Former Mars Hill Pastor Mark Driscoll Finds A Safe Space In Arizona


“The church is more of a religious business than a church,” said Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College who has studied and chronicled Driscoll’s ministries for years. “The thing he learned was to set himself up as the sole authority. There are not functional elders in the Trinity Church. He learned to structure things so that he is in control.” 

The lack of oversight is intentional and by design, said Sutton Turner, Mars Hill’s former executive elder. According to Turner, Driscoll told him that he would one day establish a church without elders. 

“Mark stated to me directly many times that if he ever started a new church, he would make sure that the governance was set up in a way that he had total control,” said Turner. “Today, Mark Driscoll has total control of Trinity Church without any accountability.”

Despite Driscoll’s past and reputation, people still flock to the church. The Trinity experience enticed newcomers like John Baker, a retired pastor who had spent 40 years in ministry and started attending Trinity Church with his wife, Barbara, when the couple moved from Oregon to Arizona in 2018. Baker had heard the stories about Mars Hill but wanted to give Driscoll a chance after a friend recommended it. 

“I wanted to see if God was working,” Baker said. “There are always two sides to the story. What I saw was definitely that Mark had made some mistakes, but also I saw a guy who had asked for forgiveness for those mistakes and was starting over.”

As newcomers, the Bakers received the full Trinity treatment: Church volunteers posted around the campus greeted them in the parking lot, welcomed them through the front door and spoke to them warmly in the sanctuary. Baker, an amateur musician, found the worship band exciting and full of energy, reminding him of Motown. When Driscoll preached, Baker watched in awe at a man who taught the Bible verse by verse but was able to apply it to modern life in a way few expository preachers can. 

“That was pretty impressive,” he said. 

Feeling amply welcomed, the Bakers were hooked. They quickly got involved with the young church. They both joined the welcoming committee and led small groups during the weekdays. Baker joined the church’s men’s ministry and was adopted into the praise band, where he played piano. 

Baker, a self-described “flaming people person,” took special joy out of being part of the church greeting team, the same committee that had welcomed him and Barbara so graciously on their first Sunday in Phoenix. In little time, they were part of an exciting and growing community of Christians after relocating to a city where they hardly knew anyone. They made friends fast through the church. They even grew close with Mark and Grace Driscoll, whom Baker wanted to see succeed after their prior hardships. As a retired minister, Driscoll always referred to Baker as “pastor,” a sign of deferential respect that Baker appreciated. 

It was an exciting time to be part of Trinity Church. The church was expanding. As a member of the welcoming committee, Baker met people from around the country who drove hours just to attend church. Baker greeted people who traveled from California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Some even relocated to Phoenix, which Baker attributed to the welcoming impression at Trinity. 

The Bakers relied on this community during an especially trying time in their lives. In 2021, Barbara was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the Driscolls surrounded their family with support. Mark and Grace Driscoll regularly prayed with her. Mark Driscoll gave Baker his cell phone number and insisted that Baker keep him updated on her condition. “It was good to have that kind of support,” Baker said. “We really needed that.”

Despite the personal warmth, the Bakers began to question how the church was being run. When Driscoll installed his new son-in-law, Landon Chase, as a pastor, Baker wondered why a young man without seminary training would be given such a title. After raising his concerns about Chase’s lack of credentials with members of church staff, Baker was cautioned to drop the issue.

In 2021, Dustin Blatnik, the church’s popular minister of music, was fired. His departure blindsided church attendees, who were left in the dark as to the reason. (Blatnik declined to comment.)

“He was walked off campus and never came back,” Baker said. “That was sort of a red flag for us.” 

The unusual behavior continued through the year. In the spring of 2021, Baker received a call from another church attendee, Angelo Manuele, who had heard of Barbara’s cancer diagnosis. Manuele’s first wife died of complications from cancer in 2011, and they bonded. Baker spent a day with Manuele, and he later posted about it on Facebook. What Baker didn’t know was that Manuele and his family were involved at the time in a feud with the Driscolls over a relationship between Manuele’s son and Driscoll’s daughter, both of them teenagers. What resulted was an episode that Trinity Church attendees would still whisper about for years to come.

Katherine and Angelo Manuele had joined the church during the pandemic in 2020. After nearly a year in the congregation, Angelo Manuele had a dispute with Driscoll over a relationship between their children. (There are no allegations of criminal wrongdoing or immoral conduct against either child.)  The family was banished from church property, according to Katherine Manuele. The family was served with a no-trespassing order. Their son was kicked off the worship team. Shortly before Easter in 2021, the Manueles allege, the church hired a private investigator to follow the family’s movements around town. The friends they had cultivated at the church, a tight group, were told to stop speaking to them, and they did. 

“They staked out our street and followed us everywhere we went,” Katherine Manuele recalled. “We were basically blacklisted.” 

In an open letter posted to a now-defunct website, Freese, who was in charge of security for the church at the time, described carrying out the orders against the family. Freese said he was the one who recommended the church hire someone to follow the Manuele family after Andersen asked to hire a private investigator to gather information about Angelo Manuele. 

“Any leads on a professional to have eyes on Angelo would be great,” according to a chat log Freese posted but has since been deleted. “For liability reasons, we should stay away from anyone unlicensed.” 

According to Freese, Driscoll was prepared to file litigation against Angelo Manuele, especially after reviewing the amount he gave to the church. 

“He only tithes $25 per month,” Driscoll said, according to Freese’s account on his website, referring to the family’s financial gifts to the church. “He doesn’t have much money so bankrupting him will be easy.”

(Freese has since asked forgiveness for his role in organizing and enforcing Trinity’s security apparatus: “I have repented for my behavior in this, and I ask for forgiveness for being a part of this culture and environment,” he wrote in his open letter.)

The surveillance and intimidation carried over to people who spoke with the Manuele family. When Baker returned home after meeting with Angelo, he noticed that his name had been removed from the church worship team. When he arrived early for church at Trinity the next day to serve on the welcoming committee, he was called into the office of Eden Fine, Trinity’s campus pastor. Baker was surprised to see members of Trinity’s security team posted outside the door. According to Baker, Fine demanded to know why Baker had met with Manuele. Fine called Manuele “demonic,” Baker alleged, and said that the Manueles were to be cut off from the church congregation. Baker, perplexed, said he had no idea that he wasn’t allowed to speak with other church attendees. Fine responded by saying that if Baker wanted to continue to be a part of church leadership, he would stop speaking to members of the family. Having only met Angelo once, Baker agreed. (The church did not respond to questions directed at Fine about this incident.)

“It felt like an interrogation room,” said Baker, whose meeting with Fine was confirmed by Freese in his open letter. “I had never been in any kind of a meeting like that before.” 

Later that week, Baker sent an email to Manuele explaining what had happened and that he had agreed to no longer communicate with him. He sent Fine a copy of the e-mail, thinking that was the end of it. The following Sunday, the Bakers went to church, as they always did, but this time was different. Wherever Baker went, he found himself shadowed by church security. Baker said members of the security team followed him around the church grounds as he spoke with other families and remained close during his conversations in the sanctuary. When the service ended, they continued to follow him. According to John Baker, Barbara Baker claimed that she, too, had been surveilled by a woman in the church who had been asked by security staff to watch her during Bible study meetings.

According to Freese, the Bakers weren’t wrong to be paranoid about being watched and followed. Freese alleged that “pastors monitor the cameras to spy on congregants and those working or volunteering.”

“They pull up the video feed during service and even while they are away, off-campus, from their phones to see what people are doing or listen to what they are saying,” Freese wrote in his open letter about the church. 

The following Tuesday, Baker wrote a note to Driscoll and the other pastors saying he was leaving the church, citing the directive not to speak to other families. 

Barbara Baker died in 2022. Since that time, Baker, who operates a retreat center for people in ministry, said he often works with people like him who have left Trinity. 

“A lot of my ministry this past year has been working with people from Trinity Church,” he said. 

Like many other former Trinity members, Baker wondered how he hadn’t seen the warning signs earlier. 

“Things started becoming more clear as people began to leave the church,” he said. “I have a B.S. meter that’s pretty high. At least, I thought I did.” 

The COVID boom

Driscoll’s ministry in Phoenix grew rapidly during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. After just a brief closure in the pandemic’s earliest days, Driscoll made the decision to open the church, making it one of very few that held in-person services during that spring and summer. In response, people poured in by the thousands. 

Meanwhile, Driscoll took part in weekly private Zoom calls with a group of other pastors overseeing large churches in the area to share strategies for safely holding worship in those unprecedented times. According to pastors who attended the meetings — which went on for months — Driscoll was a source of encouragement and inspiration. 

The congregation ballooned from 800 or so people at first to more than 2,000 in just two years. The masking policy was lax at the church, according to former attendees, making it one of the few public spaces for people to congregate during a time of mass isolation.

Ben and Tiffany Eneas, a couple who had moved to Phoenix in May 2020, were two people who found the church during the pandemic. As newcomers who moved to a new city during the height of the pandemic lockdowns, they were hungry for community, and Trinity was one of the only places they could find it. They started attending regularly. 

Ben Eneas was drawn to Driscoll’s willingness to speak boldly about current events — even controversial issues. He enjoyed Driscoll’s public defense of the Second Amendment, as well as his skepticism of mask mandates and the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines. He felt at home, both spiritually and politically. 

“It felt really good to hear a pastor boldly say what you already feel,” Ben Eneas said. “All of that resonated with me.”

The couple wasted no time getting involved. Tiffany Eneas served the hospitality ministry welcoming newcomers as they had been welcomed. Ben Eneas was recruited to join the church security team. They attended a home group Bible study and then hosted one at their home. Both regularly went to special groups for the church’s men and women. They were made to feel like they were part of a movement, something special. 

“We had the community we desired,” Ben Eneas said. “It was checking all the boxes.”

One Sunday in February 2021, while Eneas was volunteering with security, a man who lived in the neighborhood walked into the church and sat alone near the back. It was early in the morning, but he reeked of alcohol. While Driscoll preached on stage, the man stood up and began walking down the aisle. He rapidly made his way onto the stage and walked directly toward Driscoll. Eneas, who was sitting behind Driscoll’s family, leapt toward the man and intercepted him.  

Driscoll was furious that his security team had not acted quicker. He fired the head of security, according to Eneas. The next morning, Andersen sent a note to the security team calling for a meeting. Eneas gathered with other remaining members of the group of men. According to Eneas, they were told they should have tackled the man. They should have drawn their guns (the security team carries guns, according to former members of the team) and been prepared to shoot him. 

Eneas felt that would have been an overreaction. “All he did on the stage was ask the pastor to pray for him,” he said. 

Still, the incident proved to be good for Eneas, who grew closer to the Driscolls as a result. After all, he was the one who stopped the man. “Now we were worthy,” Tiffany Eneas said. “We had done something to earn our spot.”

It didn’t last long. 

Tiffany Eneas was close friends with Trina Blatnik, the wife of former Trinity worship leader Dustin Blatnik, who had been let go from the church. After posting photos on social media with Trina Blatnik and others who were no longer in good standing with the church, Eneas said she was reprimanded and told to cut them out of her life. Eneas was told that they were “unsafe.” 

“This is cult behavior to manipulate people and friendships,” she wrote in a letter about the incident.

Ben and Tiffany Eneas left the church soon after. 

The most painful stories about Trinity come from families who have had relatives marry into the Driscoll family, only to find that they have been cut out of their lives. 

Luke Chase, who grew up in Seattle before moving to Phoenix with his family as a teenager, had long been a fan of Driscoll’s preaching when he started attending Trinity Church in 2017. His family had relocated to Arizona to start a nonprofit camp for foster children led by his parents and his older brother, Landon. 

The family, who had attended Mars Hill, dove into church life at Trinity. Chase, who had a talent for music, joined the worship team as an intern. 

Chase was impressed with the amount of time Driscoll spent with people in the church, especially given his level of notoriety. Driscoll was famous, but warm, friendly and engaging. 

“At the very beginning, Mark would stay, hang out and meet people. I never really saw that at bigger churches,” Chase said. “It’s what I really liked in the early stages of the Trinity Church.” 

As Chase became more involved, he moved up the ranks in the worship team. He landed a paid gig playing worship songs on Sunday mornings. 

Meanwhile, Chase’s older brother, Landon Chase, became engaged to one of Driscoll’s daughters. But as Landon Chase spent more time with Driscoll, he began to grow distant from his family, Luke Chase said. It was around this time that people in the church began commenting to Luke Chase about his parents, who would soon join the Driscolls as in-laws. According to Chase, church leaders urged him to stop speaking to his parents. They told the impressionable teenager that his parents were “toxic” and that he should cut them out of their lives. (A few years later, in 2022, Driscoll delivered a sermon entitled “When to sever ties with toxic family members?” that explored the topic.)

Before Landon Chase and Ashley Driscoll married, the Driscolls invited the Chase family to their home for dinner. During the meal, Driscoll announced that he wanted to offer Landon a full-time job at Trinity Church, which would pull him away from the nonprofit that he helped found with his family. It came as a shock to his parents, who had relocated the family to start the organization with Landon. A few minutes later, Driscoll started making negative comments about the Chase family. According to Luke, Driscoll stood up over Pauline Chase and began berating her. He told her she was a terrible mother and person until she was brought to tears. 

“He tore my parents to shreds,” Luke Chase said. “Mark wanted to be the alpha parent and cut my parents out of the equation.” 

The Chase family was left in shock. Doug Chase later demanded that Driscoll apologize to his wife, and he refused. 

Luke Chase left the church shortly after that. At the time he spoke to Religion Unplugged, he said that his brother Landon Chase who formerly served in the church as its “Pastor of Fun” had not spoken to him or his parents for more than a year. The only way they were allowed to contact him was through a P.O. Box, where they could send letters, Luke Chase said. For a long time, they did not know where he lived. Luke Chase said they began talking again late in 2022. Landon Chase, who now works in real estate, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I used to feel angry,” he said. “Now I just feel disappointment and sadness for everyone who’s still there.” 

The Chases’ experience followed a pattern for other families whose children married into Driscoll’s family. 

Jolene Monea’s daughter, Chloe, married Driscoll’s son, Zac Driscoll. A week before the wedding, her parents were asked to leave the church. A month later, her daughter cut off contact with them. (They have since reconciled.) In 2021, Todd and Janna Davis, whose daughter, Lanna, married Andersen, told The Roys Report that they had not spoken to her in years.  

In addition to these, another family spoke to Religion Unplugged about missing relatives deemed “lost” to what members described as a “cult” — including those whose loved ones are currently working at Trinity — but did so on the condition of anonymity out of fear that their family members still in Driscoll’s orbit would be harmed by public disclosure and out of hope that they might one day reunite with them.

Meanwhile, Driscoll’s former lieutenants at Mars Hill have continued to monitor his Arizona ministry from afar and have been vocal in their criticism. In 2021, more than 40 elders at Mars Hill released a joint letter calling for Driscoll to step down from ministry. 

“We believe that Mark is presently unfit for serving the church in the office of pastor,” the letter read. “Knowing that we have no formal authority in this current matter, we hope that Mark will voluntarily resign his position immediately. We also hope that those who have influence over Mark would encourage him to do so.”

Former members of both churches have formed a private online forum to share their stories and support one another. They gather and discuss regularly on a locked Facebook group called “The Sound and Valley Connect,” named after the Puget Sound area that was home to Mars Hill and the Trinity’s location in the Arizona valley. 

Turner, the former executive pastor at Mars Hill who helped organize and write the letter, said he speaks often with Trinity Church members who have described many issues similar to those he and others faced in Seattle. He described Driscoll as “a narcissistic leader” who perpetuated a “culture of fear” over his staff and congregants. 

“His behavior has continued. I have literally met with hundreds of people since 2015 to either personally reconcile with them or at least empathize with the hurt they suffered through Mark’s leadership,” Turner said. “It was incredibly traumatic to hear those stories. We have heard similar stories from the people at Trinity Church, and we hurt for the people who have been hurt.” 

‘For my enemies’ 

Despite all the controversy around his ministry, Driscoll appears unphased. 

A video message of Driscoll from Father’s Day this year is titled, “Why we need more fathers and less government.” It opens with a slick video montage set to a muscular soundtrack and ad slogans such as “More hand-ups, less handouts. More educating, less brainwashing. More meat, less vegetables. More paychecks, less bailouts. More blessing, less cursing.” 

Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here