To Whom it May Concern,
“We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore.” – Kevin Spacey, Se7en
I sat on a bed upstairs in our room at the retreat home, my head in my hands, asking my wife if our lead pastor was fit to be an elder… if the state of his marriage was in a place wherein he needed a sabbatical, and if his verbal evisceration of another elder’s wife – simply for offering a gentle word of counsel – was anything but deplorable. I didn’t know what to say, or even what to think.
All the elders had been there and seen it. No one had countered or interceded in any way.
It was summer 2006, more than a year before the infamous bylaw change and terminations at Mars Hill Church that many would see as the first sign of a problem. I was just over a year into my tenure as a pastor but still felt like the new guy. The unspoken acceptance of all the other pastors at that elders’ retreat became a justification for my own omission.
Not a true justification, mind you – simply in my own mind.
One major aspect of my repentance, for sins of omission and commission at Mars Hill Church, is repenting of – turning from – a binary kind of thinking. I’ve seen a lot of it within the culture created and propagated at Mars Hill Church, and sadly even those who leave too often employ the same thinking, only in the opposite direction. One becomes zero. Steve Tompkins wrote quite concisely in his confession about the ad hominem argument at play in the Mars Hill culture. People who disagreed about an issue would find their character assassinated; in a similar way, it’s safe to say that people were lionized at Mars Hill until they were vilified. Caricatures and stereotypes are created to make things easier, to lump men or issues together, to make things black and white: binary thinking.
I’m still a Christian, but I believe the truth of Jesus Christ alone has that binary quality. All have sinned except Jesus. He is the way, truth, life, and singular way to reconciliation with God. Dead and resurrected. Black and white. One or zero. However, I’m repenting of this application to pretty much anyone or anything else in life. Human realities are grey, and if that makes people on both sides of an overly polarized narrative upset with me, I’m going to live with that. Turning from that mindset entirely is the only way I believe I can truly repent and turn from where I’ve been.
Mars Hill was not white until fall 2007, and then suddenly black. A bylaw change didn’t take the culture from one to zero. There are no white knights (save Christ) or mustache twisting villains in this story. There were leader omissions and tolerance of sinful behaviors prior to that event, and many more followed after. There were men and women hurt and sent out of the church, without just cause, before I was an elder. And then, as an elder, I witnessed and tolerated some of these before we ever reached the big event most focus on seven years ago.
This isn’t to suggest in any way that said event lacked significance or singularity. It’s just unfair to people hurt before – and to the truth itself – to start a story of downfall in 2007. On top of that, the elders, deacons, staff and members were all being cultured and conditioned long before that event to respond in the manner that they did. It’s no mistake that the two who protested the changes were older men, and that Mars Hill Church was not their first leadership rodeo. Many who voted on bylaws and shunning had no prior perspective, built by MHC from non-Christian to member to leader by the Mars Hill system and groomed to think by the very voice that told them how to vote.
Does this absolve anyone of responsibility? Of course not.
It’s not a secret how much I hate the Star Wars prequels. At our 15th Anniversary party, the cake my wife and I had made was Jar Jar Binks’ head on silver platter with an apple in his mouth. But there is another, far more insidious reason why I hate this pathetic character. In the second Star Wars film, it’s the goofy Gungan representative who is the deciding vote in the Senate, granting additional powers to the Chancellor: the Emperor is given the authority that will turn the Republic into the evil Empire.
Why, you ask, do I really hate Jar Jar Binks so much?
Because I AM Jar Jar Binks.
A cocktail of confusion, self-doubt, persuasive coercion and disorienting fear fueled my vote to make official the powers of leadership that were already gripping Mars Hill Church in every way except on paper. Much has been said about that vote, and caricatures made of the elders who voted it in (on the heels of voting out Paul Petry and placing Bent Meyer on probation). Was it fear? Paychecks? Self-deception? Lead Pastor worship? I can’t and won’t speak for the motivations of the other men. The reality is that each one has their own story, it’s unique, and yet each one needs to face the reality that – no matter what – it was still wrong.
Unlike some men, I never wanted to be in ministry. Certainly not full time ministry. I’ve always had a bit of a Jonah quality, preferring Joppa and trying to evade God’s prompting and direction. I didn’t want to be a deacon. I didn’t want to be on staff. I didn’t want to be a pastor. Each step was like pulling teeth. My wife and I also didn’t have kids or some of the heavier financial obligations others have faced, so “love of ministry position” or “need for steady paycheck” really weren’t the temptations staring me down in the face of those decisions.
Coming into eldership, I’d been told for some time that I was “too priestly” and that I let my emotions get in the way of the tough calls. I didn’t score high on Mars Hill’s favored entrepreneurial tests or fit the personality profile, and so my discernment came into question when it came to tough love. Effectively, I was encouraged to doubt my conscience and, sadly, I bought into this just enough to grieve the Spirit and stand idly by while men I loved were cast aside like so much chaff.
I believed lies.
Does that get me off the hook? Nope. Buying into lies got us biting into apples and we’ve been held accountable to that since the beginning. Apple in my mouth, worm in my brain. Guilty.
It may be exaggeration, but for many years I’ve posited that, apart from Christ, I’d be a sociopath…and that I don’t believe I really had a functioning conscience until I came to Mars Hill Church in 1998, my childhood faith awakened (or given life for the first time). Without even knowing it, Mars Hill leadership culture played into my own self-doubt and poor discernment. I barely had a conscience before: how could I trust it now? Was my newfound empathy and sympathy overcompensating? Overwhelming reason and rationale? And so, raw and uncertain, I relied more on group think and deferring to other men instead of recognizing the shriek of injustice that was the Holy Spirit pounding on the new heart God had given me.
As it turns out, many other men shared this internally…but none of us shared it with each other.
While not as stunned or disoriented as I know the terminated Pastor Paul Petry was at the time, the entire event did have a surreal quality to it that allowed me to enter a state of denial. Part of me couldn’t believe it was happening, and so another part of me felt certain we’d “wake up”… that it would correct itself with time and patience. Of course Paul would come back, and of course, if he offered some words of apology, the men who terminated them would soften and admit they were harsh. Then they’d hug, and everything would go back to normal again. Give it time. I mean… time heals all wounds, right? In fact, as I took over the reins of the Wedgwood/Lake City Campus, I even told myself I’d make it a place Paul would be proud of when he came back.
After a year or so, reality began to sink in, and I slowly began to wake up.
Certainly, these were also some of the best years of my life. Thanks to faithful elders and deacons around me at the Wedgwood/Lake City Campus, I believe we kept alive – a little bit longer – the spirit of Mars Hill Church that pervaded the early years. People experienced real friendship and spiritual growth, lifelong relationships were forged, and we were even able to plant a NON-Mars Hill Church out of our campus… much to the chagrin of what was becoming the Mars Hill machine. We naively sent out seasoned members and faithful givers, until we didn’t fit the financial matrix and had to close the campus.
During that time, however, I found myself one dark night at the home of the Lead Pastor’s personal assistant (at the time), hearing yet another story of how a person who’d been berated, belittled, verbally assaulted in a way that drove his wife to tears and left the family utterly and emotionally devastated. This would be the first time my wife and I seriously contemplated my resignation and leaving the church.
After all, what else could we do? Jar Jar had handed the keys over to the Emperor and had no real authority anymore.
After a night of tears and much soul-searching, however… omission, tolerance, and complicity would yet again be my response. As I began to grapple with this conundrum in my head, a reasoning emerged that I’ve since come to see as toxic. The truth is, it’s very logical; the problem is, it’s not biblical.
Again, much has been said about the motivations of pastors who stayed on through sinful events, and while I can’t prove the inner minds and hearts of others, I suspect many suffered from the same malady of mindset that I did. It wasn’t paychecks, or prestige… it was far more subtle, which the “best” sins always are.
Back in 2006, then 2007, and up through 2010 I kept wrestling with a conundrum of timing and impact: by the time I saw a growing string of abuses at Mars Hill Church, I was already interconnected with hundreds of people in various states of discipleship, counsel, care and equipping. It became clear that – if I put my foot down about a particular instance and challenged the lead pastor or executive team – I’d be done, gone, and all those people looking to me or expecting things of me would be cut off, the relationships severed: my functional capacities to love and serve them stripped away. And so I was letting the occasional injustice pass, for the sake of all the others. Timing and impact: I needed to wait until the right time to say something, lest I lose my impact.
Spock put it best when he told Kirk “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one”.
Now before anyone thinks this is justification, let’s be clear: I see this as unbiblical. In fact, the whole point of Star Trek III is that Kirk goes back for “the one” (Spock) and sacrifices his ship – even loses his son – because you never leave a man behind. It’s a very logical notion that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but it’s not what Jesus demonstrates when he leaves the flock to seek out the one lost sheep.
It’s even pretty well documented that in World War II British leaders knew a particular city would be bombed, but to protect the secret that they’d cracked a German code… they let it happen. True or not, it’s been used as an argument for a strategy that seems sound, but isn’t scriptural: allow and be complicit in some acceptable losses for the greater goal.
One pastor would repeatedly say to me, when I pointed out questionable behaviors and practices “but look at the fruit. Look at the fruit.” It’s easy to focus on the fruit, and it will keep producing for a long time while the creepers work their way around the tree and eventually choke it out. For another season, these fruit-blinders – like a horse on the track – kept me running the Mars Hill race.
Before we get any further though, let’s point out the easy-to-miss hubris in my mindset above: part of my concern was that if I was thrown out of Mars Hill I’d be cut off from “hundreds of people in various states of discipleship, counsel, care and equipping”. The ingredients in that statement include one cup caring heart mixed with a big spoonful of pride… as if only I could take care of those people, or God wouldn’t take care of them if I challenged an issue and got thrown out. Again, a heart to love was stained by simultaneously assuming a place of over-importance in the lives of others, not trusting in God to take care of the larger strategy if I stood up for what was right in an imminent issue.
This is where I also thought I could “stand in the gap” for a few years, my mindset modified to be a middleman between a central leadership spiraling out of control and the staff and congregation under my care. I would try to translate what I felt were harsh directives or worldly wisdom into something workable and biblical at my campus, appeasing those above but modifying application and implementation at a campus level to mitigate what felt more like corporate mindset than a biblical one. I would edit feedback and not pass on comments and critique that felt harsh or unnecessarily negative. I would absorb it, or temper it, hoping that my influence might not just have impact downstream but influence upstream, affecting change by example instead of directly confronting it.
Ultimately, the lack of ability to influence became apparent, and further attempts just felt more and more like folly. Worse, my attempts to mitigate the negative aspects just felt more and more like I was ultimately guilty of the same system of spin, the PR game increasingly coming out of central communication, and that sickened me.
My last two years at Shoreline added straws to the camel’s back, one by one… until she broke. At this point I was so far removed from the center I could only watch, voice my concerns to my campus pastor, and try to minimize what I saw as increasing damage to others. My last hope was a two-fold plan: I knew some pastors who had gone off staff, but seemingly found some conscience-approved merit in remaining to serve as a lay pastor. I also had a dear friend “dying on the vine” in central who, while not ready to leave staff or MHC, needed to get away from the center: it was killing him.
I subsequently orchestrated my own layoff so this pastor could take my position. I hoped putting him in a better spot, and shifting myself to an unpaid capacity, might afford me a new vantage point, a fresh perspective, and a way to stay but remain true to my conscience and conviction.
To effect that change, I signed an NDA. Fortunately, I questioned the internal logic of being a lay pastor who couldn’t say “anything negative” or disparaging about MHC, including any elder or any deacon: after all, how could I function as a lay pastor if I couldn’t critique a deacon under my charge or a peer pastor? They modified my document and I agreed to not “publicly disparage” Mars Hill Church. I did my best to “leave well” as a staff member… as I understood the concept at the time. Looking back, leaving right would have looked very differently.
Tragically, strike three came six months later and my inner umpire cried “out”. The dear friend I’d shifted into my paid position received brutal treatment from two executive elders and resigned six months later in tears. While there were many “fouls” between what I see as the three “strikes” – the 2007 terminations, the Lead Pastor’s assistant being verbally assaulted, and this final act of cruelty – these particular three, for me, connected a pattern of sinful behavior I could no longer stomach. I resigned from eldership and membership in summer 2012, over two years ago by this writing.
I later heard that – after being on staff for over ten years – executive elders called my friend and I “hirelings” who were only in it for the money and “quitters” who hurt the church. With few exceptions no one reached out to us: I was effectively shunned, and my wife and I lost dear friends. While I once had teaching contributions in the Mars Hill media library second only in number to Mark Driscoll, all vestiges of my presence were erased from the church I’d participated with, from 150 people to 15,000.
People from churches around the world and people inside and outside MHC who’d once been privy to my teaching or podcasts were left to assume I’d sinned or done something wrong. No public statement condemned me, but silent removal breeds rampant speculation. Did I receive the worst treatment? Absolutely not. This is recorded for reality, not sympathy.
Encouraged by Dave Kraft, I wrote a seven-page letter to Mars Hill Church in 2013 detailing everything I believed had gone awry with the system of Mars Hill and the sinful behavior of its senior leader. Others joined us in this endeavor, and I remained a silent-but-ready friend with Dave Kraft during his efforts with Kyle Firstenberg and others. Having signed an NDA not under coercion, but at the time thinking I was helping a friend and doing what was best, I now felt bound by my own word to not “publicly disparage” my former church. My yes should be my yes, so I remained among the unnamed but numbered “willing” parties to testify or corroborate the abuses I bore witness to as attempts to work out accusations and reconciliation proceeded.
As someone who has been told repeatedly that I’m gifted with my voice and my writing, I felt hamstrung to be behind the scenes as these things developed, simply offering prayer, consult, and advice in private without participating more demonstratively. I have had to fight against jealousy toward those who’ve been the tip of the spear on bringing truth into the light. I believe this was also God’s discipline and another aspect of humbling for me, denied my usual outlets and primary gifting, trapped by a rash vow and watching from the sidelines. I can also view it as God’s kindness… that perhaps he knows my weaknesses and left this work to stronger men. Better men. God’s plans are multi-faceted and only He knows for sure.
To speak privately, not publicly, with so many others who have left – one on one, or in small groups – these last few years has provided a tremendous opportunity to confess sin, admit failures, apologize and receive forgiveness. It has also provided encouragement… that all was not sin, all was not dark, and God used me despite moments of sin, folly and confusion to accomplish His purposes. Again, the false binary thinking I got trapped in at Mars Hill – you’re in or your out, on the bus or off the bus – doesn’t apply to my memory, experience, or participation as part of Mars Hill Church.
Charles Dickens put it best in A Tale of Two Cities: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
To walk back into Mars Hill Church in fall 2014, alongside another former pastor, and give verbal testimony about the sin and abuses we bore witness to, and in some cases see myself sinfully complicit to – and to know my lengthy letter had finally been read by the elders and included in adjudicating weighty issues they had stepped up to judge – was one of the hardest days of my life and also a joy.
Despite my NDA, current and former pastors of MHC have assured and counseled me that I should not let that document or my understanding keep me from convictions to confess. With their blessings I finally feel released to share both sin, and my striving against sin, within my time at MHC. Having the first time my name appeared in a truly public way be in the confession of the sinful treatment against Paul and Bent was the best way of surfacing in a more public and I’m grateful for God’s timing.
As for this confession to follow? Well, I suspect some will still see this story as some sort of justification. I stand by the exacting language in the confession to Paul and Bent without question, and have sought out others I believe were hurt in relation to my omission or commission. I’m sure more of these will occur. Those things are all true… but so is everything else above.
I don’t see anything above as justification for me. Sin is sin. Folly is folly. Pride is pride. Going with worldly wisdom over scripture invariably hurts others. Ignorance is no excuse. And self-doubt is still about self instead of trusting in God. All these were wrong moves by a broken and sinful human who is still unclear about a lot of things but truly seeking a life of repentance. And in the last three years I’ve had numerous occasions to walk out that repentance and I celebrate that here as well.
What I won’t do is paint a blacker-than-black portrait to somehow evidence contrition. That would contribute to the world of spin, the world of hyperbole and caricatures that I’m repenting of. I won’t, by example, encourage other Mars Hill pastors, deacons, community group leaders or members to define or live out repentance as some kind of binary shift to self-abasement and verbal flagellation. And the same is true of the memory of Mars Hill Church, and the last decade plus.
If we tell the story of David it shouldn’t just be the giant-slayer and dear friend of Jonathan; neither should it simply be the adulterer who had the woman’s husband murdered. David got a guy killed and fornicated with that man’s wife… and yet his story includes one of the most intimate friendship described in scripture and times when he stood up against injustice and followed God’s will. I think some of the same dichotomy marks many stories of Mars Hill Church. No one gets to be binary, save Christ.
It’s easier to focus on the positive or the negative, to recast something as black when we realize with frustration that it isn’t white. To accept and find peace with the mixed grey bag is what I’ll spend the rest of my life wrestling with, whether it’s the legacy of Mars Hill Church or my own compromised life.
– James Harleman