16 September 2014 A.D. Mars Hill & Mark Driscoll: Cautionary Tales from the Enron of American Churches
Asghar, Rob. “Mars Hill: Cautionary Tales From The Enron Of American Churches.” Forbes. 16 Sept 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/09/16/mars-hill-cautionary-tales-from-the-enron-of-american-churches/. Accessed 20 Sept 2014.
Mars Hill: Cautionary Tales From The Enron Of American Churches
In life, blowhards and bullies will inevitably rise up and do their thing. In the field of management, they tend to rise up and do it with extra frequency and impact. And in religious organizations, they can often do it with maximum impact, because the whole enterprise is usually founded on the notion of absolute authority.
Mark Driscoll, one of the nation’s most prominent and celebrated pastors, may be the newest and best example of this. He is the toxic leader du jour, though he has stepped away from leadership temporarily to navigate massive waves of accusations that have flowed into his Mars Mars Hill multi-campus megachurch based in Seattle.
The Seattle Times’ Craig Welch, in a major examination last weekend, detailed Mars Hill’s investigation into allegations that Driscoll “bullied members, threatened opponents, lied and oversaw mismanagement of church funds.” Oh, and he apparently plagiarized to boot.
A reading of Welch’s expose and the remarkably thorough analyses of blogger Warren Throckmorton help explain the leader’s dramatic fall from grace.
My goal isn’t to offer a finely balanced, objective assessment of Mars Hill that would satisfy both Driscoll’s critics and his supporters. That’s not even possible, frankly. Rather, my goal to explain some of the Enron-like dynamics that result in leaders becoming media darlings and being celebrated widely as the “smartest” or “best” people in the room, even when there are hints that a spectacular flameout is possible.
There are some insights and lessons we can draw from this mess. It’s a reminder that, the bigger they come, the harder they fall. Some organizations are more wired than others for spectacular success or spectacular failure. Nondenominational megachurches are one example. They often can be free-wheeling, Wild West-style operations, unencumbered by national bureaucracies. That frees them to respond to grow quickly … or to grow malignantly.
Gautaum Mukunda, author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, has noted that most leaders in most industries are “filtered” by a sorting-and-screening system specific to their profession. But a few are “unfiltered,” and may get into a major leadership job without first being scrutinized as closely. The latter, unfiltered leaders are what he calls “extreme leaders”—the game changers, for better and for worse. But in most cases, the nutjobs and the geniuses are alike filtered out by the system.
Sure, narcissists do still slip through the Byzantine bureaucratic nets of the traditional, vanilla-esque mainline denominations. But the ones that slip through are like tunas, not sharks or killer whales or Driscolls.
The Mars Hill case also reminds us that Caesar-style leaders usually set their organizations up for glory—and then for civil war. When Julius Caesar accumulated too much power, the good-intentioned desire among some leaders to restore true republican rule resulted instead in the end of republican rule and a few years of bloodshed. You see that dynamic again and again, from Caesar’s own time, to Penn State in the wake of Joe Paterno’s firing two seasons ago and Mars Hill today. Personality cults end badly, because anyone objective finds themselves mauled by loyalists trying to hold the cult together. (Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer remains a pivotal resource for understanding the motivations of cult-type personalities, who often have their entire identities fused into their nation, organization or holy cause.)
Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good/When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move. –Led Zeppelin, When the Levee Breaks, 1971
With toxic leaders, there are no happy endings, no matter how hard you pray. You just have to move on. That may seem especially sad to those Mars Hill congregants who want Driscoll to undergo a disciplinary process so that that a newly mature, repentant and humbled version of himself might someday take the pulpit.
But a number of psychologists have told me that the truly toxic leaders, the ones who manage to cause trouble on the scale of a Driscoll, are tragically irredeemable as managers. Oftentimes, the disciplining process only teaches them new ways to exploit the system while pretending to obey it. (Bear in mind that Driscoll himself has been claiming for years that he’s been making progress on his shortcomings.)
Sure, there may be redemption stories for toxic leaders, but those usually involve them learning to relieve their stress through knitting, by adopting a rescue dog, or by finding some way to be of productive service without being in charge of large budgets and large communities.
I’ll close with a little more on my own biases and agendas: I’m driven by a strong revulsion for the bullying and sociopathy that happen far too often within the world of management, even within noble religious and spiritual organizations—again, especially for such organizations, because they’re founded on absolute authority models. It’s not my foremost concern to figure out exactly what Mark Driscoll “deserves”; rather my concern is to call attention to how these sorts of dynamics keep popping up endlessly, as if they’d never happened before. (Oh, and here I’m paraphrasing Willa Cather, in an effort to not get nailed for plagiarism the way Driscoll did.)
Mars Hill’s story is far from finished. It need not end up being another Enron. But it does face enormous challenges to recover any sense of health and stability.
Rob Asghar is the author of the newly released Leadership Is Hell, with all proceeds supporting programs to increase college access for under-served youth in the Los Angeles area.