Resignations at Willow Creek:  It’s a Start

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.  

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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 andonion 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.

THE FUTURE

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.

*****


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27 thoughts on “Resignations at Willow Creek:  It’s a Start

      1. Yeah but my question is whether her leaving is even related to the issues with Bill at all. Otherwise, why mention it? My husband owns a business and said it’s common business practice when you leave an organization to sign an NDA. There have been other people who have been slowly leaving Willow over the past several months, Todd Hybels himself among them (this past month). Not surprising, but makes sense. For me, I would love to see complete transparency but without FULL TRUTH on the table, we can’t begin to reconcile ourselves to that end when I feel personally they’re still hiding the full depth and breadth of his sickness (which it is) and his narcissism and sexual misconduct.

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      2. Beth, I do not know whether the NDA to which you refer is related to Bill. I bring it up because it is another layer of the onion as I expressed in my post. At the foundation of all of this is power and control. Sexually, it was Bill’s power and control over women. NDA’s have been the church leadership’s power and control over unruly congregants that could damage the brand. The abuse of women was the presenting issue that they and their advocates sought to address first. Now that there is some confession and admission by WC towards the affected women, attention can NOW be turned also to the other abuses of power over the years at WCCC.

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  1. Is the NDA a sort of rider on unemployment benefits, or pension plan?
    Of course Willow should not require an NDA as a condition of anything, I hope we are not asking ex-employees to sacrifice their income to reveal things that we speculate would be important. My point is, that if the church is “so important to us” and the “truth” is so important to taking proper action on its future, it seems part of our own slavery to the dollar that we are not willing to create a fund to make it easy for this to happen. A question of priorities, as so much of life is.

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    1. Martin, thanks for your comment. NDA’s have not been issued to all former staff. When senior leaders of Willow perceived that an employee could disclose unsavory information about Willow that led to their departure, they issued “severance for silence” compensation. = Brand Protection

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  2. Rob, I wonder what financial auditing measures have historically existed at WCCC? Are more needed now? Our church (a GLS host site in New York) hires an outside auditor group every few years to do a full analysis of not only all financial activity but also all processes. The purpose is threefold: to document and validate the financial stewardship of leadership and staff; to measure our diligence in adhering to regulations, employing Sarbanes-Oxley-type guidelines for protecting cash flow, reporting non-compliance, etc. and to open the door to conversations regarding process corrections and innovations that might further protect resources going forward. Such a step might be beneficial for leadership to take at this point to lay a foundation of trust, especially as you raise the topics of unknown outlays for NDAs and pension arrangements. Experts might be able to further define the scope of such an audit, and quite likely might suggest a look at expense account activity as well. In any “family,” the test of true transparency is how the checkbook is managed. Just my opinion.

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    1. Can someone help me understand why this beautiful “Angel” of a voice is no longer with Willow Creek? Did she leave on her own or was she asked to leave? I just watched for the first time her sing, a YouTube video of “something in the water” (I attend the Crystal Lake Campus) and I can honestly say that her absence is a huge blow to our church. Just watching that 4 minute video had me worshiping our almighty father. I have no idea what happened between Armis and Willow, but she is going to be sorely missed. Wherever God has you planted on your next chapter of your life, I guarantee that you are going to touch many for Christ!

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  3. Helpful and well crafted post. Many at WCCC may “…not see that it was Bill Hybels and Heather Larson and the elders who were at the very core of this congregational division.” But many, many, leaders outside WCCC do see this. We are grateful for voices of true pastoral leadership like yours that point this out to WCCC leaders. Keep these thoughtful articles coming. And please share how the WCA leadership can address their culpability. Thank you.

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  4. Rob, I am so thankful for your voice in all of this! I hope and pray that the church will listen to you, and value your perspective! Your list of seven issues to be addressed is excellent, and all the issues warrant transparent answers! I agree that it is essential that ALL NDA’s be declared null and void, and that those individuals involved in this (like H/R and Legal executives) need to resign immediately!

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    1. Mikki, it is good to hear from you! It’s been a long time. I am not clear what comments and stories you refer to that are under “anonymous.” Anonymous comments and stories that are true can still be transparent. The transparency that I have requested is due to the WC leadership’s (Heather Larson and the newly resigned elders) tendency to obfuscate and mislead the congregation. Thus, my request for telling the truth and being transparent with the congregation moving forward.

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  5. “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 moving 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 andonion Heather receive? Severance packages? Pensions that the congregation will be paying on for years to come?!? ”

    Whoa . . . how is it that none of this is making it into the news coverage, or even the spiritual abuse blogs? It is almost as if a deliberate decision has been made to focus on a handful of cases of ‘inappropriate’ behavior, in order to hide the far more pervasive abuse involved within the organization. I am beginning to suspect that the goal is to allow Bill’s reputation to be tarnished a little (you know, boys will be boys) and hope that it will all blow over with some meaningless pretenses of change.

    But if the real root of the rottenness is not exposed, and eliminated, the disease will continue to grow and destroy what life is left in the organization. As you stated in your post, it is not that we want to minimize the horror of the sexual abuse. But we cannot stop at that. Because what allowed the abuse to continue unabated and unpunished is the system – the threats, bribes, NDA’s and the ERT Gestapo. I suspect this is what TPTB do not want exposed.

    I appreciate your blog, but I sure with that there was some way to get more exposure to these things. Have you tried getting a reporter from one of the papers to look into the bigger picture? I am afraid that I doubt that they will go there – because the media tends to be in the hands of the powerful, like Bill and all of his enablers. They will most likely print only as much as they are ‘allowed’ to say. Sure seems to me that the media, and even many of the abuse blogs somehow seem to miss the bigger picture.

    I would really love to know more about the 250+ stories, and who is the repository of them!

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    1. Abby,
      Steve Carter’s “Apology” blog was the impetus for Heather’s and the elders’ “apologies.” If he did not make his apology to the women publicly, the others would not have apologized. They had stated just a few days before that Bill had not sinned. Suddenly, they realized he sinned? Steve’s blog gave them no other choice than to piggyback on to his apology.
      Steve’s resignation was weeks in the making. Out of deference to Heather and the elders he held off resigning. When Ms. Baranowski’s story was told in the Chicago Tribune on August 5, 2012, Steve’s patient deference to the Willow leadership came to an end. He would defer no longer. He resigned. Steve apologized to the women for his part in the family meetings, and he resigned partly because he could not be a part of how the WC leadership was continuing to handle the whole mess. His was a resignation coming from his integrity. Heather and the elders resigned because they really had no other choice. Their leadership missteps occurred at every family meeting and in every written communication to the congregation. The calls for their resignations were deafening. They had to resign.

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  6. Hebrews 4:13-15

    “No one can hide from God. His eyes see everything we do. We must give an answer to God for what we have done.”

    I don’t see an exception for NDAs.

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  7. I only have the info that I am reading, but I do not agree that Ms. Pat Baranowski is a victim. Her allegations speak to her own culpability. She was complicit (allegedly). They don’t have to sign and receive compensation for staying silent. We all make choices and those choices have consequences.

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    1. Lynn, your comment reveals your lack of understanding regarding the abuse of power between a male boss and female employee. Worse than that is that the boss is the woman’s pastor. Contributing to the trauma is what she should do with the information and who if anyone would believe her regarding this revered pastor? Do not blame victims, Lynn. You’re way off base.

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  8. NDAs are generally evil and demonic… John 3:19-21… and every US state and territory AG is agreeing that NDA’s perpetuate the culture of silence protecting the perpetrator at the expense of the victim… Church…we should already be aware that NDA’s are harmful, that is a basic scriptural principle, and instead we/institutional Church are helping the enemy out with NDAs in the name of confidentiality (that’s an entire discussion on its own)… in the Name of all that’s Holy, why are we the Church doing the exact opposite of what God is asking us… to expose what is hidden in darkness and be transparent and bring things in the light…

    http://myfloridalegal.com/webfiles.nsf/WF/HFIS-AVWMYN/$file/NAAG+letter+to+Congress+Sexual+Harassment+Mandatory+Arbitration.pdf

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    1. Leopold, yes, I still consider Willow my home church. I am still a member. Admittedly, it has not been without struggle. I have thought about leaving, but when the Chicago Tribune did their initial report back in March and then the family meetings were held, and I saw the identities of the women and their advocates, I committed to see this ugly chapter in Willow’s history through to completion. I would LOVE to be a part of a healthy Willow Creek! I am praying (along with many others) that current leadership will look for any further infection in the body and remove it before rushing forward assuming all that is needed now is healing. Unfortunately, infection remains, Leopold. And it needs to be cut out.

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  9. A friend and I had dinner earlier this week and many of the questions you pose here are exactly the same as we have. One of the topics focused on the financial aspects. Not the most important, but a concern. Today’s society allow CEO’s and CFO’s to force resign or are fired due to their lack of integrity without losing their large investments. In fact, they are compensated for it. Should Bill and Heather receive their possible financial exit arrangements because of their missteps, dishonesty, and lack of integrity? Should they be rewarded. Even our governments put the costs of their lies, coverups, missteps, investigations, and dishonesty on the taxpayers. Should the church follow these examples. Why should the congregation pay for legal fees, investigations, and other cost involved in this situation? Many have suffered at the hands of the church leaders. It is difficult to tithe knowing where a portion of it is being allocated.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. You ask a vg question. I believe we have had better corporate worship and teaching from Scripture than we have had in a long time. I am trying to be patient and give Mr. Gillen, Interim Lead Pastor, time to do what he needs to do. I have emailed him regarding what I believe was a confusing statement to the congregation his first Sunday. He did not reply nor did he clear up the confusion week #2. Maybe we disagree on the issue. There is a dearth of communication coming from the Lead Pastor and anyone advising him. You CANNOT communicate too much when an organization is “on fire.” The congregation is receiving very little if any communication of substance, so I like everyone else is left to guess what is going on. Issues that must be addressed besides the abuse of women by Bill Hybels: Written intimidation by church attorneys (abuse of power) to perceived troublemakers / written intimidation and personal meeting intimidation by the ERT (Elder Response Team) of the same. Financial accountability: how much have church attorneys been paid defending accusations against BH? How much are church attorneys being paid currently protecting the church’s brand and keeping current leadership from saying stuff that could be detrimental legally? How much $ has been spent on NDA’s? What is the severance / retirement packages of BH and HL that the church must pay on and for how long? How much $ is being spent on outside marketing? What culpability does HR, Accounting and IT have in this mess? These questions would be a good start for Mr. Gillen to begin his communication with the congregation. To date, we have heard NADA. Wish my update was more substantive.

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  10. Thank you Rob for that update.

    We will continue to pray for transparency and restoration of trust at Willow. You are a wonderful church (all of you individual Christian brothers and sisters who have kept praying, serving, loving, seeking the truth) and we wish you well here in New Zealand (Yes there is GLS down here 🙂 ).

    I am a Christian psychologist with an interest in how power can shape us psychologically and spiritually. Keep up the good work Rob.

    Regards

    Chris Parsons

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