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Originally published November 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 18, 2007 at 11:01 PM

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Firing of pastors roils Mars Hill Church

The recent firing of two pastors is causing turmoil at Mars Hill Church, Seattle's largest congregation. About a month ago, Paul Petry and...

Seattle Times religion reporter

The recent firing of two pastors is causing turmoil at Mars Hill Church, Seattle's largest congregation.

About a month ago, Paul Petry and Bent Meyer were fired from their staff positions.

Some Mars Hill members contend the pastors were removed because they challenged proposed changes in church structure that those members believed would consolidate power in the hands of top church leaders.

A current church leader disputes the interpretation, saying the church intends to share power, not hoard it.

The firings and changes to church bylaws, passed last month, have prompted lengthy exchanges in an online members-only church forum.

Mars Hill leaders said in forum postings that one fired pastor was removed, in part, for "displaying an unhealthy distrust in the senior leadership." They said the other was removed for "disregarding the accepted elder protocol for the bylaw deliberation period" and "verbally attacking the lead pastor" — charges the fired pastor denied, the leaders added.

Petry also was removed as an elder; Meyer remains a church elder but is on probation. At Mars Hill, elders are men who hold positions of authority in the church. Some are on paid staff and some are not.

Poetry and Meyer declined to comment.

Mars Hill has grown exponentially since its founding in 1996 and today claims about 6,000 in Sunday attendance at its five campuses.

Because of such growth, its bylaws, which outline how the church is organized, have to be rewritten once a year, according to an online posting by church leaders in the members' forum.

In the forum, some members said the bylaw changes don't address what they're supposed to — organizing multiple campuses — and instead put too much power into the hands of only a few pastors. They questioned the bylaws' granting of indefinite terms to a select group of "executive elders," which currently includes Lead Pastor Jamie Munson, Preaching Pastor Mark Driscoll, and three others. Executive elders serve "indefinitely until resignation, death or replacement," according to the bylaws; they may also be removed by a vote of the church board of directors, including the executive elders. Driscoll is a former Seattle Times contributing Faith & Values columnist.

Some members also lamented the loss of Petry and Meyer and challenged their firings, and questioned whether dissent was being quashed and whether a "culture of fear and elitism" was being perpetuated.

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Some members also apparently had their posting privileges to the forum revoked.

Church leaders said the bylaw changes were made because the governing structure of the church had grown so large that it was impractical to have that many people governing its affairs.

Munson, in a post on the members' forum, said "the intention is to not hoard power but rather share it."

For example, he said, Driscoll, the church co-founder, was giving up his titles of lead pastor and president, and instead now holds only the title of preaching pastor.

"We have made many organizational changes over the last six months and our remaining 29 elders stand behind the direction and decisions of Mars Hill Church," Munson said in a comment e-mailed to The Seattle Times on Saturday. "Removing any staff member is unfortunate, and we are actively seeking to shepherd our church body through their understanding of this."

Mars Hill has campuses in Ballard, Shoreline, West Seattle, Wedgwood and Redmond. It plans to open another campus in Belltown at the site of the former Tabella Restaurant & Lounge.

The next goal, Driscoll said in a sermon earlier this year, is to attract 10,000 worshippers on Sundays.

Janet Tu: 206-464- 2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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