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.