Like so many leaders in the church space, I listened to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, which just recently wrapped up its (near) final episode.
To say it was hard to listen to is an understatement.
It took me a month or two to even decide whether I would listen to it or not.
For those who may not know, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is a podcast produced by Christianity Today that chronicles the humble beginnings, explosive growth, and very public dissolution of Mars Hill, a megachurch that once had multiple campuses in Seattle, Washington (one of the most unchurched cities in the U.S.).
Filled with interviews with former staff and church members, the focal point of the series is the leadership style of lead pastor Mark Driscoll.
Like many people I know, when I started listening, there were times when I shut an episode off, thinking I couldn’t go any further, only to resume it a day or a week later. The story is so painful for the multiple layers of hurt involved and yet crucial for what we can learn moving forward.
Eventually, I finished the series, but the ambivalence never really disappeared.
So, why this post?
Mainly because this is a leadership blog, and the patterns described around Mars Hill are not unique to Mars Hill. They’re not even unique to churches.
The patterns can happen—and do happen—in varying degrees in many different churches and businesses.
While The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast isn’t a definitive account of what happened in Seattle (for example, despite attempts, former Mars Hill Lead Pastor Mark Driscoll didn’t agree to be interviewed for the show), it provided enough of a picture of the unhealthy happenings in churches and the dysfunctional happenings within leaders to convict me of my own sin (again).
For me, the most disturbing part of listening to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is that I saw some of myself in the story.
I recognized some of the same impulses in me.
There’s a shadow side of leadership, pride, and power lurking in most of us. Perhaps in all of us. At least, it definitely lurks in me.
And if you identify the unhealthy patterns in your own life, maybe you can catch it early enough to prevent it from harming others.
So, let me go first to say that everything I’m describing below is things I’ve had to wrestle down in my own heart and my own leadership. I hope and pray for progress and victory for all of us who lead, including the leaders and people who were part of Mars Hill.
Exposing the darkness in ourselves is one of the greatest ways to find more light.
Here are five reflections I’m processing after finishing the podcast.There's a shadow side of leadership, pride, and power that lurks in most of us. Perhaps in all of us. Click To Tweet
1. The Ends Actually Don’t Justify the Means
I’ve worked in a few places over the years: a law firm, at radio and tv stations, at a church, and for the last few years as an author, speaker, and a podcaster myself, running a small communications company.
You’d think it was easier to lead like the ends justified the means in a law firm or private company.
It was easiest as a pastor.
For exactly the reasons described in the podcast, you end up saying things like:
- Well, more people are coming to faith than are leaving.
- I can’t be responsible for the consequences…that’s up to God.
- If it means more people come to faith, then let’s do it.
The church I led was not even close to the size of Mars Hill, nor did it have the influence of Mars Hill. But in the first decade of ministry, we became one of the fastest growing and one of the largest congregations in our denomination.
In the midst of all of that, some people got hurt. Often I moved fast and broke things. Sometimes I broke people.
Eventually, I realized that the ends don’t justify the means—that often different means produce much better ends.
I also realized that health and growth don’t have to compete with each other. You can have both. And if you can’t have both, choose health.
Listening to the podcast, I realized that what made those first few years of leadership so confusing was that great things were happening, and we were doing all of this ‘for God.’
In my heart of hearts, I believed that whatever we did that resulted in more people coming to Christ was a good thing.
Over time though, I realized that how you do what you do is just as (if not more) important as what you do.
In the church, more people is a good thing. But more love is even better.
As you have probably figured out, more love often leads to more people. But if it doesn’t, you’re still left with more love.
2. The Body Count Matters
I won’t go into the details outlined in the podcast, but one of the recurring themes was the body count at Mars Hill—the people who ‘fell off the bus’ or got pushed off the bus as it moved to new places and new heights.
For a season in my earlier years of ministry, we were growing quickly. But the underbelly of that season of growth was that we were simply growing faster than we were losing people.
It got so bad in some rapid growth years that I have a distinct memory of telling my team not to use pictures older than six months since there were too many people in the photo who had left.
I wince when I think about that now.
I don’t know why everyone who left ended up leaving (high growth and high churn seasons can be like that), and not everyone who left was mad or hurt—many tried it for a while and realized what we were doing wasn’t for them—but I do know that in all the churn, I started to form callouses around my heart.
When people leave or criticize you, it hurts.
The natural thing to do is to grow cynical, to stop listening to the disappointments and the complaints. And for a season, I did just that.
Had I let that go further, it’s likely I was only a few steps away from allowing the churn to be a badge of honor. Ugh.
Fortunately, I burned out after a few years of very rapid growth. I say ‘fortunately’ because, even though my burnout was the deepest pain I’ve ever gone through personally, I realize now that God was re-forming me in the midst of it.
I now think of my burnout as a divine intervention of sorts.
On the other side of burnout, I became much more sensitive to the pain and hurt I was causing, especially unintentionally. Often as leaders, we don’t mean to hurt people or even realize we’re doing it. Or we harden our hearts because we can’t stand the pain of people rejecting us.
I realized (and am still learning) how much of a mistake it is to close your heart to people or act like their leaving doesn’t matter. It does.
And while caring is hard, the ultimate damage of not caring is far greater.
Caring carries risk. So, leaders, please hear me. Your heart will get mangled, and you’ll be tempted to stop caring and trusting people altogether. Don’t.Leaders, please hear me. Your heart will get mangled and you'll be tempted to stop caring and trusting people altogether. Don't. Click To Tweet
So, you might ask, does opening your heart and caring about people stop people from leaving?
Nope. People still leave. Maybe not as many, but still, people leave. And it still hurts. (Toxic people are a different category, but most people aren’t toxic people. They just see things differently than you do).
People who disagree with you should be treated well and loved regardless of whether they are ‘with you’ or not. It’s not about you or me. It’s just not.
After I burned out and started to recover, we launched Connexus Church.
I look back on some of those launch photos a decade and a half later and smile. To my surprise and delight, most of the people who helped us launch are still with us.
And for those who left…well, if people were valuable to you when they came to your church, treat them as though they are just as valuable when they leave.If people were valuable to you when they came to your church, treat them as though they are just as valuable when they leave. Click To Tweet
3. Charisma is a Double-Edged Sword
Culturally, we use the term ‘charismatic’ to describe leaders who have a magnetic pull to their personalities.
Leadership tends to attract and reward charismatic people. In the case of preachers, I imagine the concentration of charismatic leaders is even higher than in the marketplace as a whole.
Why? Many preachers are excellent communicators, and the ability to communicate is a significant factor in charisma.
So, what’s the challenge?
The good thing about being a charismatic leader is that people follow you. The bad side of being a charismatic leader is that people follow you.
As a charismatic leader, you have the potential to lead thousands of people to a much better future and the potential to lead thousands of people right off a cliff.As a charismatic leader, you have the potential to lead thousands of people to a much better future, and the potential to lead thousands of people right off a cliff. Click To Tweet
From the time I was young, people told me I had charisma. Honestly, I didn’t know what that meant at that point, but having led for decades now, I realize charisma is a double-edged sword.
The temptation to use your charisma to consolidate power and use it to your benefit is real. Another temptation is to form an inner circle of fans, sycophants, and enablers who won’t challenge you or pose a threat to your viewpoint.
I got to a point early in my leadership where I was so sensitive to criticism that I felt the impulse to create an inner circle like that.
Fortunately, prayer, counseling, and people who knew me and loved me enough to help me see the truth helped me realize that ultimately that’s a path that leads to death, not life.
This brings us back to the original meaning of ‘charisma’ for all of us who at some point have been called charismatic leaders.
Charisma is a Greek transliteration into English; it means both ‘gift’ or ‘favor’ and carries a sense of having a grace given to you by God.
In other words, to the extent you possess any, your charisma is a gift and a favor from God to be used and stewarded not for your glory but God’s.
Of all the character traits we can cultivate, humility might be the greatest when it comes to stewarding charisma. As I’ve learned, again and again, only humility can get you out of what pride got you into.
If you find yourself surfing off your own giftedness, humble yourself.
This takes quite a bit of intentionality. But I’ve learned you can get to humility through two paths:
How does involuntary humility happen? Simple: When you’re humiliated by others or a situation.
Humiliation is simply involuntary humility. When you won’t humble yourself, others are happy to do it for you.
I’m trying to take the voluntary path moving forward. I don’t always get it right, but I’m trying.Humiliation is simply involuntary humility. When you won’t humble yourself, others are happy to do it for you. Click To Tweet
4. Your Character Needs to Grow Faster Than Your Platform
As I listened to story after story during the podcast, I realized that the real issue is character. It was at Mars Hill and it is in all of our lives.
The challenge is that in an age of instant celebrity, your platform can grow faster than your character.
I think that’s one of the reasons so many megachurch pastors fail (here’s a post with some thoughts on why it keeps happening).
As we’ve seen too often in the church (so painfully), all the competency in the world can’t compensate for a lack of character.
Character is the great leveler. You may be smart, but if people don’t trust you, they won’t want to work with you. You may be the best preacher in your city, but if you treat others as less than, people will stop listening.
Lack of character kills careers, shatters families, ruins friendships, and destroys influence. And even if you never get fired or divorced over the compromises you make, your lack of character will limit the intimacy, joy, and depth you experience with God and with people.
Competency gets you in the room. Character keeps you in the room. As a result, it’s character—not competency—that determines your capacity.
Although I hear the argument all the time, I personally don’t believe there is anything inherently bad about a large church or organization.
But there is something inherently difficult in it. And to some extent, the larger something is, the harder it is.
Please know, this doesn’t mean leading a small church or venture is easy. I have led small churches. I get it. Few things in leadership are easy.
But I’ve also led some larger ministries and organizations, and the larger it is, the greater the pressure and the more there’s at stake.
I remember when our church grew past 300; my mind was blown. Now, it’s five times the size.
Or look at this blog or my podcast. Honestly, 100,000 readers or listeners was inconceivable a decade ago. Then millions showed up.
Nothing gets you ready for that.
It’s way too easy for your platform to outgrow your character. And that’s where all the danger lies.
Add to it one more fact: You and I are not naturally made to lead thousands or millions.
It doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means you’ll have to grow your character faster. Much faster.In an age of instant celebrity, your platform can grow faster than your character. And that's where all the danger lies. Click To Tweet
5. Many Leaders Want to Be Celebrities—And The Internet is the Bullet Train
The podcast focused a lot on pride, narcissism, and the desire for celebrity.
It’s super easy to point the finger at a leader like Mark Driscoll, but that still leaves us with four fingers pointing back at ourselves.
And even if you don’t have a platform of your own, it’s easy to get a platform (a big one) by criticizing and destroying other people.
Before you deny that this applies to you, do a little gut check. Ask yourself, How good would you be with complete obscurity, with an irrelevance so deep nobody notices you or cares?
Yep…very few of us are good with that. After all, God designed us to be social creatures and to live lives of meaning and purpose.
Interaction and making some kind of a difference are core to a meaningful life.
The challenge becomes, of course, that the internet is the bullet train to celebrity. Just ask any 12-year-old YouTuber.The internet is the bullet train to celebrity. Just ask any 12-year-old YouTuber. Click To Tweet
There’s more than a little irony that The Rise and Fall of Mars Hills podcast criticized Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill for using the internet and social media to rapidly grow their ministry, while The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast itself was using exactly the same platforms as it became the most listened-to podcast in the Christian space.
And before you or I claim innocence or protest too loudly, well, you’re reading this blog post and perhaps you listen to my podcast or follow me on social and you’ll leave your comments online and…
It’s easy to criticize people with bigger platforms than yours, and in doing so let yourself off the hook.
A better approach is to dig deep and probe your own motives.
After listening to the podcast, I found myself asking questions like Why do I like the fact that my podcast gets downloaded so much, or how many people read my blog/buy my book/come to my talks?
There’s something ugly under that.
Alternatively, you can be so allergic (and self-righteous) about remaining obscure that your option becomes what…do nothing? Say nothing? Attempt nothing? That’s not faithfulness either.
Once again, humility and character are the keys here.
So what do you do?
Work twice as hard on your character as you do on your platform.
If we all did that, our posts would be more kind, our comments more grateful, our content more purely motivated.
What Are You Seeing Inside Yourself?
I’ve spent the last few decades trying to get healthier in leadership. It’s a hard journey, but, as you know, so worthwhile.
I’d love to know what you’re learning about yourself from The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.
Please do not use this space to slam other people or criticize others.
Abusive comments and comments aimed at tearing down other people will be deleted.
Thanks for playing nice in the comments.
I hope as you and I look inward, there will be many fewer hurt people down the road and a much healthier leadership culture in the church.
What are you seeing in yourself as you process all this?