrilling to the prospect that the 50th street building was not working out as planned two years after the $1.5 million purchase.  Some people were obviously troubled by the realization that The Stranger had a clearer grasp of Mars Hill's real estate investments than members did.   Many people opted to not renew.

So in December 2007 The Stranger noted that there was a deep deficit.

West Seattle Blog spotted *this* under “Pastor Prayers” on a Mars Hill blog…

Multiple pastors request prayers for our financial state. With the deep deficit, it is a test for all the staff to choose Jesus over anxiety when ministry funds are cut short and the possibility of lay-offs and additional budget cuts is on the horizon. Please pray for repentance by those who are disobeying God in their giving …

Yes, let’s pray for all of those that are “disobeying God in their giving.” Christ, that sounds dark, huh? It makes it sound like Mark “Go Old Testament On Their Asses” Driscoll is going to start kneecapping people. West Seattle Blog points out that the “disobeying God” line was later dropped from the post and new language substituted, but WSB found it again through the miracle of Google caching. Here’s the new, slightly less mobbed-up language…

Please pray for those who are struggling with their financial stewardship, and pray for Jesus to make generous and thankful hearts of our body. Please join us in thanking Jesus for our faithful members who continually give and serve with their time, talent and treasure.

Yeah, that’s nicer. The original language was more revealing, however. More here.

UPDATE: There’s a call for prayers for the Mars Hill’s new downtown location.

Pastor Tim Gaydos requests prayers for the leaders, families and servants who will be part of the launch team for the Downtown Campus—that Jesus would bind all their hearts together in unity for the sake of the Gospel and that they would be protected from attacks of the evil one as they march into the heart of the city.

On behalf of the evil one, Mars Hill, welcome to the neighborhood. Please, no marching about after 9 PM. Folks live in Belltown for the peace and quiet and wide selection of houses of worship. Those interested in worshipping Mark Driscoll will quickly find their way to your video arcade.

And, finally, there’s a call for prayers for one of the family of one of the Mars Hill pastors. His wife is dying of cancer. If you’re the praying kind, pray for ‘em.

The above is obviously dead link and the site is described as no longer archived by The WayBack Machine, account suspended.
Decenber 10, 2007

Let's follow the history of this campus a bit, shall we?

2333 Western Avenue
     Seattle, WA 98121
Find on map >>
 Building value: $800,700
 Land value: $1,488,300
 Total value for property: $2,289,000
 Assessments for tax year: 2010

Number of stories in the building: 1
 Living area: 14,900 square feet
 Year property was built: 1949
 Property type: Commercial
 Lot size: 14,400 square feet
 Water system: Water District
 Sewer system: Public
 Access: Public
 Street surface: Paved
 Parking: Adequate

 • Sale date: 08/05/2002
 Price: $0
 Sale instrument: Warranty Deed
 Sale reason: Other

 • Sale date: 03/13/2007
 Price: $3,000,000
 Sale instrument: Statutory Warranty Deed

 • Sale date: 10/25/2007
 Price: $3,950,000
 Sale instrument: Statutory Warranty Deed

Notice something here?  The property was sold in late October 2007. It was valued at $2.3 million. It was sold for $3.95 million dollars.  By 2010 the value estimate for the property altogether was $2.28 milliion. In 2008 the value of the real estate nosedived by 1 million dollars.  After all that work to seal the deal on Tabella the property bubble hit and what Mars Hill bought for nearly $4 milliion was valued at $1.37 million.  There isn't even a listing for the value history of the building for that year that I could dig up.

Let's remember that according to Driscoll Munson found the 50th street property.  That was purchased in 2005 and it turned out it was impossible to zone and permit the facility for the purposes announced by Driscoll in Reformission Rev. Munson gets credit for finding the place, though. Who scouted out Tabella on behalf of Mars Hill?  If only Driscoll and Munson were the steady executive elders in 2007 and only executive elders could make property purchases it had to have been one of those two guys, right?  Who else was an executive elder in September 2007 who could have made the bid?

Was it Munson who scouted Tabella or Driscoll?  Or someone else? The main take-away for me is that the property value sank by a million in the year after the purchase was made.  We all know the real estate bubble hit in 2008. This will become a point of consideration when I get to blogging about the Generous campaign. For now I'll close with the following set of links.

In late 2011 the following tip-off was reported by The Stranger.

September 27, 2011

• The Mars Hill Church congregation may soon be packing their Bibles and leaving Belltown. Sources say that aside from rocking out, condemning the gays, and putting women in their place, Seattle's bigoted hipster misogynist church is in talks to land-swap its downtown building in exchange for a Seattle Athletic Club in Northgate. Mars Hill hasn't replied to requests for comment.

Of some note for September 2011

Jamie Munson resigned.  He's reportedly co-president of Storyville Coffee company now.

UPDATE 06-15-2012

Driscoll seemed to make reference to the Downtown campus as the Belltown campus in the sermon "Joy in Anxiety" from the Rebel's Guide to Joy series on Phillipians in December 2007. He also makes reference not just to some "maybe" cases that include the Belltown campus but also to someone taking a paycut and a worship team leader getting demoted in favor of someone else and to people getting upset and blogging about stuff and sending press releases to The Stranger and the like.  The transcript excerpt of the sermon is at the link above with documentation of possible candidate events that may have been alluded to in the sermon.

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