Willow Creek leadership has been accused of a lack of transparency for years. In fact, the word that nearly every blogger has used to describe Willow Creek’s communication is obfuscation. Merriam-Webster clarifies the meaning of obfuscation:
- To make obscure
- To confuse
- To be evasive, unclear, confusing
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to hear Shawn Williams begin the May 26, 2021 Willow Creek core meeting by stating this:
- “I’ve been around the staff team for about 10 months. And one of the things that I mentioned over the weekend that’s been very true [is] the more and more people that I’ve talked to around Willow — one of the things that I feel like is a constant theme in conversations — people say ‘Would you be transparent as leadership? It’s just something that is so critically important to us as a community.’ And so really in an attempt to honor that request that I’ve heard over and over again, we’ve had the …. core gatherings.” (First use of transparency)
Soon after that introductory reference to transparency, Williams used the word transparency again, this time to describe the church’s approach to volunteers being vaccinated from COVID. (Second use of transparency.)
Dave Dummitt hopped on the bandwagon next, referring to his communication in meetings like the core meeting when he said, “Especially in these environments, I always lean on the side of transparency…” (Third use of transparency)
Shortly after that, Dummitt was talking about a report on the demographic statistics of the communities where Willow Creek has campuses as well as the demographics of the staff. Regarding this topic he said, “So there’s just this transparency that is available I think to everybody …” (Fourth use of transparency.)
And then, a fifth use of transparency — in response to a question about what steps have been taken to address recommendations in the IAG Report (Independent Advisory Group that investigated the claims against Bill Hybels), Dummitt responded “If anybody wants more detail on that–you know–the efforts that were taken to make sure that we don’t slip back into any, you know, behaviors that could lead us toward something like that — Total Transparency. You come up, talk to us, we’ll get you everything you need.”
Five times in a one hour meeting, the leadership of Willow Creek maintained their commitment to transparency. . Is that true? Or is this just a “Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick it” moment?
Here are several issues to consider as you decide whether the trend is towards transparency, or more obfuscation.
The Lionization of Bill Hybels — Cancelled?
At the core meeting 2 months ago, Dave Dummitt directed Shawn Williams to share with the Sunday morning congregation the view that we can honor Bill Hybels for his unique once-in-a-generation ministry contributions, while at the same time acknowledging that he has a “shadow side.” The core of Willow Creek enthusiastically applauded the idea. That has yet to happen. Shawn Williams hasn’t. Neither has Dave Dummitt. I suspect it has not happened yet because it is not going to happen … ever.
In this public interchange, both Dummitt and Williams seemed to demonstrate their ignorance of the scope of Bill Hybels’ sexual predation. They sounded clearly clueless about the price and pain that Hybels’ behavior inflicted on his victims. Since there’s been no follow-up on their proposed Sunday morning mention of Hybels, it’s safe to assume that multiple sources have told them that they made a grievous error to even suggest such a disgusting gesture. They obviously realize that they made a mistake.
Leaders acknowledge when they make mistakes, right? Nothing has been confessed, or even acknowledged. There has been only silence. Is this an example of transparency? You decide.
Willow Finances: Dire Straits, or a Deep Stash?
In my last post, I mentioned that I had texted a question that I wanted to be addressed at the core meeting in May — a question that I have yet to receive an answer to. Here is the question I texted on May 25th:
- “In following the finances, I am concerned over Willow’s financial stability. SPECIFICALLY, how much money does WCCC have in reserves?”
That is a reasonable and fair question, is it not? Despite the $$ reserves being a carefully guarded secret, it is understood that Willow Creek has multiple tens of millions of dollars in reserve. So, it appears finances are far from dire.
Does avoiding to disclose monetary reserves reflect transparency? You decide.
PPP Loans – More Money No One Talks About?
On July 9, 2020, Dave Dummitt wrote a blog post to the Willow congregation. It mentioned that the church had received substantial PPP (Payroll Protection Program) funds from the government (almost $5.7M — see below). Up until that post, the congregation had received no communication on that topic. It is suspicious that the Daily Herald, a Chicago newspaper, posted the local companies that received government funds just two days earlier, on July 7, 2020.
Only after the PPP loan recipients were made public did Dummitt inform the congregation later that the church had in fact received a PPP loan. WCCC had actually been approved for the government assistance funds three months earlier.
The Global Leadership Network (GLN – previously known as the Willow Creek Association — WCA) has received PPP loans twice. Yet its website contains no mention of any PPP funds received. The PPP loans to that organization totalled $2,591,200 — see below.
WCA (GLN) Loan #1:
WCA (GLN) Loan #2:
Is it good leadership transparency to solicit donations without disclosing that you have received millions of dollars from the government — funds that you do not have to repay? You decide.
“May We Be One” staff training — Is this CRT (Critical Race Theory)?
Willow Creek has contracted with World Vision to train Willow staff on the topic of racial justice. These are once per month training sessions for twelve months. There is reference to white supremacy, white privilege, white guilt, and systemic racism. I emailed the World Vision contact person the following on May 15, 2021:
Thanks for tackling this relevant topic in the church today.
As someone that does not know a lot about the curriculum of “May We Be One,” I have a couple of questions.
1) How does “May We Be One” differ from Critical Race Theory training? (I know this is a VERY broad question, but a few differences shared would be appreciated.)
2) After a year of training and education, how does World Vision hope to measure the success of the training?
Thanks for your response.
Unfortunately, I haven’t received a response from World Vision other than that they are very busy.
The outcome of these training sessions on Willow Creek staff has not been more oneness and unity, but rather increased division and distrust between the races.
Twelve sessions on racial justice, spanning the course of a whole year, seems like a major investment of staff time and training. Do you think the Willow Creek congregation has a right to know what the staff is being taught in these sessions? Does keeping the contents under wraps give the impression of transparency? You decide.
The Rebranding of Willow Creek
Dave Dummitt could not be more excited about what will be happening at Willow in the Fall. In fact, he thinks that so many more people will be coming to Willow that he fears they won’t have enough volunteers to serve the guests. One might wonder, what does he think will cause this new influx of people to Willow? Is there going to be a revival? Is there going to be repentance? A renewal of commitment to the Savior? A rededication to engaging with Scripture?
No, Dummitt actually said that these yet to be identified new people will be coming to Willow Creek Community Church because the church is rebranding. Yes, Willow Creek has hired Storyland Studios out of California (storylandstudios.com) to do a major rebranding. Although Dummitt has told the staff that this is happening, the staff doesn’t know what the rebranding entails, but it’s going to be major.
Essentially, rebranding is a publicity campaign designed to improve how people think about an organization. Storyland Studios itself describes the process like this under its website’s Brand and Guest Experience menu tab:
- How do you want people to experience your brand? We love to take the strategic story of a brand and shape it into something people can walk into, interact with, and inhabit. Whether you’re developing a new brand from the ground up or building on an existing one, our team can help you define and create experiences that bring your brand to life in ways that propel your strategy and keep your guests engaged, immersed, and coming back for more. When we work with brands to shape immersive experiences and activations, we leverage our three-dimensional storytelling approach to add layers of meaning and connection for guests and employees alike. From concepting and executing the experience, our team of digital marketing strategists and designers are able to build an executable marketing strategy to promote your brand and experience in the world.
Willow’s obsession with the image that they portray to the world has not waned one iota. Repentance, revival, rededication, and renewal are better ideas than rebranding. Jesus said it this way to the self-righteous Pharisees when He confronted their love affair with image in Matthew 23:26-27 —
You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too. “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.
So, does the fact that virtually the entire church knows nothing about this rebranding effort reflect transparency? You decide.
In the words of Jack Welch, “Trust happens when leaders are transparent”.
Trust has been broken by the leadership of Willow Creek for years. If trust is ever to be rebuilt, the maneuverings of the leadership will need to become a lot less obscure. Maybe it’s a good idea for Dummitt and his crew to try actually practicing transparency. Because ironically, the more they merely claim it, the more we see right through them.