US megachurch closes churches after founder pastor 'goes on leave'

(Image: Mars Hill Church website)Mars Hill Church website poster on September 10, 2014.

Church leaders have announced that financial pressures due to negative media attention forced Washington-based megachurch Mars Hill to cut staff and close some of its churches.

The church has numerous branches across the United States. 

It also has followers around the globe through online services and has faced losses due to falling church attendance and declining tithing, The Seattle Times reported.

At the start of the year, attendance at all Mars Hill branches combined was about 12,000 to 13,000 a week, said church spokesman Justin Dean, but it is now down to 8,000 or 9,000 a week.

This resulted in layoffs and a string of departures by pastors anxious about the church's direction.


"We've basically found ourselves in a tough financial position," Dean said. "We started the year the strongest we've ever been, but since then we've seen a decline in attendance and giving, and we saw a steep decline over the last two months."

The decision also came just weeks after founder Mark Driscoll announced he was stepping down for six weeks while he is being investigated.

Mark Driscoll has been controversial for years for his opposition to homosexuality and advocating the deference of women to men. But accusations heightened late last year with a string of issues against the pastor.

A recent New York Times profile of Driscoll reports accusations of "plagiarizing, of inappropriately using church funds and of consolidating power to such a degree that it has become difficult for anyone to challenge or even question him."

Driscoll issued an apology, but did not include some churchgoers when he suggested he couldn't respond to "anonymous" critiques.

In August, a network of churches Driscoll had helped found and some church members called for Driscoll to step down.

On the church's decline, Dean said that "A lot has contributed to it."

"We're imperfect people. Some of this is our own sinning. Some of it is our own mistakes. I think that what we're looking and trying to learn from all this is about how we can change and grow going forward."

"I'm very sad," said Dave Kraft, a former Mars Hill pastor who filed a formal complaint accusing Driscoll of bullying and verbally abusing people.

"I'm disappointed," Kraft continued. "I'm discouraged. I'm bummed over the way this thing is going. But I anticipate it's going to get even worse."

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