Church Culture Audit-Part 1

Church Culture Audit- Building a Christ-centered Metric for Accountability


As two mega churches have come under the scrutiny of multiple investigations a culture of deception and abuse of power has emerged. A critical analysis of how this could happen in the church reveals that when a person of entitlement is at the helm of the organization, a subtle but pervasive process develops that isolates power at the top. Mega-churches are often founded by high charisma, narcissistic leaders, who, as success increases, organize the governance around their absolute need for power and control. People around them are mesmerized by their accomplishments, and  become blinded by the inconsistencies of the leader’s behavior relative to the character of Christ. Their “success”, measured often in numbers, buildings, books, and programs, become the focal point and allow these leaders to operate with impunity. Individual church members compare their own lack of success to the overwhelming indicators of success by the leader and conclude that they cannot critically judge or evaluate the leader. The fallacy that success equals importance or higher authority becomes the foundation that allows for the failure of healthy accountability for leaders.

Awakening From The Trance

The unveiling of the raw underbelly of the current mega church’s problems is resulting in many people waking up as if in a mesmerized trance state of mind.

Mesmerizing is an interesting word. It is another word for hypnotic or generating a trance. People that are mesmerizing get others to focus on some quality that allows for a slight of hand manipulation of a person’s perception. “I found myself mesmerized by the grandiosity of this building”. Every magician has mastered the illusion of getting people to focus on one element of reality so that they can deceptively manipulate people to see what the magician wants them to see. This focus on outward elements of success by mega-pastors is often what allows them to deceptively manipulate the perception of their congregants.

Magician Pastors

The outward measures of success, like a grand building, a huge congregation, a number of books written, or the amount of money taken in, can all be areas that these magician pastors get us to focus on so we do not look at what they do that is not consistent with who they are supposed to be as a leader. Because they keep you focused on and mesmerized by their successes, you do not see that they are bullies who demand obedience to their self-promoting agenda. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”, they call out. This trance that they place their congregants in allows them to mask or rationalize behavior that, measured against the life of Christ, would be hypocritical. These magician pastors have a deep shadow motivation that is more about their self-promoting agenda than the mission of the church. Are they conscious of this and do they do this with willful intent? Who knows. They just know that it works.

A magician’s stock and trade is the art of deception. Get people to look in one direction while they manipulate by slight of hand something in another direction. Their goal is to alter perception so that you believe what is not really true. This all results in a sense of awe and wonder, that elevates the status of the magician. The audience does not want to know that to get the result the magician wants he or she must deceive the perception of the observer. And so it is with magician pastors who want us to so focus on one element of life, their observable successes, that we are willing to suspend our critical abilities to identify what is real.

Deny The Inconsistencies

This is why we can tolerate for years the behavior of a pastor/leader who clearly has deep and destructive character problems. We can allow abusive behavior to continue unchecked. Women who are sexually propositioned can second guess themselves because a leader with this kind of success could not possibly mean by his suggestive behavior what I think it means. The magician pastor can convince a woman that there is a good reason to get her to sit and watch pornography with him, since this is simply research into the state of sexual addictions in our culture. Plausible deniability. Just enough reasoning to say that his propositions were innocent or the projection of histrionic women who misread his intentions. Get women to suspend their abilities to rationally recognize the abuse that they are experiencing.

These magician pastors, who as Christians we assume will model their lives after the life of Christ, can get us to somehow ignore or accept what should be the unacceptable. They can get us to minimize or explain away behavior that is wrong. They get us to deflect the arc of awareness back on ourselves, getting us to question our own sanity. They encourage us to not trust our reality. Crazy making! This allows them to:

  -Manipulate and bully others to get their way

                                    -To act in a self-important condescending way

                                    -To  sexually proposition women

                                    -Live lives of wealth and opulence while demanding sacrificial giving

                                    -Fire people under them whenever they feel threatened or angry

                                    -Muzzle people with Non Disclosure Agreements to preserve their reputation

                                    -Talk about living like Jesus and then not acting like Jesus

                                    -Keep their lives away from the scrutiny that comes from real living among their congregants so that all we see is the stage persona

                                    -Rage at and belittle people who oppose them

                                    -Keep image as the measure of success so that integrity and congruency with the real life of Christ is not used as an indicator of the leader’s success.



Magician pastors usually do not have strong people around them who can speak truth and risk the rejection of the leader. As a result, the leader gathers around him or her those who at some level have bought into the mesmerizing perception of the leader. Mega-churches also allow these pastors to be primarily viewed as up on stage, where the illusions of success (programmatic excellence) enhance the hypnotic aura of the leader’s greatness. These churches literally use smoke and mirrors to set the stage for a high level of perceptual manipulation of the attenders. Mega churches also often churn through both attendees and staff, so that any long term, mature believers, do not represent enough of a block of influence to threaten the hypocritical inconsistencies of the leader. Individuals who do not drink the kool aid are sent packing, perpetuating an environment that insulates and protects the power and control of the leader.

Next Blog. Developing a Metric to Audit the Culture of a Church.



When Pathology Is Clothed In Piety

“The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 NASB

This verse describes the incredible complexity of the human spirit. Deceit is a telling descriptor of the way in which we hide and distort awareness of ourselwaves. Only this, I believe, can help us to understand how people are capable of living a dichotomy of profession and practice. Anyone who has been immersed in the world of Christianity, and has comprehended its’ core message, knows that the clear values and essential characteristics of a truly committed disciple of Jesus revolve around the concept of humility and servant like love of others.

Anyone who deems to lead others into a life of discipleship and full transformation into the image of Christ, we would assume, must live this kind of life, in order to dare teach about its’ truths. On the surface, it would seem that those of us who understand the hard call of Jesus to die to our selfishness, would clearly expect those who teach and lead to live a life of significant adherence to a life modeled by Jesus.

So, the question that is powerful, is why do we tolerate leaders whose lives clearly and significantly veer from that which they teach and call us to follow? Why do we tolerate leaders who write books like “Who Am I When No One Is Looking” and then lead a life of deceptive violation of the core principles of integrity? What delusion allows us to accept a leader who preaches the value of women and then sexually abuses them? How do we tolerate a leader who teaches about the life of Jesus and our need to be a humble servant, and then has a clear pattern of rage and a haughty attitude towards anyone that opposes them? Why do we somehow excuse a leader who, when we talk to him or her, seems to look beyond us as if they do not have the time for those of little influence? Why do we passively allow leaders, who talk constantly about ministering to the poor, to live lavish lives in palaces that only the rich can afford? Why do we countenance leaders who stay away from the common members of the church, and hang out only with the wealthy and powerful? Why do we not call out those characteristics that so blatantly contradict the essential message of humility and brokenness, which is clearly what we are called to as disciples of Jesus, in our leaders? Why do we tolerate any sense that leaders are part of an elite class of believers, allowed all the trappings of material success, when Jesus has called us to a life of humility and equality?

As believers, we appear to not really vett the lives of our leaders through the character of Christ. Instead we seem to allow them to almost cast a spell on us so that we do not critically look at their lives and hold them accountable for a life that follows hard after Jesus. Whether it is because leaders often do not participate in the life of shared accountability in the body of Christ, or our passivity undermines our motivation to call them out, this dangerous reality exists frequently in the body of Christ. We often place leaders on a pedestal that does not allow us or them to live a life of brokenness and redemption, resulting in isolation and falsehood. Is this because we buy the lie that they are more important than we are and so we have little to offer in the way of holding them accountable? To the extent that we are complicit in not holding our leaders accountable, we share in allowing this travesty to occur. And truthfully, we let our leaders down, because it is in their best interests to get challenged to live like Jesus did.

The recent spate of events surrounding mega churches has clearly focused us on the duplicity that often exists in celebrity leaders. Maybe it is because mega churches have so many people who may not have advanced far enough in understanding the deep truths of a life of full surrender to Jesus that they have no evaluative metric to hold up to the life of their leaders. Mega churches, by their numbers, provide a convenient excuse for leaders to hold themselves apart from the common believer. They may couch their reasoning in the form of security or a lack of time, but all of this allows and supports the notion of elitism in the leadership position and may feed the essential narcissism that these leaders possess.

Piety Scaffolded Around Pathology

Piety, understood as the outward appearance of spiritual behavior, is often built upon a foundation of pathology. It is interesting to me, as a Christian Psychologist, that a great number of pastors and Christian leaders are vehemently in opposition to the field of psychology, branding it as based in secular humanism, and therefore a threat to a Christian.

What is clearly interesting to me is the fact that many of these leaders will rail against psychology as an evil attempt to subvert Christianity. Most of these somewhat knee-jerk critics do not really understand what psychology is and confuse it with philosophy. As such they believe that it espouses a set of presuppositions about the nature of man that are oppositional to Christianity. While a number of psychologists do in fact espouse a set of beliefs about the nature of man, they are only the subjective conclusions of these individuals.

The true description of psychology is that it is the science, much like physics or chemistry, that studies the behavior, thinking, and motivations of human beings. As such it observes, tests, and then generates theories about how people customarily seem to behave, think, and are motivated. The conclusions are based on observable patterns, but then theories and assumptions are posited. Humanism is a world view that informs most of present day psychology. But a Christian world view looks at the conclusions of the science of psychology and postulates a different view of human beings, and then explains these patterns from those presuppositions.

It is the confused understanding of psychology by many pastors and leaders that causes them to charge psychology with the motivation of a humanistic undermining of faith. What is true is that the conclusions of some in psychology that promote an ungodly view of man are in error from a Biblical Christian view. The truth is that psychology has uncovered an enormous amount of information and understanding about human behavior, thinking, and motivation. It, like other forms of science, has in fact contributed to a natural theology fund of knowledge of who God has uniquely created us to be. A truly Christian psychology explains all that is observed from the underpinning of a view of man that is based in sin and self centeredness and a need for forgiveness and redemption.

Many of the pastors and leaders who rail against psychology often attack it because they may be threatened by what they think it may uncover. I know many pastors who have underlying character disorders, a pathology, who attack psychology or counseling, because in their unrecognized awareness, they fear that it may reveal their inner brokenness.

There is a particular prominent Christian leader, charismatic, and a wonderful expositor of the Word, who rails against psychology as evil and promotes only Biblical Counseling. This person shows evidence of clear pathology, in that he narcissistically rages against those who oppose him, belittles people who he sees as beneath him, powers up in caustic and destructive ways with those he comes in conflict with, believes he is entitled to an extraordinary amount of material benefits of ministry, and generally is unruly.

From the perspective of any competent behavioral scientist, he has a narcissistic character disorder. There is no way in any reasonable Christian’s understanding of Jesus, that behavior like that is consistent with a conscientious believer. Although a growing number of people can see this behavior (think the Emperor Who Wore No Clothes) he cannot. Instead, he rails against the psychology that might identify this destructive pattern. In the field of psychology, this is called a Reaction Formation. What this means is that people react intensely against (though possibly unconsciously) something that is a threat to them. Think someone who hates homosexuals but has a deep fear of his or her own potential sexual urges. In the case of this leader, the science of psychology, which has clearly delineated patterns that reflect narcissism, would threaten this man’s need to believe that he is motivated by pure intentions. Piety scaffolded around pathology.

Denial As Deception

What psychology has identified as denial is the human tendency to use an elaborate system of deceptive tactics to avoid acknowledging something that we do not want to see in ourselves. The Bible would call this deceit, as the Jeremiah 17:9 verse so clearly points out. A Christian psychologist understands pathology as part of the ways that sinful individuals learn to cope in the context of their early environments to protect themselves against their fears of rejection and abandonment. As a believer, this makes absolute sense when we understand the concept of sin as a pattern of self motivated behaviors which are an attempt to get our needs met at the expense of others. It also makes sense in understanding that with the coming of the rupture in relationships that sin introduced into the human condition, hiding and deception became a way to protect ourselves from the possibility of rejection and abandonment. A Christian and humanistic psychologist could agree with the essential patterns of behavior and thinking, but disagree about the root causes of this behavior.

Character disorders, which are what we refer to often when we look at pathological patterns, are simply the characteristic or consistent ways that people learn to cope to protect themselves from emotional harm. They become so entrenched over time, that their protective patterns fade from conscious awareness and become simply the fabric of the person’s sense of self.

A person immersed in a character disorder cannot differentiate and recognize it as an unhealthy pattern of coping. It is like asking a fish to become aware that it is living in water. It is too immersed to separate and recognize the element of its own existence.

Looked at this way, denial is not really a conscious decision to avoid looking at something that is true that we do not want to see, but is the way that the character disorder maintains itself. The way that a person with a character disorder looks at the world is normal to them, therefore they believe that the way they act and think is reality. Denial of reality, as others may see it, is simply sustained and maintained by a complex set of beliefs that keep the person from seeing how their behaviors may be inconsistent with healthy ways of acting.

Scripture explains it this way: Proverbs 14:12 “There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.” (NASB)

The emperor who wore no clothes, due to denial, did not see that he had no clothes. He really did not. Only those from the outside could see it, because they did not see him through the lens of this character disorder. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

Christians Leaders With Unrecognized Pathology

What happens when a person with a deeply entrenched personality disorder becomes a believer? We often think that this will create a transformational alteration of the core personality of the individual. The problem, sadly, is that often their core pathology, rather than being radically transformed, instead becomes the foundation upon which they clothe themselves with piety. They can take on all the verbal characteristics of what a deeply transformed believer would express, while never allowing it to penetrate and alter their core coping in the world. They can start to clothe themselves externally with all the trappings of a Christian view of the world, while never fundamentally altering their deeper ways of coping. They can appear as if they are growing, but often it is only an intellectual knowing, and not the knowing that deeply transforms.

II Timothy 3:7 “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth”

Their words and seeming knowledge can often create an illusion that they have learned it in a transformational way. But sadly, there is a learning that feeds the mind and sounds good, and then there is a learning that penetrates and challenges the deeper brokenness of the soul that leads to transformational growth. We can not become like Jesus without bringing our pain to the exposure, death, and resurrection patterns modeled by Jesus.

Narcissism and sociopathy are frequently seen character disorders with a number of Christian leaders. Leadership desire is often a self selected consequence of a deeper character disorder. Often the person who believes they have something special to offer will push to engage in leadership positions. This is really evident often with mega-church pastors, because paradoxically, their character disorder is an asset in the formation and growth of their church. They appear self-assured, charismatic, and believe in themselves so much that they can persuade those around them to support the building of their kingdoms.

It is only over time that the narcissistic sense of entitlement, along with its’ control of others, reveals the pathological components of this leader’s actions. Narcissists love being worshiped, which, clue-phone Christians, is inconsistent with Jesus. Narcissist’s tend to attract worshipers, and not in the sense of singing songs of praise. Worshipers of charismatic leaders tend to participate in what psychologist call a folie a deux or shared delusion. The worshiper of the narcissist feels good in the presence of the elevated leader and so suspend their capacity for critical analysis of where the leader is acting inconsistent with the behavior of a Christ follower. This shared and complimentary systemic disorder sustains narcissists for long periods of time.

Narcissists particularly harbor within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. Almost invariably they become so imbued with their sense of personal greatness and special accomplishments, that they make a mistake. They miscalculate a situation. Those that act out with women will fail to assess a women who has strength and will expose their inappropriate behavior. The narcissist will continue to protest and deny the intent of their behavior, but with enough errors in judgement, they may finally be exposed and brought down. They do not own their behavior, because they are deeply shamed based individuals who are desperate to maintain the public illusion of their own goodness.

The Fierce Fire of Accountability

It is absolutely true that everyone has developed some element of pathology, because we all grow up in the context of some level of unhealthiness (due to the consequences of sin) that generates dysfunctional ways of coping. The truth is that we all have things about ourselves that we cannot see. This is why Christianity is a relational faith. We have tools, such as the Word and the Holy Spirit’s discernment, that help in the deep digging into the parts of us that are hidden. But the most beneficial resource that the Christian has is the insight and feedback of fellow believers. Watch out for people who say their faith is just about Jesus and me. They are focusing only on the vertical dimension of faith.

Close, transparent, gritty, exposed connections is where the real uncovering takes place. This is the horizontal element of maturity, and where some of the most important self discoveries take place. People see things in us that we cannot see in ourselves alone. A believer who really wants to uncover the deep pathological areas that bind our lives will subject themselves to the search inquiry of trusted fellow believers. The isolated believer will not grow very much. It is the insight and feedback that those who witness our lives can bring to the light that really accelerates our growth.

It is true that people do not always have an accurate view of us, but when a fellowship of believers deepens their attachment to one another and fully embraces the idea that we are members one of the other, deep healing can occur. If I want to grow, I must subject myself to the scrutiny of others. Not critics who are motivated by a need to see my failure as a platform to escape their brokenness, but loving, caring believers who follow the Galatians 6 pattern of gently and humbly giving feedback that may result in helping us to heal.

These are people who would rather be good than look good. Who have the courage to bring their lives under the microscope of loving critics, to plumb the dark places that we cannot go to on our own. If our desire is to look good, we will flee the presence, like cockroaches run from light, of anyone who may have the maturity to identify something in us that needs refining. If our desire is to be good, we must face the fierce fire of others who can bring into focus what we are blind to in ourselves.

I had to leave a small group because when a conflict came up, the group wanted to avoid it and just go back to looking good as a group. I find this in men’s groups. Sometimes they just want to be a part of a group that goes through the motions of checking in and then staying in their heads by reading scripture. But to be a group means to address the hard things, to allow conflict to be processed in a way that uncovers the deep things in each member’s life. Members of the group I was in simply wanted to avoid conflict, instead of looking at what existed in each member that was broken and in need of healing. In my group there were members who had a deep seated pattern of protecting themselves from the honest self acknowledgement that they had a critical spirit.

As I pushed for resolution and mutual accountability, I became the target of their misplaced fear of owning the broken parts of their lives. This is how relational systems operate. If someone wants to push for change, they will use the full resources of their brokenness to resist. I tried to push for healthy resolution, but the fear of self discovery was too great. I had to shake the dust off my feet and move on, to the detriment of the group members.

Other believers in our lives have the greatest ability to help us see ourselves. Those who run from issues run into the dark places of hiding. The real pathology goes unrecognized while we continue God-talk and comfort ourselves that we are ok.

A useful tool in the field of psychology that is, I believe, for Christians who want to deepen their understanding of themselves, is something called Johari’s Window. This tool helps people to identify four main quadrants of personal awareness. It is structured like a window pane, with each quadrant a separate panel in the window pane. Quadrant One is called the open space and is the area of awareness where things about you are known to others and known to you. For example, if I am a person who laughs a lot, I am aware of this characteristic of myself, and others can publically experience that about me. Quadrant Two is called my blind spot, where things are known to others but are not known to me. For example, if I am a chronically critical person, I may be in denial about this and not see it in myself, even though people around me would say I am very critical. Quadrant Three, called the hidden area, are things known to me but not known to others. For example, I may know that I feel like a failure but have not shared this belief with others. Quadrant Four, called the unknown area or shadow, is something not known to me and not known to others. For example, I may have experienced a trauma, such as a parent’s abandonment when I was very young, and I am not aware of it nor is anyone else. However, behavior may be expressed that is formed as a way of coping with this unaware area of my life. The shadow element is a critical factor in many Christian leaders being unconsciously motivated by a shadow mission.

Johari’s Window allows one to intentionally seek accountability. If one wants to grow as a believer, they will willingly submit to the observation of others and seek feedback. They will generate a sense of safety where they can share the hidden things in their lives and will ask for feedback about ways that they come across that they are unaware of expressing and may reflect the shadow motivations that are inconsistent with their Christian beliefs. They will seek to do some deep work of exploring how their behavior may be reflecting something in the unknown area, and may strive to bring this to full awareness so it can be dealt with and healed.

I believe that every Christian leader should be engaged in bringing their lives into the scrutiny that the Johari Window focuses on. This should not be just with “yes people” who are too weak to bring fierce reality to the broken parts of the leader. A leader who wants to grow will subject themselves to this crucible of growth. A leader that is hiding, either intentionally or due to a character disorder, will avoid it like the plague. They may be in a small group, but they will simply focus on the heady elements of scripture, and not the painful process of emotional surgery.

Psalm 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts;

The church is a system that is either healthy or sick. Everyone must search themselves, and ask for the assistance of brothers and sisters in the search process. Leaders must submit to the search light of God’s truth. We must create a culture that, rather than coming together to look good, desires to be good. And we all are broken. A church that starts with that awareness, and then commits to the process of collaboratively helping each other to heal, will see God’s hand of spiritual growth. Churches who simply participate in a choreographed image that protects each person from their pain, will be diseased at the core and will be the spawning ground that allows for the dramatic problems seen with pastors acting out their brokenness and wounding many people in the process.

Believers must bring their brokenness to the refining fire. It starts with honesty and a willingness to acknowledge what is undeniably true- that we are all pathological in many ways and must deconstruct the inner sickness if true piety is going to shine through authentically. Run from a church that does not embrace this truth, because you can be sure that the fruit of a rotten tree will never produce the fruit of the spirit.

Why No Public Prayer For The Women Victims At Willow?

It has been pretty clear that the “event” of exposure of sexual improprieties of the senior pastor at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) is starting to recede into the past and a focus on change or restoration is the predominant momentum of the church at this point. This process is not unlike any trauma that occurs in a dysfunctional organization. In a family, for instance, an event can occur that is intense and destabilizing, and the momentum of the family is to restore stability as quickly as possible. In healthy families the experience is explored and processed in a way that allows the full expression of the emotional pain of each family member and constructing positive changes to avoid the recurrence of the problematic event are explored.

In unhealthy families the trauma is minimized, and the idea of “time heals all wounds” mentality is pervasive. The immediate objective is to re-stabilize the family system as quickly as possible. Respect for each family member who has experienced pain and suffering due to the event is ignored. The family simply goes back to the pattern of unhealthy behavior that fostered the problem in the first place. In some ways this is understandable because it is what the family knows and is the process of restoration of the family set point, values, and behaviors that are familiar.

But without a fundamental shift in the core functioning of the family process, the inevitable outcome is the continued creation of the problems and traumatic events that are fostered by unhealthy practices. The characteristics of a healthy family are: 1) recognition that each member of the family is unique and has a contribution to the well-being of the whole. 2) Anger is listened to and understood as an expression of the frustration that each member may have in the course of living together. 3) Feelings are openly expressed and are the basis of having empathy for one another. 4) Each family member is respected as having a set of needs and point of view that should be acknowledged and, where appropriate, incorporated into the family decision making process. 5) The rules of the family make sense and work towards the best interest of each member, rather than dictated in a way that benefits only those in authority. 6) The pain and struggles in the family are acknowledged and not minimized. 7) Parents, as leaders, are approachable and not threatened by questions about their rules or leadership style. 8) Also, parents, as leaders, are not rigid, but flexible in incorporating new information about how to conduct the family in healthy ways. 

The church, as I have discussed in earlier blogs, is a bigger and more complex system, but, in a fundamental way, should follow the same guidelines of what a healthy family looks like. Used as a guideline for how WCCC has responded to the trauma of  its’ fallen senior pastor, these characteristics are not being followed to process the “event” that has occurred.

If WCCC were processing this experience in a healthy way, the situation would be talked about openly and honestly. No euphemistic references to “this season” of the church’s life, but instead pointing out the sin that has occurred, the pain that it has inflicted on the congregation, calling the senior pastor back to repent, and most of all keeping the victims of all this, the women, front and center.

If healthy processes were followed, the pain that has been inflicted on multiple women would be honestly recognized and discussed. The church would see this as an opportunity to show its’ commitment to the sexual safety and dignity of women. Is this really what WCCC thinks about sexual abuse of women?  That a minimal reference should be made to their pain and suffering? If WCCC’s response to all of this is a model of how the church deals with the violation of women, what is the message they are sending to the secular community at large?

Why no prayer for the victims? Why no open and honest acknowledgment of the level of pain that they have gone through as a result of the actions of the senior pastor? Why no reaching out to the women, asking them to come to a service, and publicly acknowledging that the church recognizes the horror of their experience? Why no public ownership of the church’s complicity in enabling an obviously entitled senior pastor that used his position to harm innocent women? Why no admittance of the fact that multiple levels of leadership failed to confront and therefor protect the (female) flock from the predatory actions of one man? Is it because the current leadership, in doing all of the above, brings the focus back on themselves in a way that they do not want to acknowledge?

As I have written before, this is not just the sin of one man. It is the sin of the church. It is systemic sin, that, in the name of covering imperfection, allowed obvious patterns of behavior to continue that were sinful and destructive to the safety and security of the female members of the flock. What is needed is systemic confession. As scripture clearly points out we must confess our sin to be healed. It is like putting topical pain killer on a tooth that has infection at the core. It has to be lanced to heal. In trying to isolate this situation to one man and an “event” in the past, the leadership is in effect trying to dull the pain without really getting to the infection.

I will believe that WCCC leadership is serious about true healing when it publicly does the following: 1) Expresses the deep empathy it has for the pain that was inflicted upon the abused women 2) Keep them current by praying openly for their healing 3) Inviting them to a public service where they are affirmed and their pain acknowledged. 4) The leadership who have been complicit in the enabling process have the courage to own it and ask for forgiveness, both of the congregation and of the women 5) Bring the hidden nature of how this whole thing has been managed out into the open where they can acknowledge the legitimacy of the pain that the congregation has gone through. 

Without this, WCCC is simply a dysfunctional system desperately seeking to restore and preserve what is clearly unhealthy. The current culture of minimal communication, minimal mentioning of the trauma, and the general “trust us” mentality is simply anesthetizing an infection.

98.6- Willow Creek Has A Fever

The title 98.6 refers to the temperature  which the human body seeks to maintain for optimal health. The complex physiological process that works to keep the temperature at this normative level is at work continuously, detecting changes and then making the adjustments necessary to keep the body regulated. The temperature of 98.6 can be viewed as the “set point” around which the body either works to increase or decrease its’ temperature to keep it at its’ optimal healthy state. Body temperature is a good example of what is called a “system”, which is an interconnected collection of elements that work in concert to maintain and sustain itself. The body seeks what is called a healthy “homeostasis” which is a stable steady state.


Examples of systems are evident from the macro level to the micro level in nature. The solar system is a collection of planets that revolve around the sun. The angle of the planets and the orbits are precisely set to maintain the intricate movement of all bodies together in a complex interaction between gravity and motion. One significant alteration of any of the planetary bodies would move the system from harmony to chaos. The same thing is true at the micro level of sub-atomic particles. They too reflect a harmonious interconnection that maintains a steady state of interaction.

It is evident at every level that to understand any one element in life, one must understand its’ dependency on the larger system. Systems nest inside one another so that systems themselves become part of a larger system of interconnected systems. An example of this is a thermostat. The human body as a temperature system is nested inside the larger system of earthly temperature. When a person is in a room with the temperature set at 72 degrees Fahrenheit, the thermostat is the set point for a system of regulating the increase or decrease of temperature by the heating and air conditioning system. If the furnace fails resulting in a drop in temperature, the body system seeks to compensate by raising the temperature, by such complex processes as shivering, etc. This is an example of how systems are interrelated  and nested inside of one another.

Set Point 

The notion of set point is critical to understanding systems. The set point is essentially the aspect of a system around which it organizes. The simplest understanding is that of the body temperature set point. We are created in such a way that our body temperature set point has been established to be at around 98.6. The body systems organize around maintaining this established temperature.

Another physical example of set point is that of body weight. We all create a set point of what our weight is going to be over time. The set point in this situation is not always the healthiest for us as individuals. I have established my set point at over 20 lbs higher than my optimal weight for my body type. As such, my body systems operate to keep me pretty close to that set point. When, on occasion, I have lost weight, over time, if I do not sustain the reduced weight, I systematically move back up to the set point that I have established. This is an example of how a set point can be created that is not healthy, but the body tends to sustain it as the weight that I have maintained over time. Set points can be changed, such as in weight, but they have to be maintained for a long enough period of time that the body adjusts its systematic regulation to sustain this new set point. Unhealthy set points tend to have a powerful impact on systems, so that even with short term change, they tend to pull the system back to established set points.

Relational Systems

It appears, in looking at the universe, God has created all of life around a complex process of the systemic organization of individual elements around more sustaining interrelationships. From ecology to physics to biology, systems sustain and maintain the order we see in the universe. Without systemic regulation, the universe would dissolve into chaos. God so designed life that systemic organization is the inevitable way around which life moves away from chaos and towards regulation. The heavens declare the glory of God, so that as we look at the complex organization of the individual to the larger system, we get a glimpse into the very character of God. He is both One and a Trinity.

Relational systems are the complex interaction of individuals nested in a larger social network. Family systems are essentially the way that individual family members organize their relationship to one another. In dysfunctional family systems, the family organizes itself around a complex set of relations that sustain the unhealthiness of the family and the individual members.

An alcoholic family system organizes around the alcoholic family member. If, for instance, a father is the alcoholic, the family member must adapt to sustain the unhealthy behaviors of this individual. Families establish set points, much like the example of body temperature. The set point of the alcoholic family system revolves around the notion of protecting the family members from the abusive behavior of the symptomatic member. These families might describe their set point notions as “we have to avoid stirring up dad and having him throw an explosive angry outburst”. Simpler said, this family has to avoid conflict at all costs and placate the “monster” in the family. If one member of the family breaks the rules and challenges the alcoholic, the rest of the family organizes to force the system back to the “steady state” of peace and calm. They can do this by getting angry at the challenging family member. Whatever restores the family to its’ set point is what is values. If one member of the family develops symptoms as a result of the unhealthiness of this family, the family will scapegoat that member and make them what is in family systems counseling  called the “identified patient”.

The family is so unconsciously committed to sustaining the system as it is that they cannot see the essential unhealthiness of the larger relational system. The set point is the basic state that the family must maintain- avoidance of the anger of the alcoholic. The set point creates a set of values that the family absorbs and implements. These values are things such as “do not feel, do not talk about what you are experiencing, do not challenge the elephant in the room, do not have your own needs or feelings, do not trust, stay on guard at all times, etc.” These values then are sustained by behaviors that come to bear on the system to keep it in its’ steady state set point. These behaviors are things like punishing anyone who challenges  or comments on what is going on in the family. The family operates in harmony,  keeping the system organized around whatever  set point values and behaviors have been created.

The Church As A System

As I have witnessed and written about what has happened at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) I must confess that I feel somewhat weary and burned out. This flows from how powerful and resistant to change systems can become. WCCC is simply a much larger and complex interconnected system. Analyzed based on systems concepts, the set point of the church reflected its’ architect, Bill Hybels. That set point clearly was the emphasis on creating a church that looked good on the outside with multiple ministries that reflected its’ focus on numbers as a metric of success. The values that flow from this set point concept are those of notions such as “guest experience must be excellent, we must be as good as the world to impress non-church-ed people, focus on building numbers and serving opportunities that help large numbers of people, do not pay too much attention to the distressed individuals because this takes up too much resource time, programs must be flawless and entertaining, maintain control over any potential defects being exposed, only people that are 100 percent behind maintaining our set point values are a “good fit” at WCCC, etc.”  The set point of WCCC and Disneyworld are very similar.

The set point and values connected to it are supported and protected by a set of behaviors. These include ” trust us, do not talk about the elephant in the room, do not challenge the architect of this spiritually unhealthy set point, do not challenge any of the values of this system, get rid of any who are not on board with this unhealthy set point, make decisions by only those who have bought into the unhealthy set point values, do not share any information that might expose failure of sustaining the set point values, put pressure on people to use the metric of success that this unhealthy set point mentality drives, punish any and all who seek to move the needle from the set point established in this unhealthy system, employ only those who buy into the set point values, do not let the larger uncontrollable elements of the system have much say in the values and behaviors of the church, etc.”.

Fever In WCCC

This well oiled system, which created a great deal of external success, has a fever. A fever, such as when the body goes from 98.6 to 102, is a traumatic intrusion into the body system. The immune system is activated to bring to bear all of the complex protective functions that combat and seek to restore  the body to its healthy set point.

What if the set point is not healthy? Using the example of weight, my set point is established at a weight that is not optimal for my health. But systems seek to maintain and sustain the set point values that have been created over a long period of time. When I lose weight, my body wants to get me back to the “normal” if unhealthy set point that I have established.

This is an example of what has happened at WCCC. The crisis of exposure of the leader and architect of WCCC as having sinned in a dramatic way has sent the well oiled elements of the church’s system into chaotic disarray. Systems hate chaos and will always seek to restore order based on the set point that was established. This is a concern that I have as I look at WCCC. The people who were so immersed in the set point values in the first place, are trying to reformulate the church and move it out of chaos. But, from my perspective, they are doing it in a way consistent with the original set point values and behaviors. There is still massive deception and failure to keep people informed about the decisions that are being made. They are still operating essentially with the mentality of “trust us”.

Clue phone to leadership! You were part of the system, you absorbed the values and behaviors that sustained the system as it was. You are so immersed in its ethos that you cannot differentiate from its methods and values. Without a systemic evaluation, which it does not appear anyone currently assessing WCCC has the capability of doing, you are very likely to reformulate the church based on the core set point values. That is what leadership knows and the staff has followed. The experts that they are bringing in do not appear to be doing any systematic system evaluation.

WCCC has a fever and it appears they are trying to deal with it by a return to an unhealthy set point. As I have written elsewhere, healthy system change occurs when people are able to heal from the trauma of how the system has been shifted. There is no systematic willingness to bring the elephant in the room to full exposure so that people can process and heal from such a traumatic disruption in trust. The WCCC approach, consistent without fundamental challenging of the core set point of the church, will be to flee the chaos in a way that goes back to the essential elements of the original unhealthy system components.

Kingdoms Of This World

WCCC is not Disneyworld and as such should not have its set point and values built around that secular view of excellence. The set point of the church should be a healthy church culture, modeled after Christ, and reflecting the core values of Christ. Systems can be in conflict. The communist system is in conflict with a capitalistic system. The church should be in conflict with the systems or kingdoms of this world. Its’ set point must be clearly that of the values of Christ’s Kingdom. Only when WCCC set point is changed and properly aligned with the set point of Christ will it move towards health.

Elephant In The Room: Trauma At Willow Creek Community Church

The Unspoken Known

The Unspoken Known is a reference to the process, sometimes unconscious, whereby something is understood to be present in ones’ experience, but not articulated. The idea of the “elephant in the room” is a similar concept, where something is shared by a number of people, but not acknowledged and discussed. As an example, a family may have experienced the traumatic sexual abuse of a child, but no one wants to talk about its’ impact on the family and its’ members. It is known but remains unspoken.

The Unspoken Known can have huge implications for a group. An example, written about by a family systems author, John Bradshaw, can serve to explain the consequences of what happens when a group shares an experience that is then, not discussed. Unspoken, it gets deposited as a family or group secret that shapes the historical narrative of that body of people.

Bradshaw shares the story of Jane Fonda. When she was just 13, she experienced the death of her mother, Francis Fonda. The death was explained to Jane as caused by a heart attack, and its’ emotional impact on each family member was ignored. Jane and her brother Peter received no comfort from their father, Henry, who was severely stunted in his capacity for empathy. Henry, an actor, just went on with his life. He attended a private funeral for his wife, and then went back to acting that night. Jane and Peter, lost in a powerful tsunami of grief and fear, were left to cope on their own. The mother was not talked about, but instead, was systematically deleted from the children’s experience. Henry expected his children to model coping after his own, showing little emotion, and pushing forward with life.

The children, meanwhile, had intense feelings and questions, but acquiesced to the unconscious pressure to deny emotions and suppress questions. The loss of the mother created a pale of darkness over the household, but the known sense of grief was never discussed. Jane Fonda shared that this felt sense of grief with little acknowledgement shaped her coping for years. She, in fact, felt some childish guilt for the loss of her mother, as if she had not done enough to keep her alive. The interior sense of loneliness and fear and shame was a powerful factor in the formation of her sense of dependency upon absent men to define her value as a women.

Jane’s mother, it turns out, had bi-polar disorder, and, probably triggered by an impending divorce from Henry, killed herself. Henry, hobbled by his emotional immaturity, could not reveal the dynamics of the mother’s death, so that the children could be freed from their sense of false guilt and shame.

And this is what happens when a powerful and traumatic event occurs among people, but is not acknowledged and emotionally processed. Individuals who share a traumatic experience are forever bound in a sense of knowing something that is not processed. The results are often debilitating emotional consequences that can bind the group to its’ secrets.

Organizational Heritages

Churches are just bigger families, with similar systemic components. Churches have histories, with both painful and positive experiences, that collectively represent its’ story. Often its’ positive experiences are celebrated and well spoken about, while its’ pain is avoided and denied. The painful experiences shape the culture of a church, creating a history against which the church learns to cope. A split in the church, for instance, can generate a narrative of how vulnerable the church can be, and may create a coping style that intensifies its’ attempt to control against future splits. These unconscious experiences and the consequences they generate are often not discussed, but rather coped with in a secretive fashion.

Every group that identifies itself as bonded by something in common, is subject to creating an institutional heritage, represented by the events of the past, the residual pain they may have generated, and the coping methods that developed to deal with the problems. These are not articulated, but reside in the “collective unconscious” of the organization. They have a powerful impact on the formation of group dynamics.


For example, the family as an organization, collects its’ experiences as a narrative history, and can pass it on from generation to generation. If a family experiences the unfaithfulness of one parent towards the other, the whole emotional climate of the family is altered. The family may go from one of being playful, joyful, open, expressive, and generally happy, to one of being cold, shut down, silent, closed, and generally sad. All of this can happen without the parents sharing the cause of this dramatic alteration of the family experience. In closed families, the individuals are left to try to figure out what caused the change. They are left confused, fearful, and angry. They have to experience an environment that moves from one that was basically nurturing, to one of gloom. The younger the child, the more likely the child is to take ownership for the change.

The above is the essence of what are called “family secrets”. They are catastrophic experiences that each member of the family endures, but are not acknowledged. As a result, each person is left to cope in the best way that they can. There may be a subtle shift in the behavior of parents, whereby the offended parent may start to drop comments about the un-trustworthiness of the other parent. What enters the family heritage (some call this the “collective unconscious”) of emotions and beliefs can be fear and lack of trust in close relationships. These accumulated feelings and beliefs can be passed from generation to generation. The consensus belief can be “do not trust men/women because they will betray you”. Known, but never spoken about so they can be processed in a less toxic way.

Willow Creek Community Church-The Unspoken Known

In the last seven months, Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) has experienced a traumatic rupture in its’ family. Trauma occurs when something happens that greatly alters the predictable patterns of people’s need for trust and security. WCCC, for many, much like a family, was the cocoon into which members entered to feel fed, encouraged, safe, understood, and protected against the storms of life. The Unspoken Known was that here is a place that is led by this father-figure, Bill Hybels, who reassured everyone that they were loved and treasured by a heavenly Father who is quick to offer grace as the antidote for failure and sin.

It was so reassuring to trust that this father-like figure was up in front giving us an example of someone who walked and talked with God, and encouraged everyone to do the same. Attenders looked at the beauty and organization of the church and felt awed by its’ ability to reflect such a wonderful image of success. Everyone could trust WCCC and its’ leadership. Right? Attenders could trust the message of God’s grace and could rely on the leaders, because they were seeking to steer the church towards a faithful representation of God’s Kingdom. It was such a well-oiled machine, that attenders had to believe that whatever was behind all of this had to be good, moral, virtuous,and God-led.


Into this somewhat peaceful and comforting church family came the quaking of a foundational rupture. The quiet peace and sense of pride, that many felt by association with this organization, was suddenly fractured profoundly. At first, as in any shocking event, the implications could not be fully understood or embraced. The need to believe that it was not true was great. The desire to maintain the status quo, was powerful, causing even elders and leaders we trusted, to go into overdrive to deny its’ truth and devastation. Thus began a long, and arduous process, of slowly, with great resistance, peeling back the layers of deceit, and finally, grudgingly, acknowledging that this trusted father-figure had betrayed his church. He had done what no one wanted to acknowledge. He had betrayed women, violated their rights and respect, and took, selfishly, what was not his to take. The man who was so closely identified with everything that is WCCC had betrayed the sacred trust of the people.

Collateral Damage

The true collateral damage to WCCC is the faithful flock of parishioners. They responded to every challenge Bill gave to give, both financially and in terms of volunteer time. He painted such a compelling picture of what the church was supposed to look like. His charismatic enthusiasm swept parishioners along in this grand notion that the church was hope of the world. The man who had claimed the gift of leadership, had led them down a path of self-sacrifice, while he, in fact, was self indulgent. These people, initially, so wanted to believe that this all was not true, and that the false narrative floated by this man was correct. His self-protective story was that a cabal of women were out to get him, to ruin his reputation. We so want our heroes to stay true and virtuous.

The collateral damage in all of this are the thousands of people at WCCC who suddenly, like Jane Fonda, had to experience the loss of the one upon whom they placed their trust. And, as the inner core of WCCC was slowly revealed, many leaders under the spell of this narcissistic leader stayed loyal to their mentor. Many of the underling leaders in the church knew the aggressiveness of this man. They knew that he ruled by force, and lacked the core competency of every real Christian leader, humility and compassion. They knew that he was setting up repressive ways to sanitize the church, to make it look perfect, in the image that he sought to personally portray. This was another element of the unspoken known. They knew, but could not confront it in any meaningful way.

The Spoken Known

As the carnage of WCCC unfolds, it strikes me that the solution that is being offered is to work as quickly as possible to put a tourniquet on the bleeding. The problem is that the ones seeking to solve the problems have been bred in the solution-oriented values of their fallen leader.

It is so obvious that WCCC does not want to process this great cataclysmic trauma in an emotionally healthy way. They, in some way, are using the Henry Fonda approach. Talk as little as possible about the pain inflicted and move forward. This approach is what led Jane Fonda to a lifetime of eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. WCCC needs to process what has happened, not just in an informational or update oriented way. People need to sit and speak about what they know. Their trust is shattered. They have a right to question the decisions of leaders who are still at WCCC and were groomed by a man who has proved to be deceptive.

Every traumatic event in our culture is followed by generating counseling resources to process the emotional components of the experience. It is well known that when people cannot share the emotional aspects of a traumatic event they tend to develop unhealthy patterns of coping. When I did crisis intervention in New York City after the towers fell, the first responders who processed the extreme emotional pain of the event were the ones that got healthy. The ones that did not had high levels of destructive coping. If the secular culture understands the absolute importance of letting people process the emotions of a trauma, why does WCCC not set up resources for people to gather and process the pain of this experience?

Rather than letting this life changing trauma be acknowledged and spoken about collectively, the leaders that remain seem to be bent on only staying in the realm of information. Updates about who is doing what, who is choosing elders, who is doing the investigation. The real issues, which are going to create lasting consequences to the church, are being ignored. People are leaving because they do not feel heard, or conclude that the church is not interested in the pain that has been inflicted. The church is focusing on strategic interventions, but not the emotional healing that is necessary to a long term mending of broken souls.

Solution-oriented people look at emotions as impediments to progress. They do not want to wallow in the pain. But God does want us to sit in our pain. He does want us to fully embrace the level of hurt that occurs when people do not follow His ways. The leadership of WCCC needs to embrace the level of pain that exists, because pain teaches a profound lesson. Do not do what you have done in the past that creates the destructive level of this pain! God wants us to fully sit with the pain to get how serious it is when leaders act in ways that are inconsistent with His will. Check out the prophets of old who sat in sack cloth and ashes. Sitting too little in pain dulls the reality of how we created it in the first place, and how deeply important it is to learn the lessons that help to prevent it in the future.

If the institutional pain is not properly processed, by sitting with people who are encouraged to speak and share the impact that this trauma has had on their lives, both emotionally and spiritually, I fear that the patch sown on a leaky life raft will eventually be torn away. The truth is that the leader of WCCC, BH, had very poor emotional and social intelligence. That is why the leaders who were groomed by him, are not focusing on the emotional and spiritual carnage of this trauma. They, like him, are solution focused. They look out there and not in here. They look to strategy and not to processing. Damaged souls at WCCC must have a forum to process and heal. To speak what they know. To be given validity to the anger, hurt, sadness, distrust, fear, loss, and betrayal that they have experienced. It is interesting but I (and many others) as a systems oriented Christian psychologist who specializes in the emotional impact of trauma, have not been sought out or consulted. Our culture, which does not have a spiritual orientation, looks to people who deal with trauma to help people heal. WCCC, it seems, looks to strategic experts.

Everything that I am observing by current leaders is just a continuation of the “trust us” deceptive model of communication that has existed at WCCC for all of its existence. Do the present leaders really not understand the tendency to distrust leadership at WCCC? The relevant question is how, when these groomed leaders seek to create a new governance model, can anyone trust that they know what they are doing? They tend to go to experts and try to get the attenders to trust that just because they have engaged experts we should trust them. But how do we know that they have the competence to even select experts? Their lack of addressing The Unspoken Known elements of the emotional trauma that exists in the membership of the church speaks to a possible lack of expertise in truly solving the problems that this trauma has created.

Do the current WCCC leaders really grasp the problems of the church that has led to this current debacle? How do we know that they have gotten it, when they refuse to really sit with the people and process the level of pain that has been inflicted on so many?

Personally, I am not impressed with all the experts that are being called in to fix the church. It seems clear to me that the pain that exists has never been fully listened to and acknowledged. You cannot treat a disease that is not properly diagnosed. And the disease at WCCC is the un-dealt with emotional pain and trauma that exists as a result of the betrayal of trust by Bill Hybels. Only when the extent of the pain is explored can a diagnosis and solution be formulated in the context of truth. There has been scant talk about Bill’s behavior and its destructive impact on the church. Everyone knows it but no one wants to speak to its’ traumatic consequences. Placing a bandage over a festering, uncleaned sore will never allow healing.

WCCC leaders, do what is right! Acknowledge the level of unspoken pain and trauma that this has created. Make the Known Spoken! In failing to truly process the emotional impact of this crisis on the church, you are denying the fact that God has created us all with feelings that need to be acknowledged and affirmed. We need an emotionally healthy church. Leaders who do not understand the vital impact of feelings cannot lead the church to spiritual and emotional health. WCCC leaders, focus light on the secrets! Light heals and reveals. Let there be light! Sadly, if this is not done, the light of God’s blessing on WCCC may go out.

Sexual Abuse In The Church

As a Christian psychologist, I can say, that if sexual abuse were suddenly eliminated from our culture, eventually, a great number of people would not be in need of my services. The tentacles of sexual abuse reach into every pore of a victim’s life, and wounds profoundly. Abusers, particularly pastor/leaders in the church, sadly, crush the sense of trust that their positions afford them. The damage to relationships, and often even to one’s sense of God can be profoundly harmed. That is why, as scripture says, “to whom much is given much is required” (Luke 12:48). Leaders, and truly anyone in a place of authority, must be held to the highest standard, because they have the greatest potential for harm.

Women Are The Weaker Sex

Starting with this provocative statement, taken from 1 Peter 3:7, where it reads “Husbands, in the same way, be considerate as you live with your wives, treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”, let’s unpack this from the perspective of sexual abuse in the church. This concept has been distorted in the church to support a bias towards male superiority.

First of all, the concept of weakness is true only in a very narrow sense of the definition of strength. Every research conclusion on the differences between males and females establishes that men are, on the average, physically stronger than women, both in muscle mass and the capacity to lift heavy objects. It is true that some women are physically stronger than some men, so the statement does not hold true in every situation. But taken as a general rule, men are stronger physically than women.

In truth, women can be considered stronger in a number of areas reported by research. They generally live longer, have superior relational abilities, may have stronger immune systems, and have lower levels of dependency on substances for emotional coping. There are other indices of women’s relative superior strength to men but these are sufficient to establish the point. The point is that men and women are equal in value with relative strengths and weaknesses.

There is another critical difference between men and women that reflects an aspect of women being weaker, and that is in their sexual physiology. Actually, it is not helpful to call this a weakness, but rather a dependency. What is meant by this? The female body has a complex set of conditions that must be met in order for the sexual experience to be pleasurable and satisfying. Women are dependent upon a relational sense of safety to be present, in order for the process of arousal and preparation for sex to occur.

Think about this. The whole sexual experience is perceived as critically different for a man versus a women. A man, fueled by testosterone and a more aggressive drive sexually, can perform (at least when they are younger and in the early stages of a relationship), no matter the emotional climate of the couples togetherness. Men are more aggressive. They penetrate. They can have sex even when angry.

Women are more vulnerable. They receive the physical process sexually from the man. So in this complex respect, women are more dependent on conditions being met than are men. Women are dependent upon a sense of safety to allow their body to prepare itself for the receiving of the man, and for sexual pleasure to occur.

Over time, if a man does not respect and respond to the conditions necessary for a woman to experience sex in a pleasurable way, the result is that the woman’s capacity to respond shuts down. Instead of pleasure, they experience discomfort and even pain. Distorted notions of scripture that focus on a woman’s obligation to satisfy their husband, have resulted in years of unpleasant sex for women, and that eventually diminishes their desire for physical intimacy. In a less understood sense, this is a form of sexual abuse. Women’s bodies must have the preconditions met for pleasure to be experienced. This is a reality that every man must understand or he will sabotage his own sex life. This is why the common relationship complaint follows the pattern that women want emotional intimacy while men push for physical intimacy.

Men often feel like they are being held hostage when their wives pull back from sexual involvement because they are asking for more emotional intimacy. Men do not realize that women are not doing this to manipulate men, but rather because this is just the way that God designed the complimentary physical complexity of sexuality. Emotional intimacy or connection assures the women that they are safe, needed, valued, and in a relationship with a man who deeply respects and values their unique physical reality. Only then does the woman’s body naturally relax and go through the necessary physiologic process that prepares them for pleasurable sex. Here is an analogy. Would anyone want a person to come into their house if that person is angry and demanding? Of course not. But a woman’s body is that house.

It is with these above considerations that the aforementioned I Peter 3:7 text must be understood. Weaker has nothing to do with equality. It is clear that both the men and women are joint heirs to the life of the Kingdom. The admonition to men is that, because of these clear differences in strength and physical dependency, they must respectfully adjust (submit) their aggressive tendencies to the unique physical reality that women experience. It seems clear that Ephesians 5:28, which challenges men to love their wives as their own bodies, emphasizes that if a man loves his wife in a sacrificial way he, in effect, loves himself. This is certainly true in the sexual arena, because if a man aggressively seeks to force his wife to submit to his sexual demands, over time, he is sabotaging his own ability to have a satisfying sexual life.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse occurs whenever there is a disparity of power between any two parties. It happens when one party, who demands sexual gratification, uses his or her power to intrusively force their sexual needs onto the party with less power. Sexual abuse occurs on a spectrum, from most aggressive to least aggressive. It is always a violation of the dignity and right to safety that all human beings possess as made in the image of God.

Rape is at the farthest extreme of aggressive sexual abuse, in that it completely exploits the physical disparity of power to force the second party to submit to painful penetration. This is mostly a phenomenon that women experience, although men can get raped in prison, or as boys with bigger men, or even by older women. But it is by far experienced more frequently by women than men. And the rape of a women combines the two levels of weakness described above, physical dominance and dependence for sexual pleasure. When a man rapes a women, he is overpowering her physically and totally disregarding her physiology. The rapist forces a woman to receive penetration when she is unprepared and frozen in fear. This results in deep and pervasive pain, which has life- long consequences.

At the other end of the spectrum are the less violent forms of sexual abuse. Any unwanted touch, being forced to watch something sexual in an extremely uncomfortable way, rubbing body parts, and having to listen to sexual words directed at the victims, are all abusive because they are unwelcomed. The common denominator in all of this is the abuse of power by one person over another. Between these two extremes are a whole array of intrusive sexual behaviors that force the giving in of the victim to the aggressive demands of the perpetrator.

A woman that says “no !” is signally that any sexual behavior is a violation of her sacred right to safety and self-protection. When abuse of power invades a woman’s world, their interior experience goes from one of trust, to one of vulnerability. The story of countless victims of sexual abuse is that of a fundamental shift in perception of the world. They go from joy and openness to risk, to fear and self-protection. Abusers essentially steal the life from a victim simply to satisfy their selfish desires. The candle of life often dies and a sense of darkness takes over. Life in all of its’ fullness gets extinguished.

There is, of course, another way that abuse of power manifests itself in a sexual way, and that is when an aggressive man (or women, though much less frequent) uses their position of power or authority to force a sexual abuse victim to comply with sexual demands due to a threat of dire consequences, such as being fired.

The Church And Sexual Abuse

The church, in a sense, creates the perfect storm of abuse potential. It has, over much of its’ history, elevated the value of men over women. The vast majority of its’ leaders have been men. It has perpetuated a biblical myth that women must submit to men, not only in terms of decision-making, but in sex. So many Christian women have been immersed in this culture of male privilege, that, at some deep, probably unconscious level, leaves them operating with a sense of false guilt around the idea of giving in to a man.

Leadership is often the arena in which abuse of power exists. Why does the church focus so much on leaders? Why is there so little focus on the followers? Even though the church ostensibly holds to the plurality of gifts, none of which are more important than another, the leadership gifts seem to be treated as if they have an elite status and worthy of endless conferences. There appears to be a spiritual caste system in the church, placing leaders above and everyone else beneath. And leaders in the church are disproportionately male.

Elitism Unchecked

Research indicates that the people who gravitate to leadership are often those with inherent narcissistic characteristics. One study showed that almost 40% of ministers show high levels of narcissistic traits. Here is a critical question for the church. Do we want narcissistic and entitled people to be our leaders? Narcissists both push themselves forward and are affirmed in the leadership arena. But the core of narcissism is entitlement, which is the essential component operating in the abuse of power leading to sexual abuse. It has become painfully clear, in looking at Willow Creek and Bill Hybels ,that this leadership elitism has gone on unchecked, and the church is paying the price for its’ existence.

Privilege And Entitlement

So, when there is a coalescence of physical power, positional power, and vulnerability on the part of a multitude of people, abuse potential is high. Male privilege has been discussed recently, due to the #MeToo movement . Male privilege is the notion that, because a man may have superior strength or position, they are entitled to exercise this imbalance in a self-gratifying way. Men in general, and particularly in the church, need to do a self-examination on their underlying sense of privilege. Every man who demands that his wife respond to his sexual needs, no matter the wounding impact on the women, is operating with a sense of male privilege.

It is important to recognize that Jesus, though He was God, divested Himself of His privileges, and became a servant (read Philippians 2) . It seems clear that the true vetting of leadership qualifications in the church, must be done around the characteristic of humility. Men generally chafe against this quality, because they have been socialized around competition and aggressive achievement. Truly strong men are characterized by confident humility, whereby they have enough self-worth to set aside their privilege (modeled after Christ) in the interest of loving their partner. Humility is the foundation of how every man, operating with a sense of male privilege, must bring his body under submission to his sexual aggressiveness. That is how he can live with his wife in a manner worthy of their being joint heirs of the Kingdom of God. Might does not make right in God’s Kingdom.

In sum, the church and a distorted Christian understanding of male domination and leadership, has created the fertile ground for sexual abuse of women.

The Epidemic of Sexual Abuse

This time in our civilization has been characterized as the most sexually preoccupied generation. Sex permeates every pore of our existence, from marketing, to internet pornography. The general cultural presumption is one of entitlement. Everyone believes that they are entitled to feel good and to not have to respect limits. The combination of this hyper-sexual focus, with a power imbalance in favor of men, has led to a proliferation of sexual abuse. The church itself is riddled with both sexual abuse and sexual addiction. Pornography, which fuels this hyper-sexual focus, is rampant among men in the church. Studies have shown that many male pastors are secretly indulging in pornography, while trying to maintain a public persona of righteousness. The Catholic church has now clearly been shown to harbor and protect priests who sexually abuse vulnerable boys and girls. When abuse occurs from someone who we place trust in, the foundations of one’s sense of confidence becomes eroded. It cannot be over-emphasized that abusers trade their short term gratification for the life long pain and suffering that victims must endure.

The church is a prime hunting ground for abusers. Women, who often put their trust in male leadership, are vulnerable to the advances of a male leader. It is so clear that this dynamic of vulnerability, coupled with power and privilege, makes the church a hot bed for abuse. The stories that have come out about the victims of Bill Hybels have followed this vulnerability differential. He was elevated as this god-like leader, who was imbued with power and privilege. He had a number of female employees who should have been able to operate with a sense of trust and safety and, instead, experienced the intrusion of his sexual advances. This experience leaves a vulnerable person exposed to an often life-long sense of fear.

The Interior World of The Sexual Abuse Survivor

So what is the big deal? Sexual abuse is one of the most devastating traumas that an individual can experience. To fully understand sexual abuse one must have endured its’ ordeal. Over the years, while having listened to countless stories of sexual abuse, I have been able to distill the common themes and symptoms. To keep it less complex, the female experience will be focused on. The interior world of a women (or girl) experiencing sexual abuse is dark and murky and filled with tremendous terror. Trauma theory explains the basic dynamics of the abused victim.

The abuser, who holds all the power, confronts the victim with demands for sexual gratification. Again, understanding female sexuality, her body is unprepared to respond in any pleasurable way. Instead, since this is an unsolicited and unwelcome intrusion into the world of the female, her body reacts in a classic “fight or flight” pattern. She experiences an internal sense of terror, but, because of the power differential, she is a captive prisoner of the abuser. Her body goes into a freeze pattern, where she is stuck in terror without a means of escape.

For many abuse victims, the only way of exiting the trauma of the situation is to disassociate one’s mind from awareness of the terrifying pain. The brain, in a sense, protects the woman from the immediate intensity of the experience by detaching and floating away. But the brain registers this whole experience as a terror-based memory, with all the frozen coping behaviors associated with survival. Trauma experts call this an incomplete resolution to the “fight or flight” response.

The belief that gets implanted, coupled with the physical terror, is that escape is impossible. Normally, when people can respond to a traumatic event by doing something, such as running away, the impact of the trauma is lessened. But with sexual abuse, the terror is linked to a sense of powerlessness and helplessness and gets frozen and imprinted in the brain as a pattern.

This core belief in helplessness is why so many victims experience multiple episodes of sexual abuse. They are stuck with the notion that they cannot stop the aggressive intrusion of an abbuser.

The Cost Of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse trauma changes a woman who, before abuse, may have been trusting, and optimistic, to a person who feels a general sense of vulnerability. The victim may have felt confident and competent, but after abuse, the residual experience is one of vigilant oversensitivity to the possibility of further abuse.

Men in general may become triggers to trauma. Women who marry often experience physical intimacy as a re-creation of the components of the original trauma. This is because the normal sexual experience contains components that remind the victim of aspects of the original abuse event. Things like a man’s body being on top of a woman can replicate elements of the sense of being overpowered or suffocated, which occured in the original abuse. This triggers the original “fight or flight” coping pattern, even though this current man is not abusive.

Husbands often react by getting angry and personalizing the trauma-based reactions of their wives as rejection. Men tend to understand sexual abuse from a male sexuality perspective, and minimize abuse as something that should not be that difficult to move beyond. But a pervasive sense of powerlessness and helplessness form the internal world of victims, who may be more susceptible to further abuse because of a sense of their own inability to form boundaries around intrusive abusers. From the perspective of the victim, they are regressing to an experience of terror and desperately seeking escape.

Every woman is unique and has different coping abilities. There is no absolute prediction of outcome to abuse. The younger the person abused, the more pervasive the damage of abuse. Children are far more vulnerable and powerless to stop perpetrators. They form a more generalized and rigid sense of their own vulnerability to harm. They often live in a protective world where they must try to stay safe. These experiences form the core of a life-long pattern of depression, eating disorders, chronic anxiety, and substance abuse, a hyper-focus on control, among a whole host of other symptoms. They often have a life-long pattern of either developing the extremes of hypersexuality or a complete lack of desire for sex. Symptoms can be relatively mild to debilitating.

The Toxicity Of Sexual Abuse In The Church

Most people who sit under the teaching of the church listen to the scriptures and hear consistent teaching about love and respectful treatment of each other, modelled after Christ. They, therefore, form a presumption that the world of Christianity, and the church specifically, should be a safe sanctuary from the threat of abuse. This high expectation and idealization make it particularly damaging and traumatic when a person of authority, such as a pastor, acts contradictory to the assumptions about love and respect. When this kind of person suddenly, invasively, pushes for sexual gratification, the whole world of trust is disrupted, and catastrophic fear and distrust occupy the minds of the victim.

This had to be the experience of every female victim of Bill Hybels in the Willow Creek situation. This man, this leader, this authority figure, this teacher of the ways of Christ, suddenly ruptured the veil, intruded in a way that was so disorienting and violating, and left them in the wake of his self-gratification demands. Then, coupled with a myriad of influences, they may have felt confused, and fearful of sharing their experience.

Abusers often are what we call “crazy makers”, who, by their behaviors, get victims to question themselves. “Did I act in a flirtatious way, did I just distort reality and misinterpret the intent of the perpetrator, did this really happen?”. This is because, at some level, they do not want to believe that this revered person could have done such a thing. Perpetrators, like BH, try to get victims to question their reality, and can explain away any challenge to their behavior by implicating the motivation of the victim. He might say “ they felt scorned by me and so needed to lie about what I did, or they actually came onto me and are now turning it around, or I did not give them the promotion that they wanted and so they are retaliating, etc.”. And since perpetrators have a lot of narcissistic traits, they may well compartmentalize and believe their own lies. Blame the victims.

Sexual abusers keep their victims captive to silence, and the crushing sense of shame that this creates. The victim is told that exposing the abuse will result in horrible consequences. They are told that no one would believe them and they will be humiliated. All strategies to silence the voice of a victim result in an often life long pattern of shame and fear and deep isolation. It is only when the truth comes out, and the comfort and acceptance of others is experienced), that the trance is broken, and the victim can begin to heal. Children, particularly, tend to blame themselves, and this intensifies their tendency to suffer in silence.

The cost to survivors is hard to calculate. The way that their world is shifted from that of trust and carefree feelings to angst, anger, and depression is beyond destructive. Sexual abuse perpetrators inflict pain and then insulate themselves from the devastation that their behavior inflicts on victims. It is like they drive a motor boat through a series of swimmers, leave them in their wake, flailing in pain, and then speed off (sail off) and minimize their awareness of the pain they have inflicted. It fundamentally takes a pathological lack of empathy to abuse someone. People of conscience, who know of the life-long devastation that sexual abuse inflicts on a victim, could not do such a horrific thing. But narcissists and sociopaths can, because they rationalize that their needs are more important than the needs of a victim.

The Church’s Responsibility To The Victims

When an abuser operates within the confines of the church, and that abuser has clear characteristics that are in line with how an abuser acts (narcissistic entitlement), and when that church does not confront that leader/abuser, out of fear of his power, the church itself becomes an enabler to that abuse, and should both confess its’ guilt and should compensate the victims. We see this in the Catholic Church, as multiple millions of dollars have been paid out to victims. Priests were moved and hidden, sent to new hunting grounds for abuse. The church enabled the predatory behaviors of priests.

The church should compensate victims, because sexual abuse victims almost invariably need intense professional help to move out of their trauma-influenced struggles, and into healing. Should a victim have to pay for the help they get? No! The church should accept that the pain that they allowed to be inflicted is costly, and the victim should not have to bear the burden of getting help. When the church does this it is seriously taking ownership for its’ culpability in the genesis of pain suffered by the victims. In the legal field, payments can be ordered to compensate for pain and suffering.

Why Has Sexual Abuse Become So Rampant, Even In The Church?

This moves me to my conclusions and to my pet peeve. The church has followed the disintegration of the culture, in moving to isolation and lack of true healing connections. For multiple generations men, going back to ancient times, were mentored by older men who taught them the ways of healthy manhood. Included in this were rituals that taught boys to bring their aggression and sexual intensity under control. The elders of the community knew, that if younger male sexuality went unchecked, the village would be unsafe.

Men were taught that women were sacred and worthy of being honored and treated with deep respect and protection. Boys or young men who acted inappropriately were held to account by men in the community. Elder men knew that boys and young men who were free to roam and pillage sexually would destroy the community of trust. Boys and young men were taught to learn to endure suffering, bring their bodies under subjection to self-control, and to focus on the greater good of the community. All expressions of entitlement were quickly confronted and stopped, so that trust could be experienced by all. There was a formal and understandable process by which men moved from boyhood to manhood. It was call the initiation process.

In the current culture, all of these containment structures have collapsed. When I developed a program at Willow Creek called “Passage To Manhood”, which attempted to restore the process of wisdom transmission, it was not supported because it was a “low incidence program”. In other words, it did not have the appeal necessary to push it forward and have it championed. It is my contention, that the church’s lack of focus on this vital need of men, is a contributing factor in the out of control sexual abuse of women.

I believe that boys, young men, and elder men, need to cross fertilize information about what a healthy and wise man looks like. The church has followed the pattern of separation and isolation and has disconnected adolescents from their elder men. If we do not learn to reintegrate men from every generational level, we will not contain them, and so will not reduce the potential for ongoing abuse.

As Christians, we believe that nature reflects elements of truth that God seeks to teach us. We call it natural theology. The heavens, for instance, declare the glory of God (Psalms 19:1). An interesting phenomenon in nature, that supports the absolute importance of the integration of young with older men, is a story from Africa. A nature preserve had only young male elephants who went into what is called musth, which can be conceived as similar to an adolescent male going through puberty. Their sexual hormones were raging. These young male elephants were pillaging, killing, and raping the other animals on the preserve. They had intense sexual energy, but no containment, and no older male elephants as role models. The solution was to place bull elephants with these young males. These older males contained the sexual energy of the younger elephants and created a safe environment for the female elephants and other animals. Here is a clip that shows this phenomenon.

In the church, if we do not integrate sexually healthy men with younger men, we are leaving our women in an environment that is unsafe. Pastors can be predators. Youth pastors are often the most susceptible because of their close association with young females. Often these leaders have not been initiated into the ways of healthy, sexually controlled, manhood. They often live in isolation with their sexual struggles. We idealize them and isolate them, which is the fertile soil for sexual acting out. Men in general have not been brought into the fold of manhood, where their sexual struggles can come under the accountability of wise men. Until men of faith return to the ways that God ordained, living in a community of transparency and accountability, the horror and lasting impact of sexual abuse will continue.

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.


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.


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