Mars Hill RICO: Dismissed, What’s Next?

by | August 25, 2016 | Lawsuit, Mars Hill

Since 2014, former members of Mars Hill Church threatened to and then filed a civil RICO litigation against me. I was never served with the lawsuit.  Although the plaintiffs filed a 42-page public complaint, they were not prepared to complete the litigation. Now the judge has dismissed the case.

As Judge James L. Robart stated today, “The court finds that dismissal without prejudice is appropriate because Plaintiffs have

  1. failed to serve Defendants, even after the 90-day deadline passed;
  2. failed to take any action to pursue their claims aside from filing their complaint;
  3. not objected to dismissal of their case without prejudice; and
  4. represented that they cannot further prosecute this action at this time because they do not have the funds to do so.” (see the dismissal)

To many, it would appear that the final chapter of Mars Hill’s history is now closed, and for the most part they would be correct. However, I am still learning and healing from the experience, and I hope to help others do the same.

These past two years have been extremely challenging for my family and me, and the harsh and even defaming statements in the lawsuit were quite painful. Through it all, we have clung to God’s promises and we know that what man meant for evil God meant for good (Gen. 50:20)!  I remain committed to seek reconciliation, and I plan to meet people on my next trip to Seattle (Luke 17:3-4, Matthew 5:23-24, 18:15, 6:14-15, Mark 11:25). I will not respond to the Plaintiff legally with a counter-suit (1 Cor. 6:1-6).  I will not act like a victim of the culture, which I was not (Romans 8:28). I will continue to not be silent (Col. 3:12-17) but listen to Jesus and continue to help others where opportunities arise.

Mars Hill Global

Mars Hill Global began in 2009 to raise money from the global audience (those who listened via podcast) to help fund the mission of Mars Hill Church: “Making Disciples and Planting Churches.” Until late 2011, Mars Hill had not significantly funded international church planting but was heavily invested in US church planting. From 2009 to 2012, Mars Hill spent $8.6M in U.S. church planting and $170k outside of the U.S.

When I joined Mars Hill in 2011, I built relationships with the Kale Hewyott Church in Ethiopia to train church planters there. My passion for Ethiopia (which existed before I arrived at Mars Hill) began to dominate the message of Mars Hill Global. In hindsight, I see how many believed that the only reason Mars Hill Global existed was to fund Ethiopian church planting.

When people started to question the distribution of funds given to Mars Hill Global, the church brought in ECFA and independent auditors, Clark Nuber. Both groups gave Mars Hill a clear opinion that the church had done nothing wrong. In spite of these findings, we felt led to send 3765 emails and 6000 letters to 100% of donors to Mars Hill Global from 2011 to 2014 to clarify their gift intent. Less than 40 families responded; Mars Hill Church sent an additional $40,000 to Ethiopia because donors requested their donations to Mars Hill Global be for Ethiopian church planting.

From 2012 to 2014, Mars Hill Church spent $13.7M in church planting in the US and sent $545k to Ethiopia and India. During its existence, Mars Hill Church invested over $23M in church planting in the US and around the world. This amount is over and above the general and administrative costs of Mars Hill Church’s central operations and staffing. (47% of the funds given to Mars Hill Global from 2012-2014 were large donations from a small number of donors who specifically asked prior to giving for their donations to be counted in Global.  Many of these donors did not attend one specific Mars Hill location and wanted their donations supporting all Mars Hill operations including U.S. and international church planting.)

Many have asked for these numbers. There was I time when I was restricted from providing these numbers. Now, everyone has the Mars Hill Global information that I had when I resigned in September 2014 (Eph. 5:13).

Executive Compensation

Some have criticized the executive elder compensation I received for my position insinuating that I unfairly enriched myself. Once again, this criticism is painful and unmerited. When I accepted the call to Mars Hill as General Manager, I left the private sector as a CEO with a significantly higher pay. When I accepted the position of Executive Elder, I was given the same salary as the person I replaced. These salaries were approved by the board and were supported by by-laws and church governance.

In 2012, the board commissioned independent compensation studies to determine the salaries of all three executive elders. The Compensation Committee (made up of board members) then used these studies to determine the compensation of each executive elder. These studies were done by the independent firm of Capin Crouse. Many have an issue with the compensations of megachurch pastors today, and I respect their opinion. The process that the Board of Mars Hill went through to determine compensation for executive elders was 100% by IRS process and following National Council of NonProfits guidelines, completed by an independent accounting firm, and audited by another independent audit firm. My compensation was based on what others in similar positions in similarly sized churches were compensated.

A Successful, Unhealthy Church

Many staff heard me say during my tenure, “It is a miracle this church still exists.” Jesus was saving people and growing the church in spite of issues with organizational structure, dissension within the staff, and dissension with former members. A 2007 bylaw change had split the church. The issues that led to that bylaw change and its implementation heavily impacted the culture of Mars Hill. In 2012, I asked permission to meet with those directly affected by the events of 2007; permission was denied. Those events in 2007 had unfortunately begun the cycle of distrust and a lack of transparency. One fed upon the other to build an unhealthy culture.

The Result Source contract decision was made within the context of this successful, but unhealthy church. As I have stated before, I was not a part of that decision making process back in the summer of 2011. Because of the Result Source mistake along with other cultural issues, Pastor Dave Bruskas and I began to campaign for greater outside accountability. I wrote two long blogs about the resulting new board (Result Source 2 & Result Source 3). This new Board decided to never use Result Source again and rightfully so.

A radically fast-growing church like Mars Hill would probably not die in a quiet whimper. By 2012, the Board began to plan for the worst-case scenario: how our Mars Hill churches would become independent churches and who would preach during the transition period.  We planned for a potentially fatal “what if” hoping for God’s continuing favor but realistically preparing for the day when the unhealthy culture would overcome us (Gal. 6:7-10).

I left before all of the final details of the plan were completed and executed (“When to Quit”), but I am grateful to those pastors who led and participated in the process. I am also grateful to the staff that worked diligently to give the resulting independent churches the best start possible. I know they all served well during a difficult tragedy and did their best, and I applaud their effort and the resulting work that continues to this day.

A Governing Board Under Pressure

In spite of our best effort to formulate an external board, the board began to crack under the pressure in late 2013 and 2014. Board members faced great scrutiny that affected their full-time ministries and businesses. Many board members probably questioned what they had signed up for in their volunteer role. Communication within the Board became triangulated as informal communication one-on-one and in small groups increased. One board member communicated “to the Board” his ideas for changing the culture in spring 2014. Pastor Dave Bruskas and I (who were members of the board) were not a part of that communication and were not able to discuss and possibly agree with his ideas. When Mars Hill Church was removed from the Acts 29 Network in August 2014, it came as a complete surprise to Pastor Dave and me. However, other board members knew it was coming and never told us (Matt. 12:25).

Moving Forward

In closing many people were hurt by the closing of Mars Hill Church. I have met with some of them personally. 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.

I will continue to be thankful for Jesus’ faithfulness through these last five years (Psalm 119:90). He has used so much to shape me into being more like him (Rom. 8:29, 2 Cor. 3:17-18). I know I have a long way to go, but I am very thankful for the Lord’s grace, patience and forgiveness along my journey.

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Psalm 145:8)