Mars Hill Church says it has no plans to close Tacoma church, despite spiraling attendance

Challenging times for one the nation’s fastest-growing megachurches have spilled over into Tacoma while the church’s controversial founder remains on a leave of absence.

A spokesman for Seattle-based Mars Hill Church said Monday it will cut a service at the Tacoma church it opened in a historic building near Wright Park just last winter. He noted that Sunday attendance in Tacoma has declined by about 500 people since April.

But church spokesman Justin Dean said Mars Hill doesn’t intend to close or consolidate the Tacoma congregation as it announced Sunday it would do with two of its Seattle churches.

“We currently do not have any plans to close Mars Hill Tacoma,” Dean said in an email. “We have carefully and prayerfully evaluated all of our churches and believe that these changes are necessary for us at this time. Our desire is to keep as many churches open as possible, and our hope is that we would not have to make any other changes like this in the future.

“However, just because we are a church does not mean we are exempt from economic reality. We simply cannot spend money we do not have. It is ultimately up to all of us, as a family, to provide for the needs of the church.”

Dean said Mars Hill also has no plans to close its downtown Olympia church.

Attendance at the Tacoma congregation — which opened in December in the historic former First Congregational Church — fell from 1,350 before Easter to 850 this month, Dean said.

As a result, Mars Hill Tacoma is dropping its 7 p.m. Sunday service, he said. That will leave four services on Sundays.

Giving has stayed steady at the Tacoma church, Dean said.

That’s not the case at some of Mars Hill’s other locations.

After growing to 15 sites in five states over the last two decades, Mars Hill announced Sunday it’s closing two Seattle churches due to a decline in giving. Those two locations are in Seattle’s University District and at the historic former First United Methodist Church building in downtown Seattle. The memberships of those congregations will consolidate at Mars Hill’s church in Ballard.

Mars Hill’s Phoenix congregation will shut down at the end of September, and the Huntington Beach, California, congregation could close if giving doesn’t increase by the end of the year, according to the church’s website.

Mars Hill also plans to cut 30 to 40 percent of its paid staff of about 100.

The changes were announced two weeks after Mars Hill’s lead pastor, the Rev. Mark Driscoll, said he was stepping down for six weeks while accusations regarding his management and leadership style were investigated within the church.

Driscoll, who has raised controversy for years with his conservative views on homosexuality and the roles of women, has been accused of bullying some under his leadership and being evasive when confronted with criticism.

The fallout regarding Driscoll appears to have hurt attendance. Combined attendance at all Mars Hill branches has fallen from about 12,000 to 13,000 a week at the start of the year to 8,000 to 9,000, Dean said.

Members of Mars Hill Tacoma said Monday they don’t think the Tacoma church is in danger of being shut down.

“Our church is doing really well,” said Paul Mulyarchuk, 23, of Kent. “It’s unfortunate the other churches had to close down.”

Mulyarchuk acknowledged the controversy surrounding Driscoll has hurt attendance.

“People are leaving without talking to the pastors,” Mulyarchuk said. “They’re not getting both sides of the story.”

Janet Lowen, of Tacoma, said she doesn’t have concerns that Tacoma could close.

“There’s been no indication to me that anything like that is happening in Tacoma at this time,” said Lowen, 41.

Matt McKee, 53, of Auburn, also said he’s not worried. “I think things will be fine.”

Both Mulyarchuk and Lowen said they’re not aware of any layoffs among the staff at Mars Hill Tacoma.

The Rev. Bubba Jennings, pastor of Mars Hill Tacoma, has not responded to repeated requests from The News Tribune for comment in recent weeks, including messages left Monday. Another pastor at the Tacoma church Monday referred questions to Dean.

Mulyarchuk, Lowen and McKee were among 600 Mars Hill volunteers who helped renovate the Tacoma church over seven months before its grand opening in January.

Mars Hill expanded its reach to Tacoma in late 2012 when it purchased the historic First Congregational Church for $1.9 million.

The sale was concluded and First Congregational was paid, said Phillip Blackledge, trustees chairman for First Congregational which now meets in South Tacoma.

Mars Hill completed a $1 million renovation of the church and started having services in the 106-year-old sanctuary last December.

The Seattle Times contributed to this report.