[author’s note: I have purposely not written about Willow Creek for a year because I wanted to give its leadership room to navigate through their scandal. It appears that they believe they are done. Here are my initial thoughts.]
The new WCCC board of elders made their self-proclaimed “last public statement” regarding the Bill Hybels scandal on July 19, 2019. These same elders conducted a Reconciliation and Reflection Service on Tuesday evening July 23, 2019 to put this painful chapter of the church’s history in the rear view mirror. Bill Hybels’ name was NEVER mentioned … not once. The women’s names … not one of them … were ever mentioned. Bill’s sins were never mentioned. But … there were lots of Bible verses quoted. And there was much emotion expressed by the elders. So what was the outcome?
Almost everyone heartily applauded and rose to their feet to affirm the efforts of these Willow Creek leaders on Tuesday night. There was the sense of FINALITY. We’re moving on! In fact, the second half of the service was dedicated to Willow Creek’s future and the Global Leadership Summit on August 8-9.
The great majority of the 1100 people who attended that service were happy, satisfied, content, hopeful, and ready to move on. Yet there was NOT ONE of the impacted women and NOT ONE of their advocates that felt the same way? Rather, the sentiments that they expressed were:
- beyond disappointed
- [my] hope evaporated
How in the world could there be such divergent reactions by groups of people who read the same exact elder update and experienced the same exact reconciliation service?!?!?
IT IS ALL ABOUT REPORTING
Let me illustrate. Imagine you read a newspaper article about a guy who was caught speeding. The article states that he was going 90mph in a 45mph zone. In fact, this guy received a speeding ticket for $1,000, and because he hit some people while he was speeding, his license was taken away! Most people reading that article would think, “Wow! 90 in a 45! That’s fast! He deserves that $1,000 fine. He hit some people? Yep, he probably should have had his license taken away?” And then they move on to read the next article of interest.
But there is another group of people, those who were hit and hurt by the speeder as well as those who were witnesses to their injuries. This group of people was disappointed because the article fell woefully short of telling the whole story. The drunk driver’s victims told the newspaper reporter important details that were left out of the article!
Same article: two totally different reactions.
OBFUSCATION BY INCOMPLETE REPORTING
Stick with me here. Continuing with the illustration, the people who were hit and hurt by the speeder know more details that were not reported by the newspaper.
- They know that he has a history of speeding.
- They know he was drunk at the time he was caught speeding.
- They know he had been cited several times before for driving under the influence.
- They know that it was a hit and run accident. This driver fled the scene of the accident.
- They know that one person that the driver hit almost lost her life.
- They know that others were so injured they couldn’t work and lost significant income.
- They know that when he was caught he denied that he was drunk.
- They know he denied that he ever hit anybody.
- They know that he refused to take a sobriety test.
- They know that when the police called him in to be questioned, he refused to come in and answer any questions.
- In fact, they know he fled the state, and no one can find him.
There was NOTHING that was technically inaccurate in the newspaper article. The offender was guilty of speeding excessively and some people were injured. The man was fined and lost his license. That is all true!
Returning to the Willow Creek tragedy, the impacted women are not “disgruntled and they will never be satisfied,” as some low-information folks conclude. No! 100x NO! They are upset and disappointed with what was neglected to be reported because the omitted details whitewash the story!
- They know that Bill Hybels had a history of grooming and preying upon women.
- They know that he continued his predatory practices as late as 2017.
- They know that it was so serious he was most recently grooming a woman many years younger than his own daughter.
- They know that in the case of one of Bill Hybels’ victims, her life was virtually ruined because of Bill’s treatment of her.
- They know that another of Bill’s victims lost significant income because churches believed the initial lies publicly told about her and wouldn’t hire her.
- They know that their reputations were falsely trashed at the Family Meetings in March 2018.
- They know that Bill destroyed evidence in order to cover his tracks.
- They know that he had his “lieutenants” at Willow Creek carry out his abusive leadership bidding.
- They know that non-disclosure agreements (NDA’s) and banishment letters were issued for image management purposes.
- etc. etc. etc.
IMAGE MANAGEMENT BY SANITIZED REPORTING
The women whistle blowers and their advocates are upset, disappointed and unsatisfied because they see that the pursuit of image management by the leadership of Willow appears to be more important than accurately reporting what has transpired over these past several years with regards to the investigation of Bill Hybels. It is sanitized reporting. In the Elder Update — July 19, 2019, the elders refer to:
- “the events made public in March 2018” = the biggest scandal in the church’s history
- the new elders wanted to “listen, learn, and apologize” — Is that all that is involved in reconciliation? No. There is confession, repentance, restitution …
- “individuals who raised concerns regarding our senior pastor” = Bill Hybels’ victims and their advocates wanted the elders to investigate and address a pattern of grievous sin on the part of the senior pastor of WCCC who was also the founder of the WCA (now GLN).
- Regarding Bill Hybels, “he has chosen not to engage in dialogue at this time” = he has chosen to neither defend his actions nor to confess them to be sin and ask for forgiveness. Instead, he has gone dark.
- The elders called on Bill “to repent where necessary.” — That statement could be said about every human being alive! We don’t know where he needs to repent? He determines where he needs to repent?
I do want to give some credit to the new board of elders for their efforts to date. They have gone further than any of the previous investigations. Their apologies to Menlo Church and Compassion International were definitely steps in the right direction, but these are painful baby steps they are taking. By not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, this sordid affair in Willow Creek’s history goes on … and on … and on. To me, it feels like the IAG Report said that the women were right and we’re sorry. And it feels like this latest elder update concludes that the women were really right and we’re really sorry.
Willow Creek leadership has refused to engage a third party organization with expertise in clergy abuse to investigate this scandal at every turn. This request has been repeatedly posed by Bill Hybels’ accusers, their advocates, and many bloggers. The answer has always come back: No. No. No. Why not?! I am not aware of any good reason given by Willow Creek leadership for refusing this request. Could it be that their refusal is by design? If a truly independent third party clergy abuse expert is omitted from the process of discovering and reporting the truth, it would be much easier for WC and the GLS to control the narrative portrayed to the church and to the world. Willow Creek is reaping the fruit of this misguided decision.
WHEN SORRY IS NOT ENOUGH
Are there NO ACTIONS that the elders can and should take against Bill Hybels? Of course there are. The elders should publicly:
- Remove him from membership at WCCC due to his unwillingness to engage with the leadership of the church regarding his sinful conduct.
- Take away his ordination as a minister of the gospel because of his unrepentant pattern of sinful conduct.
- The elders should have gained the approval of their written update and the content of the Reconciliation service from the women victims of Bill Hybels before proceeding. That would have shown genuine care for their well-being. All future public communications should have their approval. (FYI, I have received the approval of Vonda Dyer and Betty Schmidt to publish this piece.)
- The elders should publicly thank the women victims and their advocates for coming forward! And the elders should publicly state and make perfectly clear that the main reason the women victims and advocates came forward in the first place was to protect potential future victims from Bill Hybels. They recognized that Bill’s grooming and preying upon women was a pattern of sin that continued over decades. In fact, the latest incident that came to light occurred AFTER the initial investigation back in 2015-2016 that found him innocent of all charges.
- Willow Creek Community Church should support Pat Baranowski financially for the rest of her life. Bill Hybels’ treatment of her in the late 80’s has negatively impacted her ability to support herself adequately since then. The elders know all of the horrific details from their 2 1/2 hours with Pat.
- Willow Creek Community Church should make appropriate financial restitution to Vonda Dyer for wages lost due to the spreading of lies about her and injuring her reputation by both the church and the WCA (GLN). The elders know about all of the slander and the lengths that the WCA went to to discredit Vonda.
WHY WILLOW CREEK LEADERSHIP REFUSES TO TELL THE WHOLE STORY
There are three probable reasons for the elders’ lack of transparency regarding Bill Hybels.
First, they have decided / concluded that they can’t tell the congregation the true details of the women’s experiences with Bill because his offenses are so bad that if the congregation (and the world) knew those details, there would be even more ministry fall out from those revelations. Their reluctance to report fully is an effort to perform damage control.
Second, it is thought by many that attorneys are behind the scenes determining what can and cannot be put in writing as well as what is said from the main stage. There is a fear that if certain magic words are spoken or written by the leadership, it will open up the church to all kinds of lawsuits.
Third, there is the distinct impression that image management and protecting the Willow Creek brand is more important than telling the truth and making things right with the women victims.
WHERE IS BILL HYBELS?
The truth is: nowhere near Willow Creek. Instagram informs us that he is living the good life, enjoying sailing, fishing and sunsets on the water with family and friends. Bill told the congregation at Willow Creek over and over how much he loved them and that Willow would always be his church home. But he can’t be found.
Is this what a great leader does?
- A great leader refuses to admit his own wrongdoing?
- A great leader lies and blames whistle-blowers?
- A great leader grooms and seduces women who are not his wife?
- A great leader refuses to engage in conversation over a scandal of which he is the central figure?
- A great leader slinks into luxurious obscurity while the organizations he claimed to love continue to suffer from the effects of his longstanding egregious conduct?
- A great leader lets the organizations he founded suffer unnecessarily because he refuses to come forward and set the record straight?
WHAT YOU WILL NOT HEAR UTTERED AT THE GLS 2019 AND WHY
You will not hear the name of Bill Hybels — The Global Leadership Network wants to distance itself from its founder, creator, and its #1 driver. Why? Because they know how toxic that name is, and the hope is attenders and speakers will begin to disassociate the GLS from Mr. Hybels.
You will probably not hear the words:
- (NPD) Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Sexual abuse
- Abuse of power
There’s a good chance people would associate these words with Bill Hybels and ask themselves, “How does Willow Creek and the GLN think it is qualified to teach the world how to lead?!” Now THAT is a very good question.
You will not hear plenary sessions or workshops on:
- “How A Church Board Can Hold An Abusive Narcissistic Leader Accountable,”
- “How to Identify A Narcissistic Leader,”
- “Mistakes We Made In the Bill Hybels Scandal and How You Can Avoid Them”
- “How To Lead Your Church Through a Leadership Scandal”
- A panel discussion by whistle blowers: “What We Can Learn From Church Leaders that Uncover Hidden and Destructive Sin In The Church”
If the Global Leadership Network really wanted to help churches and organizations, these sessions would be high on their agenda. But no such talks will be heard because again, GLN leadership can’t take the chance that people might associate those talks with the founder of the GLS.
Willow Creek and the GLN appear to have their top priority to keep up the image that they are a paragon of care and virtue and supporters of women and the premier experts on leadership. Any mention of character, humility or integrity will never be illustrated with the person of Bill Hybels. Way too toxic. Nothing to see here. Let’s move on.
WHAT YOU WILL HEAR AT THE GLS 2019
- self-congratulatory remarks about how many people are attending
- how many host sites that are broadcasting
- how many countries they are in
- how great an impact the GLS is having all around the world.
The unspoken message is that the GLN and GLS are too big to fail. It is huge and beautiful and strong. They will never ever again admit publicly that it has been built on the clay feet of Bill Hybels.
WHAT IF THE GLS 2019 FACULTY KNEW THE FULL TRUTH ABOUT THE BILL HYBELS SCANDAL?
Do you think that in this day and age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo that they would be so quick to lend their names to GLS 2019? I’m not so sure. And there lies the dilemma: Do we continue to protect the brand or do we come fully clean with regards to our founder? I think we have been given our answer.
BRIDGING THE DIVIDE
The great majority of people who attend Willow Creek Community Church as regular attenders only know what the elders and other senior leaders have told them. That is a problem.
In the end, this undercurrent of unaddressed and under-reported issues is the single biggest cause of the leadership’s failure to achieve their cherished goals of reconciliation, relationship healing and the regeneration of the Willow Creek ministry. It is not the fault of the women accusers. It is not the fault of their advocates. It is not the fault of bloggers. It is not the fault of any of the peripheral participants, past or present. It is the fault of the Willow Creek leadership which continues to fail to be transparent with the congregation. Claiming to be transparent in emails or from the stage doesn’t make it so. Their lack of transparency is the source of the deep divide that still exists at Willow Creek. Hopefully the elders will realize this and rethink their proclamation that their most recent update was their last on the subject of the Bill Hybels scandal.
I end this piece with a quote from Julie Roys and an experience she had with an attender at the Reconciliation Service.
As I was leaving Willow last night, a kind woman approached me and asked what I thought of the meeting. I returned the question, and she said she thought it was wonderful and gave closure to the painful events of last year.
Then I took off my reporter hat and expressed that I was disappointed that the elders didn’t tell the women’s stories in detail. And as Beach suggested in a post in March, I told her I believed that the church should consider giving two alleged victims—Pat Baranowski (Hybels’ former assistant) and Vonda Dyer—some sort of financial compensation for the lost income they suffered as a result of Hybels’ alleged actions.
The woman expressed surprise. She said she didn’t realize the women had suffered financial loss. I encouraged her to read more blogs.
It would be wonderful … for everyone … if the leadership of Willow Creek reported thoroughly on the Bill Hybels scandal. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
SOME HELPFUL BLOGS
Scroll through their blogs for the posts regarding Willow Creek
- Nancy Beach — nancylbeach.com/blog
- Dr. Jim Bedell — drj1952.com
- Vonda Dyer — vondadyer.weebly.com/blog
- Dr. Scott McKnight — http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/
- Julie Roys — julieroys.com
- Betty Schmidt — veritasbetold.wixsite.com/website
- Rob Speight — robsp82.com —
This list is not exhaustive. And some of these leaders can be found on twitter.
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16 thoughts on “A Deep Divide Remains At Willow Creek. How Come?”
This is an excellent post!
Change requires evidence. That’s what’s missing. Nothing is different without it.
For those of a network of #Predators & #Enablers, is the forgiveness about themselves, or the harm they did to others? Evidence.
Matt & Luke 3.8: “Produce fruit of repentance.”
Zacchaeus donated 1/2 his wealth, & repaid x4 those abused
Acts 26.20 “Perform deeds of repentance.”
In Titus 1, Paul mentions to Titus: Chicken Words. Words that are not backed up by deeds.
I noticed all the updates sent out by the elders really did not say anything. Empty words polished by a spin doctor to look good. A total PR job. Their meaningless meeting doesn’t surprise me. Very, very sad. I think they still like predator Hybels and wish he were back, honestly.
Great summary and analysis Rob. The greatest difference between Saul and David is that David was a man after God’s own heart. They both did terrible things and in fact, David in some ways did worse things than Saul. But he was truly repentant when confronted and Saul was not. I told Vonda in a FB post response that the elders would have been better served to study John Owen’s Mortification of Sin rather than Desmond Tutu’s book on reconciliation. Just saying…
Thank you for the common sense and wise advice. For those that have ears!
Thank you! So well said! We need everyone in the front lines like this to overcome the inertia and unwillingness of senior leadership to be fully transparent! God bless and protect the victims.
The issue you are driving at is one of repentance. Repentance is simple by never easy. As a matter of fact, repentance is always costly, because it costs me my pride. There is no face-saving in true repentance. True repentance always seeks for outside help: God first and other believers second. True repentance will always cost the church, and it will always point to Jesus Christ. Thank you Rob!
You deserve the standing ovation for this incredible post! Truly amazing!!
Excellent analysis. Biblical wisdom. Thanks Rob! Always said the best thing about having a lawyer in church leadership is you get free legal advice..and the worst think about having a lawyer in church leadership is you get free legal advice. Good leaders listen to good legal counsel…and then courageously do the right thing, even in the face of it. Still waiting on WCCC, WCA, (sorry, GLS), Hybels etc. to do the right thing. Praying for all.
Good article. I do however respect and agree with the board not to discuss specific allegations. It’s not their place. I also do not believe they should receive compensation. Pat was an active participant in her relationship with Mr Hybels thus some of the accountability falls on her. Bill is now gone, let the church rebuild and move on. They have apologized for the church and Bill what else can they do? When does it end. Hopefully soon.
interesting .. I wonder if you read the article? You’e asking what else they can do when he tells us what they can do? If you ever did research on Narcissistic abuse you would find many of the answers. You are never a willing participant to abuse. It is all on them but unless you have experienced this or learned about it, you will always blame the victim. Our society falls down on victims, especially the church. We are not taught how to recognize abusers, we are taught to trust
“They know that it was so serious he was most recently grooming a woman many years younger than his own daughter.” – you make an accusation so who is this individual? Or is it just gossip? Hybel’s was accused of kissing Vonda Dyer, and have oral sex with Pat Baranowski. Nancy Beach claimed Hybels commented on her nice looking arms. Hybels resigned from WC. He has nothing to do with the GLN. All Elders resigned. Steve Carter and Heather Larson resigned. Another independent investigation was performed. Hybels did not participate. The Elder statement July 19, 2019 acknowledges the sin & mistakes. What do you want them to say, “oh were a sorry that Bill Hybels performed oral sex on Pat Baranowski”? Is that how you want them to name the sin? The victims are angry but their real quarrel is with Hybels – so I suggest going after him. I guess Mr. Speight & others will never be satisfied with WC but that is OK.
David, thank you for your comment. It is not my place to name the person if she doesn’t want to be named. It is not gossip. The reason blogs like mine exist is because there is much more to the story than what is being reported from email updates and main stage announcements. Your desire to put this sordid affair in the rear view mirror is the goal. The women victims want what happened to them to never be the experience of another woman. Their names and reputations were maligned in both the written and spoken word. I could go on, but I would be repeating what I have written in my previous post. Let him who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Just goes to show not following Jesus’ advice in Matt. 18 makes things worse. Perhaps things were said at the time, but we don’t know what, and both sides have not gone before the church (I don’t think Jesus meant eternally leaking blog posts) so this just lingers. Oh well, maybe it will get handled in court as the world would have it.
Probably they are trying to save the church from being destroyed. So much of this horrible hurt has been exposed to the entire world without any sense of self control and ending the mess on the part of the offended. Seems to me also that the accusations are totally out of control and leaning more on vengeance and not like the church ought to demonstrate. Not justifying anything Mr. Hybels May have done, but to litigate it before the unredeemed and the enemies of God can never turn out well.
William Legge, thank you for your comments. Please specify what “accusations are totally out of control …” And please specify what accusations lean more on “vengeance.” It also appears that you’re still not sure of Mr. Hybels has abused the dozen women who have come forward when you refer to what Hybels “may have done.” The only reason to (using your word) litigate this scandal for the world to see is because the elders and senior leaders have failed to do their job. It is only because the women victims came forward publicly that they are receiving a modicum of justice.