Don’t get me wrong. Heather Larson and the elders resigning on Wednesday night, August 8, 2018 was a big step forward for the women and Willow Creek. And I am grateful to God that they did so. But there is still much work to be done. There are lots of difficult challenges and choices ahead for Steve Gillen as the interim lead pastor. We are grateful that he authentically gave hope to Willow Creek this weekend.
Devastating Congregational Damage That Needs Repair
One of my first concerns after Bill Hybels resigned and the mantle of ultimate leadership was passed officially to the elders was for the welfare of the congregation. I attended the first “family meeting” when Bill and the elders declared all allegations against him as lies. I watched as the congregation breathed a collective sigh of relief standing to their feet, applauding Bill and the elders for a job well done in handling these unwarranted accusations. Less than three weeks later, the founding pastor of the 42 year old iconic ministry called Willow Creek resigned. In effect, he has not been heard from since in the ensuing 4 months, except to deny any and all additional charges leveled against him by other women. Tragic.
I wrote an email to the elders immediately following Bill Hybels’ resignation on April 13, 2018 entitled “An Appeal.” In it, I sought to warn the elders of the potential congregational devastation that would occur on their watch if they did not humble themselves, come clean and tell the truth immediately. Below is a short excerpt from that email. I strongly suggest you read the entire second email. I wrote to the elders:
You have thousands of people in the congregation that ONLY know what you have told them. They believe you. They are on your side in your public portrayal of the events. …
How devastated will those defenders of Bill be if the truth lies in options 2, 3, or 4? Then, not only is Bill guilty of abusing his power with women, now he and you have perpetuated a lie.
We are now experiencing this congregational devastation in full bloom. On Wednesday evening I witnessed people in every stage of grief when Heather Larson and the elders resigned.
I heard the Denial when congregants yelled, “No!” at Heather’s announcement that she would step down. Hundreds, if not thousands of the faithful, have kept their heads down, serving as always, trusting, believing, hoping that Heather and the elders had and were handling the Willow tragedy well. Wednesday evening’s confessions and apologies were a shock to thousands who trusted their leaders.
More than one person expressed their Anger towards me for what I have written. I sat with advocates for the women at the Wednesday evening Family Meeting. We were verbally attacked when the meeting was over, being told, “I hope your group is happy now.” Our group happy?! I was flabbergasted. Certainly this individual should know better! I told her that this was not about groups. This was about the women and the future of the church. No apology came our way. Rather, a retort that “this has been so divisive,” a thinly veiled reference that the women’s advocates have caused this division. She did not see that it was Bill Hybels and Heather Larson and the elders who were at the very core of this congregational division. The women and their advocates have simply been God’s whistleblowers!
Hundreds, if not a thousand folks, stayed in the auditorium after the resignations to talk and support one another in impromptu small gatherings, to use Kubler-Ross terminology Bargaining with one another. A healthy and beneficial exercise to make sense of it all.
Others I know, didn’t even come to the meeting, feeling too Depressed, feeling overwhelmed and helpless as to what they viewed as inevitable.
And then there was a contingent of folks who received the news of the resignations with Acceptance. They knew that this was necessary for the church to move forward. They knew Willow needed a fresh start with new leadership. They embraced; they shook hands heartily, rejoicing that Wednesday evening was a very good FIRST step for the women and for Willow Creek.
Admittedly, I was a part of this last group. But I also recognize that NOW the hard work starts. And much work needs to be done.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Before moving forward, the congregation needs to become unified again. I believe this is job #1 for Steve Gillen. The divisions are horrible. Bill and Heather and the elders are the reasons for this division. I believe that Mr. Gillen needs to communicate the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him God. As difficult as some of the truth is, the truth is what the congregation needs. There has been so much misinformation shared from the stage and through the Willow website. Most in the congregation have counted on these outlets to be their sources of “truth.”
That which has been confessed by our former Lead Pastor and former elders needs to be reiterated to those in the congregation that still refuse to believe that what happened on Wednesday evening was anything other than a railroad job. The congregation must understand that Heather and the elders were not forced out of leadership for no reason. They earned it. And their resignations were absolutely the right thing to do for the sake of the women and for the welfare of the church.
Mr. Gillen needs to help the congregation navigate through the five messy fluid stages of grief until there is an overall sense of ACCEPTANCE within the congregation. Each of the stages is represented by thousands for those who call Willow Creek their church home.
More Confessions To Come
Yes, the elders misrepresented the women. Yes, the elders misrepresented the former beloved leaders of Willow who became the women’s advocates. Yes, they did poor investigations. Yes, they did not hold Bill accountable well. Yes, Bill is guilty of more than lingering hugs. Yes, Bill lied. Yes, Bill is unrepentant. Yes, the WCA slandered Vonda. Yes, the WCA echoed the false narrative of the elders. These are but samples of what Heather and the elders and Tom De Vries have admitted to. The yeses are many … but there are unfortunately more.
Throughout the almost 5 months of public discourse on Willow’s tragedy, other significant concerns have been raised. Rightfully, nobody has wanted to detract from the main focus, the women’s claims of sexual harassment at the hands of Bill Hybels. As the confessions and apologies to the women by Willow leadership are now taking place, it is imperative that these other significantly dark issues also be transparently addressed prior to Willow being able to move forward in a healthy manner.
Steve, here is a sampling of issues that we need addressed, and where sin is in the camp, it needs to be rooted out:
- Non-Disclosure agreements (NDA’s) — severance for silence, separation packages for silence. I am aware of a Willow employee as recently as a month ago who “disappeared,” and has just surfaced stating that she can’t say anything due to a legal agreement with Willow Creek Community Church. The history and cost of NDA’s to the parishioners of Willow Creek needs to be revealed. ALL NDA’S NEED TO BE DECLARED NULL AND VOID so the ugly truths behind them will be revealed and so that history will not repeat itself.
- Who / What departments have been behind NDA’s? Did the Elder Response Team (ERT) play a role in these? Was Human Resources complicit in administering these? Were there particular individuals that spearheaded the dismissiveness and dismissals of Willow staff?
- Requests made by Steve Carter that the elders were not able to accommodate? Missy Rasmussen referenced these in her statement Wednesday evening. What were those requests, and why couldn’t the elders accommodate them?
- Who is the outside, independent governance expert that you have engaged? Please be specific. Remember: transparency!
- What about former elder Rob Campbell whose current role is the pastor of Willow Chicago? Rob was instrumental in the initial investigations of Bill when he was the elder board chairman. He was on stage at the first family meetings giving testimony and color around the investigations that declared Bill’s innocence. What is his culpability?
- How much money has Willow spent on legal fees and outside marketing addressing investigations into Bill Hybels as well as constructing NDA’s? The congregation has a right to know. It has been their tithes and offerings that have financed these bad ideas and cover-ups.
- What financial separation agreements did Bill and Heather receive? Severance packages? Pensions that the congregation will be paying on for years to come?!?
Steve, there are many layers to this onion that must be peeled away. Think: transparency.
Heather stated, “God has helped to give us a clear plan, and we have asked Steve Gillen to step in as interim lead pastor to set up the new pastoral team.”
When a leader resigns due to failing to lead well, that leader does not get to set a plan for the future of the organization.
Everyone hopes that Steve will lead the church well through this transition, but it is not clear what it means when Heather states that Steve will “set up the new pastoral team.” Has he been assigned to choose the new elders? Is it his duty to find a new Lead Pastor/Teacher?
Will a search committee for a new senior pastor of WCCC be formed? Please describe the process that you will employ to select a new senior pastor.
By way of reminder, may I also encourage the review of all the ministries at Willow prior to seeking a new senior pastor. Please see more detail in my post, “For Willow Creek to Survive …”
The first step towards Willow Creek recovering was taken on Wednesday evening, 08/08/18. It was a big step, a necessary step. There are many more steps to be taken. May we do so humbly, wisely and transparently, depending fully on the Savior who redeemed us and desires to heal our church beyond what we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). We can only hope.