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Willow Creek Claims Transparency — You Decide

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.

Sincerely,

Rob Speight

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.

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Willow Creek Asks The Wrong Question

Everything had been going relatively smoothly at Willow Creek over the past couple of years.  The decision to never invoke the name of Bill Hybels had worked.  His victims and their advocates had appeared to fall silent.  Willow could finally move forward.  Sure there was the pandemic, and the choosing of the new senior pastor, Dave Dummitt.  But there was a dull calm on the campus in South Barrington.  

That all changed on the evening of May 26.  Boy, did it change.  The problem:  Dave Dummitt and Shawn Williams didn’t realize what they had done.  While they were fist bumping and congratulating one another on how they handled the name that was never ever to be mentioned, the 200 member geriatric core in attendance applauded their performance.  Little did they know they in fact … pick your metaphor: 

  • Whacked the hornets’ nest. 
  • Poked the bear.  
  • Did not let sleeping dogs lie.  

This is what happened. 

Williams claimed to have received the following question from the congregation which he chose to address to those in attendance.  (Mind you, he had to CHOOSE to answer that question and CHOOSE not to answer other questions — I know this because he did not answer the question I texted to him.  That ignored question will be saved for another post).  Here’s the question that Shawn Williams chose to address:

“Why is Bill Hybels’ name rarely mentioned?”

In the 3+ weeks since that meeting, there has been a lot of criticism of Shawn Williams and Dave Dummitt’s infamous 8 minutes on YouTube.  You can find able insightful critiques of their interaction in the following posts:  

Before I suggest a more important question that Shawn Williams and Dave Dummitt ought to have answered, I’d like to reflect on the contrast of responses to Dummitt’s and Williams’ reflection on Bill Hybels’ life.

Affirming Applause vs. Disgust

On the one hand, it appeared that all those in attendance enthusiastically affirmed (via widespread applause) the notion of somehow, in some way, at some time, honoring the legacy of Bill Hybels for all that he had done and meant to Willow Creek and the evangelical church across the globe.  Dummitt also made a point of stating that Tom DeVries, the President of the Global Leadership Network (formerly the Willow Creek Association) was in attendance at the Core Meeting as he made his remarks about Hybels.

I ask you:  why did the core of Willow Creek applaud the notion of honoring Hybels, while so many others want to throw up at that idea?  

I believe it is because Willow’s remnant core does not know / understand / believe / or appreciate the depth of Bill Hybels’ sin.  They have no idea of the devastating impact of his conduct on his women victims, both named and unnamed.  And why would they?  For three years, ALL of Willow Creek’s leadership, both past and present, told the Willow Creek congregation a different narrative.  They were NEVER told the depth of Bill’s sin.  

To this day, Willow Creek leadership has NEVER told the congregation the specifics of Hybels’ heinous conduct. Rather, they fed them and the world a much-sanitized version called “the women’s claims are credible,” without ever saying what exactly those claims against Hybels even were.  They took this mum approach even though Bill Hybels’ women victims described his horrific conduct in graphic detail to multiple groups of elders both past and present. 

Willow Creek leadership never explained what Bill did.  Nor did Willow Creek leadership ever state that the women are telling the TRUTH. 

That’s why I don’t blame the core for applauding the memory of Bill Hybels.  Based on what they were told over the last three years, Bill simply had a “shadow side” — whatever that is (as per Shawn Williams).  And it seems that the leadership at Willow Creek feels that it’s possible, and maybe even honorable, to hold in tension both the incredible worldwide impact that Bill had along with his “shadow side.”  

Weighing Hybels’ much-ballyhooed impact on the church against his foggily-referenced “shadow side,” the congregation appears to believe that Bill Hybels has suffered enough — and perhaps now he needs to be celebrated for all that he has meant to the world.

If they feel that way, I suspect it’s because they’ve been deliberately groomed to feel that way —  just as Bill Hybels’ victims were groomed to accept his attentions as vaguely understandable and okay. 

A MUCH BETTER QUESTION

Considering all that has been left unsaid, I propose that the question “Why is Bill Hybels’ name rarely mentioned?” is not the most useful question to pose at this point.  Rather, the WCCC congregation, and the public, deserve an honest answer to this question instead:  

  • Why have Bill Hybels’ actual sins never been named?

Again, Willow Creek leadership and GLN leadership have never told the congregation and the world that… 

  • Bill Hybels groomed women for his own deviant pleasure.
  • Bill Hybels is a serial sexual predator.
  • Bill Hybels is guilty of sexual harassment.
  • Bill Hybels’ sexual predation spans decades.
  • Bill Hybels’ conduct constitutes sexual abuse.  

As a result of their silence, the loyal but ill-informed core of the congregation, and the worldwide group of devotees to the Global Leadership Summit, may tend to conclude that poor Bill has become the real victim here. They may feel sorry that such a ground-breaking figure had to retire so suddenly, without any accolades. Wasn’t that punishment enough, they may feel?  As I’ve heard many say, “What more do those women want?”

Naming Bill Hybels’ actual acts of malfeasance would allow everyone to make their own evaluation of how the heights of Hybels’ public achievements compare to the depths of his sexual abuse of so many women.

At this point, Willow Creek’s decision-makers are facing a tough choice:  

  • Do they admit the truth (and alienate their base) by naming Hybels’ sins NOW, after three years of pussyfooting around the topic?  

Or …

  • Do they continue to ignore Hybels’ real legacy and start to reintroduce his name and rehabilitated image into the church’s organizational culture and identity?

It seems that they made their choice on May 26, 2021.  But one awkward discussion at that core meeting won’t keep the Bill Hybels issue from hanging over the heads of Willow Creek’s leadership FOREVER if they do not name his sins.

Scripture is clear:  

“People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy.”  Proverbs 28:13

The “not prospering” part of that verse should also concern GLN’s president, Tom DeVries, who attended the Core Meeting.  His response to the Q & A interchange:  silence.  

What do true leaders do when they see — and are a party to — injustice?  They speak up for victims!  They admit their own wrongdoing!  Tom DeVries, Craig Groeschel, please don’t lecture the world about leadership if you won’t defend the abused victims of your founder.  Please don’t tell us how you’ve apologized to the women and have sought reconciliation.  Not one of the women victims is content with the paltry response of either the Willow Creek or GLN leadership.

ADDING INSULT TO INJURY

It’s ironic that Willow Creek Church started a series of messages on Courage soon after the May 26 Core Meeting.  Courage has seemed to be in short supply for the past three years.  Now I say, YES!  Be courageous, Dave Dummitt and Shawn Williams!  

Dummitt breathlessly told Williams at the Core meeting on May 26, that he needed to talk about Hybels to the entire congregation on a Sunday morning.  Okay, if this is so right and good and wise, then be COURAGEOUS!  And do it!  Tell the whole congregation your admiring musings about Bill Hybels, the pioneer of so much good in the church. You seem to be expecting an ecstatic response. Will you receive it? Will the people — and the press — welcome the “tension” of a newly revised Bill-Was-Pretty-Great-After-All take on everything?

I would make the same challenge to the GLN frontmen.  Be courageous!  Go ahead and give Bill Hybels a plug at the Global Leadership Summit this year, Craig Groeschel and Tom DeVries.  Invoke his name for all the good he has done.  Honor him for his great legacy.  

After all, the applauding core congregation at Willow wants to hear his name, so the GLN crowd will, too, right?  It’s been three years since his absence from the Summit’s world stage.  He has paid a big enough price.  So, go ahead!  Show the courage of your convictions and talk about the positive impact of Bill Hybels on global Christianity.  

Give that hornets’ nest another good whack. 

Not going there, you say?  Leave Bill to stay in the shadows?  Well, that’s understandable.  After all, do we hear Matt Lauer’s name invoked any more for being such a wonderful early morning TV host?  Where are Hollywood’s accolades for Harvey Weinstein for all of the great movies he produced and the stars he made? Why isn’t Bill Cosby celebrated any more — by anyone — for his transformational comedic genius? 

Oh, right.  

Add Bill Hybels’ name to the list of sexual predators that no one wants to praise any more.  And rightly so. 

So, Willow Creek and GLN leadership, if you aren’t going to be courageous about defending Bill Hybels’ legacy, then be courageous about naming Bill Hybels’ sins of sexual harassment, grooming and abuse — so that people can be truly informed, instead of ignorant by default — of the full bandwidth of his “achievements.” 

My suspicion:  the WCCC and the GLN boards will do neither. They won’t come clean about Bill Hybels’ dark deeds, and they won’t try to resurrect his name, either.  They’ll be content to let the past record of Bill Hybels stay unapplauded, AND undefined…  because they are NOT courageous, as it turns out.  For them, image is more important than character.  Keeping the money rolling in is more important than truth.  Keeping the institutions going is more important than facilitating the women victims’ healing. They talk a good game of honoring women, but when it costs the Willow machine, the machine is more important.  

No, they are not courageous.  They are cowards.

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Powerful Personal Video Testimony by Victims of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek

For almost two years since the Bill Hybels / Willow Creek scandal became public, the world has read different versions of the whole sordid affair.  Now, firsthand video testimony by two of Hybels’ victims provides a powerful and frank personal account of the tragedy. In the link below, Vonda Dyer and her husband, Scott, give details about Hybels’ efforts to groom and seduce Vonda. They share how the situation impacts their lives and their family — and how the responses of the leadership at Willow Creek and the GLN only adds to their turmoil. It is evident that Vonda and Scott are paying a high price for telling the truth publicly.

In addition, also below, a third video by Mitch Little, gives a top shelf primer on sexual abuse in the church. From his unique perspective as both an attorney and a church elder in Dallas, TX, Mitch outlines typical missteps by church leadership. He also gives “best practice” recommendations for church elders to lead their congregations through such a crisis.

Watching these videos is a must for those who care about what happened at Willow Creek and/or care about protecting victims. After you watch and learn the truth, let me invite any of you who know people involved in Willow Creek leadership (the executive team, elders, GLN leadership) to share this post and these talks with them. ASK FOR THEIR RESPONSE TO THE CONTENT.  I encourage you not to give up until you receive a response that satisfies you.

Vonda Dyer shares her story of being labeled a liar after coming forward with accusations of sexual misconduct against former Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels. Dyer gave this message at the No More Silence conference, sponsored by the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Scott Dyer, a worship pastor and husband of Vonda Dyer, tells his moving story of how watching his wife being vilified for exposing abuse by former celebrity pastor, Bill Hybels, traumatised their family. And from that experience, he offers advice for church leaders on how to handle allegations of sexual abuse.
Attorney Mitch Little, an attorney who’s represented several women who accused former Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels of sexual misconduct, talks about how church leaders should handle sex abuse allegations. Little argues that the reason churches have responded worse to the #MeToo crisis than corporate world is because “corporations are more afraid of their shareholders than churches are.” He adds, “The church has one shareholder. And it’s a fear of God problem.” Though Little offers solid advice on how church boards should respond to sex abuse crises, he admits, “If your leadership lacks the requisite character and experience, no manual will help you. If you have the appropriate level of character and experience, no manual is necessary.”

I am grateful to Julie Roys, a Christian investigative reporter, for posting these videos and  for all of her efforts exploring important issues facing Christians and spiritual seekers.

The full talks of Vonda, Scott, Mitch, Q & A sessions, and other speakers at the No More Silence conference can be obtained by contacting the Dallas Theological Seminary Bookstore at (214) 887-5110 or online on the bookstore’s website.  They are a most valuable resource for any church / Christian organization that is serious about being prepared to address sexual and power abuse within their midst.

Many thanks to the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary for making these resources available.