Willow Creek Community (Church?) (Company?)

As I have written about what I believe to be hurtful practices of Willow Creek Community Church, the push back has been around protecting it with arguments that sound more like corporate spin than biblically consistent justifications. For instance, an argument in support of Non Disclosure has been “well I work for a company and they have NDLs, or, we have an HR department and they get rid of destructive employees”. Or “we have a narcissistic CEO and we just have to tolerate him”. All arguments that support protecting a company/corporation. I wrote the piece below a few months ago but held back from publishing it on this blog. The reactions to my blog about the trauma creation of practices within Willow got me to realize that so many people that defend Willow do it with the conceptualization that it is a corporation and not a church. My attempts to clarify my confusion led me to these musings.

Cognitive Dissonance

It is the pesky little word ,”church” that causes my confusion as I look at the scandal that has a cloud hovering over Willow Creek. As I have contemplated my struggles about what is going on, it came to me, actually at 5 am this morning (dare I say in a whisper?), that perhaps I am not looking at this correctly. In the study of human thought, a concept called “cognitive dissonance” has been discovered and about which much has been written. Essentially, what CD means is that it is difficult for us as humans to hold two diametrically-opposed concepts at the same time. To do so requires some pretty tricky mental gymnastics. For instance, if I say that I believe in equality and caring for the poor, but accumulate billions of dollars without much charity, there is a fundamental conflict. Now, I can resolve this conflict in a number of ways. I can radically start to distribute my resources and bring my assets down to a moderate amount. Or, I can decide that I really do not care about the poor, so that my current wealth is not in opposition to my notion of charity.  I can do all kinds of rationalizing to compartmentalize my thinking so I do not see the contradiction and, therefore, I am not anguished. I could rational that in the future I will distribute my wealth, so that I am not currently in conflict with my ideals. Etc. All this is what we call rationalizing or the rational lies we tell ourselves.

Perspective Shift?

So all that to say, as I look at the handling of the scandal at Willow, maybe  I need to  shift my perspective on what Willow fundamentally should be conceptualized as an organization.  I could then reduce my cognitive dissonance.  I have been analyzing the response of the elders from the presumption that Willow is a church. As such they should respond consistent with the underlying wisdom that informs elder’s ability to discern and call out sin. As a church, I have clearly indicated that I believe the actions of the elders shows a significant level of failure.  They did not identify, call out, and decisively act, in dealing with the sin exhibited by Bill Hybels in his intrusive violation of the sexual boundaries of the women who have come forward. As I have written before, I believe that the most important job of elders is to protect the body of believers by having the capacity to identify, call out, clarify, and root out sins that endanger the integrity of the body of Christ, the church. Elders are protectors of the reputation of the bride of Christ. If the elders are blinded by personal loyalties, then, as the guardians of the integrity of the church, they cannot be successful in their responsibilities, and the body of Christ is left in a state of vulnerability. In the Old Testament metaphor of the walls and gates of the city (the church), the elders have not been the sentries at the opening, and have allowed sin to stay unrecognized in the assembly of believers.

What Is Sin?

Following on this reasoning, that the elders have not come out and boldly pointed out that what Bill did was sin and call him to confession, they essentially are saying to the congregation that a man’s unsolicited intrusion into a women’s God given sacred space of worth and dignity is acceptable. So, if the elders have daughters, they are, by their tacit failure to clearly label this kind of behavior as sin, giving license to a man to “hit on” their daughters in ways that may leave them traumatized. The elders are supposed to have a level of biblical insight that allows them to identify, call out, and protect the body of Christ from the malignancy of sin. The elders have to know what sin is so that they have a template that allows them to compare the behavior of individuals in the church with the parameters of what biblically defines sin. So, whatever the elders do not recognize as sin, in essence, gives permission to the congregation to model behaviors like Bill’s. This again presumes that Willow is a church. The weakness of the admission that Bill “entered into areas of sin” is about as bland and evasive a declaration imaginable. What does that mean? It’s like saying that maybe he wandered into a strip club. He entered an area of sin. They made it look like he innocently meandered into some kind of behavior that, unknown to him, had sin potential. But did his behavior represent sin? I do not know how you could seriously say that you understand the biblical definition of sin, and not see that it is essentially a violation of other’s needs to fulfill your own. Do not steal. Do not violate the rights of others to have what they own by taking it away from them. What part of Bill’s behavior does not fit that definition? There have been numerous people who have been banned from Willow for far less serious infractions.

Willow As Company/Corporation

Now, if instead of conceptualizing Willow as a church, it is considered a company, privately held, then the behavior of the elders makes more sense. It is really congruent with a board that is tasked with the responsibility to protect the bottom line. So, if it is a company, then the products it produces are all the religious things it does, all the productions on Sundays, all the materials it creates, the classes it sponsors, real estate assets it accumulates, financial capital it garners, intellectual property it produces, personnel it employs, and most of all the brand that it develops to market itself to its’ potential customers. If I can shift my understanding of Willow to that of a company, the behavior of the elders comes into alignment with expectations, and my tension goes away. They have responded in a way that protects the bottom line. They have tried to minimize the damage of the crisis in reputation that Willow has gone through due to Bill’s behavior. If they are a company, then we should applaud them, tell them “well done”. If they feel an obligation to protect the founder of the company because he deserves praise for what he created, then they are doing a good job. Then the use of Non Disclosure Agreements make sense, because the brand must be protected. Then the use of ERT actions that damage people make sense.

Pesky Word

It is still just that pesky word “church” that is in the name. It bothers me deeply. Willow Creek Community Church. If it was Willow Creek Community Company I could understand the behavior of the elders. Confusion developed when Willow went to a one board model of governance. It collapsed the responsibility of what formerly were two entities; one of the elders tasked with the spiritual condition of the church, and one to oversee the business side. When the elders are not an autonomous body that can critically evaluate and call out wrong behavior by the leaders, it erodes the system of checks and balances. Because the elders now have the responsibility for the business side of the church, they may feel a greater obligation to protect the bottom line issues, the company-oriented issues.

Clarification

So, I challenge the elders of Willow to clarify their conceptualization of what Willow is fundamentally. If they say it is essentially a company, then my cognitive dissonance goes away. But at the same time, I believe they need to change the name. Make it a para church organization that peddles spiritual products and services. But to call it a “church” they need to reconcile how their failure to recognize, call out, and appeal to Bill to come back and repent and seek forgiveness squares with the biblical conception of the body of Christ.

If the elders need a primer in what they should do if they are a church, how about this:

They should declare this: “What Bill did was sinful. He took advantage of some dark part of his soul that rationalized putting women in vulnerable positions to gratify his needs. He took advantage of his developing hubris to power up on women who did not welcome his attempts to get them to give into his needs. As elders we need to hold Bill and his behavior up as sin, so that others who may seek the same tactics will have an example of what is not acceptable in God’s sight. We are accountable only to God. Our true bottom line is the spiritual currency of the body of Christ. We as leaders are held accountable for using our position of authority to provide wise clarification of what sin is and call people to repentance.  Bill needs to repent, ask forgiveness of the congregation, and seek restoration. He needs to call every women that he offended and ask them for forgiveness. We at this point need to ask for the forgiveness of the church in having steered things away from the truth. We repent of the way that we have colluded in the repression of truth. We repent and will turn away from this behavior. We will fear God before we fear men. We will humbly seek to restore your trust as we return to our God ordained responsibilities.”

This is what they should do if they want to call Willow a church. If not, rename it. Either way, you can clear up my confusion.

 

 

Trauma Incubator

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.

Damaged Souls

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.

 Theresa’s Story

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.

 

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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.

Oops!

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.

 

 

 

Repent Already!

‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting…weeping, and…mourning; and rend your hearts….’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (vv. 12–13).

– Joel 2:12–27

God is, I believe, calling Willow Creek Community Church to repentance. WCCC should take a strong position on the sin of its founder, Bill Hybels. Even if he, at this point, cannot confess and repent, the church must in no uncertain terms declare that Bill sinned in his sexual abuse of numerous women and must call him to repent. If the church does not do this, they are, in essence, complicit in viewing what he did as less than what it is, a sinful violation of the dignity of women. He sinned. The church must call him out of hiding and back to repentence and restoration. The church must in clear ways call Bill to confess to the women that he has sinned and in the strongest way possible declare that he must repent.

No loyalty to his past behavior that may have been good should block the church from its duty to call out sin and to call Bill  to repent. The world is looking at how the church treats the sexual abuse of women and the perpetrators of this horrific violation of the dignity of its sisters in Christ. If, for some reason, the current leaders of Willow are so indebted to the legacy of Bill that they cannot boldly point out his sin, they must step aside. They are not suitable leaders whose loyalty should be to God over fidelity with a charismatic man.  Those who lead must, in a clarion call, declare that Bill’s sin  is intolerable. Anything short of this is unacceptable.

The church, in being the context in which his behavior flourished, must repent. In multiple ways Willow served as the environment that supported and sustained the sense of narcissistic entitlement that characterized Bill Hybels.  Every person who failed to stand like Nathan and call out his pushy, arrogant, overpowering, and self-centered abuse of power must repent of their failure to contain the destructiveness of this kind of person’s behavior.

So Willow, repent already!

And, as evidence piles up about the sinful behavior of Bill Hybels’ towards vulnerable women, the growing question becomes “Why does he not confess and repent?”. It seems simple on the surface. Here is a man who has spent over 44 years at the helm of a mega church, sharing the awesome grace of God available to any repentant sinner. Come one, come all, to the fountain of God’s grace , available no matter how broken and sinful one is, and your life can be restored to one of purpose and meaning. The appeal to grace is so straightforward and uncomplicated. Bill shared it as if he believed it, and would easily turn to grace for all of his own shortcomings and sin. He presented it as if it should be second nature to anyone who called themselves a Christian. It was so hopeful and refreshing to all that suffered under the burden of sin to just repent, confess, and access the life-giving grace of Jesus.

A book by Lewis Smedes “Shame and Grace” , focuses on how shame exposes our defects to the piercing eyes of our critics, and drives us to hide in whatever way that we can figure out. Some people hide from shame by trying to be perfect, some by turning shame around and attacking others, some by minimizing their behavior, and some by justification and rationalization. The word “shame” literally means to hide, to try to protect oneself from the blow torch of pain that shame evokes in us when we become aware of our vulnerability to the judgement of others. Our understanding of the word “mortification” is instructive in understanding the power of shame. To say “I felt mortified” reflects what a person experiences when they feel deep shame. Literally, the idea is that one wants to die, to go out of existence, to be swallowed up by the earth and be no more, in order to no longer be the visible object of other’s ridicule. Lewis Smedes points to the only true covering for shame for a Christian, and that is the grace of God. When we stay inside the cloak of God’s grace we can feel safe and lovable. Outside of this covering, we feel vulnerable.

So why cannot Bill Hybels just repent already!? Do what you have told thousands to do. Experience the freedom and exhilaration that comes when repentance and confession lead to the incredible safety of grace. No more hiding. No more trying to protect the self in all the old and unhealthy forms of covering. Why Bill, do you not taste and see that the Lord is good and provides a safe place of protection through His grace? Do you trust God’s grace?

I have deep empathy for Bill in many ways. He is Dutch, I am part Dutch, his parents were Christian Reformed, my father was Christian Reformed in his upbringing. My mother grew up in A.W. Tozer’s church on the south side of Chicago. Both my parents were immersed in the perfectionism of rules and regulations, and they passed that on to me and my siblings. I am sure that Bill experienced the same pressure to be perfect and felt the scorching heat of shame when failure occurred. I know that I learned early that one way to hide from shame was to strive to be perfect and to look like I had it all together. I had a deep fear of revealing my vulnerability because it was always coupled with the apprehension of social rejection. I know the power of shame to shape the way that I sought to present myself to the world. I am sure that the same trajectory of development guided Bill.

Narcissism and shame are kissing cousins. The narcissist adopts a mind-set of their own specialness in order to protect the self from vulnerability to shame. If the narcissist can view the opinions of others as inferior to their own, they can minimize the impact of judgement by others. In this scenario, the point of view of others is, by contrast, subordinate to the narcissist. As a result, they can dismiss all who oppose them as coming from a place of lesser validity. This is a powerful defense mechanism for the narcissist because it leaves them immune from the shame-inducing judgement of others. The arsenal of self protecting strategies is manifold for the narcissist. They can diminish or belittle any who oppose them or point out their wrong doing. What most people do not see is the smoke screen that obscures others from seeing that at the core, the narcissist is protecting a fragile sense of self. Confident people can easily embrace the reality of their failures because their commitment is to growth and the truth. The narcissist, on the other hand, has formed their character around a very defensive posture of avoiding and evading any hint of failure. Since shame lurks just under the thin veneer of the narcissist, it must be held back by any method available. Narcissists often rage at people who poke into their vulnerability. They do this to attempt to re-establish their emotional equilibrium.

Narcissists are often externally successful, because their underlying protective belief in their own specialness allows them to take risks that those who fear failure, avoid. They are not risk- averse because they have the mental weapons of being able to dismiss the opinions of others as inferior. As a result, they can often create new and innovative ideas and organizations. They manage the creation of these organizations with high levels of control, since their image is on the line. Developing “success” leaves the narcissist with a growing sense of entitlement, that further strengthens their ability to diminish the opinions of those around them.

So why do people like Bill, who clearly has narcissistic qualities, find it so hard to repent and own their own failures? Because their lives are built around the mental mechanisms of personal specialness that leave them immune from the ability to receive feedback from inferior outside sources. That is why Bill must view the women that he abused as inferior to him, and therefore, can discredit their stories as coming from anger at him because he rejected their needs in relationship to him.

Bill is clearly hiding. Hiding in Michigan. Hiding in his defiance towards any and all who dare to see him as broken or flawed. Hiding in his belief, that because he has created so much good, that he gets a pass on any bad behavior that he might have displayed. Hiding by getting people around him to support him in his sense of victimization.

Shame is a beach. For someone like Bill, entering into the arena of personal contrition and seeking forgiveness is weak. It would expose him to the underlying fear of being inferior and therefore, unlovable. The core angst of the shame-based narcissist is going from specialness to worthlessness. It is a binary process with no grey areas in between. They are either all good, or all bad, so extraordinary effort is utilized to shore up the defenses against the dreadful potential for exposure and rejection.

Think of where Bill is at right now. He was adored by so many. Now he has fallen with a mighty thud. Although everyone else can see that he wears no clothes, that he has sinned, he cannot, he must not repent, for fear of the dire immersion in shame. And that is why he is hiding, and may stay hiding. The reality is that he very likely does not trust the grace of people. I can relate to that. I deeply struggled with faith that people who saw me in my brokenness, could possibly respect or love me. Thankfully, God has allowed me to fail and to live in the reality of His grace and the grace of loving people in my life.

Hiding protects us, but also imprisons us. It diminishes our lives because we cannot move into a place of understanding our lovableness in the context of our brokenness. That is where freedom resides. This, I believe, is the place where Bill is at this time. The other side of shame is grace, but for the shame-based person, trusting grace is the greatest risk. But, it is also the greatest freedom.

May Bill boldly access the throne of grace and find the everlasting love of God and His people in that process.

Bill, repent already! Come back to the fold of the redeemed.

From the Ashes the Phoenix Rises

Willow Creek Community Church is reeling in the throes of the deconstruction of an organizational structure built on a house of cards. The crumbling is not pretty. The temptation is to stop the bleeding by doing a reset, a reorganization to desperately stem the flow of further dissolution. But what is needed is not a quick reconstruction, but instead a process of sitting in the ashes, feeling deeply the grief of loss, and waiting on the voice of God to move forward. People who only want to preserve the external structure of the church are in a desperate panic to find solutions because the fear is that the whole church will collapse in the dust of broken dreams. But the Biblical model is one of waiting, sitting in the pain, allowing the grief to produce the wisdom necessary to build on the right foundation.

There are many examples of times that those in great remorse sat in the ashes.
Lamentations 10; “The elders of Daughter Zion
sit on the ground in silence;
they have sprinkled dust on their heads
and put on sackcloth.
The young women of Jerusalem
have bowed their heads to the ground.”

What WCCC needs is not a reorg but instead a repentance. A collective communal acknowledgement of the pain that has been revealed due to broken leadership. The church needs to sit in the ashes of pain, of remorse, of recognition of the wounding that has been inflicted on women who were the victims of a self inflated man who used his male privilege to intrusively invade the holy sanctity of a women’s body. The church collectively needs to mourn the sadness of the trauma inflicted on these innocent victims. The church must seek to bind up the wounds of these women, and send a message that it is unacceptable and will occur no more. They must experience the sincere repentance of those who defamed them because they threatened the reputation of the church or its founding leader. The church needs to live in the pain of its own brokenness, and not just conceptualize what happened as the isolated acts of an entitled man. The pain that has been generated is not just about the sexual violation of women, but, is due to the whole systematic abuse inflicted on a host of people, both employees and parishioners.

The temptation is to move on, to race beyond the pain and pursue hope and change. But sitting in the ashes is the Biblical response that true believers must stay with because this reveals an awareness of the depth of the suffering and the extent of the sin. Moving on is denial, it is minimization, it is a cheapening of the pain of women who have had their dignity violated. Sitting in the pain, owning the level of devastation, shows a measure of the church’s ownership in the destruction. There were many enablers of the destructive ways that people have been treated. What is needed is a time of mourning, an experience of true remorse. No one likes to sit in ashes. They are dirty and certainly not very pretty. A church that has valued looking pretty does not want to acknowledge the ugliness of its’ own hurtful acts. But it is the Biblical way. It is what demonstrates an acknowledgement of the degree of pain and sinfulness that created the desolation of precious souls. Sitting in lament, in remorse, is what keeps us in a level of awareness of the seriousness of sin, of the power of its ability to inflict damage to the souls of people.

The church needs to sit in the ashes of its current destruction because if it does, and if it learns the lessons that are necessary, it will, at some point after the time of lament, rise on the foundation of what is truly Christlike to resume a place of influence in the Kingdom of Christ. If it rushes too quickly, fails to show as the prophets of old, the remorse for how the reputation of Christ has been tarnished, it will simply speed towards resolutions that will just be more of what got the church to the place it is in presently. No one likes to stay in lament, to sit amid the ashes of a burned structure. But ashes are what remind us of what the ultimate results are when a house is built on anything other than the true Lordship of Christ and the servant leadership of those who guide its’ mission.

To lament is to “express deep regret, grief, or sorrow. We can lament through words or actions”. Scripture is replete with lament. It seems that God calls us to long periods of lament because the degree to which we sit in lament reflects the seriousness we take sin.

“Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted” – (Habakkuk 1:3-4).

In our lament as a church we need to cry out for mercy.

“LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy” – (Habakkuk 3:2).

We do not need to rely on experts in organizational regeneration, we need to show God the levels of remorse that we feel for how the church has sinned. The church has not just sinned against these women. The reality is that the organizational emphasis on perfection and image has created a results oriented focus that has left many employees feeling a culture of fear. People, and there are so many stories coming out, that have been ruthlessly treated and eliminated to whitewash the image of the church, have been injured and the church needs to sit in the ashes of awareness of the consequences of sin. And the church needs to hear many stories and ask for forgiveness. Leaders who bought into the repressive tactics to keep the image of the church intact must confess their complicity in creating pain in the lives of innocent people.

There is too much to lament to sprint ahead. Waiting on the Lord, feeling the pain, acknowledging the sorrow, binding up the wounds of those who have been oppressed, must be the prelude to reorganization. If Willow wants to be a church, than doing what God calls us to do must guide the process of healing. We need to show God and the world that we seriously acknowledge the damage that the church collectively has done. Many enabled Bill to continue to act in an unrestricted way. Many took on characteristics of Bill to implement the repressive tactics to maintain the image oriented emphasis of the church.

The church must, collectively, acknowledge the pain, own responsibility for any part we had, and show God we are more concerned about being good than looking good. Running ahead of God in this process is doomed to failure. “It is not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit says the LordZechariah 4:6. Anyone who is seeking to skip the steps must be held to the standard of scripture. Many are too worried about what Willow looks like to the world in this broken state. What we should be worried about is how we portray to the world the way of Biblical restoration. And that is painfully acknowledging the reality of our own failure and seeking the face of God and His mercy. We need to model how Christians repent, own their brokenness, and turn to the grace of God to rebuild the phoenix from the ashes of our sinfulness.

When the inclination is to run away from the pain, God calls us to stay in it and learn the lessons that are necessary to not repeat the behaviors that created the desolation. We are a culture that wants to run away from pain. Willow has been a church that wants to not show its pain. But this is the church, the broken, flawed, sinful, yet redemptive community of fellow strugglers. We must wait when our impulses say to run. Show God that we get the devastation of what sin does to people. Wait for His strength and not our own.

“Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary”. Isaiah 40:31

Whitewashed Tombs

Take Heed Willow!

What has happened at Willow Creek Community Church is a wake up call to all that focus on any other vision of the church than that of what Jesus has called it to become.

Matthew 23: 25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisee’s, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisee’s, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

WWJD

A popular but at times somewhat trite statement that floated around years ago was the WWJD- what would Jesus do? As I pondered the current Willow travesty, the idea of seeking to look at it as Jesus might seemed appropriate. What would Jesus think about what has occurred at Willow Creek Community Church, and what would Jesus do? Jesus, I would think, should be the foundation of any critical evaluation concerning the church and its function. Is it not, after all, His church? And so, should not the church reflect what He has called it to become? Novel idea.

As more and more stories are starting to pour out of the seams of WCCC, a picture is coalescing that paints a painful image of disease in the inner structure of the church. Women who were placed in vulnerable positions of being propositions by an out of control pastor, who assumed that due to his position and power he could manipulate women for his own gratification. Multiple stories exist where either attenders of the church or employees were dealt with in a way that generated pain and shame, all in the effort to “clean” the church of any problems that might reflect negatively on the public image of the church. An entity within the church, the Elder Response Team, staffed by “fixers” essentially used the bigness of the church to intimidate and eliminate any who for any reason presented a problem. The “problem” could be that individuals were critical of things within the church, and so were labeled as divisive and had to be scrubbed from the body of Christ for fear that they might be rable rousers and disrupt the status quo. Sounds like Jesus from the eyes of the Pharisee.

I have no doubt that Jesus would look at many aspects of the Willow image as He did the Pharisees. A whitewashed tomb, a beautiful looking edifice on the outside, but a collection of dead bones on the inside. The historical trail of the employment churning at WCCC is littered with the horrific pain dealt to those faithful employees who for some reason (not a good fit) were purged from the ranks. Many had stood up to unfair practices within the church, and many confronted what they saw as moral inconsistencies. They, who had faithfully served the church, were suddenly spirited away with their critical silence guaranteed by severance packages and non disclosure agreements. The wineskin’s have begun to hemorrhage with hundreds of stories of pain and humiliation at the hands of fixers and cleaners who purified the church of any and all who represented some kind of blemish to the perfect image that the church wanted to portray. Many members at Willow were traumatized by being told that they were no longer welcome at the church because they had done (or thought to have done, never verified) something that was a threat to the church image. These people were not loved and cared for and followed up on, but rather cast out. Blemish eliminated. So much pain. And these leaders are going to be held accountable and cannot continue in a new Christ generated picture of the church.

The architect of all of this was Bill Hybels, who clearly drove the construction of the church governance model to fit his narcissistic personality. The church was an extension of him, and since he personally pushed for perfection, he demanded the same from his creation. His sense of special ness, the core of narcissistic behavior, allowed him to justify reprehensible treatment of any who would not get on board with his vision and image of what the church should look like. He placed it all in God-talk, so that any who heard it second guessed themselves and had a difficult time detecting that it was less about God and more about Bill. He perpetrated the notion that the church should present the very best to the world. That, he believed was what would draw them to Christ. A beautiful, well oiled organization, that testified to the perfect ness of God. But the perfectness of God is not the church, it is His grace that is perfect, and the church is simply a representation of the transforming work of God with visibly imperfect people.

Repression

Top down management. Over time Bill collected around him people who bought into his vision and into his repressive style of managing any problems that would result in dirtying the image of the church. After all, the church was an extension of him, out there in the public where it (and he) could be judged. The church was the clothing of the emperor, in the metaphor of the emperor with no clothes. Anyone who judged the image of the church or the tactics used to create it had to be dealt with in a swift and decisive way. People who were the attendants to Bill had to buy into his vision of the perfect church and to retain their privileged position of leadership, had to remain silent. That is why Bill churned the leaders under him. As leaders grew in influence or insight, that might result in questioning the emperor, they needed to move on, go to new pastures somewhere else. Bring in a new batch of highly idealistic but naive leaders, who could not substantially see what was going on and challenge the vision and the repressive governance that sustained its’ whitewashed appearance.

What would Jesus say about all of this? There is no doubt that he would have condemned what he saw as the repressive wounding of the sheep to sustain the fragile image of the shepard. Jesus would have quickly discerned and called out Bill for driving a church agenda that was more about him than about God. He would have easily identified the hypocrisy of Bill’s wounding people to create an outcome that looked good but not was good. He would have told Bill that He is not pleased with creating a perfect church on the backs of countless people’s suffering. No the ends do not justify the means. He would have confronted and called to courage any who allowed the tyrannical practices of Bill to continue. He would have called out Bill’s arrogance as completely at odds with his modeling of a servant leader. He would have told Bill the he had strained out the gnat and swallowed the camel, when he focused so much on legalistic adherence to behaviors that maintained image, while focusing away from the behaviors that came from a broken and contrite heart. Jesus would confront Bill with his sexual violation of women who were made in the image of God and as such are precious and worthy of the utmost respect. He would have condemned the utter self centeredness and hypocrisy of someone who was placed in a trusted position, but then shattered that trust with traumatic self indulgence. Jesus would call out to all that give Bill a pass because of all the good he created that our righteousness (acts) are filthy rags and that the condition of the heart is what He values most. And above all, he would call out to Bill to repent and confess his sin and apologize to every women that he has sinned against!

Calamity

The day of destruction is, I believe, upon Willow. The courageous women who called out Bill were, I believe, the hand of God in this great winnowing process. When the storms come it tests whether or not the church is grounded upon the rock or upon sand. Many elements of Willow were built upon the sand of image and perfectionism. God has brought a great wrecking ball to bear on this situation, to deconstruct what was never His view of the church, and to reconstruct it on the rock of Christ. It is an opportunity for Willow to turn away from Bill and the image of the church that he perpetrated, and towards the church guided and constructed around His model of servant leader. Humility has to be the very most important quality, the litmus test, that is demanded of all leaders. Arrogance and indifference to the needs of God’s people must be rooted out at all levels of church governance. The church needs those with vision of how sinful, narcissistic systems are allowed to form and perpetuate systemic sin.

Fruit of the Poison Tree

The concept of the fruit of the poison tree is relevant to Willow at this point. The principle is that if a tree is poisoned, it can only produce poisoned fruit. Bill created a governance model that unfolded around his pathology. He selected and kept in place those who consciously or unconsciously bought into the image of perfection. The church is filled, at the upper levels of management, with people who “fit in” to what it took to sustain Bill’s narcissistically driven picture of the church. The Elder Response Team, in its current expression, is close to our conceptualization of the gestapo, who come in and intimidate and scare and drive out all that do not fit the requirements of sustaining perfection. The ERT must be dismantled and the people leading it must resign. They are responsible for much oppression and pain to many. Their style of purging the church in an unbiblical way is not acceptable. It needs to be replaced by a model driven by humility and compassion. This does not mean that true sin should not be confronted, but it needs to be done with the humble motivation of restoration, not elimination, of those who are caught in wrongdoing.

Galatians 6: 6 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.

The current ERT is staffed by individuals who many have reported act without compassion and certainly without the humility that allows one to recognize that we all sin and so should be very cautious about confronting someone else’s failure. These individuals have been Bill’s fixers, henchmen, and cleaners, and have not intervened with a spirit of restitution but rather of elimination. When your image of the church is perfection, you must drive out anything that threatens that image. When your picture of the church is that of a broken, but reconciled body of believers, the job of the leaders is to restore with humble compassion.

The current governance model is a poisonous tree and most of its fruit comes from that root source. That is why it is so hard to trust the decisions of any leader currently at Willow. They cannot be left in a position to influence the direction of the church since they have participated in a corrupt picture of what the true church of Christ must become. Bill created the church in such a way that it was dependent upon his and the leaders’s he chose governance. The governance structure evolved around his vision and values and have in place those people who will implement his picture. Can we trust them to have the discernment to make critical decisions about the direction of the church? I think not.

Matthew 16: 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hadesc will not overcome it.

Willow must put in place true servant leaders who understand the daily need to surrender to the Lordship of Christ, and see their role as stewarding this precious bride of Christ to be inside and outside the true character of Jesus. They must, like Peter, daily be reminded that the church is built upon the acknowledgement that Jesus, not the leader, is the sustaining bedrock of the church. They will be wise guardians of what is of real importance to Christ. They will have strong accountability around them, where the benchmark of their success is the depth of their humility.

Whoever gets chosen to implement an analysis of the governance changes necessary cannot just be academic experts. They must be people that have both the spiritual wisdom and the capacity to understand complex systems to determine whether they are sustaining Christ’s vision of the church or some limited human image.

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR

 

Proverbs 1:20 Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,
she raises her voice in the public square; 21 on top of the wall[d] she cries out,
at the city gate she makes her speech: 22 “How long will you who are simple love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? 23 Repent at my rebuke!Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings. 24 But since you refuse to listen when I call and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand, 25 since you disregard all my advice and do not accept my rebuke, 26 I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you; I will mock when calamity overtakes you— 27 when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you. 28 “Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me, 29 since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord. 30 Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, 31 they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. 32 For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; 33 but whoever listens to me will live in safety
and be at ease, without fear of harm.”

For years I have been aware of multiple people who have called out the sin that they observed inside the structure of Willow Creek Community Church. I have written countless emails and talked to multiple people at WCCC about the abuses that I was made aware of with little in the way of acknowledgement, and certainly without any real change. In many ways, I believe that this was wisdom crying out to the leadership of Willow, but it fell on deaf ears. Rarely did the leadership acknowledge failure and they certainly were not open to change of unhealthy practices. So now WCCC is on the verge of calamity, experiencing the bitter fruit of their indifference to the cry for wise and humble leadership. Will God listen? I am not sure for the ones who have turned deaf ears on His voice. They have shown a pattern of indifference and have disqualified themselves from leadership. But who fires them?

In the tv drama Designated Survivor, the concept of what happens when an entire governing structure is wiped out is explored. It made me think of the current situation at Willow Creek Community Church, and how it reflects another component of the unhealthy governance model generated by Bill Hybels. As I and others have described, Bill’s narcissism motivated him to exert almost absolute control over the decision making at WCCC. The concentration of power in him and the elders guaranteed that no-one could fire him, because in reality he controlled the elders through psychological dominance.  They likely tried their best to confront and limit him, but his forceful and over-confident style likely wore them down to the point that endorsing his ideas was the easiest way to handle things. So, the way that the church governance model was constructed, guaranteed absolute power at the top. Who fires the elders? Nobody fires Bill Hybels. If the current elders need to leave, along with Heather Larson and a number of Bill’s henchmen/women, who fires them?

Bill Hybels knew that in structuring the church the way that it is he became untouchable. He was insulated from true accountability. So now who is the critical authority that comes in and cleans house of all the unhealthy personnel that Bill gathered around him as both his attendants and his protectors? Is there a designated survivor? Of course we could say God, but God acts through people. It appears that it is going to have to be a populist uprising of parishioners who become educated and motivated and demand action. Are there, among a young and potential spiritually naïve population of the church, those who would unite and cry for change?  This, after all, is Christ’ church and composed of Christ followers. We must pray to this end.

But if people rise up and demand the resignation of the leadership, they will need to know that there is some kind of transitional government in place. Otherwise, they likely will keep what is there, in fear that everything will collapse. What is needed, is a kind of shadow government to form, composed of respected Biblically sound leaders, who can stabilize the ship and give the church a rudder. Those that have awareness of potential leaders need to suggest them and seek to solicit their willingness to help ground the church. They could act as the designated survivors who come in, give direction in the restructuring of the church in a more accountable way. I am thinking of people like Don Cousins, as Rob Spreights suggests. They might be past leaders at Willow who got fired because they stood up to Bill over strong moral principle. At any rate, this transitional group can facilitate a new set of elders and new leaders. This step is important to have in place or people will not get behind the house cleaning that is needed. This group should have people who have knowledge of the dynamics of church governance and can critically evaluate all practices and policies currently in effect and alter those that support unhealthy control oriented management techniques. I imagine that attempting this kind of takeover would be confronted with a legal response from the current leaders at the church.

Again, we who are strongly calling for the elders to leave have to address the reality that getting rid of leaders is frightening for people. Even if they are corrupt leaders. So we who love Willow and want to preserve what is great about it must be taking some active steps to create this transitional governing structure. We can help alleviate people’s fear by providing an alternate solution full of people with Biblical integrity.

BUT HE VALUED WOMEN

On the surface the greatest contradiction of the whole Bill Hybels mess was his reputation for championing the notion of equality for women in the church. How could a man who spoke so eloquently and often about the value of women now be exposed as a serial abuser of women?

The contradiction resolves when one comprehends one critical difference between two words. Gives value vs. recognizes value. A person who has authority or essential importance can give value to someone else. For instance a king can give or distribute value to those under him. A boss can allocate a position of importance because they have  the authority to do that. So only a person that has the power and authority to vest another with value can give value. Recognizing value is completely different. For instance a good athletic scout has the critical capacity to identify the innate talent that a person might have. The talent was already there but simply needed to be recognized.

Bill Hybels is clearly narcissistic.  A narcissist lives with the illusion of their own specialness, that they believe is inherently existent in their being. This is not, in fact, true, but for all intents and purposes the narcissist believes it to be true. So the narcissist assumes that he has some inherent specialness that he can distribute to those around him by “choosing” them as special. They derive their value from the narcissist. The narcissist is so seemingly self assured and confident and often successful in some way that they are imbued with power from those that surround them. Those in the presence of the narcissist bathe in the sense of shared specialness conferred by the narcissist. They participate in the delusion that the narcissist has inherent power and worth and can, in fact, confer upon others a sense of specialness.

Bill Hybels gave worth to women. He did not recognize the worth that God, the only true giver of value, had inherently gifted to women as equal heirs to the Kingdom life. God alone said that there was no difference in the essential worth and giftedness of men and women. We as humans can, like the scout, simply recognize this truth.

So Bill, it so appears now, from the vantage point of his historical abuse of women, gave worth to women. But this kind of giving exposes the fact that it was not really about the women. It was about Bill.  Narcissist’s derive a deep sense of gratification in the knowledge that they are the “king makers” the power brokers who others owe a debt to for the privilege of entering their domain. Bill likely luxuriated in the awareness that the women that he lifted up were “his” women, who had to have such devoted gratitude because he picked them.

Who were his women?  They were not heavyset because being overweight was a sign of defectiveness. They had a certain physique that matched what he determined was a person who reflected his own need for self discipline. He knew that they knew they derived their value and position from him, further expanding his inflated sense of specialness.

When this distinction comes into focus, Bill had no contradiction in saying that he elevated the worth of women in the church. He did. The contradiction comes when the idea of recognizing the value of women is explored as a reflection of what God gives. It does not appear that Bill came from that perspective.

His treating women as objects for his pleasure is what is most telling of how he really saw the value of women. You do not force yourself on  a woman if you truly believe that they have God given value and dignity. You only do this if you narcissistically believe that you have given them value so they owe you. Sick to the core.

With this distinction there sadly is no contradiction to the idea that Bill lifted women up but then abused them. They were his, not God’s.