Mark Dricsoll is no stranger to the national spotlight. Over the last few years, he’s become widely known as the innovative pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, a booming congregation of over 13,000. He’s a best-selling author with books to his credit on everything from ministry to marriage to leadership. His Acts 29 Network is a growing group of churches across the world seeking to duplicate his approach to ministry. His public disputes with other national Christian figures like John MacArthur have over the last few months been further evidence of his notoriety.
But Driscoll’s recent track record hasn’t been so positive. Allegations of plagiarism and manipulating the publishing industry in order to inflate book sales have raised questions about his writing ministry. Former staff members have made troubling accusations about the administrative practices of Mars Hill Church.
Public criticisms reached the point that earlier this week Driscoll released a remarkable letter to his congregation. In it, he acknowledged some of the criticisms raised against him but then went on to say that he planned on re-setting his life and ministry. He said he’s returning to his first love, pastoring God’s people. He’s going to devote himself in the years ahead to rearing his children, growing his church and pouring himself into the development of the next generation of leaders. He’s pulling back from public life and concentrating on things closer to his heart. You can read the full letter here.
I’ve always admired much of Driscoll’s ministry. He’s a brilliant and committed man who’s done a lot of good for the Kingdom. I also see how he’s ruffled feathers and hurt a lot of people by his take-no-prisoners approach. But when I read his congregational letter, my heart really went out to him. He’s come to terms with something that affects almost every pastor.
His experience is the same as that of most pastors. Our gravest danger today isn’t what most people think. Sure, there are all sorts of challenges in serving today’s churches. It’s an anxious age, and people are prone to take the anxiety in the world into their churches. Financial struggles are common. Doctrinal issues have unsettled many. And the overall cultural drift away from the Christian faith makes the challenges of reaching the younger generation even more difficult than it’s been in the past. But there’s something else going on, something that Driscoll’s situation brings out.
The deeper problem is how many pastors don’t know who they are or what they’re really supposed to be doing. Their loss of identity has left them vulnerable to drifting into a host of pursuits and activities that—while maybe valuable in some ways—leave the essential tasks of their calling undone.
It’s a subtle temptation, and Driscoll’s situation is a case study in how it happens. A pastor can get caught up in the role his church expects him to play. Or he can become captive to the role he’s created for himself. Or some combination of both. Before he knows it he’s caught in a pastoral persona that reflects the religious system around him more than the biblical mandate of his calling. Acts 6:4 says we are first to preach and teach God’s Word; second, to pray; and third, to provide spiritual direction for the people. After the years in the spotlight as author, spokesman for causes, leader and church growth guru, Driscoll seems to be returning to his first calling.
I recently had a painful conversation with a dear person, someone I love, who didn’t understand what a pastor is supposed to do. I had made a decision they didn’t agree with and so had come to see me to let me know their feelings. Every pastor has to have those kinds of conversations. We don’t enjoy them but they’re part of the job. As we talked this person told me that they weren’t happy with the situation. I said it wasn’t my job to make people happy. They were taken back. “But I want my pastor to make me happy,” they said. I reminded them that my job was to preach and teach God’s Word; to seek His heart in prayer; and to give spiritual direction to the congregation. They responded by saying that if I felt that way then I should seek another church to serve.
I wasn’t surprised. That’s the kind of religious system modern America has created. And for all of us—Driscoll included—it’s easy to buy into the system and come to believe our pastoral identity is determined by how well we fulfill the artificial expectations we and our churches create for each other.
Driscoll’s letter is, I think, a cry for freedom. I’m not excusing him for whatever faults he fell into along the way—his love of the spotlight has placed him in the unenviable position of having every problem magnified a thousand times. That’s a problem of his own making. But neither am I judging him. Goodness knows every one of us who seek to pastor God’s people is subject to pride, arrogance, mistakes in judgment and the kind of spiritual hubris that leads us to believe that God is bound to bless whatever we want to do.
Pastoring is the most joyous thing in the world. The opportunity to connect with people in their spiritual struggles and be a part of the work of grace in their lives is something no pastor takes lightly. The act of preaching is something every pastor cherishes above all else. We know better than anyone else that serving the Lord’s church is a privilege. But we pastors as well as the churches we serve must continually keep the true nature of the pastoral task front and center.