The leadership at Willow Creek conducted a reconciliation service earlier this year in an effort to move on from the tumult of its recent past. Leadership insists that they will no longer speak publicly about the Bill Hybels scandal. So, what has been the result of this approach? Has the church overcome? Is the situation at Willow Creek getting better?
The answer to that question is a resounding … No!
Willow Creek’s problems continue to persist and even get worse. Here are the facts:
- Weekend attendance in the main auditorium continues to go down. There are three weekend services. The auditorium seats 7,200. Total weekend attendance for all three services COMBINED is in the low 6,000’s. That is less than an average 30% “fill rate,” as Bill Hybels used to call it. If a church holds three weekend services and averages less than a third full at each service, does it make sense to rethink holding three services?
- Giving continues to go down. Despite South Barrington’s drastically reduced 2019 budget, receipts are now running consistently 20% below target. Does that portend even more staff reductions and budget cuts for 2020?
- The voluntary departure of long-term staff continues. The latest is Marcus Bieschke, beloved lead pastor at Willow Crystal Lake. His departure is not sitting well with the 1300+ regular adult attenders at WCL. Marcus’ departure is due to fundamental differences that he has with the eight elders that “lead” all of Willow Creek’s campuses. He especially disagrees with how the elders have dealt with the Bill Hybels scandal and their treatment of Hybels’ women victims.
- The Culture Building Team, a special task force for staff that was established at the South Barrington campus is getting an earful. This group’s primary purpose: to ask employees what it’s truly like to work at Willow Creek. During the Bill Hybels’ regime, it was widely reported that staff had better rate their employment experience really well if they wanted to keep their jobs. The good news: staff feels that they can be more honest rating their workplace satisfaction.
- Participation and enthusiasm for GLS activities continues to decrease. There was widespread disappointment in the lack of integration of Scripture and worship as well as Christ-followers speaking at GLS 2019. Some GLS host churches said that if the continued secularization of the event is the future direction for the GLS then they’re “out.”
- Most recently, there is the announcement that Seeds, Willow Creek’s on-campus Bible and Christian bookstore will be closing at the end of the year due to a lack of interest and sales. Sounds like a good business decision — but not a good decision if you are committed to making fully devoted followers of Christ.
Why isn’t Willow Creek healing?
John 8:32 gives us the answer. As Jesus declares in this verse it is truth that sets us free. Willow Creek has not been able to free itself from the continuing fallout of past sin because it has not heeded those words of Jesus. I have repeatedly encouraged the elders to traffic in truth. In my second email to them in April of 2018, I exhorted them to tell the truth, no matter how dark and difficult, and to do it sooner rather than later. The longer they wait to tell the truth, the worse it will be for the congregation when the truth finally comes out. In my blog immediately following the resignation of Heather Larson and the elders and the naming of Steve Gillen as Acting Senior Pastor, I encouraged Steve to make his top priority to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him God.
Unfortunately, 15 months into the tenure of Willow Creek’s new regime, obfuscation continues to be the order of the day. The elders’ communications continue to be comprised of spiritual platitudes that lack clarity, coherence and self-evident application. Instead, there are as many interpretations of the elders’ communications as there are readers.
The truth of Bill Hybels’ abuses of his women victims has never been told. Neither has the truth about his leadership abuses toward numerous staff; some of whom have yet to recover years after experiencing his bullying leadership style toward them. To this day, some still suffer both physically and psychologically from Bill Hybels’ demeaning leadership style.
Proverbs 28:13 makes it clear, “People who conceal their sins will not prosper,
but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy.”
Willow Creek could be well on the road to healing if leadership had only told the truth and not tried to cover for Hybels, themselves, and the image of Willow Creek Church.
The current elders have heard in painstaking detail from Hybels’ women victims of how they were groomed and were the victims of his inappropriate sexual advances. The elders were shocked and forlorn at hearing the real stories — yet they proceeded to communicate only very minimized, sanitized and vague versions of Hybels’ conduct in their last public address on the Hybels scandal. Most people in the congregation do not know the extent of Bill Hybels’ abuse because the leadership of Willow Creek has refused to tell them. That is why there are many within Willow that see the women victims and their advocates as complainers who will “never be satisfied.” In this way, the cover-up has led to the re-victimizing of Hybels’ women victims. They are now cast as ingrates for all of the elders’ supposed efforts on their behalf.
As long as their true stories remain untold, they seem to be isolated frowny-faces in Willow Creek’s otherwise beaming, camera-ready congregation — the only squeaky wheels in an otherwise well-oiled machine that banked on its reputation as the world’s most publicized well-led church to carry them into the future.
Up until now, the leadership of Willow Creek has in effect deceived the congregation … and the world … by not coming clean and confessing the sins of the founding senior pastor and the senior leaders who protected him. As a leadership strategy, this approach has clearly not brought healing, as indicated by the trends described above.
Willow Creek’s Unanswered Questions
$$$$$$$$ — Financial Accountability — $$$$$$$
- Bill Hybels “golden parachute”
- How much money in the form of tithes and offerings has WCCC committed to paying Bill Hybels after he resigned amid scandal in April of 2018?
- Who constructed his golden parachute retirement agreement, and when? Why was there no morality clause in it? Was it written before or after the elders were confronted with his alleged sexual abuse? If before, why was it not amended accordingly when multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct? What is the execution date of that contract?
- Bill’s golden parachute document should be made public for the congregation to see. After all, it is their tithes and offerings that are paying him.
- Insurance, Settlements, and Attorneys
- How much were the church insurance liability premiums before the scandal broke? What are the insurance premiums now?
- How much money has been paid out in settlements because of the Hybels scandal? I know of one settlement that has occurred and the church has never disclosed it. Church members have a right to know.
- How much money has been paid to attorneys since early 2014, the time period when accusations against Bill Hybels were initially brought to the board of elders?
- How much money is required from weekly offerings to continue to pay Bill Hybels, insurance premiums, and attorneys?
- Church Debt
- Willow Creek South Barrington would consistently boast that it does not have any debt, but there is significant debt that has been incurred by the regional campuses. How much is that debt and how is it structured?
Why would any person in their right mind give another penny to the church without a transparent accounting of the above issues?
- Human Resources and Elder Response Team
- Over the years, these two departments generated a number of non-disclosure agreements (NDA’s) and “banishment letters” (warnings against coming on any Willow Creek campuses accompanied by the threat to involve police). Those individuals who were especially responsible for these actions are no longer employed at Willow Creek, but they were lauded for their good service as they were exiting their church employment (Huh?!?!). The extent of these abuses at the direction of Bill Hybels has never been revealed.
Others Are Leading. Willow Creek Is Not.
- The Billy Graham Center held a one day summit in November 2018 calling the church to address sexual violence, harassment, and abuse. Nancy Beach, a Hybels’ victim, was one of the speakers at this conference.
2. Dallas Theological Seminary held a one day conference in September 2019, entitled, “No More Silence, Hearing and Addressing Sexual Charges in the Church.” Vonda and Scott Dyer addressed the subject of working under the leadership of Bill Hybels, which included his purposeful seductive grooming of Vonda and the demeaning caricatures he made of Scott in an effort to turn Vonda away from her husband.
3. On November 2, 2019, Judson University in Chicagoland will be sponsoring “Restore Chicago, A One Day Conference Restoring Faith In God and the Church.” Nancy Beach will be speaking. So will Wade Mullen, an expert on church abuse and cover up. The third keynote speaker is Julie Roys. Julie is a Christian investigative reporter known for seeking and uncovering the truth. Julie is the most recent writer who is shedding necessary light on the Willow Creek scandal through her podcasts and articles. You can benefit from Julie’s insight at julieroys.com. By the way, how many Willow Creek elders and senior leaders will be attending this conference which is just minutes from the Willow Creek campus? Every one of them should be there to learn how to restore faith in God and in their church.
4. And then there is Willow Creek. What do we hear from Willow Creek leadership on the subject of their own clergy and church abuse? Crickets. Zip. Nada. That goes for the GLN and GLS too. No admission of sin. No confession. No repentance. Just marginalization, self-justification, and silence … except for the “can’t we all just get along and move on” pablum. It is a disgrace. They know they have blown it. Otherwise they would be telling the church around the world the “how to’s” of going through such a scandal. “How To Overcome Bad Leadership” might be the most crucial lesson that Willow, and the Global Leadership Summit, could ever deliver. But first they have to learn how to do it themselves.
Due Diligence Done BY the WCCC Senior Pastor Candidates?
Lastly, as the Willow community looks to move forward, there is much talk about the vetting of senior pastor candidates. I believe the two remaining candidates should vet Willow Creek as much or more than they themselves are being vetted. If the candidates ONLY know and believe what WC leadership tell them regarding the Bill Hybels scandal, then they only know a very sanitized and incomplete version.
The women victims and their advocates are not “going away.” If the two candidates do not speak with the victims and their advocates (including the bloggers who have written on the subject), they will be making career decisions based on thoroughly incomplete information. That would be utter foolishness on their part. Will they listen to the siren of Willow Creek to “come hither” while disregarding any other input other than that of Willow Creek leadership? If so, they risk being dashed upon the rocks as many who have answered the Willow Creek call before them.
Telling the truth would be so much more productive for everyone concerned. Then healing can begin.