Leading by servingCE Interview, LEADERSHIP Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013
By Rez Gopez-Sindac
Sutton Turner | Executive Pastor and Executive Elder | Mars Hill Church | Seattle, WA
For the first 35 years of his life, Sutton Turner worshiped many things — toys, money, cars, career, real estate.
But, in 2005, this successful entrepreneur and Harvard Business School-educated CEO realized that despite his material possessions, he was dead on the inside. He needed God to revive his life.
Turner found a fresh start at a Texas megachurch where he served as executive pastor until 2008. “God transformed my heart, my marriage and my relationships with my kids,” he says. After a brief stint as a church executive, Turner went to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to be the founding CEO of what is now a megabillion-dollar real estate management company.
In 2011, Turner returned to America — and to his ministry calling. He now serves as the executive pastor and one of three executive elders of what he says is a “fast-growing and financially poor church” — Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He oversees the church’s central operations and business functions, including finance, property, technology, media, communications, publishing and recording. He also mentors all the executive pastors across Mars Hill’s 14 locations.
Turner shares with Church Executive some of the “crazy” things God is doing at Mars Hill, his passion for mentoring first-generation Christian leaders like himself, and why he’s like a “Joseph” to Mars Hill.
What excites you about the ministry of Mars Hill Church?
Jesus is doing some crazy things. He has called Mars Hill specifically to plant churches in cities. Our church demographics are quite young — between 24 and 34 years old — and most of them are men. We plant churches in urban areas where, in most cases, no new church plants have happened for a long time and where there are old, vacant churches because the congregations have not flourished.
Most of these areas are very liberal and diverse, with a big population of artists and creative people. In urban areas, it’s almost impossible to buy a building that has more than 400 seats and use it as a church due to zoning and parking requirements. But, many of the old churches in the cities are historical landmarks and already zoned to be used as a church.
We want to go into the hearts of these cities. We’re in the heart of Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma and Everett, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. We’re seeking to purchase a building in downtown Olympia, Washington’s state capital. We believe God has called us to the cities to preach the Gospel to young men.
Why reach out to young men in the cities?
Today, for the first time in history, there’s a majority of kids growing up in homes without fathers. There’s a cultural decline of men leading, caring, serving and providing for their families and loving their wives. Husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the church, and to serve their family. We try to hit that message every single weekend. We’d like to reduce the number of children who are raised without dads. We’d like to see moms and dads raise their families together.
What are some of the things that you do differently at Mars Hill?
Because we’re in urban cultures in the Northwest, where Christianity has never been strong, most of the people who come to our churches weren’t raised in Christian homes. Up here in the Pacific Northwest, we have a very, very low population of evangelical Christians — around 8 percent. Seattle used to be the least-churched city in America, so we understand what it’s like to present the Gospel to an urban, non-Christian context.
Our services last up to two hours. We go through the books of the Bible verse by verse. The sermon is long — usually more than an hour — but for some crazy reason, Jesus is using it and saving people. Last year, we baptized 1,200 people, and every year for the last three years, we’ve seen an 8 percent to 12 percent growth in terms of new Christians who are added to our church.
In the cities, there aren’t many families; instead, you have lots of single people. Mars Hill is a poor church that’s growing very fast. Our churches are filled with young urbanites who might be sacrificially giving, but the stage of life they’re in means that their giving struggles to keep up with their growth.
In response, we do things differently, like buying old buildings and restoring them. We don’t have a whole lot of events in our churches because we can’t afford them. We focus on our Sunday services, weekly community and redemption groups, and leadership development. That’s really it, because that’s all we can financially support.
How, then, are you able to buy old buildings and make them usable again?
It’s very difficult. Many old buildings can be purchased cheaply because the market is depressed. But, they require a lot of maintenance. We don’t have many people who can give large amounts of money. We have some churches with people who have matured and who give more generously. We have some faithful members who want to see more disciples made and churches planted. We also have a growing number of non-member givers from outside of our churches who give online and support the mission of Jesus.
They get excited about us going into urban areas, and they want to be a part of that. We try to focus on increasing the number of givers more than the amounts they give. It will take a lot of people giving a little bit to get the work done.
What are your main responsibilities as executive pastor?
I’m one of Mars Hill’s three executive elders — or what we call “first among equals.” The other two are Pastor Mark Driscoll, our preaching and key visionary pastor, and Pastor Dave Bruskas, who’s really the pastor to our 14 campus pastors. As the executive pastor, I oversee the operations of the church. We run all of the finances, HR, real estate, communications, and so on. We put together the weekend sermons, which this year will reach 15 million downloads. We have a publishing company producing four to seven books per year, along with the Christian leadership blog, TheResurgence.com.
We do everything as much as we can so the guys in our local churches are just focused on ministry. All of our 14 locations have a lead pastor and an executive pastor. I recruit and train each one of those executive pastors. I’m on video-call with them every week, mentoring them and helping them deal with problems.
As the executive pastor, my role is to complement the lead pastor and try to model that relationship to all our 14 executive pastors. Pastor Mark is an incredible communicator, but he doesn’t like doing spreadsheets, putting budgets together, doing meetings, recruiting new employees, putting together policies and procedures, updating the bylaws. These are the things that I do.
You’ve been likened to Joseph (Old Testament Bible character). What parallels do you see between his story and yours as they relate to your role at Mars Hill?
Like Joseph who served in the court of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, I was in charge of a company in the Middle East owned by a royal family. Like Joseph, I served and worked with people who didn’t worship my God. I was the only Christian there, and I dealt with some spiritual attacks and hardships. One of the companies I led was worth $38 billion in real estate. I was responsible for big budgets, and I did a lot of recruiting. Most of the companies I ran before I came to Mars Hill were very fast-growing and fast-moving. I believe God has equipped me with business skills and prepared me to help Mars Hill Church during this time.
Mars Hill is one of the fastest-growing churches in America, and as it continues to expand, we’ll face many attacks and difficulties. So, I’m focused on developing future executive pastors who aren’t coming to church to make financial profits; they’re coming to serve. I know there’s an army of business guys out there whom God is calling to serve the local church and in the second-in-command role. I’m focused on finding those men and mentoring them. I’m looking for men who love Jesus, who love the church, and who love their lead pastor — in that order. It’s a job that requires sacrifices and is hammered by many attacks and hardships; but, if you’re called, it’s one of the most rewarding opportunities you could ever have.
How do you see your role evolving in the coming years?
I’d like to spend the next 20 years developing young men who are called into ministry. I’d like to help them grow in their relationship with Jesus. For a long time, Mars Hill was a very young hipster church. Now, Pastor Mark, Pastor Dave and I are a bit older: We’re a bit wiser, and by God’s grace, we might be a little more effective.
Mars Hill Church
- Year established: 1996
- Campuses: 14
- Annual budget: $30 million
- Staff: 129
- Lead pastor: Mark Driscoll
- Affiliation/denomination: Non-denominational