Unearthed Mars Hill Memo Warns of ‘Big Mess’ and Questionable Financial Ethics

The revelations keep coming about imploding Mars Hill church, which this week announced that it was laying off staff and closing branches in the wake of numerous allegations of financial impropriety, porn-laced misogyny and abuse of power. Today, one of the most dogged bloggers following the saga, Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, published a 2012 memo purporetedly written by Mars Hill Executive Pastor Sutton Turner.

“It’s really incredible,” Throckmorton says of the memo, talking by phone today. Leaked to him by an insider, the memo reveals that as far back as two years ago Turner was warning elders about a financial crisis brought on by a culture of “entitlement,” “poor stewardship” and questionable ethics.

“We are in a big mess,” Turner wrote in the memo dated March 17, 2012 and addressed to the churches two other executive elders, including reigning pastor Mark Driscoll. “It is much worse that (sic.) I could have imagined.”

Turner began the memo by saying he woke up after a “rough night” following his receipt of the church’s latest financials. “I knew I had to get up and write you both this email, and I did not want to do it.”

Although Mars Hill was looked at nationally as a big financial success, and claimed to take in $26 million in 2013, the church was spending even more money. “We are taking in $30.25 per adult and spending $47.50 per adult,” Turner wrote, providing a chart that fleshed out the financials.

In part, Turner blamed the hole on the church’s too ambitious agenda that year to open six new branches and simultaneously launch a “Real Marriage” campaign, based around Driscoll’s book of the same name, the same one that he allegedly propped up with $200,000 of church money. “You basically have a company going to World War III,” Turner wrote. “That is totally not sustainable.”

More pointedly, though, Turner calls out dubious behavior on the part of church staffers. Some used the church credit card to “treat their wives to spa appointments,” or attended to their own personal ministries and consulting businesses on church time. This was not a secret, he wrote. When he came to Mars Hill 10 months prior, “the finance team kept a spreadsheet call ‘questionable expenses.’ So whether top leaders did not want to know or were complicit in their action is debatable.”

The church also routinely engaged in what Turner called a “Hail Mary” strategy. Every December, the church would undergo an extra giving push. Members were told that the church needed additional funds for new branches or special projects. “But given our spending habits, their gifts just help us catch up,” he wrote.

Throckmorton notes in his blog post, and talking by phone, that the Hail Mary approach continued even after Turner’s strongly worded missive. The following year, Mars Hill launched a fund-raising push that was ostensibly for a grand “Jesus Festival.” After netting close to $3 million, the church shelved the festival idea, according to Throckmorton.

“Very little has changed since he [Turner] wrote those words,” Throckmorton comments on his blog. Mars Hill still won’t disclose how it spends its money—including the reportedly lavish salaries paid to Driscoll and other senior staffers.

Requests to Mars Hill for comment have so far gone unanswered.

Update: Mars Hill spokesperson Justin Dean e-mailed SW to say that Turner was not available for comment but offered this statement: “Our leaders acknowledge that the reason for much of the decrease in attendance and giving falls to them. We shoulder the responsibility for past sins and mistakes—which has caused many to leave. As we continue to repent, learn, and grow in this season, we also bear the responsibility to lead differently as we move forward—for God’s glory and the good of his church. As a church we are evaluating every aspect of our ministry and operations for ways we can improve.”

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