Mars Hill Global – My Heart, My Mistakes, and My Critics

For almost a year now, significant tumult, emotion, and discussion has surrounded Mars Hill Global. Now that some time has passed since Mars Hill Church’s closure, I wanted to tell the story of Mars Hill Global to the best of my ability*.

My Heart

Jesus saved me in Africa in 2005. That experience ignited a love and affection for the continent and its people that I pray will never dwindle. Since then, I have traveled to Africa more than twelve times: to Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, and Botswana as a tourist; to the Democratic Republic of Congo to train ministry leaders; and several times to Ethiopia for both ministry and personal reasons. In 2011, our family finalized the adoption of our son in Addis Ababa. Between our adoption application in 2009 and the final embassy appointment in 2011, I traveled to Ethiopia several times. During those trips, God allowed me to meet many Westerners and locals in the country working to fight poverty and care for orphans. In 2009, I was blessed to meet Mike Stemm, founder of New Covenant Foundation (NCF). We had an instant rapport, and I admired the work NCF was doing in Ethiopia spearheading sustainable projects to improve the quality of life for the poor in Ethiopia. Mike and NCF believe that direct aid is a short-term fix, whereas the best way to help others is to give them skills and techniques to sustain themselves. In addition, NCF works alongside some of the largest Christian denominations in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has a long and celebrated place in Christendom: from the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) to the early church history that records that Jesus’ disciple, Matthew, evangelized Ethiopia and was martyred there. One of the earliest people groups outside of the Jews to believe in Jesus now has some 20 million people who have never heard the gospel message. On top of the great evangelism need, there are 4.5 million orphans in Ethiopia, and it ranks as the second poorest country in the world.

Our Commitment

When I began my employment in April 2011, Mars Hill Church had limited investment in international missions. The extent of international missions was the financial support of Vision Nationals, which totaled $X for 2009-2011.* I knew Mars Hill could certainly do more work with international missions given its size and influence. With over 200,000 podcasters a week and some of those podcasters overseas, Mars Hill had the potential to impact church planting in the United States and internationally in a major way—both through our own church planting efforts and by partnering with existing church planting organizations in other foreign countries.

So in 2012, Mars Hill began to develop a big vision for church planting in Ethiopia. New Covenant Foundation connected us with Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church, the largest evangelical denomination in Ethiopia with close to 8,000 churches. Planting churches in Ethiopia relies solely on a trained evangelist. This training program through Kale Heywet takes two years. If a man can be trained and given financial support, he can “go and make disciples” and then plant churches. Mars Hill originally committed to sponsor twenty church planters and quickly increased the sponsorship to forty evangelists within that same year. In February 2014, we worked with NCF and Kale Heywet on a twenty-year plan for church planting in Ethiopia with a huge prayer and goal to plant 5,000 additional churches by 2035.

We planned to set up ten zonal areas within the country each led from a trunk city. Each of the ten trunk cities would include a Bible college, a gathering place, a regional supervising pastor, a Child Survival Center (a venture made possible through Mars Hill’s partnership with Compassion International), and a lodging place for short-term missions. Mars Hill was in the planning process to invest over $30 million in Ethiopian church planting and child survival by 2035. That plan was presented in its final form to the Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA) in June 2014.

As you can see, Mars Hill, as an organization, was committed to a long-term investment in Ethiopia. In January 2014, our members also made personal, individual commitments. During the James sermon series, our members partnered with Compassion International to sponsor 1,425 Ethiopian children.** Many of these children live in areas near existing Kale Heywet churches or in an area where Kale Heywet has evangelists. In February 2014, Mars Hill pastors also committed personally to invest in Ethiopia when eleven pastors and leaders travelled with me to Ethiopia. During that trip, we had the incredible privilege of preaching to over 2,000 Ethiopian evangelists at a conference that Mars Hill funded. Due to a lack of funds, those evangelists had not gathered together for celebration, training, encouragement, and fellowship like that in the last three years. Those Mars Hill pastors and leaders who travelled to Ethiopia committed to return, Lord-willing, with their own group of 15-20 Mars Hill members. We began the application process last summer and many of these applicants expressed the desire to meet their sponsored Compassion kids.

Even though Mars Hill has closed, the commitment to Ethiopian church planting and child survival continues. Praise God that not one of the 1,425 Compassion children in Ethiopia has had their support discontinued. I am very thankful to the now independent churches birthed from Mars Hill who have decided to take upcoming short-term mission trips to Ethiopia with NCF. Many of these churches also continue to support the Kale Heywet evangelists. Praise God that not one evangelist has had his support discontinued. I am personally working with Dr. Eyasu Malsamo, the Missions Director for Kale Heywet in Addis Ababa to publish his evangelism book in Amharic. We are prayerful to distribute over 5,000 copies of this resource over the next twelve months. Since leaving Mars Hill, my family and I have continued to support NCF and their sponsorship of Ethiopian evangelists with our financial gifts.

I also continue in steadfast prayer and diligent effort to raise money and awareness for church planting in Ethiopia. The close of Mars Hill will not change these commitments because my heart is to join Jesus in any mission he is planning to accomplish there, to see him save thousands upon thousands of people for whom he died, and to support the faithful efforts of evangelists in Ethiopia.

Our Investment

In 2014 alone, Mars Hill gave $X to support efforts in Ethiopia and India. This is over X times what was given toward all non-US church planting from 2009-2011.* See the quote below from the Mars Hill Church FAQ web page in 2014**:

Our goal at Mars Hill was always to plant churches, and that is what the Global donations have always supported. During fiscal years 2009-2014, over $10 million was given to Mars Hill Church by the extended family of Mars Hill Global. During that same time period, $23 million was spent on church planting in the United States, India, and Ethiopia. In 2009-2011, over 80% of donations given by the Mars Hill Global family went to Acts 29 church planting. In each of those years, funds were also consistently spent in India for church planting. In 2012-2014, expenditures for church planting efforts in India were increased and those for Ethiopia were added, but the preponderance of expenses went to church plants and replants in the US.

Our Critics

Over the last twelve months, many have criticized the intentions and practices surrounding Mars Hill Global. This criticism focused around the claim that the leadership of Mars Hill confused donors who were giving to the Global Fund leading them to believe that 100% of all donations to Mars Hill Global went to Ethiopia and India.

I am sorry that some who contributed to Mars Hill Global (as well as those who did not contribute) were mistakenly led to believe incorrect information. That was neither my nor the church’s intention, but as the accusations came in, we quickly made a change on the online giving site to remove the term “Global Fund” (which had been used since 2009) to make it clearer. Secondly, we had the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), as well as an external, independent auditor, conduct thorough investigations. Both of these groups found that we could have been clearer during our communications (and in hindsight, we certainly agreed), but they reported that we did nothing wrong. Although neither the ECFA nor the auditor gave us any course of corrective action, my leadership team and I wanted to do everything we could to remedy the situation and correct our mistakes.

We quickly established a plan to go above and beyond what was expected of us (nothing) to rectify the situation and make it right with anyone who felt that the communications about Mars Hill Global since 2012 were unclear about our intentions for their monetary gifts. To do this, we directly contacted all donors who designated their gifts as “global” from 2012 to 2014. We did this both through email correspondence and by regular mail. We sent out 3765 emails and approximately 6000 letters to these donors.** In these letters, we apologized for any confusion that the Global ministry communications caused among our donors. We offered to immediately reallocate the dollar amount of their donation(s) to church planting efforts in Ethiopia, if they desired. The amount was less than $40,000 and requests came from less than 40 families.** The funds were then sent on to support efforts in Ethiopia.

During the past twelve months, an online petition calling for “greater financial transparency from the leadership of Mars Hill” was started and has since been signed by 507 people. While some of those who have signed the petition may have been donors to Mars Hill Global, the overwhelming majority (98%) of signers never gave to Mars Hill Global.

On April 4, 2014, parties whom were led by a former Mars Hill member sent a legal request for the preservation of documents to Mars Hill Church. This type of request normally proceeds a lawsuit, however a year has passed since Mars Hill received the legal notice. Then in August and again in December, these parties threatened legal action against many of the former MHC leadership, including myself. They charge that former leaders misappropriated funds with regards to Mars Hill Global. There are however a few facts to consider:

  1. As mentioned above, we communicated to every donor who gave to Mars Hill Global from 2012-2014. Any person who was unclear about their gift’s destination was given an opportunity to respond and to request that their gift dollar amount be directed to international church planting. We fulfilled this request as quickly as we were able.
  2. Since at least 2011, Mars Hill had annual outside accounting audits completed on financial transactions. That was an organizational standard long before the Spring of 2014. Additionally though, as mentioned above, the ECFA completed a formal review of the Mars Hill Global situation after accusations of misappropriation of funds surfaced. Both entities (ECFA and our outside auditor) agreed that there was never any embezzlement or misappropriation of funds or anything illegal conducted with the financial management of Mars Hill Church.
  3. The leader of this potential legal action has not been a member of Mars Hill Church since 2007. He is a CEO of a non-profit that participates in Africa, and Mars Hill once supported this non-profit. There are now four remaining potential plaintiffs listed in the most recent threat of legal action sent in December 2014.
  4. Mars Hill made every effort to reconcile the error. Mars Hill corrected the donation of every donor who responded that the intent of their gift was to support international church planting. If the leader or the plaintiffs gave anything to Mars Hill Global during the time under dispute, why did they not ask for reallocation of their giving to Ethiopia?

My Mistakes

As the leader and executive pastor of Mars Hill, there were many people working under my supervision and leadership from 2011 to 2014. Mars Hill Global was clearly under my leadership and clearly my responsibility.

In late 2012, I created a video to communicate the change from “Global Fund” to the “Extended Family of Mars Hill Global” and our vision and prayer for Global. However, I did not ensure that the changes permeated through the Media and Communications Department (which was creating a lot of public content) and onto the public online giving page. I know now that that was one of my greatest mistakes as a leader at Mars Hill: not changing the name of the Global Fund on the giving website in 2012 when we launched this new vision. I am deeply sorry for how this mistake led to confusion regarding our mission and also to severe criticism of the church.

My first introduction video about Mars Hill Global ran at the front of every podcast for twenty-one straight weeks from December 2012 to May 2013. I tried to clearly state that “Mars Hill Global is doing and participating in church planting here in Ethiopia and also in India, also we are doing church planting in the United States as well. We are doing all of that… Sign up today, become a member of the extended family…and let’s see what Jesus Christ is going to do, not only in the United States but to the ends of the earth.”

I now realize that over time, I did not continue to communicate as well as I should have that Mars Hill Global was doing church planting in the US, Ethiopia, and India. My personal passion for Ethiopia began to overtake the communication about church planting in the US.

My personal passion for Ethiopia began to overtake the communication about church planting in the US.

I also made a very bad assumption that because the last decade of Mars Hill had been acutely focused on church planting in the US with Acts 29, that I needed to focus more on what we were doing outside of the US. I assumed that everyone knew our church planting efforts in the US were continuing (which they did—with seven more churches between 2012 and 2014.)

I am deeply sorry for any confusion caused by my and my former team’s communications. Although this was certainly not our intention, the outcome still remains and we did everything in our power to rectify this error with Global donors in the summer of 2014. I understand that this situation has hurt some people’s (both Christian and non-Christian) trust in church stewardship for the larger church in general, and I am deeply saddened by this. Again, I am very sorry; I should have better communicated the goals, the use of funds, and the future vision of Mars Hill Global in the United States and wherever God would lead us in the world.

Lessons Learned

I know that God is faithful to use everything in our lives for his glory and good (Romans 8:28) even (and sometimes especially) our mistakes. As events unfolded and during their aftermath, I learned several lessons. Honestly, I pray that you never have to endure something like Mars Hill went through, but I hope these will help you if you are ever faced with a situation where you have made a mistake and are criticized for it.

  1. Mistakes. When you make a mistake, admit it clearly and quickly. As I have mentioned previously, the MH BOAA discussed many different paths for communication, including trying to get ahead of the story and remaining silent. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of assuming that if we were silent about this issue it would pass over. Your verbal apology is just as important as the actions you will take to remedy your mistake. While my team made every effort in the Summer of 2014 to remedy the misunderstanding surrounding Global, those efforts were not communicated until late Fall of 2014. I am friends with a seasoned leader who admits his mistakes clearly and quickly. He will shrug his shoulders and respond with something like, “Yup, you’re right. I blew it. I’m sorry and I’m going to fix it.” Then, he fixes it and communicates accordingly. He’s been leading that way for more than twenty years and the people in his organization respect him greatly and love him dearly.
  1. Heart. We can never fully understand the intentions nor motives of another person’s heart—only God can. There have been times in the past four years that I have ascribed intent to someone based on his or her actions and I have been wrong for assuming what is in someone’s heart. I have learned that most people begin an endeavor with good and honest intentions. Along the way, their actions may or may not derail that original intent. I have learned that despite people’s actions, I have to assume that their original intention was for good. When faced with our mistakes and the criticism that comes with them, leaders should assume that most people are operating from an honest motive and good intentions. Give the benefit of the doubt.
  1. Criticism. A church leader will face two different and distinct groups when it comes to criticism. One group, what I would consider critics, will consist of people you have not had direct contact with but who are affected by decisions you make as a church leader. Another group are brothers and sisters with whom you have had direct contact. You have either sinned against them, or they believe you have sinned against them. Given the scope and size of Mars Hill and its history of controversy, unfortunately I could not respond to every critic—it was simply impossible. Because you are leading within an organization, you will be limited in how you can respond to critics and when, but aim to publicly apologize for any mistakes and correct actions as soon as you are able. I have found that critics can and do make you a better leader. When you accept criticism through the lens of the gospel, God works great humility in you, and fruit from it. When you then rightly respond to criticism, you demonstrate that humility and show that you are teachable. There is a small minority who will never be happy with your response, but most will appreciate that you heard their criticism, gave it consideration instead of dismissing it, and if needed, made changes.
  1. Reconciliation. When it comes to people with whom you had direct contact, you should meet with them, understand their hurt, own what you can from the situation, and ask for forgiveness where appropriate. You cannot assume that hurt people will just get over it, especially when you are in leadership. Hurt people become bitter, and their bitterness grows. You may not be able to fix the past in the way that they would want, but meeting with them and listening with empathy is powerful. Seth Godin recounts in his book Tribes how Ronald Reagan was a great leader because he listened to others and valued their opinion even if he did not make a decision they desired. Godin writes, “People want to be sure you heard what they said – they’re less concerned on whether or not you do what they said.” I have often found that the most vocal critics are those who were wounded and never felt that they were heard.

    I have often found that the most vocal critics are those who were wounded and never felt that they were heard.

    Since leaving Mars Hill, the Lord has been gracious to allow me to meet with men whom I wronged or men who felt that I wronged them. We have sat across the table from each other, had coffee, talked, and prayed. I have listened to them explain both their hurt and their intent during certain inflammatory situations. I have apologized for the hurt I caused them. I have owned the mistakes I made during our previous interactions. Those meetings have been hard, but I think all involved would agree that they have been fruitful. (I will speak more about this in an upcoming blog series.)

“Onward and Upward”

Jesus gave me a new heart in Africa a decade ago, and he has been molding and shaping it for his purposes ever since. I pray that I can continue to be of service to him there in the years to come. I have written here in response to criticism and in doing so have attempted to explain my heart, motivations, and actions. I am recognizing my mistakes publicly and I pray that the specific actions that I took to correct them will allow you to see my sincerity and remorse.

–Sutton Turner

*Unfortunately, Mars Hill’s attorneys have requested that I not blog. I have removed some of the financial information as well as other non-financial information in response to their request.
**This information was released by Mars Hill Church on their Global FAQ webpage as of 12/8/2014.

Godin, Seth. Tribes. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. iBooks.