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Mark Driscoll is an example of how not to lead, and that is not news to those privy to his meteoric rise and fall. As someone who grew up in Driscoll’s wrecking-ball orbit in Washington State, I watched mentors take on his brash cadences, speak about their wives as ‘hot gifts from the Lord,’ and orient their teaching toward theological grenade tossing.
It was only a matter of time until Driscoll’s quicksand empire collapsed, and even his most loyal allies likely knew it.
A new Christianity Today podcast — The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill — asks, however, why we keep doing it.
Why do we keep elevating leaders like Driscoll to a pulpit that quickly becomes our coffin?
Reasons abound, some of which CT addresses: we adore ministry growth at all costs, we value charisma more than character, we have a never-ending patience for arrogance if it gives us relevance. Some reasons stayed off the table: the damage of complementarian theologies.
Quite honestly, we do love a man — and it’s almost always a man — who cuts brashly through the Christian bullshit.
And one more thing: we rally around someone who seems genuinely committed to loving the outcasts, and we’re desperate for leaders who point us toward this better way. It’s the cycle of how the liberators — young, bold, good-hearted — become the oppressors. From Sandanistas to Seattle’s punk-rock-church-scene, good-hearted beginnings turn to love for power and control.
This hits particularly close to home. As someone who is founding a ministry, charting a vision, and pointing the church toward God’s work at the margins, Driscoll’s story–hearing how genuinely he seemed to begin–is more of a gut punch than I’d expected.
I would rather distance myself from ‘bad guys’ like Driscoll, remaining a safe distance from him as I offer hot takes, theologize and pontificate on his failure. But his failure could quite easily become my failure. His heart in 2001 may not have been that far off from my heart in 2021.
So this story left me asking, how could I fail as spectacularly as Driscoll? Well, here are a few possibilities:
I could surround myself with leaders who think like me, look like me, and act like me
My alma mater made this decision with the firing of their only Black professor from their flagship campus, a beloved voice of God’s love and justice. Diversity is fun to talk about, but egregiously difficult to achieve.
We actually love being in the room with people who think, act, and talk like us. It catapults churches, businesses, and ministries on all sides of the political spectrum to simpler success.
It also has devastating effects.
I say this confidently: if several women were placed in oversight of Driscoll’s emerging ministry, domineering and reckless leadership would have been checked. The gift and the curse of not overlooking the warning signs of power-hungry men has been forced on women looking over their shoulder as they walk sidewalks at sunset, pour coffee in church lobbies, and constantly wonder why their good ideas are tabled for the next meeting.
Where homogenous groups of men will tend toward extending grace at all costs, women spot power grabs like the scent of Axe body spray wafting out of a middle school locker room. How many men in recent years have been caught saying, I never would have imagined this about him, or him, or all of them?
I need to hear this truth over and over: we need women at all levels of leadership, and we need racially and theologically diverse people and perspectives at all levels of leadership. We’re playing with fire if we don’t.
I could ensure my theology is neat, tidy, and divorced from reality
As I lead a ministry which focuses on Christ’s love for the margins, I am keenly aware of those in Detroit left in homes with no running water, friends who have no access to healthcare, and social services which lack the political investment to support those recovering from addictions.
What good news is Christ to these neighbors? It is far easier to construct entire theologies and vibrant ministries than to act on that question. Dr. Gregory Thomson and Rev. Duke Kwon speak against the spiritualizing of our theologies by saying we have a “cultural inclination to imagine that one can talk meaningfully about theology apart from any substantive reflection on politics, economics, or culture […]. Historically speaking, the undeniable social effect of this spiritualizing tendency has been to allow Christians to talk rhapsodically about the spiritual glories of the gospel even as they leave transparently unjust social conditions unaddressed.”
I’ll never forget the voice of a Cohort Detroit alum who retorted during a conversation: “I don’t want your ‘handouts’ or your ‘advice,’ I want you to make me your neighbor, literally.” Talking is one thing, but inviting people into our privilege is another. Hand over the code to your lakehouse. Hand over the keys to my car. That is theology in action. That is hard.
If I want my ministry to fail, I will ignore our incarnational call, our call to serve like Jesus, who humiliated himself to enter into our world, offering us the grace that we offer to others.
I could succeed
Finally, if I want to fail spectacularly, I could succeed. I could forget how the Holy Spirit and countless co-leaders were the primary catalysts, and then franchise my success across North America. The latter piece is quite literally what one Atlanta-based professional coach told me to do.
Near the end of Driscoll’s Mars Hill ministry, he made clear to his campus pastors that he was the ‘brand.’ That their role was only to get people in the door so that he could teach them. We don’t say this as bluntly, but we do say it: when we cannot stop working, when we ensure perfection, when we fail to let others lead.
As I lead, I pray for open doors, for the Spirit to work, for a collaboration in vision. But I’ve also begun to pray for setbacks and slow transformation. If we were to come into a windfall of one million dollars and one hundred young leaders ready to plunge into mission and justice-oriented Detroit programming alongside all indications of worldly success, I would probably just break. Or become a monster.
That breaking point is a grace that every leader might hope for at one point or another. As the prayer attributed to Archbishop Romero says, we may always remember: “We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future that is not our own.”
And so we go out humbly, or we will be humbled.