As the curtain gets pulled back on Willow Creek Community Church, the practices of the church are beginning to be revealed as a collective effort to create a smooth running and flawless image. The tactics used can be understood as essentially repressive. In other words, information about how the church was managed was secretive and kept from public scrutiny. From Non Disclosure Agreements to sending people away that many in the church loved, the common theme was that of keeping people unaware of the reasons behind many of the moves that were made. The paternalistic approach of “trust us, we know best” was pushed by leaders from Bill Hybels to the elders and to many other top tier leaders. Like a dysfunctional family, secrets were the fabric of the policies and practices of a church bent on presenting an image of a perfect church. All in the distorted name of Christ. God would want us to show the world the best of who we are, they implied.
Perfect Trauma Storm
When image is more important than integrity, any method used to clean the church of anything that looks ugly gets justified. The most painful repressive “cleansing” tactic of Willow was the actions of the Elder Response Team. Although ostensibly formed to deal with issues like confronting people who might come into the church to scam members financially, or those that might aggressively seek to push an apostate set of beliefs, or those who might be pushing a pet political agenda, the reality of many of the actions of this group was the elimination of people who represented some blemish to the church’s reputation or brand. People who might have had a past sexual issue, for instance, that could come to light, were dealt with by what amounts to an un-biblical excommunication of those individuals. Almost all of these individuals simply did something that potentially brought negative press to the church. In a healthy church these issues would be worked out in a way that is spiritually restorative, based on Galatians 6 principles and Matt. 18 procedures. The intent should be to help and heal and retain people in the fold of the church. The methods of the ERT, on the other hand, resulted in people being put outside the church in a way that violates biblical standards. Tossed on the dung heap and never followed up on in a restorative way. Problem over, image protected, and on to the next challenge. The ERT members likely assumed that their actions would never see the light of day. But, due to the courageous willingness of many who are recognizing the abuse they endured, a narrative of trauma generation is beginning to be comprehended.
The stories that are coming out share a common theme. Someone came to the ERT with a concern, often based on hearsay, that compelled the ERT to call a meeting. The ERT members did not give a clear explanation of what their concerns were or what they wanted to talk about, creating an aura of angst on the part of the person being called to the meeting. Going in, the individuals who were called to this church court had elevated anxiety. What did I do, am I in trouble, what will happen? All questions that jack up the anticipatory fear of individuals. No real clear indication of what this was all about. Enter the scare chamber. Then, this authoritarian group of ERT members, who outnumbered the congregant, brought them onto the church’s turf in the most scare producing environment possible. As the meeting proceeded, the members essentially ambushed the congregant with a litany of accusations. From the perspective of someone like myself, who deal in the treatment of trauma clients, you could not create a more trauma incubating environment. And the ERT is not innocent due to ignorance.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Many who experienced the actions of the ERT developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Why? Because these ERT meetings were the perfect storm for trauma creation. As has been explained, the power differential of the ERT representing this monolithic giant that has projected the illusion of perfection is so great that intimidation is enormous. Intimidation causes massive fear. Fear of judgement, fear of being abandoned by ones’ church, fear of others looking down on them because the ERT has deemed them so flawed as to warrant expulsion.
Excessive fear puts the individual in a place were trauma based memories get formed in the brain. The most lasting consequences of this is the development of a general sense of vulnerability, where authority figures become intensely threatening and where events that remind the person of the original trauma get heightened. As an example, many people received certified letters (shown below) by a person who served them to their home. The ringing of the door bell got associated with the trauma of receiving these letters from the church and so any time their door bell rang they jumped and felt a sense of terror. Long lasting consequences of these trauma generating tactics of the ERT. Real damage to real people. And could anyone, if they knew of this, possibly reconcile this with the love of Christ? We were mesmerized and kept in the dark. All in the name of cleansing the image of the church. One person shared that they found out that before this brutal process occurred and letters were sent, the church wanted to know if the person tithed. Those that did not give much were easily expendable. All of these tactics were done to cleanse the image of the church. Much like ethnic cleansing resulted in all that were considered defective, so those that represented some flaw that could become a blemish on the church’s reputation had to be excised like a wart.
Many of the victims of the ERT abusive behaviors describe symptoms that reflect PTSD just from the conditions of the meeting. But, to ratchet up the intimidation even more, as a follow through, the ERT would resort to THE LETTER. The letter was the ultimate scare tactic, the nuclear option, signed by an ERT member and sent out from the church’s law firm. Can we create a bigger scare tactic than this? This is the final trauma inducing move, calculated to so frighten the individual that they do not dare associate with Willow people and slink off in a deep sense of shame. The efforts of the ERT are to get people to go away, a form of non-biblical excommunication. They are scared into silence, which has a double negative consequence. First, these individuals, who need to process this trauma, in essence are directed to live with this pain and secrecy in silence. This is a factor in intensifying the trauma. The ERT banks on the idea that they are big and the person is small, and no one will believe them. Second, it effectively keeps information contained, so that the actions of the ERT are kept from critical scrutiny by the public. The dynamics are essentially like David and Goliath.
David And Goliath
Think of it. You as a little insignificant attender of this mega-church, who has tried to volunteer and give what you can to the church, gets brought into this scare chamber, where all the power is on the side of these imposing judges and jurors. (It is reminiscent of the Star Chamber, a former court of inquisitorial and criminal jurisdiction, known for its’ intimidation of all that came before its’ body.) Then, often without fact checking the stories that had been told to them, they render a judgement about the congregants life. This church, your church, to which you have felt a sense of connection , often for many years, suddenly gives you the nuclear sanction-ostracism. You are banished, thrown away so that the church was swept “clean”.
Coming Out of The Shadows
A courageous group of people who were victims of this abuse have begun to emerge, empowered by telling their stories and getting the support and empathy of many people. These stories are becoming a clear indication of a pattern of unacceptable actions by a church that advertised itself as a place for grace.
To illustrate the tactics of the ERT the story of Theresa is instructive. Theresa gave me permission to share her story which is an exemplar of so many stories that are coming to the light. She grew up at Willow. She spent years in the church, feeling much of the good that existed in the experience. She felt that it was her spiritual home and her church friends were part of her extended family. Over time she became a volunteer and towards the end of her time was a girls small group leader in Student Impact. She got together with other female leaders socially and they shared intimate information about their lives. She heard stories of behavior by leaders that would likely be frowned upon by the church but did not want to tell on people.
At one point Theresa shared that she was engaged in premarital sexual relations with her fiance/now husband. She revealed this behavior to a staff leader in Student Impact, acknowledging that this leader might want her to step down. Instead, the staff leader told her to continue her role as small group leader because she was loved by her girls and needed. She was assurred that it was alright that she continue leading and so she did. She was on the verge of completing her time of serving as she was about to get married in the fall, and this was the early spring.
Theresa went on a vacation with her fiance and brought back some bracelets for her girls as gifts. At a point 8 months after she finished with her role as leader, she was asked to meet with the staff leader and another leader. They informed her that there were rumors of parents that were not happy with her because of her having given her girls the bracelets that somehow represented the premarital sexual behavior that she had shared earlier and gotten permission to continue her serving. These were murky statements like “people are upset”, without any specific person being named and no attempt to follow the Matthew 18 process that was outlined as the way church conflict should be resolved.
Theresa was then asked to talk with the executive pastor of the campus church she attended and at which she served. At this time, she was dealing with the death of her biological father, who she had met when she was 15 but had not had a relationship with, and was about to celebrate her bridal shower. She connected via email with the executive pastor, they decided to meet a few weeks later, and so she felt she had followed their protocol. She has a copy of the email that verified that they had pushed the meeting out to a later date, acceptable to the executive pastor. Then, while she was home, she gets a knock on the door and receives a certified letter. This is the letter.
The letter obviously implied that she was avoiding communication over the issues that had been raised. The letter implies that she was still engaged as a volunteer, even though she had ended her involvement due to her impending wedding. This was the beginning of years of trauma, depression, hurt, and shame. She felt like she was treated like a pariah, thrown on the dump outside her church. No shepherding counsel to help her if they felt she was in error. She was a vulnerable person who was powerless against the might of this institution. She is a fighter and immediately called and had a meeting with the ERT.
She called and got a meeting with the individuals listed on the letter. She then sat with who she now understands is the ERT and showed them evidence about how she was scheduled to meet with the executive pastor and that she was not ignoring their desire to talk further about the situation. They implied that she was posting negative information about the church on the internet and potentially trying to influence her girls. None of this was verified as true. Theresa believes that what drove much of this was the potential for her outing the staff member who had revealed potentially damaging personal information.
Finding out that they had jumped the gun, the ERT members basically said, “oops”, I guess we made a mistake. No empathy for the pain they had inflicted. No suggestions as to how they could make this right for Theresa. Just “oops”. No recognition that this intensely intimidating experience was the basis for the development of PTSD. They lacked the social/emotional intelligence that would help informed people to recognize that the tactics they were using were destructive and spiritually damaging. And by the way, as said above, these ERT leaders run recovery groups at Willow for victims of abuse. What??
This is one of a multitude of stories that are coming out and must be dealt with by the church. Theresa is scheduled to have a meeting with myself and the people involved in this travesty to try to get resolution and healing. The church needs to allow multiple people to confront their abusers in a protected atmosphere. If the church chooses to keep this deeply repressive and damaging practice from being dealt with, it will likely experience the public exposure of these practices.