Just joined this group. I have a post on my general Facebook page about the narcissistically driven leader and how they construct organizations around their core pathology. Willow Creek is a clear example of this process.
I have been deeply concerned about the way that the church leaders have handled this. At the same time, though, it is inevitable that they would handle it this way because it is the way these organizations go into self preservation mode. I wrote the following and will share it here.
I decided to write my thoughts relative to the Willow Creek CC Elders’ decision to engage a conciliatory organization to respond to the issues of allegations of sexual abuse by the senior pastor, Bill Hybels. These are only my observations from my experience. It came as no surprise to me that the principle victims in this situation recognized it as a colossal miss. From my perspective as a clinical psychologist and someone who has worked with multiple people that were employed by Willow Creek, this strategy came as no shock to me as it is consistent with the dynamics of the organizational structure of the church. I have elsewhere detailed the forces at work in an organization that was authored by a narcissistically driven leader (NDL) who constructs the elements of the organization around the core pathology of that leader. I will share first what underpins the view that the organization itself has structural components that support abuse of power, and then finish with my thoughts about the premature emphasis on reconciliation.
My access to the inner working of the environment at Willow through the stories told me in my office by workers who felt judged, bullied, shamed, and often fired due to their somehow not living up to the perfectionistic demands of the church gave me a layered understanding of the abuse of power at the organic level of the church. Coupled with the fact that those who were let go with questionable explanations were bridled by non-disclosure agreements tethered to severance packages exposed the ways that the sometimes-abusive practices of the church were hidden. My experience was that there were “many emotionally and spiritually wounded and dead bodies” littering the history highway of Willow Creek where none of these bruised individuals had a place (other than my office) to share their stories. It became clear that image trumped empathy, and that the maintenance of a perfect exterior was done at the expense of the painful discarding of real human beings.
Another tactic used to repress and contain anything that might threaten or tarnish the image of Willow is the frequent use of intimidation via the legal scare tactics. Numerous individuals who attended the church were served (notice the criminal parallels) with letters signed by a leader and a member of the legal firms employed by Willow indicating that the person must cease and desist or must not enter the property of the church due to some infraction done by the person served. Some of these may have been legitimate but many that I know about were sent without fact checking and resulted in huge trauma to those receiving these intimidating letters. Even when it was pointed out that the charges were false, the church failed to repent and ask for forgiveness, leaving these individuals with fear and anger. The image, and more than likely, the financial vulnerability of the church was put before the consequences to the souls of attenders. In addition, there was no follow through to shepherd these abused individuals through the resulting pain and struggle. I personally got involved in extensive communication to Bill, Steve, and Heather regarding one particularly egregious abuse of a women in the church and this was met by minimization, seeking to control the process, the excuse of “I do not have margin for this”, failure to follow through on a Matthew 18 procedure, and my giving up when it appeared that the church was not going to substantially address the problem.
The need is for institutional brokenness and confession of sinful practices and making amends to numerous individuals who have been damaged by this process. Will the institutional repentance occur? We shall see. Also, elders of Willow, can you disclose how much money has been paid to legal firms for all the non-disclosures and intimidating letters that have been sent? How about transparency? At the first church family meeting by the elders after the March 23 disclosure, I remember that the idea of reconciliation with the “errant” former members that brought the charges was discussed. The excuse was that the lawyers are involved. Interesting to use the lawyers as an excuse but not pointing out the use of lawyers when it was in the interest of the church or leader. Double standard?
As long as I have been involved at our church, which is almost 30 years, Willow Creek has always emphasized excellence. This has been rationalized as being the result of putting God’s product, the church, out there as reflecting the best that the world can observe. I have always felt that given the NDL foundation of the leader, it really was about creating clothes that looked good and hid the brokenness of the leader. Since all the perfection was embedded in “God talk”, it was hard to differentiate the pathology from the virtue. It is only in looking at the dark and foreboding way that this external “God-good” was repressively maintained that it becomes evident that the perfectionist drive was coming out of the shadow of the leader.
It has been obvious to anyone on the inside of Willow Creek that Bill had (may still have) huge power and control. His imprimatur is stamped on everything. Even the elders were “fits” with his needs and seemed to operate in sync with his expectations. By force of his charismatic personality, he collected around himself a cadre of those who had a deep sense of psychological indebtedness to him. The result has been that these individuals seem to be rapturously fawning in their deference to him. Stories of conflict between Bill and personnel in the church are replete with awareness that Bill could dominate and get his way.
So, it is no deep mystery as to why the church elders have arduously resisted doing what they need to do to deal with this situation of alleged abuse. There appears to be a motivation of all that are in Bill’s debt to preserve a possibility that Bill is not what these allegations imply; thus, if it can be framed as a conflict needing reconciliation, then it preserves a sense of equality of responsibility that lessens the potential culpability of a leader that they cannot embrace as having done something so unilaterally wrong. They have protected the image of Bill, who they obviously see as the architect and virtually “owner” of the church. It can never be said that Willow Creek has not done a phenomenal job in multiple areas of Christ’s kingdom and Bill has been used by God in incredible ways. But success can often be the biggest blinder to seeing and dealing with the failures in some areas of the church or the leadership. Success should never insulate the church from ownership of its own brokenness, or that of its’ leaders.
It seems as if the elders cannot stomach the hard task of holding this particular leader accountable. Bill may be gone out of leadership, but the long reaching psychological arm of his influence still appears to control the process. Until the elders learn to differentiate themselves from who they are as seeming attendants to Bill’s charisma, they will not focus on the true issue, which is demonstrating that they will protect the victims, and by extension the members of the church, more than they will protect the shattered image of the leader. The whole unhealthy process by which, through intimidation strategies, the image or brand of the church has been focused on more than the health of the members, must be deconstructed.
A new approach that allows the church to embrace brokenness and be managed by grace must be implemented if anything is to be learned from the trauma of this whole situation. In addition, do not try to make the victims feel guilty by portraying them as obligated to reconcile. A thorough and neutral investigation must be undertaken if the elders want to create a true foundation of trust. Focusing on reconciliation so misses the intermediary step needed to show that the women are taken seriously. We would never ask a child that was abused by an adult to reconcile with that adult. Protect the victims. Protect the sheep and not the errant shepherd.
Listening to the latest update two things came to mind. Number one the management of this whole situation is, as I have indicated earlier, congruent with an organization whose identity is so fused with the founder that they can not separate themselves from the underlying indebtedness they have to BH. He basically chose them, groomed them to follow his vision, and now they cannot create an independent investigation that might implicate him. He has always controlled the process, and the elders who govern with his methods are following suit. They set up this flawed process whereby women must contact a conciliation organization that has past ties to Willow. Making the conditions untenable, when the women who have been abused refuse cooperation, they can then step back and say basically “we gave them the opportunity but they have not cooperated so what can we do?”. I think the elders would rather die than submit to what they may view as the conditions of the abused women, which would be engaging a truly independent expert in sexual abuse in the church. By setting things up the way that they have, they have insured that Bill is protected while they can say that they did something.
Secondly, is it me or does the secular world not do a better job at holding men accountable for their sexually abusive behavior? When Harvey Weinstein (sp?) was accused by numerous women of a pattern and practice of abusive behavior, did not the press and public have confidence that these things in deed happened? The accusations brought against Bill follow a pattern and practice that has been shared by at least 9 women that I have heard of at this point. In courts of law the historical “bad acts” of a defendant can be used as corroborating evidence of guilt. When multiple witnesses say basically the same thing describing similar acts the confidence level goes up that the person actually did the behavior that they were accused of. If this was a secular news item most people, due to the overwhelming amount of evidence, would conclude that the women were telling the truth. Should not the church, who supposedly is committed to truth, not show the world that they are willing to call sin sin and stop protecting the image of the leader?
ENTITLEMENT AND THE ABUSE OF POWER
If you were not able to read my post from a few weeks ago on my home page I am going to put it on this site to give context to my previous posts. It is doubtlessly true that both Bill’s and the church leaders’ inability to embrace the sin of abusing these women is due to the narcissistic elements of the church’s structure. Narcissists view life in binary ways, where they are either all right or all wrong. The greys of personal brokenness cannot be acknowledged because they expose the self to the judgement of critics. So they will irrationally metaphorically “kill” the victims in order to diminish the legitimacy of their accusations. The outer bubble of perfection can be poked in such a way that the self would collapse if sins “flaws”are acknowledged and repented of. So here is my assessment of the organizationql context of how I see Willow responding to this whole situation
I will give this caveat. This is my conclusion based on my observation and experience.This is long so bear with me.
In light of so many public revelations of indiscretions by individuals with a position of power in the recent months, I have summarized my thoughts on the subject.
As a systems oriented psychologist, I am fascinated by the way that organizations get constructed. This is true whether it be a family, an organization, or a church. I am particularly aware of the systemic elements in organizations that are constructed around the vision of a narcissistically impaired individual. Here is a summary of issues in this kind of organization.
The common factor in all of the cases of abuse of women, whether it is Bill Cosby or church leaders, is the concept of entitlement and the abuse of power. This attitudinal assumption is embedded in a narcissistic component of a successful person’s personality. Narcissism is a characteristic of personality that is best understood by the development of a sense of one’s specialness. Narcissism can develop as a result of two major developmental influences. One is an environment that elevates a child to a place of unwavering status where they are unconditionally valued and deserving only of positive responses. The other path is the one where narcissistic traits develop as a defense mechanism to protect the child when they are the object of shame producing parental figures, who demand perfection and get angry when it is not pursued.
Narcissistic qualities are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is often essential for a person to believe that they have what it takes to create success. These persons believe that they have a certain specialness that gives them a confidence to take risks and to gather people around them who get on board with the special vision of this kind of leader. The other edge of the sword is the fact that leaders with a narcissistic aspect to their personality contain a shadow component that is the seed of their own destruction.
Narcissistically Driven Leaders (NDL) tend to encase their lives and their organizations in a cloak of their own pathology. They see themselves as special and they believe that their creation, whether it is a church, an organization, or a career, must reflect the perfection of their own need to project this kind of image. Their force of personality generates high levels of control in the service of perfectly creating a vision of success. This kind of leader gathers around them those who get enamored by the success of the NDL and want to be an attendant to his successful vision. Think the Emperor who wore no clothes.
NDLs create organizations around their own pathology. Since the NDL has some deep shadow need to be special, often to prove their worth to a demanding parent, they drive an organization to reflect that specialness and push for results-oriented outcomes. They are often insensitive to the process of an organization, the organic interplay of complex human interaction, where empathy is critical, but rather drive others to adopt and implement their vision. The organization becomes the clothes of the Emperor, and they must look good. This is not a collaborative process, but rather one dependent on those willing to obey and cooperate with the vision of the leader. Narcissistic leaders generate a culture of fear, where failure is unacceptable, and the standards of the leader must be the standards of the attendants. Speed of the leader, speed of the team.
As the leader’s vision grows and becomes special and “successful”, the NDL starts to develope an insidious sense of entitlement. This is particularly problematic when the vision and the organization is the church. Where the NDL may start out idealistically and focused on the mission of their vision as being about God’s work, over time this line may get blurred. When the church gets big and has all the trappings of success, a subtle shift of ownership may occur. Since the NDL has driven the organization in his or her image, a sense of personal ownership may develop. “I did this, I sacrificed, I am the critical factor in this success, I had to drive this vision and get people to stay with the goals, I have worked tirelessly, etc.”
And so I am entitled. I can do what meets my needs and can contain any consequences. The NDL creates an insular environment where containment of any flaws or fluctuations from the intended vision get dealt with in a way that does not come to public awareness. NDLs may operate on the assumption that the “People owe me, are employed by me, have been chosen and groomed by me, etc”. And so, I can do what I desire with impunity. No one would believe anyone who challenged my behavior when it is inappropriate because I have blinded people to my flaws by creating an aura of my own perfection and success. Success can be the greatest deflector from inherent flaws in the NDL and the organizations that they construct. If someone criticizes an NDL, the leader deflects back on the critic by nuking their character in some way. Kill the messenger. Since the NDL often has a fragile core, structured around shame, they must overprotect their image, and cannot embrace the grey areas of their own imperfection. They may express rage due to an underlying threat to their very sense of self.
It is interesting that NDLs often self-destruct near the finish line of their lives or careers. That is because it takes years of building the edifice of their own success, and then, emboldened by their accomplishments they act on the fatal process of entitled behavior that begins to be revealed. After a while, the entitlement-based indiscretions or bruising of others start to seep out in ways that can no longer be contained. The container, either the NDL or his/her organization, cannot for long control the inevitable process that the fatal flaws will eventually crack the walls. And years of abuse then get revealed, either sexually or in the management of personnel within the organization. And their kingdoms collapse. They then are exposed in the most painfully shameful ways.
And for NDL men, the most common factor that brings them down is their tendency to play out their entitlement in the arena of sex and sexualizing women. Think King David. And NDLs do not surround themselves with true Nathans who speak into their blind spots. As part of the pathological selection process, the NDL surrounds himself/herself with those ultimately selected by the NDL who are so enmeshed with the NDL and the grandeur of their vision, that they have no platform of critical detachment. And so, sadly, without the purifying presence of those who can check the unhealthy management by the NDL of the organization, the house of cards eventually deconstructs. And it must because, particularly in the church, there can be no other foundation but Christ. The ultimate hope is that when these organizations begin to be revealed in their pathology, they can reconstruct, retain some of the good the organization has created, and fashion a culture that is more transparent and participatory.