During the last 23 months since the Bill Hybels / Willow Creek scandal went public, the elders of Willow Creek have sought to communicate on a regular basis both from the main stage at Willow Creek and through written communications to the Willow congregation called Elder Updates.
Unfortunately, none of these Elder Updates have caused Willow Creek to move any closer towards healing. Wishing that the past 23 months of scandal would be in the rear view mirror does not make it so. If anything, the scandals keep coming. Though carefully-tailored messaging would seek to portray that the worst is over and church conditions are returning to normal, a spiritual PET scan would actually show that the cancer cells have spread.
Directly below, I have created a potential update for the elders to use in their next communication. I believe that messaging of this kind would be an honest and essential next step towards true healing for Willow Creek.
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We, the elders and senior leaders of Willow Creek, are truly sorry. We thought we could control the damage at Willow, but we admit now that we can’t. We placed Willow Creek’s future above all other priorities. In so doing, we have failed … utterly. We failed the women victims of Bill Hybels. We failed Bill Hybels. We failed the congregation of Willow Creek. We failed the Willow Creek staff. We failed the churches around the world that trusted our church and looked to the Global Leadership Network to be an example of godly Biblical leadership. We failed the watching world that points at us, shaking its head with confusion, dismay, and even derision. Ultimately, we have failed our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We are sorry.
WE FAILED THE WOMEN VICTIMS OF BILL HYBELS
We are so sorry that we did not believe you and your advocates. We are sorry for calling you liars and colluders against Bill Hybels. You told the truth about Bill Hybels. We are the ones that lied and colluded against you to the Willow Creek congregation and the thousands of churches in the Global Leadership Network (previously: Willow Creek Association). We confess that we have never fully made this right, no matter how much we have tried to convince ourselves that we did.
We are sorry that we did not hire a reputable third party clergy abuse investigatory organization that are experts in this field, such as GRACE. We acknowledge that you and your advocates requested a thoroughly independent third party clergy abuse investigation repeatedly for the last six years. We confess that we accused the advocates of trying to “control” the investigation, making “demands” and setting unreasonable parameters. We confess that we sought to control the narrative as well as limit the damage of this scandal. We confess that we have not trusted God enough to tell the truth regarding your abuse at the hands of Bill Hybels.
You are heroes. You are brave and courageous. We will be forever indebted to you for sounding the alarm to potential future victims. May there be no more.
We recognize that if ten women have come forward, there DEFINITELY must be other women victims of Bill Hybels … many that have suffered in private agony, some for years, some for decades. Whether from embarrassment, humiliation, and / or incalculable personal cost, they have not stepped forward. We confess that our actions toward the women who have come forward have only made it that much more difficult for others to find personal resolution and freedom from the nightmares that plague them due to the cruel interactions they endured from Bill Hybels. We confess that we did not create a safe harbor for other women victims to come forward. We confess that we wanted to control the damage that the women’s stories would cause to Bill and the church. We placed Bill’s and Willow Creek’s reputation above your healing. We are truly sorry.
We confess that we have not presented victims of abuse at Willow Creek a safe conduit to share their stories. We confess that we made a mistake to offer the following instructions to abuse victims in our January 30, 2020 Elder Update:
“If you have experienced abuse from leadership at Willow, past or present, please contact us at 630-682-9797, ext. 1291.”
We confess that this phone number is to an organization called Capin Crouse. Their website describes themselves as:
“… a national CPA and consulting services firm, … providing support in the key areas of financial integrity and security,”
We have had a 30+ year financial relationship with Capin Crouse. We confess this is not a good first step towards sharing your stories of abuse with the elders.
WE FAILED BILL HYBELS
We confess that our interactions with Bill Hybels have been cowardly. We did not hold him accountable. We confess that we chose to believe and defend him rather than the women victims and their advocates, even when there was a preponderance of evidence against him.
We confess that we have continued to treat Bill Hybels with misplaced deference, meekly asking him to meet with us and when rebuffed by him, concluding that we can’t force him to talk with us.
We confess that we failed in the handling of his severance / retirement package. We failed by not including a morality clause in that package. In fact, we failed him by not withholding his severance payments, even though there was not a morality clause. We could have been brave enough to refuse payment and then force him to take us to court where he would have had to justify being paid millions of dollars despite the accusations against him. We know in our heart of hearts that he would not have taken us to court because he does not want to face any cross-examination.
We confess that we feared Bill Hybels more than we feared God. We confess that we should have declared to Bill Hybels, “You are that man,” just as Nathan confronted David in II Samuel 12:7. We confess that we ought to have removed his ordination and stated that he was no longer fit to be a minister of the gospel due to his unrepentant and arrogant heart. We confess that we also failed to excommunicate him from membership at Willow Creek Community Church for the same reasons.
WE FAILED THE CONGREGATION OF WILLOW CREEK
We have failed you, the congregation of Willow Creek, by not leading you well through this scandal. We have allowed you, even encouraged you towards faulty thinking and conclusions regarding the women victims. We have not given you a Biblical reason for how we handled Bill Hybels’ sin. And when asked repeatedly to Scripturally justify our responses to the scandal, we confess that we do not have a Biblical foundation to stand on. We have not corrected you when some of you have expressed, “What more do these women want?” We did not correct you when so many of you expressed that you wanted to “move on.” We confess now that we can’t move on until we deal with the sin in our own house.
We have not taught you what the impact of sexual abuse and the abuse of power, especially by clergy, has on women. We failed to explain the insidious nature of Bill Hybels’ grooming and sexual abuse. We have not revealed to you how these women felt utterly confused and alone when they tried to process the sexual advances by their world renowned pastor. We did not teach you that women sexual trauma victims can suffer from PTSD. We failed to teach you that a woman does not have to be raped to suffer excruciating trauma. We failed to teach you that victims can block out the memory of sexual trauma for years in order to cope with the pain, only to be triggered later and have its ugliness recalled. We sought to minimize what Bill Hybels did to the women, and we are sorry for not telling you the truth.
We also hid the truth from you about Dr. B’s sexual harassment and worse. We did not hold him accountable. Instead, we permitted him to minister as though nothing had happened. We’re sorry for the pattern of dishonesty we persisted in creating. And honestly, we don’t know how to correct all of these grievous errors. We have betrayed your trust.
We confess that we, the elders of Willow Creek, have perpetuated the protection of the Willow Creek image and brand over the terrible truth of sexual and power abuse. We have failed to be appropriately transparent with you.
We confess that we have terminated other staff for affairs, and we have been silent. We have allowed them to simply … disappear.
We confess that we have not been forthcoming to you regarding other staff departures of individuals who were a part of the abusive culture. We confess that we wanted to hide how deep the abuse ran in our church.
We confess that we did not hold accountable the leaders that so publicly lied, disparaged and slandered the women victims and their advocates, some of whom are still on staff.
We confess that we have hidden from you the financial terms of Bill Hybels’ and Heather Larson’s severance packages. We have not been forthcoming regarding the financial costs to the church of attorneys, skyrocketing insurance premiums, and legal settlement costs out of fear that you would stop giving. We confess that we have not been financially transparent with you.
WE FAILED THE STAFF OF WILLOW CREEK
We have failed the staff by making the wrongheaded decision to not have the senior pastor be a member of the elder board. Rather than holding the senior pastor accountable, which we did not do with Bill Hybels, we decided to eliminate such a problem from happening again by not having the senior pastor on the board. We are part time volunteers, and we confess that we are in way over our heads.
We confess that we have not kept the staff informed of our deliberations, and as a result, they feel like they are doing their jobs (ministries) in the dark. We know that we have lost their trust, and in many ways we have caused them to lose yours And we are truly sorry.
WE FAILED THE GLN CHURCHES AROUND THE WORLD
We confess that WCCC and the GLN are inseparably linked, no matter how much we publicly deny it. We confess that we have minimized Bill Hybels’ influence and impact on the GLN and GLS.
We confess that we have never made right the damage we did to the reputations of the women victims who stepped forward.
We confess that we have avoided any topics at the GLS that could possibly cast a bad light on Bill Hybels regarding his sexual abuse of women or his abusive leadership. We confess that we sought to avoid the optics of the obvious hypocrisy of teaching churches around the world how to lift up women and be better leaders when the founder of the the GLN and GLS abused women and often led by bullying.
We confess that we decided that the ends justify the means. We confess that the ends of helping others around the world justified lying about who Bill Hybels really is.
WE FAILED THE WATCHING WORLD AND ULTIMATELY OUR SAVIOR
We confess that we have been a poor example to those whom we say we want to reach with the good news of forgiveness from Christ. The very mission of WCCC, upon which the church was founded, has been sullied by its founder and its leaders. We are sorry.
Ultimately, Father, we have sinned against you. All of the above transgressions against others are ultimately sins against You. We are ashamed, and we are sorry for damaging Your Name. We agree with David when he confessed that his sins against others were ultimately “sins against the Lord,” II Samuel 12:13.
HAVING RECOGNIZED OUR ABOVE FAILURES, WE WILL:
- CEASE BEING THE CONDUIT FOR WOMEN’S COMPLAINTS AGAINST BILL HYBELS, DR. B., AND POTENTIALLY OTHERS IN THE CHURCH
We must take this action because we recognize that we have irretrievably lost the trust of victims.
- HIRE GRACE (Godly Response To Abuse In The Christian Environment) — netgrace.org
We are sorry that we did not hire GRACE years ago when it was suggested by the beloved former Willow staff when they first learned of troubling indications (still unresolved) regarding Bill Hybels’ alleged 14-year affair.
We must take this action because we admit that we do not have the expertise to deal with clergy and church abuse. GRACE does.
- WE WILL HIRE AN INTERIM PASTOR THAT WILL WORK WITH GRACE
We confess that it has been a mistake to try to lead our church out of our scandals towards healing utilizing our own long-term staff. We confess that the temptation to protect the church’s image rather than reveal the ugly truths that we discovered has been too great.
In fact, we insist that the interim pastor must agree to work with GRACE to lead Willow Creek towards healing.
- WE ARE TEMPORARILY SUSPENDING OUR SEARCH FOR A PERMANENT SENIOR PASTOR
We have concluded that it would be unfair to hire a new senior pastor when we have failed to address our scandals and take significant steps toward healing first.
- WE ARE DIRECTING THE GLN TO ADDRESS CERTAIN TOPICS AT GLS 2020
These topics will include:
- The painful truths contained in this update
- How to identify narcissistic and abusive leaders
- How does a church board hold its senior leaders accountable
- How to create a safe conduit for sexual abuse, power abuse, and grooming allegations to be heard
- Honest discussion regarding narcissists being attracted to the GLS
We will strongly recommend to the GLN board that these topics be included in their advance messaging to GLS 2020 host churches, that host pastors will be afforded ample time and opportunity to understand and process the information, and that these topics will not be treated as optional messaging in-between sessions, but as part of the sessions themselves.
We want to say again how sorry we are for the pain that we have caused so many. We cannot say it enough. We are appealing to God for His help to carry these commitments through to their conclusion, mindful of the wisdom of Solomon when he taught in Proverbs 28:13, “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”
May our confessions and resolutions above finally begin to bring healing to our church.