The Elders of Willow Creek Community Church Should Resign
When a body of leaders has acted in such a way as to lose the trust of the governed, they need to step aside. A no confidence vote must be enacted to point out that the actions of those in leadership are so egregious to the well being of the body of Christ that they must be removed. This, I believe, is the current state of the leadership of Willow Creek.
In looking at leadership from an elder perspective in the body of Christ, wisdom is the paramount attribute by which an elder/leader must be appraised. The reason that wisdom is so vital in the church is that it is the characteristic virtue by which the spiritual health of the body of Christ is assessed. From a biblical perspective, wisdom is a form of intelligence informed by years of vetting the values of life into two basic categories. First, the values of the non-believing secular world and second, the values of the Kingdom of Christ. Elders should have examined values over a long period of time conversant with the scriptures and have, like a sword, separated life into the two above categories. They should be able to quickly identify and call out actions and attitudes that conflict with the value system of Christ. In essence, elders are the guardians of the culture of the Kingdom and two supreme qualities should be evident in their administration of wisdom. First they must show discernment, which is the capacity to recognize and evaluate values based upon the underlying criterion of the Word. Second, they must demonstrate judgement, which is the capacity to act and determine wise choices to protect the culture of the Body of Christ. The elders have demonstrated grievous deficiencies in this arena relative to the developing crisis of the abuse of power by Bill Hybels.
Rebuild the walls
In the book of Nehemiah there is the narrative of how the walls of Jerusalem stood in disrepair and Nehemiah grieved in anguish at the condition of the city and the people. He was moved to rebuild the walls, and showed courage in that process. Now the walls of a city in the Old Testament were both literally and figuratively a boundary that separated the people within from the people without. The job of the leaders, seen in the people of Israel, was to build those walls of protection, because they allowed the differentiation of their people as Jews from those who were often their enemies. The metaphoric link to walls in our day are the somewhat invisible walls that separate actions and values that are distinctly Christlike from those that are not. The job of the elders in the church “walls” is to be vigilant in their capacity to separate what belongs inside the walls (behavior consistent with Christ-like-ness) and what belongs outside these theoretical walls. And it was wisdom that allowed them to discern and make judgments and call out and protect against those values and behaviors that sought to infiltrate the culture of the Kingdom. That is why elders must have a deep hold on the Truth of the Word and an evident capacity to differentiate Truth from error.
So in the Old Testament, the walls were important to create boundaries of identity between the people of God and those who were not. Critical to the concept of the walls were the gates of the city walls. Gates were the critical entrance points through which anything from the outside would funnel and potentially penetrate into the inside of the city. It was critical that sentries were established that were equipped with the vetting ability to determine who was an enemy and who was not. Enemies could come in and plunder and kill and pollute the culture of the city in unacceptable ways. Often elders sat at the gates of the cities to serve as those who could separate friendlies from foes.
Proverbs 1:20-22. “Wisdom calls out in the street, she lifts her voice in the square, in main concourse she cries aloud, at the city gates she makes her speech: How long, O simple ones, will you love simplicity? How long will scoffers delight in their scorn and fools hate knowledge?…” Berean Study Bible
Four Breaches of the Wall
So, the elders are to be the gatekeepers, the vigilant and discerning detectors of that which seeks to invade and pollute the values and culture of the Kingdom. They are the protectors of the flock, of the people of God, the Kingdom of Christ. But in at least three crucial areas the Willow elders have allowed the breaching of the wall. This is the foundation for calling for a no confidence stance and asking for their resignation.
Breach One- The elders have failed to protect the body of Christ by not swiftly placing Bill Hybels on a leave of absence while a clear, unbiased, and independent investigation went on to determine the extent of truth of the allegations of sexual sin. Instead, they caved to his overbearing personality and basically gave him the benefit of the doubt probably because they did not believe the women. To allow a potential predator to continue in the body is essentially like leaving a wolf in the sheep pasture. Every women that has been abused by a man knows the terror of having to continue to live in the presence of their perpetrator. Protect the sheep first! This shows a critical lack of discernment and judgement and is reason number one to disqualify the current elders.
Breach Two- The elders, during the time frame that they were “investigating” the allegations against Bill Hybels, allowed him to choose his successors. He was being looked at for impropriety but apparently his character qualified him to make a decision that would have long term future implications for the church. What organization would allow someone under the shadow of scandal to stay in a position of this much influence? Apparently, the current elders. What kind of wisdom informs that decision? Parenthetically, what organization has such weak leaders that they do not trust their own independent ability to choose a strong leader for their organization? A sub reason for disqualification. And could there be greater evidence of the narcissism that I have previously described then what we observed when Bill gave his retirement speech, saying that no one person could possibly fill his shoes and that they had to split the job in two? And then making the grandiose statement that the world had been scoured to come up with the two that were already in place. And those two were his personally selected attendants who would allow him to continue de facto control from afar.
Breach Three- The decision to hire a reconciliation group to deal with Bill Hybels behaviors is the last major indication that the elders lack wisdom and therefore disqualify themselves from continued leadership. Reconciliation obviously (but not apparently to the elders) indicates a level playing field of responsibility. It so dilutes the responsibility of the offender that it is laughable if not for the sickness that it demonstrates. A wise and discerning elder would have quickly known that focusing on reconciliation before confession is not part of the values of the Kingdom of Christ. They would have quickly known that that was an inappropriate “getting the cart before the horse”. And they would have had the empathy to know how that would look like a slap in the face of women who had been so egregiously failed by a man they were supposed to trust.
Breach Four- A fourth indication of the elders failure to use discernment and good judgement. When it was shared during the first family meeting at Willow that the woman who had alleged a long term affair with Bill became suicidal they allowed Bill to counsel her. Now as a mental health professional I know that the assessment and treatment of a suicidal person is the highest risk intervention possible. Only people who are licensed and qualified by experience should have involvement with this type of individual. One of the highest areas of liability for a mental health professional is in the detection and best practices intervention with these fragile individuals. To allow someone who was the target of an accusation of sexual impropriety, even if it was subsequently recanted, to counsel the person doing the accusation is on its face irresponsible. To allow someone who does not have the requisite qualifications to intervene with someone like that is reckless at best. The church was placed in a legally vulnerable position by the elders allowing Bill to be the one to “treat” this individual. So unwise and a further indication of why the elders should resign.
As Scott McKnight, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2018/07/09/willow-why-the-women-went-public/ so eloquently explained Willow is an autonomous entity. As I have outlined, Willow was created around the core narcissism of its leader, so that he alone was the final authority in the governance model. A narcissistic-ally generated organization can be described using the emperor who wore no clothes story. To borrow a metaphor, the organization is structured kind of like how we have come to understand black holes. Black holes are at the very central point of a swirling of matter and exercise an enormous strong gravitational force on everything in its field of influence. Think concentric circles. The narcissistic leader is like the black hole itself, exerting enormous influence and power. He or she then has a ring of chosen leaders who have a great deal of power, but only derivative power from the leader. The elders and Steve and Heather are in this ring. The next circle out are the C level leaders whose power and influence can be great but again are derivative. Moving down the org chart are managers and then the people who do clerical work etc. As the circles get further from the black hole, the direct influence of the workers diminishes. The final ring in the circle are the congregants, and they can be subdivided into engaged and disengaged. The engaged people in the church feel connected because they are doing something to volunteer for the church and so feel they have a vital role. The disengaged come mostly for entertainment or passive learning.
So, in this kind of autonomous structure how can change occur at the top? Since the elders now have lost their center, who manages them? Who calls them out? Effectively they have no higher authority than God, and when they are following patterns that reveal a lack of God inspired wisdom who challenges them? The elders have shown a pattern of repression of Truth. When they are approached they basically tell people to trust them. Huh? The very fabric of wisdom has been breached and we are to trust them. Unfortunately they have disqualified themselves from trust.
Willow, in the governance model that it has developed, has concentrated a hugely disproportionate amount of power and control in a very small number of people. Mainly Bill Hybels. But when the powerful fail who are they accountable to in this structure? As Scott McKnight described, they have no higher denominational guidance. They repress truth in the interest of protecting an unbiblical set of values- that of looking good publicly and keeping the numbers up. Willow has used repression of truth in very strategic ways. Dictatorial and corrupt governments can use mass killing and torture to keep the common people from seeking change. Willow has used non-disclosures and financial manipulation and threats from law firms to keep people in line. Willow also keeps getting new and uninformed people who misinterpret real Biblical success from what they see on stage or in the programs of the church. These individuals would be the hardest to convince that something is deeply wrong at Willow. Fortunately most repressive organizations eventually foment so much discontent that they are brought down. It is probably going to take enough people who are discerning of the unhealthiness of Willow’s leadership, to demand change. The entire governance structure of Willow needs to be deconstructed and rebuilt on Biblical foundations and with people who have true wisdom as its leaders.