It has been pretty clear that the “event” of exposure of sexual improprieties of the senior pastor at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) is starting to recede into the past and a focus on change or restoration is the predominant momentum of the church at this point. This process is not unlike any trauma that occurs in a dysfunctional organization. In a family, for instance, an event can occur that is intense and destabilizing, and the momentum of the family is to restore stability as quickly as possible. In healthy families the experience is explored and processed in a way that allows the full expression of the emotional pain of each family member and constructing positive changes to avoid the recurrence of the problematic event are explored.
In unhealthy families the trauma is minimized, and the idea of “time heals all wounds” mentality is pervasive. The immediate objective is to re-stabilize the family system as quickly as possible. Respect for each family member who has experienced pain and suffering due to the event is ignored. The family simply goes back to the pattern of unhealthy behavior that fostered the problem in the first place. In some ways this is understandable because it is what the family knows and is the process of restoration of the family set point, values, and behaviors that are familiar.
But without a fundamental shift in the core functioning of the family process, the inevitable outcome is the continued creation of the problems and traumatic events that are fostered by unhealthy practices. The characteristics of a healthy family are: 1) recognition that each member of the family is unique and has a contribution to the well-being of the whole. 2) Anger is listened to and understood as an expression of the frustration that each member may have in the course of living together. 3) Feelings are openly expressed and are the basis of having empathy for one another. 4) Each family member is respected as having a set of needs and point of view that should be acknowledged and, where appropriate, incorporated into the family decision making process. 5) The rules of the family make sense and work towards the best interest of each member, rather than dictated in a way that benefits only those in authority. 6) The pain and struggles in the family are acknowledged and not minimized. 7) Parents, as leaders, are approachable and not threatened by questions about their rules or leadership style. 8) Also, parents, as leaders, are not rigid, but flexible in incorporating new information about how to conduct the family in healthy ways.
The church, as I have discussed in earlier blogs, is a bigger and more complex system, but, in a fundamental way, should follow the same guidelines of what a healthy family looks like. Used as a guideline for how WCCC has responded to the trauma of its’ fallen senior pastor, these characteristics are not being followed to process the “event” that has occurred.
If WCCC were processing this experience in a healthy way, the situation would be talked about openly and honestly. No euphemistic references to “this season” of the church’s life, but instead pointing out the sin that has occurred, the pain that it has inflicted on the congregation, calling the senior pastor back to repent, and most of all keeping the victims of all this, the women, front and center.
If healthy processes were followed, the pain that has been inflicted on multiple women would be honestly recognized and discussed. The church would see this as an opportunity to show its’ commitment to the sexual safety and dignity of women. Is this really what WCCC thinks about sexual abuse of women? That a minimal reference should be made to their pain and suffering? If WCCC’s response to all of this is a model of how the church deals with the violation of women, what is the message they are sending to the secular community at large?
Why no prayer for the victims? Why no open and honest acknowledgment of the level of pain that they have gone through as a result of the actions of the senior pastor? Why no reaching out to the women, asking them to come to a service, and publicly acknowledging that the church recognizes the horror of their experience? Why no public ownership of the church’s complicity in enabling an obviously entitled senior pastor that used his position to harm innocent women? Why no admittance of the fact that multiple levels of leadership failed to confront and therefor protect the (female) flock from the predatory actions of one man? Is it because the current leadership, in doing all of the above, brings the focus back on themselves in a way that they do not want to acknowledge?
As I have written before, this is not just the sin of one man. It is the sin of the church. It is systemic sin, that, in the name of covering imperfection, allowed obvious patterns of behavior to continue that were sinful and destructive to the safety and security of the female members of the flock. What is needed is systemic confession. As scripture clearly points out we must confess our sin to be healed. It is like putting topical pain killer on a tooth that has infection at the core. It has to be lanced to heal. In trying to isolate this situation to one man and an “event” in the past, the leadership is in effect trying to dull the pain without really getting to the infection.
I will believe that WCCC leadership is serious about true healing when it publicly does the following: 1) Expresses the deep empathy it has for the pain that was inflicted upon the abused women 2) Keep them current by praying openly for their healing 3) Inviting them to a public service where they are affirmed and their pain acknowledged. 4) The leadership who have been complicit in the enabling process have the courage to own it and ask for forgiveness, both of the congregation and of the women 5) Bring the hidden nature of how this whole thing has been managed out into the open where they can acknowledge the legitimacy of the pain that the congregation has gone through.
Without this, WCCC is simply a dysfunctional system desperately seeking to restore and preserve what is clearly unhealthy. The current culture of minimal communication, minimal mentioning of the trauma, and the general “trust us” mentality is simply anesthetizing an infection.