Dave Dummitt, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, has been telling his congregation not to complain – as he complains about people who complain.
On June 5, 2022, Dummitt spoke from the pulpit against Christians who discuss problems openly. He said, “So you go in private. Don’t go on social media and come against people. Bloggers. I’m so done with bloggers. You kidding me? If you don’t have a relationship with somebody, don’t go publicly and try to tear people down. Raise them up!”
The message seemed clear. Public talk should be positive. For negative talk, go in private. So on June 9, I and my friend and fellow blogger, Dr. Jim Bedell (drj1952.com), took action. As two of the more critical online commenters about Willow Creek’s continued problems, we contacted Willow Creek and sought a private meeting with Dummitt. And we were quickly granted a meeting time!
BUT… within 24 hours, we were told that he would “not be able” to meet with us. I suggested that we were flexible with our schedules, but there was no offer to give us an alternative meeting time with Dummitt.
Then on July 24, Dummitt again referred to people making negative comments during his sermon. “… why don’t we get rid of gossip and turn it into a good word. If you wanna talk about people, turn your gossip into a good word. … Let’s replace destructive criticism with constructive criticism or coaching … Some septic ways that we use our words – complaining … Let’s replace our complaining, our grumbling, with gratitude … “
His message, again, seemed clear: Complaining bad; gratitude good. But apparently, we hadn’t fully understood Dummitt’s point. It was really this: Don’t talk about issues in public – and don’t talk about them in private, either.
But how can leadership expect congregants to publicly “raise them up!” when their response to private inquiries is to shut them down?
To be clear, we do agree that malicious talk – or, to use Dummitt’s terms, “tearing people down … gossip … destructive criticism … complaining” – is not virtuous. But that’s not what our blogging and personal meetings with leadership have sought to accomplish. Actually, by describing our blog posts that way, Dummitt himself is the one engaging in malicious talk. He’s using his pulpit power to publicly tear us down. He has never sought to personally contact us about our blogging regarding Willow Creek.
And we think we know why.
We think it’s because he knows we’re not looking to “come against people.” We are looking to hold leaders ACCOUNTABLE.
What do you do when a leader refuses to meet personally to discuss legitimate concerns? Just have an attitude of gratitude? How phony is that?!
When leaders refuse to be held accountable, bloggers blog.
When we asked for that meeting on June 9, there were two presenting issues that Dr. Bedell and I wanted to discuss with Dummitt. In the last few days, a third lingering issue has also come to the forefront, for which the congregation deserves clarity.
And since we have not been afforded an opportunity to “go in private,” we’re going to lay these questions out here. As you’re reading them, please judge for yourself: are they all just destructive criticism? Or are they something else?
Our first “private question” would have been:
Dave, how do you justify purchasing a vacation home for $1,060,000 in the midst of your plans to terminate 30% (approximately 100) of your staff?
Dummitt closed on his vacation home on April 8, 2022 while he was deciding which staff he would terminate the following month. To make matters worse, his family advertised the purchase of the vacation home as God’s blessing in May on Facebook within days of 100 staff having to find new jobs. How tone deaf can a leader be?
In Dummitt’s 2.5 years as pastor of Willow Creek Community Church he has overseen 2 mass layoffs and he purchased a million dollar second home to accompany his principal residence valued at $1,000,000. Not a good look.
Our second private question was going to be:
Why didn’t you thank Matt Lundgren for his 25 years of service to Willow Creek at Matt’s last worship service on May 22?
It was truly bizarre. Everyone in that auditorium expressed their gratitude to Matt during that service … except for one person: Dave Dummitt. Why wouldn’t he thank Matt? Was it just an “ooops, I forgot?”
For 25 years everyone appreciated Matt leading worship on Willow’s stage. Between his instrumental and vocal talent, his creativity, his humor, and his ever-present smile, Matt was a welcome stabilizing force, especially over the last 4.5 years as Willow sought to limp past its scandals. Matt had said that he and South Barrington Campus Pastor Shawn Williams had really tried to make it work. Unsaid but understood: it was Matt and Dummitt who didn’t see eye to eye.
In fact, Dave Dummitt didn’t even stand with Matt when other leaders surrounded him and prayed for him and his family regarding their uncertain future. At that “tender moment” (to use a favorite Willow phrase), Dummitt was nowhere to be found. More than a few onlookers noticed his blatant snub and thought, “Why wouldn’t the guy at least acknowledge a 25-year veteran for his service to the church?”
If we had been allowed to speak in private, we would have privately advised Dummitt that such a noticeable slight added fuel to the sad confusion that still exists like an undertow in the Willow congregation… a sad confusion that has not gone away over the years, despite the fact that no one is allowed to talk about it. A true leader – a servant leader – would want to know about that, and would be heartbroken to think that he was standing in the way of making things right.
In our estimation, these two issues do not constitute complaining, or gossip, or grumbling. They are efforts to hold a leader accountable. And they provide opportunities for servant leaders to admit their mistakes and to apologize.
The third question we would have asked in a private setting was regarding church finances.
For years I have requested more financial transparency from Willow Creek. My last request was prior to the May 2021 core meeting. I asked for the status of their financial reserves. Willow Creek leadership did not answer my question in the Core Meeting nor by email … ever.
Rumors have swirled for years regarding the church’s financial reserves. Was it $12M? $18M? The latest rumor pinned it even higher, at $30M. Although Willow leadership has been reluctant to say publicly what that number is, they are required to reveal their finances to those that request their end of year financial statements.
I recently came across the church’s 2021 consolidated financial statement prepared by Batts, Morrison, Wales & Lee, Certified Public Accountants. (See a screenshot of this statement at the end of this post.) It gives definitive insight to the question regarding financial reserves. The statement points to $35M+ of reserves against a mortgage note(s) of $21M. So any claim by Willow leadership that their finances are dire is simply not true. They have a safety net, the likes of which would be the envy of 99.9% of churches in America.
To be fair, Willow’s finances are not all rosy. The trajectory of Willow’s donation income is not headed in the right direction, as the graph of giving over a 10-week average indicates over the last few years. (See second image shown below this post.) This, despite a 5 week series on money at the beginning of 2022 that concluded with a public invitation to bring your giving commitment card forward and place it on the stage.
Asking a shrunken congregation to boost their financial commitment when the church has $35M in the bank is not a good look. When paired with a recently purchased million-dollar vacation home … it’s a downright ugly look.
The question remains: why is the Willow leadership hesitant to let its donors know the full extent of its finances? This deliberate hiding of tens of millions of dollars in reserves represents a lack of accountability in the bluntest terms. And it does not bode well for the future.
In conclusion, it would have been much better to discuss these three issues in private. We were not afforded that opportunity. So we have once again taken to the public square, not to engage in destructive criticism, but to advocate constructive steps. Steps that would improve transparency, and trust. Steps that would establish the kind of accountability that has been sorely needed in the post-Hybels years.
Willow Creek Community Church is a shell of what it once was. Consider:
- Most of the Willow campuses that had two services to accommodate the crowds have gone to one service with plenty of room to spare.
- The South Barrington campus used to have three weekend services. Since they opened up after the pandemic, they went to two services. And they could easily go to one service and the auditorium would still be only ½ full.
- The once bustling food court feeding hundreds if not thousands of people for the mid-week and weekend services lies dormant. In fact, the huge commercial kitchen is now used for storage.
- For 40+ years Willow needed a staff person dedicated to responding to ministries requesting space to use for meetings throughout the week. Now, the campus is largely a ghost town. And the 900,000 sq ft facility in South Barrington, for the most part is unused and falling into disrepair.
Dummitt has largely blamed the pandemic for Willow’s woes. The truth is: Willow Creek is reaping what it has sown. The leadership did not handle the Bill Hybels scandal honestly, by owning their sin, calling out Hybels, being genuinely contrite, and doing everything they could to help bring healing to Hybels’ victims.
Rather, their goal seemed merely to get through the Hybels’ scandal with the least amount of damage to the Willow Creek brand, and to salvage their image.
Integral to accomplishing this goal was to hire a guy who would agree that the Bill Hybels scandal was in the past. I suspect that they didn’t have too many such individuals to choose from. And then they found Dave Dummit. When asked by the elders to be the new senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, Dummitt told them “no.” Then they came back to him again, and Dummitt told them “no.” And then they asked him a third time, and he said, “yes.” (Some suspect they know what changed hi$ mind.)
Dave Dummitt would be hard-pressed to point to anything at Willow that is better now than it was 2+ years ago when he arrived. He has sought to rid the church of anything that was from Willow past. The names of virtually every ministry have also changed. Do not be surprised if even the name Willow Creek Community Church ceases to exist soon. My bet? Willow Creek Community Church becomes, “Willow Commons.”
Trust them, it’s going to be great.
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“Here are my instructions: diligently guard yourselves, and diligently guard the whole flock over which the Holy Spirit has given you oversight. Shepherd the church of God, this precious church which He made His own through the blood of His own Son.” Acts 20:28 (The Voice)