Shane Hipps Leaving Mars Hill

Shane Hipps Leaving Mars Hill May 29, 2012
Shane Hipps and Rob Bell: Soon neither will be at Mars Hill

My dear friend (and camp counselee, circa 1984), Shane Hipps, announced yesterday that he will be leaving Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when the Board of Elders selects a new teaching pastor. Here’s part of Shane’s announcement:

I came face to face with one of the most powerful and difficult ingredients in discovering call  — the role of limits.

In this process I kept bumping up against two limits.  First, I bumped up against the decision the Elders made.  They created a role that was very different than the one I am currently in.  I had to confront the reality of an external set of limits that had been created.  This happens all the time in life.  We confront things on the outside we wish could be different.  Choices our loved ones make, illness, and economic downturns.  The Elders made a series of choices which they believe were in the best interest of this community.  In the process I was presented with new limits.

The second and far more substantial limit was internal.  Everyone of us has an interior shape and size.  Some of that is predetermined and unchangeable like our height.  It’s just how we got made and no amount of effort can change it.  Some of that inner shape is like our weight, we can actually do something to reshape it, adjust it, change it.  It’s not easy, but it is possible if we are truly called to something.

The road at Mars Hill has been tumultuous. Many parishioners left when Love Wins came out. More left when Rob Bell departed for California. The church staff has suffered through many rounds of layoffs, the latest being last week. Now Shane is leaving and, by the looks of the comments on his blog, some congregants don’t understand why.

Rob Bell had an odd arrangement with the church: in the latter years of his tenure, he didn’t lead the staff, and he had virtually no pastoral duties other than preaching (which they call “teaching”). Shane came in under that arrangement. While I can understand the Elders’ decision to move in a more conventional direction — with a pastor who does the majority of the preaching — it seems odd that this person will report to the executive director of the church. It makes you wonder: What gifted preacher would come to Mars Hill without also being able to lead the staff?

We can only assume that the Elders know the church best, and that they think this unusual arrangement will work. Many of us will be watching to see if it does.

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  • Joel

    RE: Your statements about parishioners leaving… This is the first I’ve heard of it. I could have deduced that logically, but I hadn’t seen it documented anywhere… Is there record of it anywhere, or is this hearsay from your connections?
    I, of course, am in Florida and far removed from anything Grand Rapids… Just curious!

    • I don’t have empirical evidence, Joel. But it’s been confirmed by multiple sources, as have the staff layoffs.

    • Dave

      A recent family member was layed off from Mars Hill due to financial concerns because of the drop in attendance and giving. It is real!

  • Having attended there for a half-year (around 2005), I even entered into an interview process at one point for a staff role. Things shifted around in that process so all that I’d talked through up until that point got scrapped. Several other shifts happened over time, including the ones you mentioned.

    I think some of it has to do with how Mars Hill was started. If you read Velvet Elvis it sounds like it started out of nowhere over dinner between Rob Bell and his wife. Suddenly at their first service there were “all these people.” The truth is Rob was on staff at Calvary Church and had a large group of people who were itching for what was on his heart.

    Which gets into where Mars Hill was started. It was the alternative church to the culture of Christendom that is West Michigan. When I would eat at a local Panera Bread, 9 out of 10 conversations around me were about church. The approach Mars Hill took was to strip everything down and push against what that culture was.

    Unfortunately, this seed at its core was more about asking the questions that hadn’t been asked versus standing on what was firm. During its first years in that area, Mars Hill was refreshing; when I got there Rob was getting national attention for being innovative and “Jewish” in his insights; then time passed, and after you run of of questions about fluffy stuff, you start asking questions about solid stuff; soon you end up with the book “Love Wins” – which only makes sense if you read the book from the West Michigan mindset it was written in, and even then it doesn’t make sense.

    That said, Mars Hill helped me find my footing when I was dizzy. I won’t become a critic of it because I believe God is working in there somewhere. What I will comment on is that what may make it difficult to be a part of the church today or tomorrow is the way its leaders imperfectly navigated several decisions.

    Then again… what church or movement can’t that be said of?

  • brgulker

    This makes me very sad. I have a deep respect for that congregation.

  • As a friend of others in ministry in the Grand Rapids area, I can attest to parishioners leaving in waves from Mars Hill. Many times, in the life of a church, staff transitions are used by congregants as an excuse to see what other churches in the area are up to – the fact that this was the case during Rob’s transition shouldn’t be surprising.

  • Pastoral transitions are so commonplace that they usually don’t intrigue me very much. But the structural issues around this one are intriguing. There are some big questions here about the structure of a church, the role of pastoring and teaching. Was Rob Bell’s position there a good idea? Is it good to have someone preaching who isn’t connected pastorally to the staff or congregation? Doesn’t that change your ability to speak to them? It certainly changes their ability to speak into you as the preacher.

    This move may be a move to a much healthier leadership dynamic or it may be a very difficult role for anyone to step into. Regardless the questions it raises about the long term viability of any church built around a celebrity pastor, especially one who is at the end only preaching and not leading the church.

    These situations are such modern constructs of the way we do church. Hard to imagine a situation like this taking place before the dominant rise of the celebrity pastor and megachurch.

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  • Aran

    I think Pete Rollins should step in next….

    • Connie

      I agree!! I agree!!

  • I don’t know the ins and outs of Mars Hill’s staffing situation, but this doesn’t seem all that different from large churches having an executive pastor who oversees the staff and administration and a pastor who does the bulk of the preaching.

    I agree that it would be hard to preach/teach with integrity if you weren’t doing some amount of pastoral care and staff relations. But I know a good number of gifted preachers who would just as soon leave the administration to someone else.

    • I think that is true, but usually my experience as having serve in the executive pastor role in a couple of large churches is that there has to be great trust and communication between the Senior (preaching) pastor and the executive. I think this is a backward approach to have an executive in place before the Senior Pastor

    • Yes, MaryAnn, that’s true. But the preaching pastor does not report to the executive pastor in any church that I’ve ever seen. They are equals, or the preaching pastor is the head-of-staff, and the executive pastor runs day-to-day operations.

  • Tanya

    For what it’s worth, this is a model I’ve heard described before. Some large mainline Protestant churches operated this way — a preacher, who stayed squirreled away in his (always his) office at least 20 hours/week writing a brilliant sermon, and then a staff — one of whom served as “head of staff” — sort of a CEO position, and others who did education, pastoral care, etc. The preacher was probably the guy they sent out to do anything public– speaking was, after all, his forte. But he didn’t have to run the church machinery.

    Nice work if you can get it.

  • Jeff Straka

    Having lived in Grand Rapids for a few years in the ’80s, I know first hand what a breath of fresh air Rob’s church and his theology would have been as a much-needed alternative to the oppressive Dutch Christian Reformed Christendom. The problem, though, is that it quickly became a “personality” mega-church – people were primarily attracted to hear Rob Bell preach. This is not inherently a “bad” thing, but it certainly has proven to be a “fragile” thing in terms of people moving on once “Elvis has left the building”. The other thing that is becoming apparent is the problem with the 1% (the 15 elders) holding the spiritual lives of the 99% (the community) in their hands. It seems that there needs to be a way to increase and diversify community ownership as the numbers build. I think this is just one more sign that the evangelical mega-church model is in for a bumpy flight ahead, and probably necessarily so.

    Here in Atlanta, the church I am curiously watching is Andy Stanley’s NorthPoint Church. He had stirred up the “evangelical popes” by seemingly being more friendly to the LGBTQ community during a recent sermon than they deemed “appropriate”. Will this be Andy’s “Love Wins” that will get his elders or his community upset?

    Interesting times, these…

  • JR

    I’ve attended Mars Hill for the last 8 years. This community is one of the main reasons my wife and I moved to the area, so I just wanted to offer my perspective. In my opinion, the declining attendance and the departure of Rob and Shane are less shocking than being made out to be (mostly because the community has received so much attention because of the celebrity status of Rob).

    Rob wrote a book and it was scandalous enough that some people decided they needed to leave the church. I didn’t agree with everything Rob said in the book, but that’s not a requirement for me believe that he was still teaching the way of Jesus on Sunday mornings.

    Then Rob left, and when so many people were attracted to Rob’s teaching (be it style or method or content or all of the above) people left. No surprise there.

    Then the roll that Shane accepted was changing, and that roll was/is not part of the voice that God has called him to be to the Church. Shane must follow what he believes to be God’ call, so he’s leaving. No surprise.

    I believe the heart of the church is the same as what it was when it began; working with the God of the oppressed to care for the widow, the orphan, the poor. Everything has a season, and now our community will move forward, finding new ways to serve Jesus and love those around us, regardless of who is teaching on Sunday.

    • I also believe the church will move forward, JR. This is certainly a transition but not a tragedy.

    • Chris

      Well said JR. As a MHBC member for 12 years, the core, heart, and vision of the church remains. There are many at Mars Hill, like myself, who started there not just for Rob’s inspiring and refreshing teaching, but for the hopeful and accepting environment that was so rare in West Michigan. “Transition but not a tragedy” about sums it up!

  • Perhaps Shane Hipps, Rob Bell, and Mars Hill must decrease so that God can increase.

    • Carl

      Exactly, Joel.

  • Most of the time the operations and the church facilities are directed by the influence that comes from some of the Sunday preaching. To disengage the preacher from the head of decision making for directives can probably be a very strained group management.

    This is the tension between idealism and realism. A pastor to creating a rock’n sermon takes time and would have difficulty with understanding the direction of operations and facility upgrades/maintenance.

    Some Afrikan congregations have the elders rotate preaching with the actual pastor. The pastors in this role prefer the American style of the head pastor controlling the preaching. The tone of the direction of the church is set by the preaching. It needs to be a super human that can know all the administration, and crank out a 60 hour sermon every week. This super-human-pastor also needs to have a wife, kids, house, and white picket fence.

  • Why should the teaching/preaching pastor be in charge? In a large church they rarely seem to have the time, or ability to actually pastor the congregation. So, why let them be the leader? Why would we assume a charismatic speaker would be a good leader? I’ve seen many examples of the opposite being true, especially amongst young inexperienced pastors who are able to build churches upon their personalities, but may not have the maturity to actually be in charge.

    If I was at Mars Hill I would not be interested in hiring a pastor who expected to waltz in and be handed the reins of the church.

  • Though the conversation is getting long, I though that I would offer my thoughts. I have been attending MHBC for 5 years and have been involved on a volunteer level for 3 of those five years.
    First, I will confirm the speculation that attendance has dropped since *Love Wins* (and even before that with the “Blessed are the Peacemakers” sermon series and the “Subverting the Empire” conference) and Rob leaving. But covenant membership has been consistent and has even gone up since these two events.

    Second, in regards to Shane leaving, those who have been involved in covenant meetings and communication have been well informed of the workings of this decision for a while now. Ever since Rob announced he was leaving the question of whether Shane would stay and in what capacity has been discussed openly with covenant members.

    Third, concerning your comments regrading the leadership structure of MHBC a little context would be helpful. When the church first started Rob held a role similar to the one you reference in the post. He “lead the staff”. But he got burnt out. So we then developed the model that some have eluded to in the comments a Teaching Pastor / Executive Pastor combo with the amazing Don Golden. This worked for a good while. But Don was eventually called elsewhere and ended up developing a “leaderless” executive team model. This has been the model before and after Rob leaving.
    Since this time we have further developed this model into what I think is a very healthy leadership system. Our core leadership team is comprised of 5 “Directors” and the Teaching Pastor. This means that the Teaching pastor not necessarily “subordinate” to the executive director in as much as she/he is accountable to the leadership team who is committed to the directions ( ) of the community.
    Personally, I find this to be a much more sustainable and healthy leadership system than one’s where the complete vision of the community rests in one person (like Rob).

    • Jazz, I think you’re idealizing Don’s time at MHBC.

      • Ha, that might be the case. I don’t really see how one can not idealize any leadership figure in a community the size of MHBC.

        But really? Out of all the points I covered you comment on the adjective I use in regards to Don Golden? That’s like reading a book and reviewing the acknowledgments.

        • Jazz, I’ve known a lot of people who’ve worked there. It’s a tough place to work. That’s all I’m at liberty to say.

          • Any church that had either one of the following (the numbers at it’s start, the rapid growth, the numbers at it’s peak, the amount of attrition) is unlikely to be an easy place to work in reality I’m not conviced that there is healthly model for churches over 1000 peoples. I feel like your comment maybe alightly harsh, especially as that’s all your at liberty to say.

      • I thought of this after I pressed “Reply”

        I guess the main curiosity I have with your post is in regards to your concerns for our church leadership. That is, that the Teaching/Preaching (its called both amidst the congregation) in your opinion, should be steering the boat. Why do you think this should be the case? I ask this because I actually find our church leadership to be quite….flat, and Preacher/Teacher first leadership to be quite… hierarchical and considering your recent publications on ecclesiology I find this confusing.

      • Tony,
        After reading my posts I feared I might have come across as snarky, and seeing that I am a newcomer to your territory I thought I owe you a PS of my former comments with a clarification of intent.
        I would like to say what a pleasant surprised it was to come across you book “The Church is Flat” I haven’t read it all, but through the Table of contents Introduction and a healthy amount of skimming I was very much impressed by the figures you chose as dialogue partners seeing as most of the stuff on a pastoral level never get beyond Francis Schaeffer…(if they even get to someone like him). The only exception is Peter Rollins, who knows his stuff
        So, when in the above post I referenced your work on ecclesiology I was referring to this text and it was a reference in high regard.

        G + P

    • Gerry Scott

      Living here in Dearborn I’ve known about Rob Bell and Mars Hill mainly through his film series Nooma and his books. I have visited Mars Hill and frequently listen to teaching on the Previous 12 Weeks site. It’s good to hear that Mars Hill is developing a leadership model that is team orientated. From my experience it’s the only one that will survive the testing and turmoil of church life. It also is the one that I believe God is leading many churches to adopt as we strive to be His Kingdom people in 2012.

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  • I enjoyed this

  • Dave Westra

    It has been over two year since people have posted, and I don’t know if anyone is still getting notifications. However, I would love to chime in. I am a current member. Since this whole thing unfolded, We have a new teaching pastor, Kent Dobson, the son of Ed Dobson, the former pastor of Calvary Church on the other side of Grand Rapids, which MHBC came out of (In a good way, with Ed not wanting to build more on to the growing church). Kent has been great thus far, and though it was strange that it seemed that MHBC just dumped Shane, Kent turned out to be a great choice. Rob came back one sunday to preach after a year. At the end of the sermon, the crowd was noticeably uncomfortable, so much to effect that Relevant Magazine even wrote about how uncomfortable we were. In sum, Kent is doing well and I love that here is there and the community is just as great as it has ever been.

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