Mars Hill Church says it’s dissolving

Seattle-based megachurch Mars Hill Church announced Friday that it is dissolving, leaving its congregations — including Tacoma and Olympia — to decide whether to become independent, merge with other churches or cease operations.

In a dramatic decision, Mars Hill Pastor Dave Bruskas also said on the church’s website that church properties will either be sold or loans will be assumed by the congregations that become independent.

That means the Tacoma congregation would have to sell or take on the loan for the church building it bought just two years ago, a historic structure near Wright Park.

All centralized staff for Mars Hill will be terminated, and any remaining funds will be given to the independent churches, Bruskas said. After those steps, “the existing Mars Hill Church organization will be dissolved,” Bruskas said.

The announcement came 17 days after Mars Hill founding Pastor Mark Driscoll resigned following a church investigation that concluded he led the church “in a domineering manner” but was not “disqualified from pastoral ministry.”

Driscoll spearheaded Mars Hill to become one of the fastest-growing megachurches in the United States, with 15 congregations in five states.

A controversial figure for years because of his conservative views on homosexuality and the roles of women, Driscoll had been accused of bullying some under his leadership and being evasive when confronted with criticism.

In August, Driscoll went on a leave of absence while the investigation was underway. During that time, Mars Hill lost thousands of members, and some pastors left.

Church spokesman Justin Dean said congregations won’t continue under the Mars Hill name.

“They must become their own churches, create their own 501(c)(3), governance, leadership, etc.,” Dean said. “We will provide seed money if we have it, but they are free to start independent and cannot use the Mars Hill name.”

Mars Hill expanded to Tacoma in late 2012 when it purchased the historic First Congregational Church building 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 Tacoma financed the purchase with Bank of America, Blackledge said.

Mars Hill completed a $1 million renovation of the church and started having services in the 107-year-old sanctuary last December.

The Rev. Bubba Jennings, lead pastor of Mars Hill Tacoma, did not immediately address questions Friday about the church’s future. An executive pastor who works under Jennings declined comment. Several members of the Tacoma congregation also would not comment Friday.

Mars Hill Tacoma is slated to have its usual four services Sunday, at 8:30 a.m.,10:30 a.m.,12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.

The Rev. Dean Curry, a friend of Jennings and pastor of Life Center in Tacoma, said he’s confident Mars Hill Tacoma will succeed.

“The local (Mars Hill) church in Tacoma has been very successful and, I have no doubt, will continue to be so in whatever new form of governance they choose,” Curry said in an email.

Curry said he talked with Jennings on Friday. “My message, on behalf of Life Center, was, ‘We’ll do anything we can to help; we’re family,’ ” Curry said.

On Mars Hill’s website, Bruskas said the goal is to complete “this reorganization plan” for the remaining 12 congregations by Jan. 1.

Bruskas did not give a specific cause for why the decision to disband was made.

He said Mars Hill’s board concluded that “rather than remaining a centralized multi-site church with video-led teaching distributed to multiple locations, the best future for each of our existing local churches is for them to become autonomous self-governed entities.”

“This means that each of our locations has an opportunity to become a new church, rooted in the best of what Mars Hill has been in the past, and independently led and run by its own local elder teams,” Bruskas said.

Under Driscoll, Mars Hill had grown rapidly over 18 years around the West Coast, including the addition of churches in Tacoma and Olympia.

In January, Mars Hill Olympia celebrated moving into a new 27,000-square-foot space in downtown Olympia, in the former home of Capital Christian Center. It was the congregation's first permanent location in its five-year history.

Throughout Mars Hill branches this year, attendance has began dropping. Combined attendance fell from about 13,000 a week at the start of the year to 9,000 in September.

Attendance at Mars Hill Tacoma fell from 1,350 before Easter to 850 in September.

Also in September, Mars Hill announced it was closing two Seattle churches and consolidating them with the Ballard church due to a decline in giving.

In addition, a Mars Hill church in Phoenix was spun off and became an independent congregation.