Willow Creek Community Church: Why Processing Fully The Past Is Important

“He wanted to leave the past a few hundred miles down the road, shake it off like dust. But that was the problem with the past. It kept finding him.” 
― Suzanne Woods Fisher, The Keeper: A Novel

Culture of Change

It is clear to me that Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) wants to move forward, seeing the past as an impediment to a strategic focus on the future. From a systemic perspective this makes sense. This church was immersed in a culture of visionary focus on goals, where the past was discarded like ripped clothing. Change was forced upon the congregants without any real explanation of its’ rational. Trust us, we know more than you do. Paternalistic treatment of congregants by an elitist view of leadership, whereby they know what is best, and do not care about the impact of change on people. Trusted and loved leaders left. People were fired. Programs were changed. The future was more important than the past. Attenders at WCCC have been so immersed in this culture of change that they too seem to want to focus on the future.

So it is no wonder that the current leadership, including the elders of the church, are itching to move forward. They think they have done their due diligence about the past. Their privately hearing the stories of pain is enough. The congregants that were impacted by this pain do not need to be substantively involved. Trust us, we have heard the stories, felt the pain, and now let’s move forward. They were trained in leadership by Bill Hybels. He shared that the “speed of the team is determined by the speed of the leader”. Is it really a surprise that the general culture of the church calls for speed in moving out of this crisis? BH in fact could harm people in his leadership, and then move beyond it with little empathic awareness of the damage done.

The current elders have little clue about how this culture is informing their current response to the crisis at WCCC. At some level, they are being faithful to BH and his leadership model. The elders and leadership were all immersed in the culture of change. It permeated their world view in ways that they probably do not fully comprehend. It only becomes clear when their strategy in handling the crisis at Willow is fully understood. They hooked the women into believing that they were truly heard and understood, and that their pain was real, and that the way they were treated was truly un-just. But then they have an elders meeting where they demonstrate that they paid the least amount of attention to the past and think that they are now permitted to move beyond it’s destructiveness. Effectively, as Nancy Beach wrote elegantly, the women were betrayed again. Minimize the pain, keep it behind the deceptive walls of only the elders ears, rationalize that the women have been heard, and then jump back into the culture of change. Retraumatize the women, marginalize their stories, push towards the comfortable safety of the future.

Lament

The Old Testament is replete with stories of lament. The definition of lament is “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow”.  Passionate, intense feelings, grief over the profoundness of the painful impact of a former behavior. In the OT it was over the tendency of the people of Israel to be unfaithful to God. When a knowing awareness develops about the impact of unfaithful behavior, the response of the people should be a “broken and contrite” heart. No strategic plans for the future. The people in lament knew that without a profound time of mourning and acceptance of responsibility, they were likely to be unaffected by the level of pain they had inflicted and would quickly move out of it and into the future.

Lamenting takes time. The length of time in lament should probably be proportionate to the size of the sin and failure. Forty years of power and control based leadership, idolatry of a celebrity senior pastor, and the sexual abuse of multiple women calls for a significant amount of lament time. Sackcloth and ashes were the visible markers of lament, where a public demonstration of how serious the transgressions were before a Holy God was publicly mourned.  No hiding, secretive cloistering of a few who knew the transgressions. The people as a whole knew and participated in the lament. It showed God and others how serious was unfaithfulness to God. Where is the public indications of lament at WCCC? Private closed meeting, where again we are supposed to trust that the leaders have done a limited lament for us, but now focus on the future. This has to be so sad to God, that his people are being guided to minimize the level of sinful transgressions. Based on the limited lament of WCCC, is it not reasonable to assume that God must see the response as a diminishing of the way that people were harmed and He was disobeyed? This church allowed the idolatry of a celebrity leader to have unbridled and entitled power and control. Not unlike the Israelites, we followed a false god. Should that not be responded to with tears, intense sadness, and authentic repentance? Are we laughing at God and saying that our way of dealing with our unfaithfulness to God is better than His?  “A broken and a contrite heart” is what God is seeking. Where are the tears at WCCC? Where is the public lament, and calling us into an intense season of sorrow? Too Old Testament? No, God has a purpose for true lament.

Empathic Forgiveness

As a Christian psychologist I counsel many couples where an affair has visited devastating consequences on their marriage. The offended partner has been deeply wounded, betrayed, humiliated, and feels no trust. This affair happened in the past. Do I just listen to the story of the betrayed partner and then tell them to quickly move into trust? Of course not. I have the partner who perpetrated the affair listen in often excruciating detail to the impact of their behavior on their spouse. They need to listen even though their tendency is to minimize their behavior and rationalize it away. They must arrive at a place of true and authentic repentance and  empathy, so that they really get how desperately painful their behavior was to the victimized spouse. They have to hear and get that nothing the partner did justifies their behavior. They have to sit in the utter sense of shame in owning their behavior and understanding it’s emotionally lethal impact. Only then, when they have deeply and fully listened, can they validate the extent of the infliction of pain. Why is this important? Because if they get how destructive their self centered behavior was to their spouse, the probability is higher that they may not repeat it in the future. It is one step in the reestablishment of trust that an aggrieved spouse feels like their partner truly “gets it”, and therefore is more likely to not re-offend. Only then does the guilty spouse have the right to ask for forgiveness and the offended partner can offer forgiveness. Forgiveness asked for and given too early in the process is never healthy. As Scott McKnight has stated, this is “cheap grace”.

This same idea is true at WCCC. Why do we need to fully understand the deep consequences of sin in the midst of the church? Because without adequate lament and a full and public rendering of the impact on victims of sin, it is likely that history will repeat itself. God is not about the future as much as He is about the present. We cannot move into the future with unresolved pain and unconfessed behavior. We will in fact construct the future on the platform of the past. The leadership so underestimates the unconscious DNA of the culture that was formed at WCCC and seeped into the soul of all who were taught by it’s leadership. That is why at some level, the leadership cannot stand outside of itself and see the unconscious influences that have shaped the assumptions and beliefs about how to handle problems. Problems at WCCC were handled in a hidden manner, by unhealthy leaders, where the concern was only preventing the visible unfolding of ugliness behind the scenes. The current process of handling the ugliness of the past is being dealt with much the same way. A person like BH did not want to dwell on the past, because in his mindset, it prevented his vision of the future. The reason we dwell and give passionate reflection on the failures of the past is because they represent a serious breach of following the blueprint  of God for the church, and so must be responded to in such a serious manner that we are less likely to repeat them in the future.

The leadership of WCCC must lead with a deeper sense of lament. Lament for a church that allowed the entitlement of one man to have such power and control that he could inflict with impunity devastating emotional pain on women and staff members. Lament for the utter hypocrisy of having a senior pastor who elevated leadership to an elitist status  and then violated every tenet of healthy leadership. How is it that the Global Leadership Summit, envisioned and lead by Bill Hybels, is not pointing out the obvious hypocrisy of a leader who had multiple experts teach about leadership, but personally lead in an unhealthy way?  Are we to look beyond the obvious and push towards the future? I believe that the hand of God’s blessing can be removed from a church that does not honor God’s way of handling past sin.

2 thoughts on “Willow Creek Community Church: Why Processing Fully The Past Is Important

  1. Amen. I felt so betrayed at last night’s meeting. It felt like shaming of the congregation, forced applause, Scripture used as weapons and “the events of 2018” was about as specific as it got. And as if 2018 was the only problem year! No, that’s just the year it went public!

  2. THIS! I did not attend the service last night because I knew I would be disappointed. As I read comments in the Twitterverse and blog posts like this, it confirms my suspicions. I wholeheartedly agree with you on having a season of lament. Nary a word has been spoken about this situation for months. There’s been no processing of this as a congregation. No courage to take real-time questions. I don’t expect the church to speak for BH but I want them to call his acts what they are: sin! Years ago, BH and HL called out a staff pastor to the congregation at a post-service meeting for having an extramarital affair. What hypocrites! Honestly, I think the staff and elders are still so steeped in the culture BH created, they can’t see the truth in its entirety much less speak it.

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