Guest commentary from Leanna Fuller
Two weeks ago, well-known pastor Mark Driscoll resigned from Mars Hill Church, a Seattle-based mega-church. Whether or not you believe the formal allegations brought against Driscoll, Mars Hill has been shaken to its core by the conflict surrounding its most visible leader. In the wake of this controversy, giving and attendance have dropped; consequently, Mars Hill has had to sell off property and cut its staff.
Those of us who attend more “ordinary” churches may assume that what happened at Mars Hill could never happen to us or that the events unfolding at Mars Hill are purely a function of its fame. I wonder, though, if we might see Mars Hill as a dramatic example of a much more mundane reality: church conflict. Looking at the Mars Hill controversy through this lens can remind us of some broader truths about conflict in congregations:
- Conflict isn’t unique to Mars Hill. Most congregations experience conflict as a regular part of their communal life. In fact, conflict in churches can be healthy and energizing, but recent congregational research has also revealed a growing trend toward “serious conflict,” defined as conflict in which congregation members leave, a leader leaves or money is withheld. When this kind of conflict erupts in our churches, we experience many of the same consequences that Mars Hill now faces: declining attendance and giving, damaged trust and decreasing vitality.
- Conflict is usually about more than one person. This observation isn’t intended to get Driscoll off the hook; if even a few of the charges made against him are true, Driscoll exhibited patterns of intimidation that are deeply troubling and cry out for redress. Still, it’s possible to see what happened at Mars Hill not only as the result of one pastor’s bad behavior, but also as an organizational system’s failure to hold its top leader accountable until things had gotten badly out of hand. The letter from former Mars Hill pastors outlining the charges against Driscoll claims that his leadership created a “culture of fear” rather than a “culture of candor and safety.” The leaders and members of Mars Hill must ask themselves: “How did this culture of fear develop? What did we do to resist it, or how might we have responded differently to it?” In the same way, all congregations experiencing intense conflict must examine the ways in which they are (or are not) holding their leaders accountable to the community’s shared values – especially when leaders are accused of serious breaches in conduct.
- Conflict doesn’t have to be destructive. There is no doubt that serious conflict can severely damage a congregation in terms of membership, finances and overall health. But that is not a foregone conclusion; how conflict is handled can make a huge difference in the degree of its lasting impact. Conflict that is dealt with openly – with a high degree of transparency and mutual accountability – has the potential to help a faith community clarify its values and move toward healing. Whether or not Mars Hill’s leaders will handle this crisis in a way that inspires reconciliation and renewed purpose remains to be seen. In the meantime, Mars Hill serves as a potent reminder for all of our churches to develop healthier approaches to conflict now… before we end up on the front page.
Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology and congregational conflict.