A Must For Willow Creek: To Regain Trust

How important is trust in a relationship? It is ALL important. Are you drawn to people you don’t trust? Silly question. I want to run away from people I don’t trust. It’s for my own safety. Whom are you drawn to, and whom do you respect? I’m attracted to people who are appropriately transparent, who don’t put a spin on their speech to save face. I am drawn to people who tell the truth, even if (especially if) the truth is something that I don’t want to hear, but need to. In fact, I’m more than just attracted to such people — I seek them out and respect them.

In August of 2018, why did Heather Larson and the entire Willow Creek elder board resign?  Simply stated: they failed to be transparent, and they failed to tell the truth. As a result, they lost the trust of the congregation they were leading.  

Are we approaching such a moment in time … again?

Willow Creek Is In A World Of Hurt

As painful as it is to recall, consider Willow Creek’s most recent 22 month history:

THE SCANDAL GOES PUBLIC

  • Allegations of  sexual misconduct against Bill Hybels
  • Hybels’ “early retirement”
  • Hybels’ disappearance
  • Hybels’ refusal to be accountable to ANYONE
  • The resignation by Steve Carter that forced Heather Larson and the then elders to resign

WILLOW GETS A DO OVER

  • The appointment of Steve Gillen as the interim lead pastor
  • The choosing of an entirely new elder board
  • The IAG report stating that the women’s claims against Hybels were credible
  • The new elders’ invitation to Hybels’ women victims and advocates to share their stories of abuse with them.
  • The hope of the women victims and their advocates that the elders were finally going to be TRANSPARENT and TELL THE TRUTH of Hybels’ abuse

THE DISAPPOINTMENT CONTINUES

  • The elders’ “last public statement” and the “reconciliation service” that followed, both of which were met with utter disappointment and a thorough lack of affirmation by Hybels’ victims and their advocates for their lack of transparency and truth
  • The majority of the remaining Willow congregation being so glad that the church was “moving on.”
  • The bewilderment of many in the congregation exclaiming that “these women will never be satisfied.”
  • ZERO teaching by Willow Creek’s leadership on the topic of clergy sexual abuse, clergy power abuse, and zero admission  that Bill Hybels is guilty of both.
  • ZERO correction by the leaders of Willow Creek of wrong-headed congregational thinking about the women victims.

THE FALLOUT

  • Resignations of many staff, some who were lieutenants of Hybels’ inner circle of abuse of power.
  • Resignation by the one regional pastor that stood up to the current elders’ handling of the Bill Hybels’ scandal.
  • The continued erosion of attendance and giving.
  • The cancellation of 500+ host sites to the Global Leadership Summit since Hybels’ abuses were made public.

We must NOT FORGET what has brought Willow Creek to February 2020.  Winston Churchill said, ”Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”  

The Revelations At Willow Creek In the Past 10 Days

This brings us to the last 10 days and the recent revelations of abuse by Willow Creek’s co-founder, Dr. Gilbert Bilezekian (Dr. B).

DR. B. EXPOSED

  • Ann Lindberg posts her experiences of abuse at the hands of Dr. B.
  • Julie Roys, investigative reporter, writes several articles on her website, julieroys.com, regarding Ann Lindberg.  The latest offering is a 41 minute podcast of Ann telling her story.

WILLOW LEADERSHIP RESPONDS … AND SO DOES DR. B.

  • Steve Gillen writes an email to Willow Creek staff stating that he believes Ann’s story.
  • The elders write an email to the entire congregation affirming Ann’s story of abuse at the hands of Dr. B and that he was supposed to be no longer permitted to teach at Willow Creek … but … somehow … that discipline was not adequately communicated.
  • Dr. B. writes to the Willow Creek leadership denying the allegations of abuse and questioning Willow Creek leadership about why they have publicly condemned him without first approaching him as Matthew 18 instructs.

AN ALL STAFF MEETING IS CALLED

  • An ALL staff meeting is scheduled to discuss the Dr. B situation and the status of the senior pastor search.
  • At the staff meeting:
    • There is no discussion of the Dr. B situation.  Staff are bewildered at the lack of communication regarding Dr. B.
    • Steve Gillen shares that he is resigning as Interim Senior Pastor as of March 17.  
    • The elders are back to square one in their search for a senior pastor because they have “released” the two final candidates from consideration.
    • The elders admit they knew that they did not have any viable Senior Pastor candidates before Christmas 2019, but they neglected to say anything to the staff or congregation until the final days of January 2020..
  • Many on staff express their distrust of the elders and senior leaders.

FIRST PUBLIC ADDRESS OF THE WEEK’S VERY BAD NEWS

  • The weekend services of February 1 & 2, 2020 at Willow Creek are altered for prayer and reflection.
    • Jeff Mason, an elder, announces at the Saturday service, “This week the elders released two important updates which are at the website and the app.  And we invite you to read them completely. We are in the process of working through the complexities of the issues we addressed in our updates.”  He … never … once … mentions … the … sexual … abuse … perpetrated … by … Dr. B.
    • Regarding Steve Gillen’s resignation, Jeff Mason stated, “Steve has decided to fulfill his contract which ends on March 17th, conclude his time on the Willow staff and seek out what God has next for him and his family.”  Wait, wait, WAIT!  Steve’s contract does not end on March 17th.  Steve IS ENDING his contract on March 17th. Big Difference.  Steve is done. He’s spent. He’s had enough. Without a job to go to, he’s still through.  And no one can blame him.  
    • Matt Wright follows with reflections on several Psalms allowing for times of congregational reflection and prayer.  But something was missing.  It reminded me of the “reconciliation service.”  No mention of the Dr. B sexual abuse revelations.  No mention of how or why the senior pastor search is back to the starting gate.  It was an amorphous time of reflecting on life being hard and God will see us through.

What Has Gone Wrong?  

  1.  The Appeal For Telling The Truth Has Gone Unheeded

I wrote an email to the elders on April 13, 2018, 2 days after Hybels abruptly “retired early.” I repeatedly asked the elders to humble themselves and to tell the truth. Salient excerpts from that email almost 2 years ago are just as relevant 22 months later.

APPEALS FOR ELDERS TO LEAD WITH  HUMILITY

  • I appeal to you, the protectors of the flock, to be the catalysts that begin the healing.  You must start it.
  • Willow’s ministry cannot move forward until the truth is revealed and acted upon accordingly.
  • Please, humble yourselves …
  • Be courageous!  Tell the truth, so true healing can begin for everyone involved.
  • Please, humble yourselves …
  • Please, humble yourselves and tearfully confess …

APPEALS FOR ELDERS TO TELL THE TRUTH AND COME CLEAN

  • As difficult as it is, coming clean now is a much better option than waiting …
  • The 800 pound gorilla in the room is, “What is the truth?”  Only you can tell us.
  • Bill is off the stage.  You are the leaders and focus of attention on this tragedy now.
  • … you are the representatives of what is true behind this whole sordid affair.
  • 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.
  • Everyone wants to know the truth.  And only you, the elders of Willow Creek, can confirm it to the rest of the watching world.  And it is only then when healing can begin.
  • Willow’s future is in your hands.  Do the right thing. 

I received no response from the elders to my email.

I had been serving as a volunteer Response Pastor at Willow for several years and shared the email with my ministry leader.  I was told that I sounded angry in my email and that I was not humble. I was then asked to “go on sabbatical.” I agreed to do so.  Scott Vaudrey was the head of that department, Pastoral Ministries. Apparently, I’m still on sabbatical.

On August 12 , 2018 I stated in my blog, “Resignations At Willow Creek:  It’s A Start”:

“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.’”

All that the women victims of Bill Hybels have wanted is for the leadership of Willow Creek to tell the truth of what Hybels did.  Instead, the elders gave the congregation what they wanted: They moved on. And the truth was left behind.

  1.  The Appeal For Transparency Has Gone Unheeded

It appears the only time the leadership and elders are transparent is when they are forced to be.  They get caught in a leadership blunder and they are compelled to make some form of admission.

  • A distraught Willow woman confesses to a female friend that she has been having a 14 year affair with Bill Hybels.  The woman states that she will deny the affair if she is asked about it. Respected former senior leaders approach the Willow Creek elders and WCA (now GLN) Board in 2014 and ask that these serious allegations be investigated.  The appeal to hire an expert independent third party investigator with expertise in clergy abuse was rebuffed at every turn. The woman, true to her word, writes an email to the elders denying that she ever had an affair with Bill Hybels.  A law firm that exclusively represents employers concluded that there was nothing to the charges against Hybels. That was good enough for the elders. That was good enough for the remaining members of the WCA Board. Case closed (whew!). There was absolutely no reason to say anything to the congregation, the elders concluded, because Bill Hybels was found to be innocent.  

But then that pesky article in the Chicago Tribune came out in March 2018, followed by more articles and blogs by Hybels’ victims and advocates.  And then … the NY Times article interviewing Pat Baranowski, Bill Hybels’ administrative assistant for several years in the late 80’s and early 90’s, came out on August 5, 2018.  The efforts to hide the truth, to obfuscate, and to outright lie about the women and their stories could not overcome the ugly appalling truth of Hybels’ hellacious treatment of many women.  So Heather Larson and the elders were forced to admit that Hybels had sinned.

Only when the ugly sinful underbelly of Willow Creek is made public does Willow leadership admit to it.

How To Regain Trust

Vonda Dyer, one of the earliest victims of Bill Hybels to come forward, tweeted the following on January 31, 2020 regarding Ann Lindberg’s testimony of grooming and abuse at the hands of Dr. Gilbert Bilezekian: 

“I believe this woman. Every organization has a culture & this culture is still bleeding stories of abuse, misconduct, abuse of power and legal silencing mixed with veiled apologies but lacking in total contrition, transparency & truthfulness.” 

Vonda’s tweet is true TRUE TRUE !!  The culture is broken, because the trust that was broken has never been restored. Without telling the truth, and without the appropriate transparency that leads to total contrition, there is no reason to trust Willow Creek’s leadership, and the trail of mistrust that has marked the past many years will inevitably continue.   

Here’s where it appears to stand now :  the elders are searching for a senior pastor that will agree with how they have handled Hybels’ scandals: how they treated the women,  and how they decided to move on. And now there’s the Dr. B scandal that they knew about for years and never disclosed — yet another scandal that a new senior pastor will inherit and be forced to deal with.  

Any candidate that believes Willow Creek leadership has handled and is handling these scandals Biblically and has done right by the women victims is disqualified from being pastor.  And any candidate that wants to clean up the mess that the past and current Willow Creek leaders continue to muck up will not be picked by the elders.  

Is that the stark reality?  I don’t actually know. Nobody knows really.  The elders don’t say. They really don’t say much unless they are forced to.  I would love to be proven wrong, but until there is more transparency, we’re all left in the dark.  

One thing I do know: if the elders and senior leaders do not regain the trust of the staff and congregation by being appropriately transparent, telling the truth, and being genuinely contrite, then they will be leading Willow Creek Community Church to yet another great train wreck.  

May it not be so.  May Willow Creek once again become a place where the truth is acknowledged instead of avoided. Where transparency is modelled instead of masked.  Where doing the right thing, instead of doing damage control, becomes the cornerstone of Willow culture, and sets the stage for trust and respect to once again be restored.

18 thoughts on “A Must For Willow Creek: To Regain Trust

  1. Thank you for your insights. I’m growing very weary of Willow and all the unknown. I want truth and transparency! I’ve been waiting for it but if things don’t change soon I will be leaving Willow. This makes me sad as I would not be who I am today without Willow. For 25 years I grew in Christ worshipping, learning and serving at Willow. But I am running out of patience now. It’s all so sad.

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  2. I encourage everyone to go back and read the two reports (IAG and Governance) along with ALL the new elder’s updates from 2019 to date. You will see that they have failed to keep their promises. Also read “The Book of Forgiving” and you will see that they failed to follow that as they promised. Most importantly, they have failed to learn from the past as they have promised so many times. This especially includes discerning the true spiritual cause of these crises. To be trusted they must be trustworthy. God help them!

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  3. Amen and amen! I have been yearning for the truth since this whole situation came to light. The damage control tactics have been excruciating to watch. Just reveal it all and trust God to put Willow back together! Business as usual with a mention here-and-there about “this season” has been beyond frustrating. We know there is more that has been hidden and this will continue to eat away at what is left of Willow. The lack of courage and trust in God is sad, really.

    I was disappointed when Steve Gillen was appointed interim senior pastor because he is a Willow veteran. I had nothing against him personally but thought, “Why appoint someone trained up in this culture when we need to weed it out?” Since then, I have heard nothing but wonderful things about his leadership. I can only imagine what toll the last 18 months have taken on him and his family.

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  4. Thank you, Rob, for your thoughtful analysis and commentary. As always, I enjoy your writing and agree with so much of what you express.

    One thing I would offer to correct the record: I was at the 9:00 a.m. service yesterday. Two different elders read the two separate letters/statements that the Elders made during the prior week. As you write above, Jeff Mason read the letter concerning the candidates and Steve Gillen. However, a separate female elder read the letter/statement regarding the GB situation. I found it beneficial to hear it read, as it gave “voice” to the written words, and I heard it in a different tone than when I read it myself. (Tthat’s the danger with the written word.)

    I wasn’t at the “reconciliation” service, so I don’t have that frame of reference. But I thought I heard a better tone, both in the letter and the prayer the elder offered after reading. I thought I heard more sensitivity to Ann and more humility and contrition for the failure in how she was treated.

    I found the guided prayer time to be meaningful. Could there have been a section dedicated to the known and unknown victims and all victims of abuse? That might have been worthwhile; however there was a specific prayer offered.

    I’m with you. Willow’s leaders need to LEAD! Sadly, I’m afraid they are hamstrung by the need for unanimity. I know some have questioned whether they avoided vacating the search process before Christmas in order to avoid a decrease in year-end giving. Others have expressed concern that it may have been the candidates who withdrew, rather than not being selected.

    Like you, I hope that Willow will do what’s necessary to regain it’s way.

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    1. Thomas055, Thanks for your response. One of the vg things about conducting multiple weekend services is they get redo’s after Saturday night. There was ZERO mention of Dr. B nor the elders’ update on Dr. B. nor of Ann Lindberg on Saturday night as I recall. Historically, Willow leaders reveal the least amount of “bad news” as possible. Something happened between Saturday night and Sunday morning and they decided to relay about Dr. B. I think they received blowback for no mention of the Dr. B scandal. There are three stories with the Dr. B scandal. 1) What Dr. B. did. 2) How WC leadership handled it years ago. 3) How they are NOW handling it. All three stories have severe gaps in them. I believe there will be more that you will hear about #1. We are only hearing the current elders tell #2 — how believable is it that he was forbidden to teach / mentor but it wasn’t communicated sufficiently? Plus Dr. B is fighting the elders’ version = #3 . Your ruminations regarding the two candidates are held by many. Thanks again.

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    2. Thanks Rob for your thoughts & introspection on this very complicated & yet messed up situation @ Willow. My main thought after reading all this is why doesn’t Willow do another church wide meeting so that people can maybe voice their concerns w/ this whole process.
      You definitely seem to have an in w/ many of the inner workings of the church so this would be my suggestion to the leadership.

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      1. Kurt, GREAT suggestion. One problem: Such a meeting would not qualify as being “under control” of the church leadership. I promise you that things would be said by concerned WC congregants that the elders et al would not want to be voiced in a public meeting. How much better … how much easier … how much more Biblical … if they confessed their leadership sins, ask for forgiveness, repent, and vow to be truthful with the congregation going forward, and trust God to handle the fallout. I think He is capable.

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  5. I don’t want to oversimplify a very complex situation, but I believe that God will continue to allow Willow Creek to “wander in the desert” until one man, Bill Hybels, steps out of the shadows, humbles himself of his pride by confessing his sins to God and those against whom he sinned (including the entire congregation), seeks forgiveness sincerely from all, and personally works toward restoration of those harmed by his sins. Until that occurs I don’t believe the current leadership will be able to find its way, given they continue to be chained from being fully transparent. I loved Willow Creek and served joyfully while there, and was sad to leave when I moved away from the Chicago area, which was shortly before this whole drama unfolded. It is heartbreaking I know for friends and staff I know who still attend and work there. God’s grace be on them.

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