The Leadership Dilemma at Willow Creek

 

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I truly believe that the leaders of Willow Creek are good people.  When the elders met with Bill Hybels’ women victims over the last several months to hear their stories, I believe they were sincerely interested in supporting them.  These women and their advocates sincerely believed that the elders were at last going to tell their stories to the congregation and make things right.  After all, some of the elders wept when they heard their stories, their heads held in their hands.  But something seems to have happened to change the elders’ resolve as they wrote their last update and planned the Reconciliation Service.  

How could they give so much hope to the women victims of Bill Hybels and their advocates that they were going to set the record straight — and then fail to follow through?  What in the world happened during the time between meeting with the women and the elders’ “final public statement” and the Reconciliation Service that wasn’t?

THE NEW BOARD OF ELDERS

There is no group of people more aware of the details of Bill Hybels’ violations of the women than the new elders of Willow Creek Community Church.  If you have followed the Bill Hybels scandal and its aftermath, you know that the previous board of elders sought repeatedly to meet with the women victims.  They made many overtures to the women, and the women refused to meet with them upon every request.  Why?  Because the women and their advocates didn’t trust them.  The previous group of elders had proven themselves untrustworthy.  Some members of the previous board maligned the women and called them liars.  Some agreed with Bill Hybels, who accused their advocates of colluding against him and wanting to ruin his legacy.  Some defended the work of the first investigation into Mr. Hybels that concluded there was nothing to the allegations.  It’s easy to see why, disillusioned and disheartened, the women at the center of these character attacks wanted nothing more to do with that previous group of elders.

However, those women thought they could trust this present group of elders.  They were led to believe that they would receive a fair hearing.  There was absolutely no … good … reason for Bill Hybels’ victims to tell their stories to the new elders if they thought the elders would present their final conclusions to the congregation in the weak and tepid way that they did.  (Basically, the messaging in that meeting went like this, and I paraphrase:  Done!  Finis! We are finally moving on!  Willow can finally look to the future!)  Nor did those women victims expect the Reconciliation Service to turn into a mere “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” Service.  Their voices were ultimately stifled; the root causes of their torment were left buried under feel-good rhetoric.  No one mentioned sorrow, regret, shame, accountability, or even forgiveness, except in the most general terms.

WHO CONDUCTS THE FINAL FILTERING OF ORAL AND WRITTEN COMMUNICATION AT WILLOW CREEK?

Let me repeat the sentence with which I began this post.  “I truly believe that the leaders of Willow Creek are good people.”

So the question needs to be asked, “Why is there such a disconnect between who we know the leadership to be and what they said publicly and wrote in their updates?  We have sincere confidence in their characters and their desire to support the women We have been told that every one of them had to possess the character trait of courage to be considered to be chosen as elder in the first place.  Yet we are witnesses to a very awkward, un-courageous, and in the end an unsupportive approach on their part, as evidenced by their bland reporting and final “make nice”overture.

It takes neither a brain surgeon nor a rocket scientist to conclude that there is something else going on behind the scenes.  It has become increasingly obvious that attorneys are ultimately controlling how the Bill Hybels scandal is handled.

Who are these attorneys?  That is the million dollar question.  Up until now, I must confess that I have always thought they were just WC attorneys.  There is no doubt that those folks are engaged in providing guidance.  But I believe that the evidence alluded to above, suggests the involvement of other attorneys as well.

In addition to WC attorneys, it appears to me there are Willow Creek’s insurance company attorneys.  If that assumption is correct, it would explain a lot:

  • Both WCCC and the WCA (GLN) are insured in order to protect their assets.
  • The insurance companies’ attorneys also want to protect their own assets.  
  • The insurance companies’ attorneys do not want to pay out claims unnecessarily.  They only want to pay out claims that fall within their contractual obligations.
  • The insurance companies’ attorneys fiduciary responsibilities are to WCCC and the GLN, not the injured women, nor any other injured parties due to institutional abuse.
  • The insurance companies’ attorneys have not been tasked with “doing the right thing,” or “being transparent.”  They want this whole ugly affair to go away.
  • The insurance companies’ attorneys permit the church and GLN to communicate minimal morsels of transparency (see elders’ “last public statement” update and Reconciliation Service) with the hope that those tidbits will satisfy the women and that the Willow Creek debacle will be over and done with.
  • These insurance companies have no responsibility to protect Bill Hybels personally regarding any of his misconduct.
  • Bill Hybels has his own personal attorneys that are telling him to admit to nothing and to keep his mouth shut.

If I am wrong, I am more than willing to admit my error and apologize.  I welcome WC leaders to confirm or deny the conjecture that I am about to posit — because that would at least contribute to additional transparency on their part.

THE RE-VICTIMIZATION OF THE WOMEN

I believe the leadership of Willow Creek is feeling exceedingly conflicted.  That Reconciliation Service was intended to put the capstone on the Bill Hybels scandal.  The GLS 2019 could then carry on without the cloud of the Bill Hybels scandal over its head.  They were hoping against hope that maybe now the various injured parties would be satisfied.  Oh God, may they be satisfied with our efforts!  But it was not meant to be, and for good reason.

The women and their advocates know how forthcoming they were in telling their stories to the elders.  It was devastating for them to read the final elder update that obfuscated, sanitized, and minimized Bill Hybels’ sin.  And then to hear that the WC leaders unilaterally decided that they are done publicly addressing the scandal?!  How gut-wrenching!  In effect, the women have been re-victimized.  Here is how:

Some folks who only know what they have been told by Willow Creek and the GLN conclude:

  • What is wrong with these women?!
  • What more do they want?!
  • The elders said they were sorry … AGAIN!
  • We even had a Reconciliation Service.
  • They’re just disgruntled women!
  • Dissatisfied jerks!
  • They just want to disrupt the GLS.

I can’t make up these epithets.  They are actual quotes.  The women were victims of Bill Hybels and the Willow machine.  Now they have been labeled as ungrateful complainers that don’t appreciate what the leadership of Willow Creek has done for them.

As a result, all of the original pain felt by these women is now magnified.  

Imagine if you waited for years to speak up about a shocking and shameful injury, because you feared — maybe were even verbally threatened — that public embarrassment and/or financial retribution would be swift and sure.  Imagine that in those years, your peace of mind, your emotional balance, and your career opportunities were badly impacted by your silence. Then you finally confided in someone, who urged you to speak out for the good of others, so that the guilty could be stopped, and others would not be victimized as well.  Imagine the courage it would take for you to speak out — only to be disbelieved, scoffed at and vilified!  How you would retreat in horror as your worst fears came true!  Imagine, then, being given another chance to make your case, this time before a much more receptive power group.  You would certainly hesitate to revisit that awful chapter of your life, to open up old wounds.  Where would you ever find the courage?  But imagine that you finally, recklessly gave in to the urgings of well-meaning supporters who told you “this time it will be different.”  Imagine dredging up the degrading details once more, stating your humiliating story in a way that left you feeling spent and vulnerable all over again.  And all for… what?  For a quick, whitewashed dismissal of your pain?  A final statement that scarcely resembled any true admission of any real wrong-doing, or any acknowledgement of the depths of your personal suffering?  

This was absolutely not the desired outcome by the WC and GLN leadership, nor the insurance attorneys.  But this is what happens when the truth is not told — and the responses are dictated by attorneys in charge of protecting the organization, and not the victims.

This sad scenario appears to describe the behind-the-scenes machinations of a Willow Creek Corporation much more than the steadfast, sacrificial shepherding of the Willow Creek Church.

WILLOW’S LEADERSHIP CONUNDRUM

So what are the executive leaders of WC and the GLN to do?  What are the elders of WC to do?  What are the legal and insurance implications if the aforementioned leadership were to come clean, admit the wrongs, and communicate publicly what many of them know to be true?

The optics of what is happening now at WC are worse than a year ago.  Say what you will about the previous leadership regime and their myriad of mistakes.  At least they were early in the unveiling of this tragedy.  The current leadership of Willow Creek now seems stuck.  It knows even more details regarding this scandal than it ever imagined possible.  Those present in leadership are trying to move their organizations forward, but at the same time they are limited legally as to what they can say in order to bring authentic reconciliation (healing!) to the hurt women, the whole congregation, and the worldwide church of Jesus Christ.

I don’t doubt for a moment that this current group of leaders feel horrible, — that they are conflicted, and that they wish they could do more as the duly chosen elders of WCCC.  But what can they do as long as they feel bound to walk a legal tightrope and constrained to speak with one insipid voice?

WILLOW’S NEED OF THE HOUR:  COURAGEOUS MEN AND WOMEN

Who does each of us ultimately answer to?  There are numerous examples of courageous men and women in Scripture that risked their lives to do the right thing.  Here are a few:

  • Peter and John were brought before the religious leaders of the day and told to keep their mouths shut.  The Sanhedrin “… commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.  But Peter and John replied,  ” Acts 4:18-20
  • There were three young men who refused to obey a king in favor of their God,  “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if He does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18
  • In order to stave off the evil plot of Haman to destroy the Jews, Mordecai conferred with Queen Esther, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.” Esther 4:14.  Queen Esther knew the law.  She could be executed if she went before the king apart from an invitation to do so.  She made her decision, “… I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” Esther 4:16.  Queen Esther risked her life to tell the truth of the underhanded plot to exterminate the Jews.  She did the right thing and trusted God with the consequences of her actions.
  • Nathan the prophet did not shrink back to declare to King David, “You are the man,” II Samuel 12:7. And then Nathan proceeded to recount David’s sins … one after another after another.  Thankfully, David was humble enough to admit that he sinned against the Lord.

These scriptural examples of uncompromising truth-tellers should make each of us wonder:  what is my role when sin has gone undiagnosed and unchallenged in my local body of believers?  To what lengths should I be willing to stand up for victims, and help them gain restitution, while holding the powerful accountable?  How will my condoning silence ever serve to bless this ministry and help it to grow in the way that God intends?

Make no mistake.  There is a price to pay when you do the right thing in the face of intimidation.  Yes, you could lose your job.  Yes, you could lose a ministry.  There could be people that would be really mad at you.  You will be misunderstood by some people, no matter what.  But you will have the peace of knowing that you did the right thing.  Paul said it clearly, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Galatians 1:10

Every one of us struggles with fear.  What if … ?  We fill in the blank with all sorts of scenarios.  God’s words to Joshua when he was faced with the monumental task of leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land are true and reassuring for each of us as well,

 

17 thoughts on “The Leadership Dilemma at Willow Creek

  1. Your write up is very interesting but as a Willow creek attendee for many years I disagree with you. I don’t feel that the new board of elders has to present the women’s stories to the congregation unless all parties involved are present. This is a very sensitive and painful matter that should be held in private before christian counselors and/or pastor(s) of choice, where Bill Hybels, the previous elders, the women that have been victims and other men and women involved come to a room in prayer before God with humble and open hearts to discuss what happened, repent, forgive and hopefully reconciliation can occur. Then all involved themselves can come talk to the church and the sin(s) can be named with repentence. For me I don’t like gossip or second hand information where the accussed individuals can’t defend themselves. Secondly, this would allow for more gossip and information to be misconstrued. It seems that inquiring minds want to know all the juicy gossip. I really don’t want to know any further details. Wrong was made, only God knows the real truth and it is for us all to pray that God brings healing, forgiveness and reconciliation to everyone including the church. Pray and let God work and may his will be done. The church needs to be receptive to what happened and make sure this never happens again.

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    1. Isabel, thank you for your comments. There was absolutely no reason for the women victims of Bill Hybels to meet with the new elders if their only response was going to be a perfunctory “we’re sorry,” again. They had already said that. The elders knew that the women wanted the truth to be told. Truth is not gossip.

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      1. Joyfulenergy, I’d say you have no understanding of abuse victims. It’s not attractive to defend abusers of women. It’s unbecoming of another woman or any other human to do so.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. These women and their advocates were publicly shamed by Willow. They should have been allowed to publicly speak.

      Willow supposedly brought in Tutu’s Truth & Reconciliation process in order to repent in this situation. The truth comes first; you cannot reconcile if you bypass the truth.

      How tragic that lawyers & insurance companies are deciding how churches should behave in these situations, instead of simply doing what is right. All the while, the victims are told that they’re damaging the good work of the gospel.

      Church leaders like these might be the nicest people in the world, but they are ultimately walking by the flesh, not by the Spirit.

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  2. I like your article except I do not believe that the stories should be shared until a full investigation has been done and everyone is subpoena including bill hybels. The stories were called credible but credible does not mean true. Each side should have the opportunity to define and define the stories. Once that is concluded yes share away…..the full results. I believe we are still at he said she said and the church is stuck. As a attendee of WC yes we want it to go away and get back to worship.

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    1. Jojo, I appreciate your comment. The women victims would love for Bill Hybels to tell his story. That is not going to happen. The women victims and their advocates have requested for the past 4+years for a thoroughly independent investigation to be performed by a clergy abuse expert. That request has been turned down repeatedly. Only truth will set WCCC free to worship. God wants worshipers who come to him in Spirit and in Truth. You can’t have one without the other.

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    2. Sin has consequences- messy lives. The church is full of sinners. So how do we deal with the mess? Let it continue for years because “we’re afraid”? Speak out and move on?

      Also, were you in any of the rooms? Any truth to share… or just conjecture and complaining? What verse inspires that?

      Matt. 18 says to go to the church with the truth if you’re not happy with leadership. Then we vote with our feet.

      Someone emailed me a link to this. Take me off any mailing list.

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      1. Thank you for your comment yeahitspolitical. The women victims and their advocates sought to apply Matthew 18. Remember, the public airing of this scandal began in March of 2018. Attempts to resolve accusations against Bill Hybels had been going on for the three previous years behind the scenes. When leadership desires to sweep leadership sin under the rug you don’t automatically cut and run.

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    3. Jojo, a full investigation has been requested numerous times. WC leadership has declined that request at every turn. Subpoenas are issued when crimes have been committed. Mr. Hybels is not currently being accused of any crimes. The word credible has been used by both the IAG and the current elders because Mr. Hybels has admitted to nothing. For the word “true” to be used, he would have to admit to the accusations against him. In the absence of what you desire to happen towards full discovery, your desire for this scandal to go away and you to get back to worship is what current WC leadership want you to want.

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  3. Finally got to read your latest posts. Your thinking and mine are almost exactly aligned. I personally don’t think Bill will say anything more until he is deposed for a civil suit, should someone have the courage and stamina to stomach such a proceeding at this point. It would be sad for that to be necessary among Christians, but your points about the various insurance companies’ interests makes it almost as much about the companies facing off against each other as the individuals.

    To those who don’t know Rob and question the voracity of his information, I can attest that Rob definitely has the types of relationships where he knows and can corroborate details he wishes he didn’t know. Also, his heart has always been FOR Christ and FOR Willow Creek, not against it. It is in that spirit that he attempts to bring prophetic light into these dark days.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rob, I agree with much of your accounting and my heart goes out for victims of abuse. Some whom I knew, perhaps in a somewhat cursory fashion. I like the spirt in which you placed your conjecture, you are seeking to believe the best, still and looking for the options that make sense in that light. However if true it means that in the end, it is the secular financial institution that rules the roost and not the duly chosen elders.

    What has not been addressed is so many others were most likely affect albeit indirectly. If there was anything of this sort as part of the culture then it also had a very negative impact not only the female staffers but also many males, because a toxic environment is toxic (in different ways) for both genders. And I wonder if that helps explain some of the revolving door of folks on staff. Just a thought.

    And although I support your overall nature to want to believe the best of folks, I would describe it differently, perhaps use th word trustworthy. I would not say a person is basicially good because that is not what the bible teaches. We are all sinners and fallen creatures. Romans tells us that which is exactly why we need systems of accountability and limited power to individuals. The ability to not humble oneself when confronted with one’s sin is a sin of a reprobate heart. It is the difference between Saul and David.

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  5. Wow, what a mess. Ultimately, the church normally begins losing attendance and offerings drop off. Buildings and land are sold to pay down debt. People drift out to other churches or stop going to church altogether. It’s going to be a tough slog the next few years as what was once Willow begins to dwindle. So sad…
    And yet, Jesus proclaimed, “I will build my church…” So, we trust Jesus Christ and are now wary around charismatic leaders with too much unsupervised authority. Keep your eyes on Jesus and your nose in His word. Sin has serious consequences.

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