Willow Creek Community Church Crisis: Where We Are At

Now that we are at the year mark post revelation of the sins of the founder, Bill Hybels, where is the church at at this point?

Institutional Trauma

Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) continues to be in a state of trauma that has not been addressed openly and honestly from the leadership and publicly from the stage. Statements to the effect that the church is going through a difficult season are equivalent to placing a band aid on a gaping wound. It appears that the leadership’s approach is to say the least possible about the reality of the crisis and hope that time diminishes the impact on the church. Meanwhile the numbers of both attenders and income has slowly diminished.

First what is trauma? Trauma occurs when an event happens to a person or community that is so intense and frightening or painful that it shatters one’s sense of self protection. The boundaries of ones’ life get penetrated in such a forceful way that one’s defenses get destroyed, leading to a sudden shift from a sense of safety to one of vulnerability. The emotions of fear become intense, and individuals seek any method to try to regain a sense of protection. The fear alert center of the brain goes on tilt, staying in a defensive and over vigilant state, scanning the world for further triggers of threat. This can lead to a lifetime of emotional turmoil and destructive patterns of trying to soothe the fear one feels.

What is institutional trauma? Let me give an example from outside of WCCC. On October 24th of 1995 a train hit a school bus in Fox River Grove, Illinois, killing 7 students. Instantaneously the communities of Fox River Grove and Cary Illinois went from having a sense of security to one of anxiousness. What had happened? The illusion that was unconsciously accepted that students were safe on public transportation was shattered. An illusion is like a bubble that gets poked by a pin and shatters into a million molecules. Suddenly a community that took safety for granted goes on high alert for the possibility of danger to students. Hundreds of parents became instantly distrustful of allowing their children to ride buses to school, and instead drove them in their cars.

Illusions are mostly unconscious and involve a set of unchallenged assumptions. What happened at WCCC was the explosion of the illusion of a perfect church and a perfect pastor. The bubble that surrounded the church with the illusions of its’ greatness was suddenly punctured and the underbelly of what had sustained that illusion was exposed. As with any trauma, many of the people affected went into a state of disorientation and ultimately, disillusionment.

Two Great Illusions Destroyed

With the revelation and confirmation by the IAG report that Bill Hybels had sexually abused women in the church and that he had used a governmental structure that gave him an unhealthy amount of power and control, two fundamental illusions were shattered.

The first illusion shattered was that of the assumption that Bill Hybels’s respected women and was someone who could be trusted to treat them with dignity and would protect them from sexual violation. The church placed him in a vaunted position that gave him an aura of perfection, so the idea that he could possibly violate the trust of women was almost impossible to accept in the view of many. This illusion was so powerful that if one or two women came forward with allegations, they would quickly be discounted, because the overwhelming illusion of Bill’s goodness would crush their stories. It was only after multiple women came forward saying basically the same thing that it was taken seriously.

No one wants our illusions to be crushed. We want heroes and people that we can trust. Many people at WCCC, to hold onto the illusion, had to cling onto a belief that these accusations were made up by unstable women. When illusions get destroyed, the aftermath is one of great distrust. If we cannot trust that our pastor is safe, who can we trust?

The second shattered illusion was that of the perfect church. WCCC has striven to create a product of perfection, apparently to show off God’s best to a watching world. The idea that we are a flawed community seeking to demonstrate to the world how Christians organically deal with visible pain apparently did not occur to the architect of the Willow model. As such it has pushed for showing off the best of everything, believing apparently that people who see the results will somehow be impressed and see Christians as flawless. One recurring theme in this perfectionist model is that of the “guest experience”. This idea is close to the same concept that Disney uses when people come to their theme parks. Everything must be perfect and magical, a little microcosm of heaven on earth. Not reality folks.

The revelation that Bill Hybels’ style of leadership was driven by his own narcissistic perfectionism, and involved behind the scenes patterns of unhealthy levels of power and control, has pulled back the curtain on how this “perfect” church actually functioned. The illusion that we all wanted to believe is that this perfect product (the church) was created by a healthy process. Because it looks good it must have been built in a healthy way. That, as I have described in previous blogs, is a form of hypnotism, where we get so mesmerized by the greatness of what we see that we automatically assume that it was produced in healthy, Godly ways. But that in fact was not true. When we focus on the product (a well oiled machine church) and presume that it was produced by a good process, we are shocked and disillusioned when reality breaks through. The Hoover Dam is a spectacular achievement, but the number of people that died and the demanding work pressure that operated behind the scenes to produce it is out of our awareness. It is just awesome!

Secrecy, deception , and fear were the operative principles in keeping the church’s facade intact. Secrecy was enforced using Non Disclosure Agreements, where in exchange for silence about the tactics the church used, money was offered for a severance package. This guaranteed that the hurtful practices of how the church eliminated potential threats to its’ image got spirited away. It assured that the distasteful practices behind the scenes would not be revealed. It hid the bullying practices of the senior pastor and his henchmen that were loyal to him. It created the Elder Response Team with its’ trauma inducing strong arm approach to cleansing “problem people” in the church. So what got uncovered as the illusion broke was the fact that this good looking product, WCCC, was in fact created and sustained by behind the scenes sinful behavior that sought to only let people see what made the church look good. Fired and traumatized individuals were collateral damage in the service of protecting the brand. At this point only the courage of Mike Breaux has provided an honest peep hole into the practice of getting people out of the church when they may have questioned the strong arm tactics of the leader by making them say that “God is leading me in a new direction”. True if Bill Hybels is God.

The Intersection of Individual and Institutional Trauma

In the example of the bus accident trauma, the communities provided a number of resources to help people cope. I was part of a mental health trauma team that recognized that this trauma affected everyone and that people would need to seek help to re stabilize their lives. It is interesting and sad that secular institutions recognize the need for intervention when trauma occurs, while the church responds in a somewhat indifferent way. The reality is that due to the shattering of the illusions described above, thousands of people have been affected by traumatic emotions. WCCC leadership has failed to give a broad congregational framework from the public stage to help people give an understanding to what they may be feeling emotionally. The church is called to “speak the Truth” but the severe minimization of this earthquake event at WCCC has been treated like just a “bad season”. I think the prophets of old would get in the face of WCCC leadership and challenge them to call what has happened what it is. A quake of 9 or 10 on the emotional Richter scale. History has shown that when people are not treated with the honest information they need to cope, organizations falter. And this is as it should be, since if leaders cannot speak honestly and call sin sin, there is a deep and abiding sense that they are not trustworthy and not worthy of our belief that they will protect the Body of Christ from the destructiveness of sinful practices. Are we worried about lawsuits? Have we joined the litigious spirit of the age? Can you imagine Jesus not saying the Truth because He feared a law suit? Clearly the cost of discipleship involves speaking Truth and trusting God with the outcome.

The broader institutional trauma affected people in different ways. The breaking of the illusion of trust of the senior pastor relative to sexual improprieties likely activated an enormous traumatic reaction to a huge number of women in the church who have been sexually violated. In the United States one out of three women have reported some kind of contact sexual violence in their lives. These micro traumas had a huge impact on these women’s sense of vulnerability and lack of safety. If the statistics bear out at WCCC, a conservative estimate would be that about 2500 women in the church have experienced this trauma. When the larger systemic trauma occurred and the illusion of safety in the male senior pastor was destroyed, it is likely that many of these women experienced a reactivation of their original trauma. Women who felt that at least the church was a safe place to trust men, now, may well be disillusioned. The church will not know how often this trauma reaction occurred because they have not set up mechanisms to allow these affected women to come forth and get help. Many of these women may have simply left the church, disillusioned and in pain.

The weak and glossed over way that the women’s trauma has been handled is disgraceful. These women experienced the traumatic violation of their illusions that their pastor/leader was safe. Little has been said about the reality of how these women have been hurt. They should be celebrated as courageous whistle blowers of an ugly truth in the church. The most the church will say at this point is that the investigative report confirmed the legitimacy of the women’s stories. Duh! What the leadership is not acknowledging is the reality of the way that this sexual behaviour likely destabilized both the women who came forward and the women in the church who have experienced past sexual trauma. If this is not owned, discussed publicly, and a strong commitment to regaining the trust of women, the church will not, I believe, see God’s long-term blessing. WCCC needs to declare strongly that this happened, harmed multiple women, likely created a sense of distrust in the safety of men and male leaders in the church, and that they will do what it takes to regain women’s sense of safety. If I was a women who had been sexually violated, either by BH or other perpetrators, I would not feel that I could trust a church that minimizes this trauma in the way that WCCC is seeking to “manage it”. Take the bull by the horns and wrestle this problem into a healthy resolution. Image be damned!

The revelation of the strong armed tactics used to sanitize the church’s image, may have triggered many in the church who have their own trauma stories of abuse in the workplace. This could have, for them, triggered enormous pain and distrust, because they may have felt that at least the church is a place that we can trust to treat people with dignity and respect. The revelation of tactics of abuse and deception likely have activated the trauma of many who have experienced work place abuse. And so many people who were driven out of WCCC employment by insensitive and sinful tactics have their own ongoing trauma to deal with. And regular congregants who were forced out of the church due to the church’s need to eliminate “problem people” are living with the pain of their own trauma. No where does it appear that the church is going to publicly acknowledge this wrong doing or offer help for those afflicted.

The real problem is that many who are still on staff were complicit in enabling or even engaging in the behaviors modeled by BH. In dealing with this openly and honestly they may be afraid of implicating themselves. It seems like everyone wants to focus only on the behavior of BH, as if they were victims of his bullying behavior, and could not do anything to stop it. The truth is that they did not collectively confront the broken-ness, either out of fear of BH’s disapproval, or fear of loss of their job. The reality is that the work culture of WCCC was formed from the perfectionistic driven-ness of BH, but every person that bought into that model and learned to treat people consistent with his bullying behavior is complicit. There is no public acknowledgement of this reality, where people show lament for their sins in engaging in the broken tactics of a sinful model of perfection. How do we as congregants know that these people have owned their own participation in these destructive and soul damaging tactics? The number of people who participated in the trauma inducing behaviors of the Elder Response Team have not publically owned their sinful behavior, at least not to the larger body of Christ. Multiple stories of traumatic abuse by the Human Resource department of WCCC exist. Are these people still free to continue their behavior? Has their behavior been identified and how is it going to be held accountable?

Summary

The intersection of the larger institutional trauma that WCCC has experienced, which very likely triggered trauma in multiple individuals within the church, has not been dealt with in a strong, aggressive way. Although I have seen attempts in one of the regional campuses to address the trauma, the problem is that only a few people have enough understanding of the trauma to engage in discussion groups. The congregants in the church have to have a conceptual framework about the institutional effects of trauma in order for them to recognize or identify with its’ impact on them.

So why has leadership for the most part ignored dealing with the earthquake that has hit WCCC? Is it because the leadership that remains was so much a part of the fabric of this abusive process that they are still minimizing the reality of the disillusionment that has been created? Those that have been formed or molded into the use of tactics that seek to hide and eliminate any ugliness in WCCC may be so immersed in this process that they cannot step back and recognize their underlying participation in the perfection producing culture at WCCC.

As I have previously explained, churches are like larger families. Families that minimize trauma and pain and seek to ignore it and hope that time diminishes it ultimately fail. This is because the deep healing needed is not brought to the surface. Families where trauma has occurred need parents to own their part and speak to the reality of the pain that exists. Only then do the family members start to heal and trust again.

This blog is about where we are at, and the next two blogs will be about how we got here, and then what we need to do. Those that are involved with WCCC must demand change, and not just passively sit back and hope the church leadership does what should be done. If we want a church that eventually, and not in our lifetime, gets presented as “without spot and wrinkle” we must find ways to pursue honest and transparent engagement with our leadership. We have to move away from an elitist view of leadership. The new “set point” of a healthy WCCC must be shifting from an image of perfection to a process of honest and visible wrestling with the real issues of how human families (churches) reveal their struggles and demonstrate healthy ways to resolve them. We need to have confidence that those who lead us have the courage to identify and confront sin in the culture of WCCC. If they do not , we can have no confidence that the illusion that has been shattered will not simply be recreated.

4 thoughts on “Willow Creek Community Church Crisis: Where We Are At

  1. You have posted elsewhere that you don’t believe that BH is working on restoration. Is that still the case? What has he been doing with himself? It’s as though he’s ridden off and left Willow hanging. I’d expect more than that from the 42 year pastor of the church.

  2. Once again excellent, but doubtful if any of this will be read and absorbed by those still affiliated with the Willows who want and need the past, including people who will not just go along to get along, to be bulldozed over and paved under.

    Best thing would be is for WCCC and the WCA/GLC to run their courses and eventually fade away and shut down.

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