Sunday, June 03, 2012

Mars Hill, the West Seattle campus and a pastor with felonies?

The title may seem shocking and if it is shocking you I find the subject shocking myself. I was shocked to learn this year that a man who up until late last year had been employed by Mars Hill had a history of felonies.  I was more shocked to learn that this information has just been sitting around on record in a city newspaper for anyone to look up, which led to the troublesome question of how this man got vetted as an elder candidate to begin with.

I am referring to now former pastor James Noriega of Acts 29 Network church plant Doxa that went on to become Mars Hill West Seattle.  Let me state up front I don't consider it trouble that Noriega had a bad past prior to becoming a Christian.  I respect that he's a changed man.  The shock for me was that it seems both Acts 29 and Mars Hill successively backed his elder candidacy and ordination even though there seemed to be compelling reasons to either not consider him for pastoral work at all or at the very least not yet.

In order to even broach the subject of how James Noriega came to be a pastor at Mars Hill it is necessary to discuss straightaway the period in which Mars Hill acquired the property that is now Mars Hill West Seattle. The acquisition of Mars Hill West Seattle was one of the important steps toward the church becoming multisite back in 2006.  The importance and significance of the acquisition of Mars Hill West Seattle is important enough to warrant more than one examination of its history.  So we return to some extensive quotes from sermons Mark Driscoll preached in the year and a half or so after Doxa merged with Mars Hill.

Part 26: One Body, Many parts
1 Corinthians 12:12-26
Pastor Mark Driscoll
July 30, 2006

… In the meantime, we also picked up another miracle. This is West Seattle. This is on 35th at the top of the hill in West Seattle as you head toward White Center. I grew up in this neighborhood. This is a church building that is an absolute miracle. I’ll tell you the story on this space. I tried to launch Mars Hill Church in that building ten years ago, and we were rejected, and I’ve always wanted to be in there since. And what happened was, is we were growing. I went to Pastor Bill Clem, who was leading that congregation. He planted it for Acts 29 Church Planning Network [emphasis added], him and James Noriega, who is the other elder there and I said, “We’re maxed out. You got a fat building, 50,000 square feet, 1,000 seats.:” It’s a bigger building and the one you’re sitting in right now. I said, “Is there any way we to use it?” They said, “Well, we wanna reach as many people in West Seattle as possible. How about if we give it to you and work together?” we prayed about it for a second and said, “Yes.”

That is a $5 million gift. That is a $5 million gift, right? And I don’t know if you’ve been tracking the real estate market, people aren’t giving away a lotta real estate right now in Seattle and so we have – we’ve taken Pastor James and Pastor Bill on staff at Mars Hill. We have taken their members through the Gospel Class and they’re now members of Mars Hill. [emphasis added] They’ve been meeting as a core group over there. As we speak, there is $1.5 million of construction going on at the West Seattle campus, with the intention of opening in October in time for our ten year anniversary, and we want to expand over to West Seattle as well. We were thinking, “Well, we can borrow $8 million from the bank. We can spend $3 million and for $11 million, we can open up a 40,000 square foot location.” Well, we can now open more square feet for $1.5 million. So obviously, you take that opportunity.

The two cool aspects of this particular campus is one, is already zoned as a church, so we don’t need to fight use permits. We don’t have to bring it up to code. We can just walk in and use it immediately and it saves us, literally, a few years of permitting. Secondly, the lot that it is on is only zoned for 15,000 square feet of building and it already has 50,000 square feet, and because as grandfathered in, we could use it all. We could never build this building today as it exists.  And the cool thing with this building, a very Godly church that loved the Bible – started this church, built it, their denomination went liberal, dropped the doctrine of the inerrancy or perfection of Scripture and this building went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and was the test case for who owns the church building, the congregation or the denomination. The congregation lost and these people actually bought their own building back, because they refused to drop the authority of Scripture as their value. [emphasis added] And so, there were some Godly older saints who paid for this building twice. It then went into decline but there is still a core of these people, like in their 70s and 80s, that are now members of Mars Hill. Grandmas tithing, waiting for us all to show up and fill that thing up again, and they’re praying us in. It’s a really cool God story and what God has done is pretty amazing.

Here we see that Driscoll had wanted the property for ten years.  He had been rejected from planting Mars Hill at that property in 1996.  He obviously never forgot it and never stopped wanting that property for Mars Hill.  Now Driscoll is not at all clear about when, how and why Bill Clem was sent to plant Doxa as an Acts 29 Network church plant in the above sermon.  It probably doesn't necessarily matter for today's discussion.  Driscoll's also not clear, either, that Noriega was not even ordained in 2002 when Clem first planted Doxa in the 2006 sermon. Driscoll is, however, indisputably clear in saying he wanted that property for a decade.

Conspicuous by their absence in the above sermon were any references to Noriega having been divorced and remarried; having been a former meth user; and having a history of felonies.  What's most remarkable about all these points is that they all got discussed in the following articles published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2004.

None of those points got mentioned by Driscoll either in the 2006 sermon or the 2007 sermon where Driscoll once again referred to James Noriega and his role in the acquisition of Doxa for Mars Hill.

Mark Driscoll on November 4, 2007

... 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 SeattleI 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. 

So in the second account Driscoll describes himself as approaching Clem and Noriega about partnering together. As I have already recounted the various elements of the acquisition as a benefit to Bill Clem I don't need to recite all of those.  It will suffice to summarize things with Clem as follows--Driscoll approached Clem about making use of the Doxa facilities at the same time that he approached Clem with condolences about the news that Clem's wife was diagnosed with cancer.  Precisely why Driscoll decided to broach topics at the same time is not answerable on the point of taste or tact but is explicable in light of Driscoll's own words about his having wanted the property that is now Mars Hill West Seattle for a decade.

But conspicuously absent is any discussion of James Noriega since late 2011.  No mention of Noriega's criminal past in either the 2006 or 2007 sermons.  When I attended I never heard anything about the felonies.  I'll be honest, if I had heard about the felonies and the second marriage I would have been very reluctant to accept Noriega as a pastor.  Church member?  Absolutely fine with that and would have been fine with that.  Yes, Jesus forgives and lives are changed but Noriega remarried at the end of 2003.  By that point he hadn't been married nearly long enough to have demonstrably shown he could manage the new household well.  A man whose wife left him before he was a Christian, I can understand that not necessarily being a count against him in a post-conversion Christian life.  The trouble is that all of the points about Noriega's background, taken cumulatively, suggested to me (if no one else) that this was a guy who was promoted into ministry in an Acts 29 and Mars Hill setting way too soon.

There are reports floating on the internet that Noriega got fired in late 2011.  Mars Hill indicated in the follow up to the Andrew case making headlines that they had released staff for displaying a pattern of overstepping spiritual authority months before any bloggers or journalists knew anything.  Noriega, by my observation, had stopped being a pastor in any observable or publicly documentable way some time in late 2011.  If Mars Hill stepped in and fired Noriega they may see that as proof of their faithfulness but I would say this is proof of precisely the opposite.  Noriega had been a pastor at Mars Hill since 2006 and had been a pastor since November 2004 in Acts 29 settings.

If Acts 29/Mars Hill only got around to releasing Noriega from employment maybe seven years after initial ordination that's a lot of years in which to, as a certain MH PR statement put it, to display a pattern of overstepping spiritual authority.  Let's keep in mind that as founder and visionary of both Mars Hill Church and Acts 29 Network Driscoll sure looks conspicuously at the top of both organizations. If this is the same Mark Driscoll who has said "I see things"; the same who has talked about his degree in speech communications and his work as a professional journalist, then did Driscoll at any point look up the Seattle P-I articles from 2004 that discussed Noriega's background? Driscoll gets enough of the basics right that if he didn't know about the felonies it would seem like a feat of selective memory. It would seem that it's best to not lay hands too quickly on anyone lest you may participate in their sin but if someone sinned and got fired there's no sign that Mars Hill has accepted any potential for culpability.  If Mars Hill released staff months ago for overstepping spiritual authority doesn't that seem to concede the point that abuses in church discipline and counseling actually were happening?  So it would seem.

However, I would suggest that "if" Noriega were fired that is not even the relevant question for anyone who knows a modicum of history about the church and about the 2004 articles in the Seattle P-I..  Rather, the real question that never seems to have came up was how and why Noriega was ordained to begin with when documentation of his divorce and remarriage, felonies, and recent baptism (relative to 2006) was publicly documented.  On the one hand Driscoll said that he approached Clem and Noriega about partnering. On the other hand the elder candidates generally nominated themselves. Driscoll indicated that he made no promises to Clem or Noriega.  If they passed muster then they'd get jobs but there was no promise.  Both of them got jobs within Mars Hill.

Driscoll has publicly said he'd wanted the property that is now Mars Hill West Seattle for ten years (since 1996 to the year Mars Hill got Doxa in 2006 with its people, property and other resources). In the 2007 sermon Driscoll says he approached Clem and Noriega to partner together.  By Clem's account Driscoll approached him after Clem's wife Jeannie was diagnosed with cancer.  Clem's qualifications for pastor do not seem, to me, to be in doubt.  In Noriega's case, however, it's a huge mystery why either Acts 29 or Mars Hill vetted his candidacy.  Since Mark Driscoll is the founder and visionary for both organizations Mark Driscoll would probably be in the best position to appreciate why both organizations he's founder and visionary for greenlit a divorced and remarried man with felonies into pastoral work.  Bill Clem could probably field some questions about Noriega's ordination within a Doxa setting.  Scott Thomas had a major role in Acts 29, at least until Paul Petry's website Joyful Exiles went up and Thomas felt released from leading Acts 29 and handed the reins over to Chandler.

During 2006 Driscoll was the legal president of the organization, by his account:
Driscoll was asked how you lead staff who are friends. He answered that this wasn't possible.
At 38:51 Driscoll said that in a recent reorg he resigned from being lead pastor, from being head of the elder board, and from being the senior employee of the church. Does that mean he was all these things in 2006 when James Noriega's candidacy for eldership was received?  Elders historically nominate themselves.  Driscoll has accounted in two different places Noriega was added to the team.

Driscoll's account in February 2008 of the advantage of giving legal control to Jamie Munson was as follows:

"Jamie Munson is head of the elder board. Jamie Munson is executive pastor. He is legal president of the organization. And for me, to be honest, it was the most freeing, liberating thing I could have dreamed of because now I don't have all that conflict of interest. I can be friends with someone but I don't have to fire them, do their performance review, and decide how much they get paid. It's just too conflicting for me." 

You know what's scary about that quote?  That Driscoll speaks as though conflict of interest was such a constant part of his weekly working life he had to give those parts of the job to Jamie Munson.  Does Driscoll actually undestand the implications of saying "now I don't have all that conflict of interest"? Does Mark Driscoll even understand what "conflict of interest" means?

Driscoll's idea of a conflict of interest is having to fire your friend in ministry because he's not pulling his weight.  Well, if I understand conflict of interest correctly firing someone who can't do the job wouldn't be a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest would be vetting the candidacy of someone who is obviously not qualified for the job because you have a personal interest in something the candidate can help you obtain.

Driscoll can clarify all these issues any time now.  If he didn't and doesn't grasp what a conflict of interest is then he may want to get on that point because if he was regularly in situations where he had conflicts of interest that's a problem.  Mark Driscoll, as the legal president, senior employee, and head of the elder board circa 2006 had a lot to gain from getting Doxa is beyond question.  The realization of a decade long dream is not a small thing.  Clem got a full salary and months off at a stretch to care for his dying wife and was eventually put in charge of Mars Hill Ballard.  Noriega got added to the elder team. He moved from there to running alcohol and recovery programs and was promoted to the Board of Directors.  He also eventually gained co-leadership of the Redemption Groups.

Who decided that Noriega was qualified to be a pastor?  Bill Clem probably did.  He'd planted Doxa in partnership with Mars Hill and Acts 29 in 2002.  By 2003 Scott Thomas was involved in Acts 29 which means that by 2004 Scott Thomas would have been in a position to have at least heard about Noriega's ordination.

However Scott Thomas is no longer employed by either Mars Hill Church or the Acts 29 Network since this website went up:

So of the people in Mars Hill and Acts 29 who could field the question of James Noriega's ordination in the wake of his divorce and remarriage and history of felonies Scott Thomas is no longer employed by either MH or A29.  MH and A29 have been studiously silent on anything published at Joyful Exiles regarding the 2007 firings of Bent Meyer and Paul Petry. Scott Thomas may not feel like fielding questions about how and why Acts 29 Network considered James Noriega qualified for ministry, either.

So Bill Clem is lead pastor at Mars Hill Ballard these days.  And Mark Driscoll still has a role on the Acts 29 Network board, right?  Maybe Clem and Driscoll can field the question about how and why Noriega was seen as fit to be a pastor both in the Acts 29 Network setting and the Mars Hill setting.  After all, by Driscoll's account he approached Clem and Noriega about Doxa partnering with Mars Hill.  Clem explained that Doxa was a church plant in partnership with Mars Hill and Acts 29.  These two men still have their jobs.

Is Bill Clem still Northwest Regional Leader?

He could probably look up records about Noriega's ordination in Doxa and Mars Hill even though he arguably could recall a lot just off the top of his head.

Look, folks, there's no way to skate around the reality that James Noriega is now obviously an ex-employee of Mars Hill.  There's also no way to skate around the reality that in ordaining Noriega into an Acts 29 church plant and later into Mars Hill that men were installing a man as pastor who was on his second marriage and a history of felonies. Both the beginning as well as the end of Noriega's involvement in pastoral work within Acts 29 and Mars Hill settings invites public scrutiny. Noriega, for his part, has never seemed to back down from being up front and as plainspoken as possible.  He may no longer be employed by Mars Hill but Noriega has this going for him, he showed in 2004 he was willing to be up front about his history and since then Mars Hill leaders seem to be avoiding even the mention of Noriega's name.  

The trouble with that stance is that there's too much that's a matter of public record for Mars Hill and Acts 29 leaders to not eventually face the question of how they reasoned Noriega was fit to be a pastor when his felonies and remarriage were publicly reported.  Pleading ignorance is no excuse.  After all, Driscoll has said "I see things" and has touted his background in speech communications and his work as a professional journalist.  Driscoll's touting of his credentials and reference to the occasional supernatural endowment to perceive others' sin means he can't possibly make a plausible appeal that he didn't know about Noriega's felonies and second marriage in considering Noriega's candidacy for eldership at Mars Hill. By Driscoll's account in his November 4, 2007 sermon he was the one who approached Clem and Noriega about partnership. 

Did the Mars Hill elders as a whole know that in voting for Noriega they were voting for a man with felonies?  Did they know they were voting for a divorced and remarried man whose new household was just a couple of years old? Were Noriega and Clem presented to the church as elder candidates to give members and pastors time to investigate the character and credibility of their candidacy?  I admit I don't remember whether this happened even though I was actually attending at the time. It's not the sort of thing that would necessarily make it into sermon transcripts, of course.  

Cards on the table--I was a Mars Hill member in 2005 and 2006. I would have been alarmed to find out these things about Noriega during my membership.  Individually they can be accounted for.  Noriega's first wife left him when he wasn't a believer.  I get that's how things go sometimes.  Noriega's felonies were when he wasn't a Christian yet (not counting the arrest for something the day he was baptized).  Well ... Paul was arguably a felon and he wrote much of the New Testament.  Noriega had a history of drug use that led to a life of crime.  Well, he converted.  

I was inclined to give the benefit of the doubt and trust that the elders as a whole wouldn't install men as pastors if they weren't 100% above board.  Years later I have slowly stumbled upon more information I simply didn't have at the time that has forced me to drastically reassess my impression.  The halo effect can hit everybody and I now believe I assumed the best in a case where I did not have the opportunity to think things through.  I am suggesting that this may have also been true for not only other Mars Hill members but even pastors who may have voted Noriega into pastoral office in Acts 29 or Mars Hill settings who didn't know everything about Noriega they should have known.

The case for a man being in pastoral office is not merely atomistic, it is also cumulative. The cumulative case for Noriega's candidacy as a pastor in Acts 29 and Mars Hill does not look good to me when I look at what was on record and in public for anyone to consult.  It makes it difficult for me to understand how and why he was fast-tracked in both A29 and MH settings.  

If Noriega had conspicuous red flags about his candidacy that were published in the Seattle P-I in 2004 and Driscoll approached Clem and Noriega about partnering with Mars Hill why did Noriega's candidacy go through?  Driscoll said he promised them nothing but Driscoll went on to explain the benefits Clem gained from eldership within Mars Hill, which were considerable. He also went on to explain Noriega's meteoric rise within leadership due to his seeking humility.  "Seeking humility", in Driscoll's presentation, seems to look remarkably like agreeing to gift Mark Driscoll (who, let's recall was senior employee, lead pastor, head of the elder board and apparently legal president of Mars Hill circa 2006) a piece of property he had, by his own sermon of July 30, 2006, been wanting for Mars Hill for ten years.  Could that be considered a potential conflict of interest?  .

Meanwhile, Driscoll, Clem and other Mars Hill pastors can field the subject of how James Noriega's divorce, remarriage and history of felonies ultimately didn't prove to obstacles to his ordination in A29 or MH any time now. 

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