The podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill has captured the attention of a large audience, both within and beyond American Christianity. Produced by Christianity Today, the podcast takes a deep dive into the implosion of a Seattle megachurch and the dysfunction of its senior pastor, Mark Driscoll. The host, Mike Cosper, both presents the larger Christian context that fostered the rise of Mars Hill and draws implications for the current and future church in America.
I’m one of the many that became fascinated by the podcast after a friend recommended it. Then, when listening to Episode 5 (“The Things We Do to Women”), I was surprised to hear a familiar voice: my colleague Dr. Rose Madrid-Swetman. Dr. Madrid-Swetman, the Northwest Regional Leader of the Vineyard USA denomination and an adjunct faculty member at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, shared about her experience providing pastoral care for people who had left Mars Hill.
Listening to The Rise and Fall podcast brought to mind so many of the concepts that Dr. Rose Madrid-Swetman teaches in our shared project, Certificate in Resilient Service at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. As the researcher for this program, I wanted to hear more about her experience about what hurts and helps Christian leaders who are trying to avoid the pitfalls of abusive leadership and structures.
Andrea: When Mike Cosper called and asked to interview you for this podcast, what compelled you to say yes?
Dr. Madrid-Swetman: I thought it was important to tell the story. As a female pastor in the city of Seattle, I was constantly hearing the stories of women being traumatized by the toxic theology and culture of Mars Hill Church. My hope is the church universal can listen to the people that have been harmed and learn from stories like that of Mars Hill. If we are willing to hear, there is so much to learn.
Andrea: Clearly, Mars Hill is a visible example of church dysfunction, but it’s far from the only church to struggle like this. How have you seen similar dynamics play out in other churches with other leaders?
Dr. Madrid-Swetman: This is true. Mark is not an anomaly. What happened at Mars Hill has played out over and over again in both small and large churches. The West’s industrial religious complex is designed to produce and reward leaders who misuse their power like this. As I was teaching leadership classes at The Seattle School, I would tell my students that Mars Hill is an excellent case study in this kind of abuse of power that is enabled by some churches.
Andrea: Part of what drew my compassion in this podcast was the hurt experienced by other leaders at Mars Hill as they were drawn in by Driscoll. Cosper concludes that many of these leaders (who were almost exclusively men) were drawn to Driscoll due to experiences way back in their childhoods. What would you tell a leader who wants to be aware of their vulnerabilities to manipulation from those who lead them and those who they lead?
Dr. Madrid-Swetman: I would say you have to know your story, you have to do a deep dive into the impact of your early years and understand how you were formed in your family. That process brings a self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses—and also an awareness of how you repeat, in the present, patterns of relating that you learned in your family. By understanding and working through how you were formed in your family, you learn how you could be vulnerable to manipulation or how you are set up to lead from your weaknesses, often causing harm.
Andrea: Another Mars Hill dynamic that Cosper draws out is the echo chamber it created for leaders. It struck me how much the leaders around Driscoll would have been helped by receiving more outside perspectives. Leadership in the church is often isolating, so how can leaders find that kind of perspective and support?
Dr. Madrid-Swetman: This is important. I think all leaders need a community of people outside of their church who they get input from—people they can be completely real with. That could be peers from other denominations, a therapist, a spiritual director or a mentor that you trust. Leaders need safe spaces to reflect vulnerably. Mars Hill had a closed system, theologically and socially. When you are in a closed system, vulnerability is too risky. I think leaders begin to internalize so many emotions that they cannot name. I have seen this in leaders who are struggling, feeling like they are not enough, and also with leaders like Mark who seem to have it all. I was part of a group that met with Mark in 2006 to discuss his public vitriolic speech about women; in talking with us, his defense about why he did not have mentors was that every person who he went to for mentoring ended up being jealous of him. I suggested he see a Roman Catholic priest for spiritual direction. I told him I guaranteed a priest would not be jealous of him.
Andrea: A lot of your work with Certificate in Resilient Service (CRS), which you helped design and currently teach in, is focused on creating healthy, sustainable lives for leaders. How is your work with CRS informed by your experiences with churches like Mars Hill?
Dr. Madrid-Swetman: I would say my work is informed by churches like Mars Hill and also by my own experience of leading a congregation. Leading a congregation can be one of the most isolating of vocations. It is so challenging to navigate all that comes with it, including the expectations you put on yourself and the expectations others have. I have seen so many leaders crash and burn. Many of them I know did not have the tools or the people in their lives to create a safe environment for vulnerability. Seeing this process play out over and over again in the lives of leaders, dear people with good intentions, made me even more committed to create safe spaces for leaders and advocate for sustainable ministry.
Andrea: What are the practices you recommend for Christian leaders who are seeking to be emotionally healthy?
Dr. Madrid-Swetman: I have so many thoughts on this. I think the practices of curiosity and reflection–about the leader’s life and the life of others—is key. Paying attention to what is happening in the world is also important. Right now that means engaging the question “How do we think theologically in a time of great upheaval and change?” Also, I would say it is imperative for a leader to commit to practices that keep them connected to God, the practices that ground you in the love of God,
Andrea: Seeing the narcissism of Driscoll increase as his power increased was not a surprise to me—research has shown that not only does ministry make those inclined to narcissism worse, but also that the pressures of ministry can actually induce narcissism in pastors who may not have otherwise been disposed to it. What counsel do you have for church leaders who want to create healthy conditions for their pastors to work in?
Dr. Madrid-Swetman: The system has to be one that will support leaders. Pastors cannot be endlessly giving care; they also need to receive care. That may mean the board allocates money and time for pastors to receive care. Congregations need to create an environment where leaders do not have to hide, but can be honest and ask for help. Too many pastors and leaders have to hide their struggles for fear of losing their jobs, their source of income. That requires that black and white thinking is challenged and people learn to hold dynamic tension. And, related to what happened at Mars Hill, I recommend that churches look at their own bylaws and see who holds the power if the church goes into crisis.
Andrea: Rose, you have been such a source of blessing in my own life. Can you leave us with a blessing for leaders–your hopes and prayers for those seeking to serve with humility and integrity?
Dr. Madrid-Swetman: I pray for leaders, that they would find safe spaces to be honest about their struggles. Places they can be honest with themselves and others. I pray they would seek out people who can come alongside them to remind them of who they are and who they are becoming. I pray they will resist the temptations that Henry Nouwen so timely named in Life of the Beloved, the temptations to be relevant, spectacular and powerful. I bless them to lead with humility, compassion and creativity. And, I pray that they may do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord. Amen.
If you are interested in hearing more from Rose about her experience providing pastoral care to people wounded by their experience with Mars Hill Church, listen to her on the podcast here, featured in episodes “The Things We Do to Women” and “The Bobby Knight Problem.”