Monday, November 12, 2012

Mars Hills in California 2011-2012, kerfuffles about trademarks and evictions

Published 10/24/2011

... The issue of the Cease and Desist Letter seemed to strike a raw nerve in the broader body of Christ. I will say more about that in a moment. But first, I want to confirm that three staff members from Mars Hill Seattle called and asked forgiveness for any stress and confusion that was caused by the letter we received from the Stokes & Lawrence law firm [perhaps referring to this Stokes & Lawrence firm]. That meant a great deal to me and the other pastors involved (Jason Yarbrough of Mars Hill Church in Fairfield and James Seiler of Mars Hill Church in Galt).

Both Chris Pledger and Dave Bruskas were clear and sincere that the proper step should have been to call us first. We accepted their apology and would like the Mars Hill Seattle congregation to know that your leaders took this step (We are assuming on behalf of pastor Mark Driscoll). They assured us they would not seek any type of legal action, even though they did apply for and were awarded a federal trademark in August of this year for both the name and the logo design. Mars Hill Seattle also posted on their blog late Saturday night a message of clarity and grace. It was greatly appreciated.


I was speaking Friday, Oct. 21, in Boston when I finally received a very congenial voicemail from Chris Pledger. By now the social media networks were buzzing with some knowledge about this cease and desist letter. There was zero antagonism in his voice or the message he left. That afternoon we had a conference call between myself, Chris Pledger and Justin Holcomb. Both of them were great and shared they were very sorry for sending a legal letter first.

They communicated that their intent now was simply to remove confusion and to ask if we could alter the logo that they had been using since 1996. I shared our story, including how our design by Scott Taylor in 2005 was totally innocent, and that when our church was planted in 2005 we had no knowledge that a Mars Hill Church in Seattle existed.

I agreed to start the process of a logo redesign since they now owned the trademark. They assured me that even though the letter from Stokes & Lawrence called for a name change, that was off the table. On Saturday, I received a voicemail from Dave Bruskas reiterating the same information and again reaffirming that the letter should not have been sent as a means of first contact. ...

Anyway, here's the Mars Hill clarification on some rumors that have been on some blogs ... which may be construed as the brand of Martian PR that attempts to replicate articles in The Economist, a publication that has proudly announced it aspires to such an impersonal and dryly cohesive literary style you can't tell who wrote what.  Note that I am not knocking The Economist, it just seems odd that Mars Hill has adopted a comparable voice for public statements about things like the trademark situation or the disciplinary cases that made headlines earlier this year.  Without much further ado ... :


Sadly, in addition to giving things away, we’ve also had things taken. We’ve had churches cut and paste our logo, take our website code and copy it completely, had ministry leaders cut and paste documents of ours, put their name on them to then post online as if it were their content, and even seen other pastors fired for preaching our sermons verbatim. We're not the only church called Mars Hill, and occasionally there arises confusion between us and other churches that share the "Mars Hill" name, particularly as we now have our churches in four states. This was the case recently when one of our members called us to find out if we had planted Mars Hill churches in the Sacramento, California area. We had not, but when we went to these churches’ websites, it was obvious to us how people could be confused. Each of these three connected churches in the Sacramento region—planted in 2006, 2007, and 2010—bore the "Mars Hill" name and their logo was substantially similar to the logo we've used since 1996. When cases like this arise in the business world, it's customary for a law office to send a notice asking the other organization to adjust their branding to differentiate it. This is commonly referred to as a cease and desist letter. On September 27, 2011, our legal counsel sent such a letter to these three Mars Hill churches requesting that they change their logo and name. In hindsight, we realize now that the way we went about raising our concerns, while acceptable in the business world, is not the way we should deal with fellow Christians. On Friday we spoke with the pastor of Mars Hill in Sacramento to apologize for the way we went about this. We had a very productive conversation and look forward to continuing that conversation in the days and weeks ahead. We made a mistake in not calling these churches prior to sending the letter. We should have picked up the phone before sending any other communication. Unfortunately, rather than hearing from the church in Sacramento, we began hearing that the matter was instead being speculated on by a blogger who did not verify any facts with us and, as a result, provided an inaccurate version of what transpired. This blog post from us is intended to alleviate any confusion. As a clarification, we have not sued any churches and have no plans to sue any churches. We have not sent any similar letters to any other "Mars Hill" churches, and we are not planning on asking any church with "Mars Hill" in their name to change their name. 

As spiffy as Mars Hill attempts to make its media content you'd think that someone over there would remember these wonderful little things called paragraph breaks. 

Chris Pledger's role in the situation was most likely that of legal counsel since Bruskas is an executive elder.  Chris Pledger was legal counsel at Mars Hill for a while.

The statutory profile was last certified on February 18, 2012.  So it would appear Pledger was at least possibly a legal counsel to Mars Hill during the trademark situation. 

Now if you'd like to go through memory lane and look at the two logos ...

Chris Pledger got mentioned here as being legal counsel of Mars Hill

Who are the officers of Mars Hill Church?

For state law purposes, Mars Hill has a president, Mark Driscoll; a vice president, Dave Bruskas; and a secretary/treasurer, Sutton Turner. Mars Hill also has a chief financial officer, Kerry Dodd; and a chief legal officer, Chris Pledger.

The governance statement, whenever it was published, was already old news by May 2012.
Chris Pledger‏@ChrisPledger

Last church service @MarsHill. Very thankful for the ministry and mission of Mars Hill and the privilege to
have been part of it.
7:26 PM - 27 May 2012 via HootSuite ·

Where did Chris Pledger end up?
Posted on June 28, 2012
Chris Pledger | Executive Director

Chris Pledger serves as Executive Director of Vintage21 Church. Prior to joining Vintage21, he served as Director of Strategy and General Counsel of Mars Hill Church (Seattle). Chris oversees Vintage21′s central operations and business functions

Then there's this private, password-guarded post that has "Chris Pledger" and a reference to a Mars Hill at a wordpress site. Whether it's the same Chris Pledger or the same Mars Hill is moot but mentioned for the possibly curious reader. 

Now the tweet from May 2012 by Pledger was the same weekend this announcement came down the pike from Mark Driscoll and Nick Bogardus about Mars Hill Orange County.
from June 5, 2012

"Santa Ana embraces religious institutions of all types. In fact, about two-thirds of our zoning districts allow churches," the city planning director said. "The city staff has gone above and beyond to help Mars Hill in finding locations, including contacting a perspective landlord on Mars Hill's behalf."

Pastor Nick Bogardus, who leads Mars Hill OC, told CP that he has a long, fond history with the city and wants to comply with its regulations even though he may not understand them.

Still, he says the last seven months have been frustrating. The city made it clear from the outset that the church could not stay long term, Bogardus said.

So the city made it clear from the outset that the church could not stay long term, according to Nick Bogardus.  This would seem to have made the eviction both explicable and inevitable. Whatever Driscoll said about not understanding what the reasons for the eviction are moot if Bogardus knew from the outset that the church could not stay at The Observatory for long.  If Bogardus knew this in advance (and what he is credited as saying to The Christian Post sure seems to indicate this) why would the core planting Mars Hill Orange County have chosen a building where they knew at the outset that an eviction was not only possibly but even potentially likely?

How far back was "from the outset"?  Tough to say. Bogardus apparently met with Driscoll in May 2011. (That link died with the entire campus blog network/archive system going down in early 2012--possibly in the wake of coverage of Andrew, though it can't be certain), the dead link is linked to here (assuming this link still works). Whether or not the Observatory had been selected by May 2011 isn't clear (though it seems it may not have been chosen yet. Here are some photos by Jeremy Tso posted at his site on May 30, 2011. The Orange County campus launched in January 2012.   How far back "from the outset" actually went may be moot since the city had made it clear, Bogardus said, that the launch site of Mars Hill Orange County could not be a long-term home. 

For whatever reasons Bogardus and company (or whoever made the decision to pick The Observatory) chose that venue after the city had made it clear what zoning issues were going to be issues.  Given what Bogardus told The Christian Post and given what the city officials made clear about the nature of the eviction it seems probably that was not a question of whether or not Mars Hill planting leaders in Orange County knew about the zoning restrictions but why they persisted in planting at The Observatory even after the city had made clear what was and wasn't approved.  Did leaders at Mars Hill think the city was just going to let them spend months meeting in a place they'd been told at the outset wasn't zoned for church use? 

Now below is a link to a letter Kathleen Firstenberg published at her blog from Kyle Firstenberg (her husband) who had served as executive elder at Mars Hill Orange County. The entry was dated July 10, 2012. Kyle Firstenberg was the executive elder at Mars Hill Orange County at that time, at least up until, apparently, the same weekend in late May 2012.

To our friends and family,

A little over twelve years ago, Kathleen and I first walked into Mars Hill Church at the Paradox theater. It was dark, smelled like smoky indy rockers and the music was horrendous. Pastor Mark came out and preached the Gospel of Jesus like I had never heard before. At that moment, we decided this was our church.

As the years went on, we were married by Pastor Mark and found ourselves volunteering in many different roles in the church. We have seen Jesus bless this church and work by seeing thousands of people saved and baptized and multiple locations launched. Kathleen and I have been blessed beyond words through the teaching of Pastor Mark and the investment of Godly men and women in this church. We are eternally thankful for the real relationships, life long friendships and for the people of this church being a family to us.

I have served in many roles in the church and held many titles, but ultimately my heart and desire has always been to love, disciple and shepherd the people Jesus has put in my care. I had the honor of working with Pastor Bubba in helping plant Mars Hill West Seattle. In that time Jesus used Pastor Bubba in amazing ways to shape my philosophy of ministry and leadership. Kathleen and I have a great love for the people of West Seattle and for dear friendships made there.

Pastor Bubba and I then had the opportunity to be sent to Ballard to serve there and build some incredible friendships in my time there as well. A couple of years later, when asked to move back to West Seattle in a time of need, it was our joy to rejoin that church and serve for another year there before being sent to help launch the Orange County church.

The big move to Orange County was just a little over a year ago. This move was one where it was a leap of faith. We love West Seattle and had a joy of planting roots there and serving the people we lived among. But God had other plans. He put the conviction in both Kathleen and I that we were to be a part of this work headed to Orange County. So we moved and made some incredible friends yet again. Kathleen and I loved being a part of the Orange County Church and were just getting settled when Jesus started moving again; this time in an unexpected way. The role that I love and feel God’s gifting in being an Executive Pastor was beginning to change in Mars Hill.

Six years ago when Jesus was calling me out of Law Enforcement as a Police Officer, He made it clear to me that I was to work in ministry at Mars Hill Church. This was a calling by God and not a job opportunity. For the last six years, I prayed that if the day ever came that I should leave my role at Mars Hill, that Jesus would be kind enough to make it as clear as He did the day He called me. That day came. The role that I loved and served in had changed and I was no longer the best man for the job. For years I have asked for the courage to step aside and get out of the way if the I am ever not the right man for the job.

Around forty five days ago, I had a frank conversation with Pastor Nick and told him that I no longer felt that I was the best man for the job of Executive Pastor at Mars Hill Church and that with our current budget deficit, the Orange County location could no longer afford to keep me on staff. As a result, I was given thirty days to hand off my responsibilities and be laid off. [emphasis added] It was my intention to find employment locally and continue to serve as a non-staff elder at OC, but Jesus had other plans.

In an effort to reduce our expenses, we requested to break our two year lease with our property management company. They told us that they would search for replacement tenants and let us know. Jesus often works quickly and because I really love to have a plan has been teaching me to trust in Him. Almost three weeks had passed and I followed up with the property management company to get a status update on our lease and was told that they had rented our apartment and that we needed to move out and turn in our keys in three days. Praise Jesus that He released us from that lease and He certainly did it in His timing.

We are grateful for all the people who helped us pack up our house and move it into storage. The last couple of weeks have been very hard as we are seeking out Jesus’ plan for us. After much prayer and many conversations with trusted friends and elders, we felt Jesus leading us to Las Vegas, of all places. We went there trusting that Jesus would continue to guide us and He has. In one week, we have made good friends with a Lead Pastor of a local A29 church and have felt God calling us to make a home here.

Kathleen and I continue to mourn the change of Mars Hill no longer being our home, but we see Jesus’ hand in all of this and know that we must walk in obedience to where He leads. In doing so, we are very excited for how we might serve in this new church and continue to contribute to the forward work of the Gospel of Jesus and the hope we have in Him. With this change, and after prayerful consideration and counsel, we’ve decided that it is the best decision for me at this time to transition out of the role of eldership as well as membership at Mars Hill Church in Orange County.

I am so thankful for the years of investment from this church to me, and how Jesus has sanctified me through this work. I would not give up the multiple challenges, changes and locations that I had the privilege to serve at. I am so thankful for how Jesus used Mars Hill to shape me as a Disciple, Husband, Father and Pastor. 

Kathleen and I love this church and are sad to leave, but it is with hope and joy that we will still serve in Jesus’ Church and will glorify Jesus with the gifts He has given us and the tools He has equipped us with through His work at Mars Hill Church.


The Firstenberg family

"Around 45 days ago" from July 10, 2012 lands us somewhere in the weekend of May 26-27, 2012, doesn't it?  The weekend in late May during which Mars Hill former legal counsel Chris Pledger tweeted about his last Sunday at Mars Hill was, apparently, the same time during which now former Executive Pastor of Mars Hill Orange County Kyle Firstenberg let Pastor Nick Bogardus know that he no longer felt able to serve as Executive Pastor at Mars Hill Orange County and that with the then-current deficit the church would no longer be able to afford to keep him (Firstenberg) on staff.   It was also the same weekend Driscoll announced that Mars Hill Orange County had been served an eviction notice and spoke as though it were mysterious.  Maybe to someone who was simply not paying attention to what Bogardus said was made clear from the outset. 

As to references to a deficit at Mars Hill Orange County mentioned in Firstenberg's letter, this sermon from June 10, 2012 may include at least some information that could shed light on deficits at the Mars Hill sites:

Old posts referring to some of what was made available about the deficits are in the links below:

Late May saw a few shake-ups happen.  Chris Pledger stopped being at Mars Hill, it seems, and stopped being legal counsel. Mars Hill Orange County, not even half a year from its launch, got served an eviction notice and around the same time Firstenberg, the executive elder at Mars Hill Orange County, stepped down citing deficits at the campus.  A new church plant could be expected to run some deficits but according to Driscoll's church updates on the finances all the campuses were running deficits.  In fact some of the oldest campuses of Mars Hill were running the highest deficits per capita.  Mars Hill Orange County's debt was a bit on the lower side but an eviction a mere five months in is not a walk in the park.  Then again, if Mars Hill leaders had actually picked a site zoned for church use to begin with ... .

POSTSCRIPT:  Research on MH Orange County is still pending.  The time MH transitioned into The Observatory is a bit fuzzy.  Driscoll is shown preaching at what looks like a theater venue circa November 2011 but whether that's the Observatory is not for Wenatchee The Hatchet to be certain about.  Contributions are welcome for this and other posts in the real estate series.



We were at Mars Hill OC during core group and leading up to the launch... of course we got in a little tussle with leadership and didn't make it to the launch but did keep lines of communique open with a few higher ups there..... MHOC announced the move to the Observatory in late September, early October... Kyle said over the pulpit that he had developed a spreadsheet with dozens and dozens of viable locations and one by one Nick and other leadership (assuming this was Mark involved in decision making) said No, No, No, No, No....Too small, too old, too expensive, too far north, too far south etc... Leaving Kyle with one address left on his spreadsheet. He said that he and Nick went to check it out, said it was big enough, ws available Sundays and there were offices next door to house child care and admin.

But they stated clearly during the announcement that it was a short term situation to get into their own digs until they could locate a more permanent location that they could conceivably purchase or put down on a long term lease... everyone in the sanctuary understood that it was a bridge, not a destination.

Mind you these were two guys, one with a new baby, the other with multiple children who were responsible for settirng up all the resources needed to hold church Mars Hill style with big screen TV's, a big sound system, instruments, amplifiers, child care and the necessary training inherent in that, locating real estate, etc.... ITS A TALL ORDER....

NOW ADD IN THE PRESSURE OF NEARLY NO FINANCIAL SUPPORT.... We were only 2 months into core group before they started slapping the parishioners with Malachi and it was obvious that we hadn't even launched and they were sweating money.

When we heard that Kyle was fired, it was right after we heard grumblings that they were getting evicted from the Observatory because of zoning issues... Kyle was a fall guy... he had torn his wife and kids away from all that they knew in order to be a part of Mark Driscoll's growing empire and less than a year after they had gotten there, they weren't turning a profit and so he got the axe... They were not offered a return ticket back to West Seattle, they were left unable to pay their rent and had to bone out to Las Vegas (where they offer no deposit move ins and 2 month free packages for long term leases. They surrendered everything that was dear to them to follow God and Mark and ended up with their lives turned upside down... They'll never admit it... I do wonder if they are honest enough to admit it to themselves though.

I think its worth noting that a really big draw (at least to locals) was the fact that Dustin Kensrue was leading worship... he's got his own cult fan club in OC and the only reason he came on board was because of his relationship with Nick who used to be his manager.

The irony is that Mark poached Dustin from Nick right after they launched and brought him up to Bellevue to be his own personal worship leader. So he took one of, if not the best thing MHOC had going for it and pretty much left them to to turn a profit for him with the DVD;s of his sermons he was sending down...

As much as I had differences wit Kyle when we left... I am truly sad for him and his family that they were put through this and are now living in Las Vegas doing church consulting to "take Churches to the Next LEVEL!"... Las Vegas is not a place to raise a family... especially a family that is desperately homesick for West Seattle.

But God uses all things for the good of Mark Driscoll's empire. So sad.

Anonymous said...

We were only 2 months into core group before they started slapping the parishioners with Malachi.


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Added for additional coverage of the incident from last year.

Anonymous said...

That sermon in November was at the Observatory for the God's Work our Witness sermon series. I know this personally as I was at MH OC at that time.