Willow Creek’s Leadership Strategy — Is It Working?

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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?

Governance Abuses

  • 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.

  1. 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.

Lemmings

9 thoughts on “Willow Creek’s Leadership Strategy — Is It Working?

  1. Well done. Very thoughtfully written and your questions for leadership are accurate. This has implications for so many other churches that have driven away thousands of people with the lack of transparency and disclosure.

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  2. So, what are you specifically proposing? Help readers like me understand what you think God is asking us (who are still at Willow and love it as home) to do to bring healing for everyone ( the women, congregation, staff, Elders, and perhaps Bill and family). How can we be a better church to the people involved for the sake of One Body, Mind, Spirit, & Christ? Thank you for your help.

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    1. Rosemary thank you for your question. Nancy Beach, Vonda Dyer, Jim Bedell, Scot McKnight, Julie Roys, myself et al have written extensively since March of 2018 on the Willow Creek scandal. Contained in our blogs are many suggestions for the leadership of Willow Creek to act upon in order for WC to heal. My first recommendation: acquaint yourself with this material in addition to what has been communicated by WC leadership. 2) Ask your church’s leadership how they respond to the requests especially from Nancy Beach and Vonda Dyer. That would be a great start for you.

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  3. Thank you, Rob, for your commentary since this broke 18+ months ago. Together with the work of the others you cite in the comment above, there is a lot of thought-provoking and insightful material.

    One small issue I have is that a number who write on this will say that Bill Hybels resigned. I just watched the relevant section of the family meeting to validate my contention that he did not resign. Instead, he “accelerated the date of my retirement.”

    It’s easy to use those words interchangeably, but I believe that it is important to the history of this sad situation that we make it clear that he did not resign (unless there is some other documentation that I am unaware of).

    I am convinced that Bill used those words intentionally. His ego required him, in his eyes, to be the hero in the situation by “taking one for the team,” preventing the distraction from interfering with the “important ministry work to be done.” But that’s not all. I’m also convinced that, even then, he was indicating that he’ll never admit to any wrongdoing. Resigning would have connoted that he bore some responsibility in the matter, sufficient culpability that he needed to withdraw.

    I’m also curious what impact a resignation would have had on his golden parachute.

    I hope that one day Bill will listen to the whisper of the Holy Spirit and come forward to genuinely repent and apologize for what he’s done, for the good of his own soul, the healing of his victims and the Church at large.

    But until that day comes, let’s not extend to him any credit for having had the decency to resign.

    Thanks again. Keep up the great work!

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    1. Thomas055, a GREAT catch and an essential distinction. You are 100% correct. Thank you! Bill Hybels did not resign. He “accelerated his retirement.” I will not consciously ever use the word resignation again referring to BH. In my conversations with other advocates, I will be sure to remind them of this important distinction. Regarding how that distinction would have changed the church’s follow through on his golden parachute payouts we will not know until the church releases the details of that agreement. Personally, since there was no morality clause in the separation agreement, I don’t think the distinction between “early retirement” or “resignation” would have mattered. Thanks again for your insight, Thomas.

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