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Mars Hill Church’s main worship facility in Seattle.
Associated Press/Photo by Scott Cohen
Mars Hill Church’s main worship facility in Seattle.

Mars Hill Church moves to destroy documents

Religion | A group of former members asks for a delay, suggesting forthcoming lawsuits

Mars Hill Church, the Seattle megachurch pastored by Mark Driscoll, has moved to destroy all staff emails more than three months old. According to the church’s new email retention policy, announced this week, the email deletions would reduce technology costs. But a group of former staff, elders, and members say the new policy is a deliberate attempt to destroy documents that might be used in litigation against the church.

WORLD obtained an email from the church announcing the new policy, scheduled to go into effect by the close of business today. “We are now shifting to a new email retention policy, which will automatically retain emails only from the last 90 days on our machines, servers, and backups,” the email read.

Reaction to the new policy was immediate, with some former staff members and elders saying that even though Driscoll issued a lengthy statement confessing to and repenting of behavior that has led to recent controversies, this action is not consistent with that statement.

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“Mars Hill leaders say they are ‘repenting,’ yet their actions scream cover up and damage control,” said former church staff member and elder Kyle Firstenberg “Sin that is repented of declares the glory of the gospel of Jesus. Sin that is covered up declares self-preservation and a lack of understanding of the gospel. Why don’t their words and actions agree?”

Mars Hill Church spokesman Justin Dean has not responded to a request for comment.

A group of 16 former Mars Hill members delivered a letter to the church earlier today, asking Mars Hill to delay or rescind the implementation of this policy. In the letter, obtained by WORLD, the group’s attorney, Brian Fahling, asked the church to “preserve electronically stored information that may contain evidence.” Fahling wrote that his clients anticipate legal action in which the church, Driscoll, and others in church leadership “will be named as defendants.” The letter lists anticipated litigation in the areas of “RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act], Fraud, Conspiracy, Libel, Slander, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.”

The letter does not carry the weight of an injunction issued by a judge. But because no lawsuits against Mars Hill Church or Driscoll have yet been filed, no one has standing to seek a court order. But such letters, sometimes called “preservation letters” or “litigation holds,” do carry some legal weight.

“The letters trigger the duty to preserve relevant evidence,” Fahling said. “Destruction of evidence after receiving a preservation letter can have dire consequences.” He added that in some cases a court determined that the destruction of documents after receiving a preservation letter is “gross negligence.” 

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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