If I were a woman at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC), particularly one who, as almost a third of all women, has experienced some form of sexual abuse, this is what I would conclude about WCCC’s view of women and of predatory sexual behavior by men. This is based on what I have observed as the response of the church to what was a cataclysmic revelation of the sexual in-appropriateness of the senior pastor of the church. It is difficult to understand what WCCC’s strategic process has been in dealing with the crisis. As in so many other leadership decisions at WCCC, what the process is, who gave input into how it should be implemented, and what the goals should be are not immediately understandable. As a systemic and trauma professional, I have written a great deal on systems and trauma, but the leadership has chosen not to consult with my perspective. All I can go on is what I see.
Seriousness of Sexual Predatory Behavior By Leadership in the Church
Sexual abuse of women in WCCC by men is at worst something to be denied, minimized, or weakly reported as “credible” in the church. If instead it was presented as extremely serious, real, and traumatic in the family of WCCC, it would have quickly been accepted as true, condemned in no uncertain way, and the perpetrator called out as having done a horrific sinful devaluation of both the courageous victim-women that came forth in the church, as well as all of the women victims from other perpetrators. The actions of leadership would have recognized the traumatic disillusionment that came from the realization that a supposedly trustworthy and woman-valuing senior pastor had pierced the veil of trust and safety of women in the church’s family.
Instead, the response became an arduous gathering of the facts, diluting the emotional intensity of the crisis because of a cautious concern about the credibility of the victims. WCCC is, by virtue of the lack of strong and passionate exposure of the truth, minimizing the fierce reality of not only the courageous women that came forward, but also the sense of safety and trust in the church as a whole by multiple women who have experienced abuse. WCCC is treating this situation like what often happens in families or organizations. Rather than believing the victims, the leadership of WCCC began a process of initial denial, shaming the victims, protecting the perpetrator, and then slow acknowledgement of the horrific truth of the victims stories.
Families where a father or son perpetrate abuse on a daughter often seek to protect the perpetrator, and often victim-shame the women by challenging the authenticity of the claims of sexual abuse. All manner of rationalizations are used to protect the image of the perpetrator because the exposure of his sexual abuse would cause the financial collapse of the family, or the abuser would lose status, or an ugly legal situation would occur. All of these approaches focus on protecting the perpetrator over the victim. This appears to be happening at WCCC. There is some unexplained reluctance to call Bill Hybels out for his degrading sinful behavior towards women. Why? As has been the case in multiple scenarios at WCCC, the truth is a stranger. The narrative is controlled due hidden motivations. Is it fear of lawsuits, fear of financial collapse, fear of loss of people at the church, fear of the perceived big-ness of BH and his personality, or fear of the global reputation of the church?
Not Protected In The Moment Of Crisis
When unsafe things are revealed and trauma is induced, healthy families and organizations recognize the needs of the traumatized individuals and provide real time interventions. From all appearances, the process of how they are dealing with the crisis of disclosure that has occured at WCCC, looks like what happens when deception and cover up are accepted as a game plan for minimizing the damage. Secular responses to trauma put WCCC to shame. I have been involved in a number of major crisis events, from 9/11, Cary-Grove bus crash, Northern Illinois University shooting, to the Red Lake Minnesota school shooting. When these events occurred, the first response was not to spend one and one half years gathering the facts, but rather an immediate intervention occurs. We did critical incidence debriefing, because the quick response helps people at the most critical window of opportunity to help prevent long term residual effects of trauma.
WCCC should have immediately offered opportunities for women who were re-traumatized by the revelation of a supposedly trustworthy leader’s sexual behavior. The overwhelming number of women who had reported abuse was enough to give immediate circumstantial validity to the revelation of abuse. They needed immediate care, validation, comfort, and should have been offered the opportunity to process their feelings in the moment. The laborious process that appears to be the guiding strategy of WCCC is just plain wrong. By the time that the leadership gathers all the facts and stories, and presumably makes a definitive declaration of the correctness of the accusations against BH, the trauma will have faded, women who were retraumatized by the shocking exposure of the leader likely will have left or concluded that the church is not a safe place. The church should have immediately provided pastoral and counseling resources for all women affected by the trauma of awareness that comes from the revelation that a perpetrator was in the midst of the church.
It Is Risky To Speak The Truth
If I were a woman at WCCC, I would conclude that it was dangerous to come out with the truth about an icon. Like a perpetrator father, the need to maintain the image and illusion of the leader results in the victims getting attacked for their truth. The women who have come forward have been vilified by those who desperately want to maintain the illusion that Bill Hybels, the visionary founder and developer of WCCC, could not have done what he is accused of doing. To keep the illusion going, the women’s truth must be questioned, maligned, diminished, and attacked. The courageous women that have come forward with truth have been deeply doubted and devalued. This adds insult to injury, in that they already experienced the trauma of abuse, and are then abused further by those who wanted to silence them to keep the comfortable illusion of the idealized leader intact.
If I was a woman at WCCC, I would have to conclude that sexual abuse is not taken seriously, not openly condemned, but instead, swept under the carpet, minimized, denied by supporting the perpetrator. Otherwise, why has the leadership not come out forcefully in stating that Bill was a sexual perpetrator, sinned, is not repentant, and shockingly disillusioned the women of the church by hypocritically teaching the value of women and then objectifying them.
As a result of their failure to create an immediate intervention for women, the leadership of WCCC sent a message to women that they are not going to be protected and helped with their trauma. Because what had happened in the WCCC family was not acknowledged and processed, the message to women was that they could not count on their church to immediately respond to their pain.
By the initial attacks on the women who came forward, the message to women was that it is costly to share truth. WCCC did not need anything more than the credibility of multiple women to take a strong stand for truth, reach out to the women who were victimized, and address the reality of the pervasive of BH’s sin.