Willow-Gate: The Cover-Up

Willow-Gate: The Cover Up
“And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19

Everywhere in scripture the idea of darkness suppressing the truth is evident. Light is clearly identified as exposing truth. Those who have an interest in squelching the truth are motivated by human, not Godly, desires. Those who do not want the truth known work diligently to hide, minimize, and attack those who would seek to reveal the truth that can allow healing.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. James 5:16
Sin represents all human efforts to meet our needs in our way, with disregard for the will of God. It therefore represents a rebellion towards God and the path for which we are called. Sin generates shame for people with a conscience. And shame calls for some type of cover. In fact a root meaning of the word shame is “to cover”. Covering is the way that we hide or suppress the truth about our sin, for fear of further shame, or, because we all follow the path articulated in scripture which states:
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. Proverbs 16:25
So we all have a tendency to cover up and follow our own path.

Institutional Cover Up

“He who covers his transgressions shall not prosper…” (Prov. 28:13)
The most memorable concept of a cover up at an institutional level is Watergate. A crime occurred and a deliberate strategy was implemented to cover up what had been done. No one in the inner core of the White House would speak truth about what had happened. Only a persistent deep mole, “Deepthroat”, and a couple of tenacious reporters pushed for disclosure.
This is what is happening at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC). I would name the current situation Willow-Gate. If it were not for a number of individuals who courageously and with perseverance are pushing for full disclosure, the cover up would succeed. There is a cost to seeking and speaking truth. Institutions hate whistleblowers, and will often seek to discredit them, ignore them, or intimidate them. They hope they will die by attrition. Clearly, WCCC does not want the truth to be known, and that cannot be for Biblical reasons. If the leadership stood before God to account for their current strategy, they would be hard pressed to compile a rationalization that would satisfy a righteous God.
God would not endorse the strategy of protecting an image or a brand. In the world of counseling, we often identify what are called defense mechanisms. Denial, suppression, and minimization are powerful ways that people avoid and cover up the truth about themselves. They are primitive (child-like) because they force one to ignore what may be obvious to others. Willow is using these institutional defense mechanisms. Here is the absolute worst. Pretend that if they strip the church of all of Bill Hybels books, sermons, pictures, or references, maybe people will somehow disassociate Willow Creek from Bill Hybels. This is like a young child who believes that if he closes his eyes and cannot see someone they will disappear. So if we never mention the name Bill Hybels in a service, maybe people, at best, will forget that he was here. Maybe he will be scrubbed from peoples memory and we can pretend nothing happened and simply follow his game plan for the church without connecting his name.
But, we have to understand sin as both an individual problem and an institutional one. It is another primitive defensive move to believe that Bill Hybels sinned, he is gone, so the sin in the church is gone with his departure. His vision, values, and methods permeated and still are operative in the culture of WCCC. Everyone who allowed the idolatrous image of the perfect church is a participant in the sin. The church needs to confess not only Bill’s sin but the multiple ways that we followed after an unbiblical view of the church. We cannot just scapegoat Bill Hybels. After all, nobody put a gun to our head and said we had to follow his flawed vision. So the uncovering of sin must be both individual and corporate.
People in the Old Testament produced graven images that were false and idolatrous symbols of what they wanted God to look like. A church that creates a graven image that is a false representation of God is practicing idolatry. WCCC, by never mentioning the name of the idol, is not taking seriously the reality that the face of the image of Willow reflects the quality and character of Bill Hybels. Maybe everyone will not notice that we are continuing the core culture of WCCC if its founder and architect is never mentioned by name again.

Confession Heals
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. James 5:16
Confession is the reversal of cover up. Instead of suppressing the truth, a confessor reveals the truth. It brings out what is hidden into the bright light of truth. All manner of sicknesses, psychological as well as physical, are the result of a persistent effort to hide the truth about ones sin.

When I kept silent,my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin. Psalm 32:3-5
It is only a believer, who trusts the grace of God, that risks full disclosure. Christians who desire health, know that it takes more effort to suppress the truth than to contain it in the fig leaves of denial. Fear is the enemy of transparency. These include the fear of the judgement of others, and fear of having to make amends and reparations.

Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. Psalm 51:6
Hiding truth will always lead to destructive outcomes. Hiding is a short term strategy to prevent some kind of loss that we do not want to experience. But listen, GOD desires truth in the innermost parts of us and of our church! There is no rationalization that supports the hiding of truth from a Biblical perspective. Many of us who are calling for this feel like the prophets who basically felt like they were crying in the wilderness. The cry in its most basic form is that of “return to God, turn from false idols, and let the Truth of God reign”. God designed us, created us, calls us to Himself, and knows what brings healing, so why are we not following His admonition to reveal the truth in the innermost parts of WCCC? According to scripture, if WCCC persists in lies, denials, suppression of the truth, and pushing for a way that seems right to them, they are not going to move from a sick culture to one of spiritual and emotional health. There is no Biblical basis for a cover up.

Cover Of Grace vs. Cover-Up
Here is the deepest level of hypocrisy at WCCC. They preached grace. Bill Hybels consistently uttered the challenge to those who felt that they were beyond the reach of God’s love, to trust grace. But did he really believe in grace, and does the church now trust grace? It is an indicator of how much one trusts God’s grace as to whether they boldly bring their sin to the balm of His grace. People who do not share very transparently likely do not trust grace.

A very real question can be asked, based on the lack of transparent willingness to reveal the sin and brokenness in WCCC. Does Bill, and the leadership of WCCC, trust grace? I would say no. Instead of being honest, because they know that God’s grace is sufficient to heal the sin of the church, they are hiding in the cover of darkness. In effect they are saying we will control the narrative, we will cover up what needs to be revealed, because we do not believe that the church can be forgiven or will survive if it is honest about the amount of sin that has been committed.
It is important to say that the current elders at WCCC appear to be Godly people who have worked tirelessly and have shown a measure of compassion towards the victims. But the current strategy of institutional cover-up that is being followed came from somewhere, and is not Biblical. Is it, in fact, lawyers who are guiding the suppression of truth? Is it the deep enmeshment of the Willow culture that simply is continuing the cover up strategy that they have used to try to keep the public image of the church scrubbed from flaws? Is it a lack of wisdom by the elders and leadership? Who knows? The current elders are not being transparent about who is informing their approach to minimize calling sin out publicly. Apparently the elders are following their predecessor’s script of not informing the congregants. Why? I have attempted to access the elders to ask them where they are getting their direction, but they have stonewalled my efforts. If scripture was used as the guiding template for how to heal this crisis, we would not be seeing the level of cover up that is evident.

Tent of Meeting: When The True Church Shows Up For Cleansing
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will heal their land. II Chronicles 7:14
Unlike the “final” elders meeting of Tuesday, July 23, 2019, a true contrition meeting might look something like the following:

  1. Those who are true elders, and represent the spiritual condition of the culture of WCCC, would stand before the whole congregation to express the deep contrition and sorrow over the years of sin that existed in the church. Those elders would symbolize, possibly by an outward sign of sack-cloth and ashes, that the church is coming with contrition before a Holy God to confess its sin and the sin of its leader. They would read Jeremiah 14:20 20 We have sinned against you, Lord; we confess our own sins and the sins of our ancestors. …
  2. The leaders and people would cry out and seek the grace of God in the same way that the tax collector called out to Jesus “Have mercy on me, a sinner” Luke 18:13
  3. The leaders would acknowledge that the church is complicit in the sin, in that we lacked the discernment and courage to call out and root out this leader’s entitlement and the deep sin that it generated in the body of the church. Sin was dealt with in both an individual and corporate way with the children of Israel. It showed the seriousness of sin and how it permeates the very systemic core of a body of people.
  4. The leaders would enumerate the sins of both Bill Hybels and other leaders in the church who followed his leadership and abused people.
  5. The sin, one by one, would be named, detailed, and confessed. The leaders would say (a.) “On behalf of the whole congregation we acknowledge that Bill Hybels sinned in his sexual abuse of multiple women in our church. His actions have caused deep pain in the lives of women who thought that they could trust him. They experienced emotional wounding that we can only imagine. To the extent that we did not confront and demand change in the entitled behavior that drove his abuse of women, we repent and seek forgiveness. Many of us sought to protect the idolatrous celebrity status of Bill Hybels, and therefore, did not want to believe that he was capable of such sin. Because of this we repent and seek forgiveness. Also, to the extent that we participated in a cover up, by believing the narrative that these women were liars and colluders, we repent and seek forgiveness and restitution for these victims. We are deeply grieved by the awareness of how we let down courageous women (and they should be named and celebrated and compensated) who came forth, at their own peril, to stand up against Bill and his sin and for their own dignity. That we did not support them, and all who gave them credibility, (like Betty Schmidt, the long serving, highly respected ex-elder, whose story was falsely represented to support the false innocence of Bill) we repent and seek forgiveness. Lord have mercy. (b.) For the damage that has been done to your reputation by our failure to come clean and share the truth about the sin in our congregation, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (c.) For the people who have left our church in despair, due to a sense of disillusionment or belief that we have covered up and protected a sexual aggressor, we repent and seek your mercy. (d.) For thousands of women who are survivors of sexual abuse, and who, upon learning that a trusted pastor was in fact a sexual aggressor, experienced trauma and disillusionment, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (e.)For many staff that experienced the bullying tactics of Bill Hybels and other leadership staff who were groomed by him, and may have been forced to leave under the cover up of the lie that “God was leading them away”, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. For allowing non-disclosure agreements to be used as a means of suppressing the truth about what was really going on in the culture of the church, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (f.) For many congregants at our church who were assessed to be a threat to the image or assets of our church, who were labeled dangerous with little real evidence backing this up, who were subjected to an elder response team that lacked compassion and a pastoral approach to problems, and used such strong arm repression tactics as threatening arrest for trespassing, and sending scary and intimidating letters, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. For trauma this created and the lack of pastoral follow through with the people who were kicked out and are left with a bitter sense of injustice, we repent, and will seek them out to pursue forgiveness and restitution(g.) For allowing Bill Hybels to manipulate the leadership of the church to create a governance model that gave him near absolute power to push his personal agenda on the church, and for failing to detect that he had character defects that resulted in him acting in ways that were absolutely in contrast to the fruits of the spirit and the life of Christ, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (h.) For the leadership not being transparent, even in this post-March 2018 period in the church, and creating a cover up approach that is in absolute rebellion to Your call to uncover the truth and sin, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (i.) For allowing a culture of perfection and image to be the underlying strategy of the church, and for all the behind the scenes ways that we intimidated, bullied, or eliminated people who were a threat to this goal, and for all that was covered up, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (10) For our multi-year support and identification with a leadership summit and association that professed to be focused on healthy leadership, even though its founder and teacher violated multiple qualities of Biblical leadership, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. That we have allowed the leadership of the summit to get by without addressing the obvious hypocrisy of how the summit is going along, and acting like nothing happened, we ask for your mercy and forgiveness. (j.) Finally, and certainly not complete, we repent of the fact that we allowed our church to be built on a person, on the charisma of a leader who, on many levels, seemed so competent that we continued to support his behavior even though we should have clearly called it out as sinful. Your name has been defamed as the result of our church’s sins. We seek restoration of your name through the cleansing of our transgressions. We commit to protecting Your reputation by establishing the only real path of leadership in our church, and that is that we will follow leaders only as they follow Christ. Amen

“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psa. 32:1)

 

NO MORE COVER UP! RISE UP PEOPLE OF WCCC AND DEMAND THE TRUTH!

Willow Creek Community Church. Decide- Damage Control Or Damage Repair?

For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. Luke 8:17

What Is A Brand?

When a corporation has a product that needs a recall, its marketing department goes into mega spin control. In essence, the strategy is based on deciding what the minimum amount of disclosure has to be regarding the flaws of the product, in order to attempt to reduce the amount of loss of sales and income. The brand of the company is under attack, and the negative impact of a disclosure of product failure must be minimized at all cost.

A brand is the collection of beliefs that the public has about the company and its products. It usually is connected to a mission statement and some advertising jingle that seeks to encapsulate the essence of the product. For example “Things go better with Coke”, seeks to attach the notion that drinking Coke has an emotional hook for people, and will result in their lives somehow being more satisfying. If a recall of Coke products occured, due to a health threatening ingredient being accidentally introduced to a Coke drink, this would massively create a problem for the Coke brand. The full force of the company’s spin control experts would be brought to bear on this threat to the brand. The goal is damage control. The goal is to admit the least to lose the least. That is the bottom line. The trust that a brand seeks to develop has to be restored.

Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) has collected over time a brand that is currently under siege. The brand of WCCC encapsulates the things that the church represents. For instance, the church has disseminated over time, the idea that they are seeker-sensitive, putting forth a program that is just enough spiritual to kind of look like a church, but not so religious in nature as to alienate non-believers. The motto of the church is to convert irreligious people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus. To produce this product, the church has committed to an image that is attractional to those outside of Christ. Deep in the brand assumptions of the church is that WCCC must look excellent, have an image that is just short of the environment of Disney World. The deep underbelly of WCCC has been managed by doing whatever is needed to eliminate anything that might rupture this public image. Messy staff issues were handled in secret, sending people away with the public lie that staff had been led by God away from ministry at WCCC. Lies and deceit were part of the modus operandi that allowed the external brand image to be maintained as excellent and awe inspiring. The congregation was not privy to the ugliness. Thus they were mesmerized by the brand, and felt a sense of pride in their association to such an excellent organization. Brands are, in effect, like the identity of an individual. They represent the values, mission, vision, and operating principles of the entity. The product is what is consumed.

Damage Control

WCCC’s brand is under attack. It’s world wide reputation, which if we as attenders were honest, made us feel pride by our association with such a “wonderful” church. We like the brand and the attention that it has gathered in the church world. Watching such an excellent spectacle on stage was hypnotising, and left us with such a good vibe about how the church could be just as excellent and entertaining as the secular world.

Then came March of 2018. Articles came out about the sexual misconduct of our wizard-like senior pastor. It could not be true! We were under attack. Our identity as Willow Creekers was under attack! And then we watched as the spin-control started. A bogus investigation was revealed that had cleared our vaunted leader of all wrong. He was simply under attack by a cabal of histrionic women who had projected their adolescent infatuation onto this innocent senior pastor. They simply turned their feelings of rejection into attacking him, seeking to destroy him out of their own misplaced desire for him. This is called “plausible deniability”, used by celebrities to deny any responsibility that they have. Of course we can easily see that this senior pastor, Bill Hybels, a good-looking, always tan, seemingly self-confident leader, would be the object of the longings of women that would swoon at his presence. And that is why we can spin and rationalize away the culpability of someone we so do not want to believe is capable of such harm.

So the elders went into spin-control mode. In coalition with this senior pastor, who they could not control, they comforted the congregation that this was all lies, colluding, and an attack on an innocent man. All the while they knew that this man had manipulated them for years. They agreed that the women were lying. Damage control. Our brand is under attack and our brand maintenance involves hiding any flaws. Why? Because the bottom line is under fire. The church could lose people, and as a result, revenue. The spin doctors, probably a combination of marketing experts and lawyers, pushed leadership to minimize the damage. They must have felt momentary victory when the people at the family meeting stood and applauded this poor victim pastor.

Due to the fact that more damning information came out in August, 2018, the collusion and lies strategy could not work. Steve Carter, the face of the church at this point, had had enough and bravely left. Now the breach to the brand was becoming serious. They were leaking water fast and furiously. So, strategy number 2 started to evolve. They would have the elders all resign. Heather Larson would leave. Then, they would start a search for new elders. The strategy, to control the damage, emerged from the same culture that developed the problems in the first place.

The problem with this strategy was that it turns out that it was simply a continuation of maintaining the brand as it existed. The people who were responsible for selecting the elders were either former elders, leaders in the church, or congregants. These people had all been immersed in the culture and brand of WCCC themselves for years, and likely had a subjective bias towards continuing things as they were. So this search committee, not fully understanding the damage inherent in the behavior of the senior pastor, selected the current elders. They got elders in place, who on the surface, looked like they were doing a good job of taking the problems seriously. They listened to the stories of the women who had been abused and, according to some of the women who shared their experience, seemed to be genuinely compassionate and sorry for the pain the women had endured.

Then came the “final” meeting on Tuesday July 23, 2019. It was brand-protecting, in that the elders gave a tepid rendition of the pain that had been inflicted on the women who were sexually violated. The elders, in effect, said we have done what was needed, done the minimal due diligence, and now, on to the future. The brand took a hit, we have lost some people, our revenue is down, but we have weathered the storm. Full speed ahead!

Damage Repair

Damage control is different than damage repair. An analogy might help. If you have a shiny Mercedes Benz that you notice has some rust showing through, you could do one of two things. You could get a can of paint that is the same as the car color and spray it over the rust. The rust is now covered over. It might look a little bumpy, but it is gone, and the essential flaw-free image of the car is returned. That would be damage control. It is a short-term solution, because the underlying corrosion will return soon and the rust will re-emerge.

Taking the car to an auto body specialist and having them cut out the area of the car that is rusting is damage repair. It takes longer, and is more expensive, but is also more permanent.

The only conclusion that one can reasonably make from observing the strategy of the elders’ “final” meeting on the Hybels situation is that they are trying to paint over the rusted image of the church. The problem is that they have not fully investigated and revealed to the congregation the true assessment of the damage. Since the ugliness of the damage is trying to be concealed, the church does not know how desperately rusty the underbelly of the infrastructure of the church has been, and how far the brand of WCCC differs from the brand being based on the person and character of Jesus Christ. WCCC does not need brand control, they need to re-brand. They need to repair the damage.

The new brand must be based on an honest and transparent reflection of a people who take sin seriously, and are willing to courageously expose brokenness publically. Then people will understand that a truly Jesus-based brand will be vigilant about sin in its midst and will have elders and leaders who can detect it and deal with it openly. The congregants of WCCC are not children who cannot handle the reality of real sin and problems in the church. As I have said in the past, this reflects a paternalistic approach that leaves leaders as elitist controllers of the truth. Elders need to be accountable to the people in an honest and transparent way. No more decision-making that leaves the congregants puzzled and frustrated. No more senior pastors who are celebrities who believe in their own invincibility, and control elders who should have the spiritual guts to confront all forms of ego-driven entitlement.

Expose The Damage

WCCC has revealed that it is interested only in damage control. If it was concerned about true repair, it would openly and publicly give a list of the damages that have been inflicted on the church by the entitlement of Bill Hybels and the way that his power and control oriented methods of management have wounded so many. We need to appeal to the elders to pursue repair and rebranding. Here, as best I understand it, is the list of grievous damages that the have been revealed in the last 18 months:

  1. Damage to the Reputation of Christ. Since the church is the physical representation of those who identify with the life of Christ, WCCC’s scandal and the revelation of allowing a man to design a church that in so many ways does not reflect the character and values of Jesus must be acknowledged, lamented, and changed.
  2. Damage to the Lives of Precious Daughters of the Father. As a Christian psychologist, I have witnessed the devastating impact of all levels of sexual abuse on the lives of women. Although each woman that was sexually violated by BH has their own experience of the symptoms that get created by an abuser, I can list a short number of common results of abuse. Trust issues are at the top. At any level, if a previously trusted individual violates the boundaries of a woman’s right to feel safe physically, there is a dramatic shift in trust. Now, men may be seen as potentially non-trustworthy, which produces a hypervigilance in the presence of males. This low grade anxiety is a damage to the psychological equilibrium that a woman might feel pre-abuse. Depression and anxiety often increases as a result of abuse. Awkwardness and fear in having to work in the presence of an abuser undermines a woman’s ability to function professionally. Anger at the abuser who has more power than the woman is a chronic result of abuse by a senior member of the work environment. This can cost the woman the ability to focus and stay engaged. At worst, some women develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as they must deal with the trauma of having to adapt to an intrusive violation of their body, mind, and spirit. The cost of moving from a care-free, to a vigilant, anxiety-based life, is the real damage that many women report. So, do the elders at WCCC want to minimize the public report of damage done to the women that came forward? It appears so.
  3. Damage To Women Who Attended The Church Who Had Histories of Sexual Abuse. A huge cost to women who attended WCCC, but were not directly abused by BH, is the activation of fear and further distrust that gets created from learning that another man, this time one who posed as so self-disciplined and trustworthy, had in fact violated women in the church. This is real damage. Many of these women have their trauma reactivated by awareness of the abuse of other women. I am afraid many of these women had no place to go to process their possible pain. The church offered no awareness or resources to multiple women who may have been affected. Many of these women may have simply left the church, branding (bad brand) it as just another hypocritical place where men can abuse women with no real consequences.
  4. Damage To Multiple Staff Who Were Treated Abusively. As a person who has counseled multiple ex-staff at WCCC for almost thirty years, I can account for the damage done to so many. The bully tactics of BH was evident to many people, but he was enabled by a weak leadership who could not contain his ego-driven need to push forward his agenda. He got rid of staff that he did not like or who he felt threatened by, and did it in ways that left them feeling shame and rejection. I remember one staff member who came to me after Bill had gone by her desk and reprimanded her for it not being up to his standards of organization. He asked her “would God be happy with your disorganization? “BH set up an Elder Response Team and Human Resources Team that is responsible for multiple staff being treated in un-Christlike ways. The emotional cost of these sinful ways of handling people are great and should be made public so the true damage to staff can be comprehended by the larger WCCC family.
  5. Damage To Many People Who Were Effectively Ex-communicated By WCCC. WCCC used tactics that were an extension of their image-obsession in dealing with “problem” people. People who had done something that in the estimation of WCCC leadership created a problem to the image of the church were forced to meet with the Elder Response Team. The people that comprised this team showed very little Christ-like compassion and generated, as I have blogged before, a trauma generating environment that left people anxious and angry. They would use an unbiblical strong arm tactic by having the church’s lawyers send scary letters implying that they could be prosecuted if they did not comply with the church’s demands. Often people who were long term attenders at WCCC were told that they would be prosecuted for trespassing on any WCCC property were they to attend a service. The church had security members with pictures of these “criminals” and would intercept them and escort them off campus. The senior member of the ERT was a man who was a former emergency room physician. He had absolute power, under the permission of BH, to make heartless decisions. He literally treated people like they were in his spiritual emergency room. He would often kick them out of the church with absolutely no regard for the after-care of their souls. Unlike Jesus, who would go after the one and leave the 99, he discarded them like infected tissue. The damage to the spiritual lives of so many people are the unreported cost of a system of control and management that wounded so many of God’s children.
  6. Damage To The Idea Of Leadership. One of the most unacknowledged costs of the behavior of BH is the hypocrisy of his authoring and stewarding the idea of Christian leadership. Leadership was his passion, I believe, because it fit his narcissistic need to be special and have a platform for his entitled agenda. He created the Global Leadership Summit as a showcase for his notion of the importance of teaching leadership. Although he had multiple experts in the world of leadership who taught real authentic things, like being a humble leader who is transparent, he,in fact, violated many of the principles of leadership that he championed from the pulpit. Subjects like emotional and social intelligence were taught as essential to leadership, all the while that BH was leading out of a cold indifference to the consequences of his bully-like management style. How can a person so compartmentalize their life that the truth does not penetrate the practice of Christianity? So, the damage to many who are disillusioned by the hypocrisy of a leader who promoted healthy leadership while exercising damaging practices himself, is great. Can we so quickly roll over and move beyond acknowledgement of the deep damage of these practices? It appears, from the elders’ behavior, as well as the leadership of the Global Leadership Summit, they can.
  7. Damage To Trust In Leadership At WCCC. The fact that we were lied to by our leaders created a serious breach in trust. Trust is the currency of leadership, and when it is compromised, how can we be confident in the direction leaders want to take us? The victimized women were portrayed as liars and colluders, Bill was protected, and we were treated like dumb sheep. How do we repair the damage to trust in leadership?
  8. Damage To The Body Of Christ. It is undeniable that the last eighteen months have resulted in hidden costs to the people who have gone through the turmoil that this has brought into their lives. Focusing on the pain has often interrupted the ability to continue to grow in Christ. The questions that have shaken the faith of many is a huge cost and part of the damage that needs to be publicly acknowledged.
  9. Damage That May Only Be Recognized In The Future. Much of the damage may be hidden only to be revealed later. There may be untold damage to those who left the church disillusioned by the tragedy. There may be those who were on the verge of moving towards a life of surrender to Jesus who, due to the hypocrisy, moved on.

Damage Cost

The cost may be so much higher than I can even articulate. If the damage is kept hidden in the interest of damage control, it, like the rust on the car, will re-emerge. The hidden things will be revealed. Why? Because they are like cancer to the life of the true church of Jesus. WCCC needs to rebrand and the brand must closely reflect the values and actions of a church that is following hard after the blueprint that Scripture has revealed as necessary in the life of the body of Christ. WCCC is doing damage control, not damage repair. And that is because they are minimizing the cost of the damage that has been inflicted. They are painting over rust.

If the current leadership of WCCC does not acknowledge publicly the true cost of the damage that the church has sustained, how can we be reassured that they are implementing the kinds of change that will prevent this kind of damage in the future? It may take, like the French Revolution, a demand for change by the proletariat.

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

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

Culture of Change

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

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

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

Lament

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

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

Empathic Forgiveness

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

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

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

If I Were A Woman At Willow Creek Community Church

If I were a woman at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC), particularly one who, as almost a third of all women, has experienced some form of sexual abuse, this is what I would conclude about WCCC’s view of women and of predatory sexual behavior by men. This is based on what I have observed as the response of the church to what was a cataclysmic revelation of the sexual in-appropriateness of the senior pastor of the church. It is difficult to understand what WCCC’s strategic process has been in dealing with the crisis. As in so many other leadership decisions at WCCC, what the process is, who gave input into how it should be implemented, and what the goals should be are not immediately understandable. As a systemic and trauma professional, I have written a great deal on systems and trauma, but the leadership has chosen not to consult with my perspective. All I can go on is what I see.

Seriousness of Sexual Predatory Behavior By Leadership in the Church

Sexual abuse of women in WCCC by men is at worst something to be denied, minimized, or weakly reported as “credible” in the church. If instead it was presented as extremely serious, real, and traumatic in the family of WCCC, it would have quickly been accepted as true, condemned in no uncertain way, and the perpetrator called out as having done a horrific sinful devaluation of both the courageous victim-women that came forth in the church, as well as all of the women victims from other perpetrators. The actions of leadership would have recognized the traumatic disillusionment that came from the realization that a supposedly trustworthy and woman-valuing senior pastor had pierced the veil of trust and safety of women in the church’s family.

Instead, the response became an arduous gathering of the facts, diluting the emotional intensity of the crisis because of a cautious concern about the credibility of the victims. WCCC is, by virtue of the lack of strong and passionate exposure of the truth, minimizing the fierce reality of not only the courageous women that came forward, but also the sense of safety and trust in the church as a whole by multiple women who have experienced abuse. WCCC is treating this situation like what often happens in families or organizations. Rather than believing the victims, the leadership of WCCC began a process of initial denial, shaming the victims, protecting the perpetrator, and then slow acknowledgement of the horrific truth of the victims stories.

Families where a father or son perpetrate abuse on a daughter often seek to protect the perpetrator, and often victim-shame the women by challenging the authenticity of the claims of sexual abuse. All manner of rationalizations are used to protect the image of the perpetrator because the exposure of his sexual abuse would cause the financial collapse of the family, or the abuser would lose status, or an ugly legal situation would occur. All of these approaches focus on protecting the perpetrator over the victim. This appears to be happening at WCCC. There is some unexplained reluctance to call Bill Hybels out for his degrading sinful behavior towards women. Why? As has been the case in multiple scenarios at WCCC, the truth is a stranger. The narrative is controlled due hidden motivations. Is it fear of lawsuits, fear of financial collapse, fear of loss of people at the church, fear of the perceived big-ness of BH and his personality, or fear of the global reputation of the church?

Not Protected In The Moment Of Crisis

When unsafe things are revealed and trauma is induced, healthy families and organizations recognize the needs of the traumatized individuals and provide real time interventions. From all appearances, the process of how they are dealing with the crisis of disclosure that has occured at WCCC, looks like what happens when deception and cover up are accepted as a game plan for minimizing the damage. Secular responses to trauma put WCCC to shame. I have been involved in a number of major crisis events, from 9/11, Cary-Grove bus crash, Northern Illinois University shooting, to the Red Lake Minnesota school shooting. When these events occurred, the first response was not to spend one and one half years gathering the facts, but rather an immediate intervention occurs. We did critical incidence debriefing, because the quick response helps people at the most critical window of opportunity to help prevent long term residual effects of trauma.

WCCC should have immediately offered opportunities for women who were re-traumatized by the revelation of a supposedly trustworthy leader’s sexual behavior. The overwhelming number of women who had reported abuse was enough to give immediate circumstantial validity to the revelation of abuse. They needed immediate care, validation, comfort, and should have been offered the opportunity to process their feelings in the moment. The laborious process that appears to be the guiding strategy of WCCC is just plain wrong. By the time that the leadership gathers all the facts and stories, and presumably makes a definitive declaration of the correctness of the accusations against BH, the trauma will have faded, women who were retraumatized by the shocking exposure of the leader likely will have left or concluded that the church is not a safe place. The church should have immediately provided pastoral and counseling resources for all women affected by the trauma of awareness that comes from the revelation that a perpetrator was in the midst of the church.

It Is Risky To Speak The Truth

If I were a woman at WCCC, I would conclude that it was dangerous to come out with the truth about an icon. Like a perpetrator father, the need to maintain the image and illusion of the leader results in the victims getting attacked for their truth. The women who have come forward have been vilified by those who desperately want to maintain the illusion that Bill Hybels, the visionary founder and developer of WCCC, could not have done what he is accused of doing. To keep the illusion going, the women’s truth must be questioned, maligned, diminished, and attacked. The courageous women that have come forward with truth have been deeply doubted and devalued. This adds insult to injury, in that they already experienced the trauma of abuse, and are then abused further by those who wanted to silence them to keep the comfortable illusion of the idealized leader intact.

Conclusion

If I was a woman at WCCC, I would have to conclude that sexual abuse is not taken seriously, not openly condemned, but instead, swept under the carpet, minimized, denied by supporting the perpetrator. Otherwise, why has the leadership not come out forcefully in stating that Bill was a sexual perpetrator, sinned, is not repentant, and shockingly disillusioned the women of the church by hypocritically teaching the value of women and then objectifying them.

As a result of their failure to create an immediate intervention for women, the leadership of WCCC sent a message to women that they are not going to be protected and helped with their trauma. Because what had happened in the WCCC family was not acknowledged and processed, the message to women was that they could not count on their church to immediately respond to their pain.

By the initial attacks on the women who came forward, the message to women was that it is costly to share truth. WCCC did not need anything more than the credibility of multiple women to take a strong stand for truth, reach out to the women who were victimized, and address the reality of the pervasive of BH’s sin.

Willow Creek Community Church: A Cautionary Tale (Section 3)

Culture Repentance 

The poisonous spiritual DNA of BH was the basis for the unfolding of a church that focused more on appearance, program, numbers, money, and worldwide notoriety. The values and vision of this church were never meaningfully vetted against what a church and what a pastor would look like if the DNA was that of Christ. The great reveal done years ago at WCCC is that the church was severely under-focusing on discipleship and the deep growth of the believer. It was no surprise to me that this was the case. Believers who have a mature understanding of their spiritual growth would likely be more inclined to identify and confront the deeply immature and image-oriented focus of WCCC.  

Did the army of staff that signed up, sublimate their understanding of a Christ centered church to the power and bigness of BH’s vision? I know personally and professionally, that  there are a number of integrity based individuals who tried to confront sin and seek change and got crushed by  BH’s power and control. Many people are still on staff at WCCC that either did not have the spiritual maturity or the strength to recognize and confront the deep schism between the vision, values, and management behaviors of BH and what a true and authentic Biblically founded church should look like. Do we need to call out all staff at all leadership levels that co-opted BH’s vision of the church and then fell in lock step to the image developed around a diseased DNA model of Christ’s church? It seems to me that now that BH is no longer at WCCC, the heat is off all of those who had to at some level adjusted and adapted to what it took to stay at WCCC and to support the deeply flawed organizational vision, values, and behaviors used to sustain what was really just the external clothes of the narcissistic emperor. Does God want a public confession from all those who created the scaffolding by which WCCC was erected? I believe so. 

Fair And Balanced 

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. I Corinthians 3 

 

To be fair, WCCC has born good fruit in many areas. It looks to me like that which was not of Christ needs to be dismantled so that it becomes Christ’s, not BH’s church. The verses above focus on the fact that the building (church) will be tested, and what is not of Christ will be exposed and burned up. But even those who do things with misguided motives can be doing things where Christ is being communicated. I will leave with these verses that show that God is at work, even in our brokenness. His church will prevail! My next blog will be about what I believe needs to be done to create a Christ-centered culture at WCCC.  

 

15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,  Phillipians 1:15-18 

The Most Important Biblical Advice For Leaders In The Church

It is unconscionable that BH birthed and then developed the Willow Creek Association, whose goal was to equip leaders and had a global leadership conference to teach what leadership was to be all about. And yet, the shocking reality of his own personal life and leadership was so fraught with sinful visions and motivations and unbiblical characteristics of leadership. Why has no one shouted out the hypocrisy of all this? The WCA, now called the something else, has left the hypocritical legacy of its’ founder float like a dark shroud around all that it does. Why do those who claim to be experts at leadership, not lead? Lead! Point out the obvious contradiction of a man and ministry that violated the tenets of good biblical based leadership. Are the faithful supposed to draw their own conclusions? Why does the leadership of the leadership group not have the guts to point out the obvious. Who wants to follow someone who cannot point out the elephant in the room, deal with it with honesty and transparency?

11 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. I Corinthians 11

Simple. In essence Paul says that follows should only follow a leader who follows Christ. If a leaders vision, values, and behavior do not reflect those of Jesus, do not follow him or her. They are not worthy of being emulated nor are they to be obeyed. Strong Nathans are to call out the behavior of leaders in the church who do not follow hard after the life and leadership of Jesus.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. I John 4:1

A mature church, established in the Word, should have the discernment to determine if its’ leadership is following Christ or their own broken agenda. Leaders who, like BH, are aloof and disconnected from the body of believers, do not allow themselves to be held accountable. As mature followers of Jesus, we must not allow a church to have elitist or celebrity leaders, because they can thrive and drive the church off a spiritual cliff.

 

Willow Creek Community Church: A Cautionary Tale (Section 2)

DNA As A Metaphor for Personality Development 

Since I am more familiar with WCCC and its leader Bill Hybels, I will focus on it versus Harvest. As I mentioned, doing a deep dive into the spiritual DNA of James Macdonald would reveal similar dynamics. Think of personality elements as similar to DNA when it comes to the construction of the church. Much like a physical organism unfolds faithfully around the biochemical code of DNA, so organizations who have a leader with flawed personality DNA will unfold the church around the vision and values of that person.  

It is clear to most of those who served close with Bill Hybels (BH), that he was a man driven by a need for perfection, both for himself, and for those around him. This drive enabled him to appear extremely disciplined and productive. Being a leader put him in a position to drive WCCC to unfold its’ structure and governance around the vision and values of his flawed spiritual DNA. The DNA imprint that BH would inflict on WCCC  was formed early in his life. From glimpses into his childhood from individuals that were close to him, and what he has revealed,  BH had a stern and demanding father who was bigger than life to him and set up almost impossible expectations for Bill to attain. Those early influences began to form his values and his ideas about what his success should look like. One element that is crucial to a narcissistic development was that of his father giving him challenges that were difficult, and yet he generally succeeded in completing them. This resulted in two significant lessons. First it resulted in him then being risk oriented, and second he developed a strong sense of self-confidence and a belief that he could do new and different things. He transferred this to WCCC, as the organization in which his flawed spiritual DNA would unfold.   

Creating a physical body in the image of one’s DNA generally unfolds faithfully, short of environmental influences, consistent with the blueprint structure coded in the genetics. Creating an organization, such as a church, from the flawed spiritual DNA of a broken man, is a little trickier. Some leaders who drove the development of their churches around their own flawed DNA have been confronted and either changed or left leadership. So how did BH manage to get a complex organization like WCCC to so faithfully follow his clearly narcissistically formulated image of the church? Why, at multiple intervals over the course of a 40 some year history, did not other leaders in positions of influence over the church not call him out on values and behavior that so clearly deviated from what the church would look like if Christ was the DNA/Cornerstone of the church?  

Power, Charisma, and Force of Personality 

Narcissistic people appear on the surface to be extremely self-assured. They deeply believe in their own superior ideas and visions, and they drive them forward with high intensity. People around the Narcissistically Driven Leader (NDL), shrink back from these kinds of leaders because they often do not have the same level of self-confidence as the NDL. They easily draw the conclusion that their ideas or judgements about things are not as valid, so that they slowly, but surely, give ground to the charisma of the seemingly self-assured leader. They give ground and the NDL takes ground. The people who support the NDL get smaller while the NDL gets bigger.  

The only people that survive around the NDL, are those who compliment his narcissism by supporting his vision, values, and the behaviors used to sustain them. NDLs cull the ranks of anyone in their organization that represent a threat to their absolute need for power and control.

Since the NDL gets bigger and bigger, and begins to take on an aura of celebrity, people that serve around them bask in the glory of this leader’s “importance”. Those people supporting the NDL must either subjugate their values and ideas to the leader’s, or leave. These supportive people have their own “buy in” if they stay. They are part of the inner circle of the NDL. They have a sense of “specialness by proxy” and do not want to jeopardize this privileged, inside status. Nathans, who might point out the sinfulness of the NDL, do not survive.  

NDL leaders in the development of a church, insidiously form the kind of support process that allows them to unfold the unhealthiness of their flawed spiritual DNA. They cannot do this by themselves. They collect and retain people who are loyal to their vision. Because they often drive organizations forward intensely, people who support them either get on the train or get out. Speed of the leader, speed of the team. NDLs criticize, intimidate, cajole, power up on, and generally bully anyone who represents a threat to their pathological vision of the church. Their seemingly impressive “successes” further solidifies their power, and so allows them to continue abusive policies to control outcomes favorable to their vision.  

Culpability Of Those Who Enabled BH 

Matthew 7:17- .Even so every good tree bringeth forth good. But a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit,… 

Consistent with the idea of flawed spiritual DNA, this verse clearly shows that if the foundation of something is wrong, it will produce bad outcomes. Here is a list (not exhaustive) of the bad fruit that was evident in the management of WCCC. If we need a counterbalancing list of good fruit, we can use the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The sources of this information are many current and former staff at WCCC as well as multiple people that have come to my office after years of abuse in the Willow environment.

-BH would bully people who opposed him. 

BH would belittle people who had differing ideas than he did. 

BH would, through the use of the Human Resource department of WCCC, get rid of employees that he felt did not support his vision or values.  

BH manipulated the elders and executive leadership team to get his way. He would use such tactics as saying that if there was a disagreement, he would threaten to leave if they did not go with his ideas. 

-If BH was confronted about his behavior, he would rage and demand to know who would say such negative things.

-BH consolidated his power by appealing to his influence, saying things like WCCC would not survive without him. This is clear evidence of self importance and the fact that he had built WCCC on the foundation of his own broken spiritual DNA. 

-When those who were supposed to oversee him confronted him, he would disagree with them and say “If I brought this to the congregation, who do you think they would believe?” 

-BH used his force of personality to get his way and deceived the elders and leadership. I have confirmed one incidence of this is (via a former elder). When he invited Bill Clinton to speak at the leadership summit, per their request, he promised the reluctant elders that he would have Clinton admit to having an affair with Monica Lewinsky and apologize. He also  agreed he would not let Clinton talk about anything political. Clinton did the opposite of what BH had promised to the elders at the time. The Clinton situation was a clear reflection of BH’s narcissism, showing that he had the clout and influence to pull in a president of the US. Although he knew there was deep opposition to having Clinton come to the church, given his involvement in the sexual abuse of an intern, BH pressured to get him to the leadership summit. In light of BH’s sexual abuse of women, it is now not surprising that he would allow a sexual predator to come teach on leadership.

-BH claimed to believe in the equality of women in the church, but when strong women confronted him, he powered up and demonstrated that he really thought he was superior to them. He objectified women by approaching them for his own sexual gratification, revealing the ugly core of entitlement that NDLs often reveal.  

-BH culled the ranks of experienced employees, keeping a cadre of young, impressionable, and adulating staff that guaranteed that he would not be challenged.  

-BH allowed the formulation of the Elder Response Team, who, although possibly doing some good, were primarily used to eliminate any person who was a threat to the image of the church. They used unbiblical means of intimidating and often traumatizing people who, when they were kicked out of the church, were never followed up on to minister to their pain. He placed a person who had little pastoral experience as the head of the Pastoral Team. This, by the way, is further evidence of what a NDL leader tends to do. This man was a Medical Doctor by profession, not experienced in pastoral care of a congregation. BH favored recruiting people that had success in the marketplace or professional positions, because this enhanced the appearance of the staff who were high profile recruits. The narcissistic elements of this are essentially the ability to say “see, people who are highly successful in other areas of life are willing to sacrifice that and work for me”. 

-BH used lawyers to scare and intimidate people. Here is further evidence of BH’s deep hypocrisy- During one of the family meetings when he was defending himself against all the “bold faced lies” of the women who had come forward to expose his sexual sinfulness, BH was asked, “why don’t you call them and talk about things with them to seek to reconcile”. His response was, ”There are lawyers in the way of me doing that. You know how lawyers are. I wish that we did not have to deal with lawyers”. But there is evidence that he would have highly threatening letters sent from lawyers telling people they could get arrested if they set foot on WCCC property. The attorney that signed the letters rubber stamped them, not doing the due diligence to verify what the person was accused of doing.

-BH caused extreme anxiety in the lives of those who produced the services at WCCC. Many can relate that they developed physical, stress related problems, due to the fact that BH would scold or criticize them if some aspect of the service went wrong (microphones were off when they should have been on). 

I can go on about the bad practices that were essentially ways that BH managed the church in deceptive and manipulative ways. Why did so many shrink in deference to him? If Christ was the foundational DNA of WCCC, would any of the above behaviors have been tolerated? The truth is that BH had a powerful, mesmerizing influence over the church. When discussing WCCC one did not think of a church that Christ has built, but instead thought of BH. One could not separate WCCC from BH. Wrong rock.

I have not heard many  leaders at WCCC publicly acknowledge that they participated in maintaining BH’s ability to rule the way that he did. If they cannot acknowledge this how can we trust that they have the current wisdom to know what Biblical leadership is all about?

 

Willow Creek Community Church: A Cautionary Tale (Section 1)

 

 

This blog is long so I am breaking it up into sections This is section one.

 

The revelation of sexual abuses by Bill Hybels (BH) and organizational abuses perpetrated both by BH and multiple staff at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) begs an analysis of how did things evolve to the point at which we find ourselves? Was WCCC a church or a para-church organization that provided a range of Christian products, from evangelism to social services? If it is just an organization providing Christian focused programs, then our analysis of it as a church would be wrong. But it proclaims itself as a church, and as such, declares to the world that this is what the  Church of Jesus Christ looks like. It is against the measure of a Biblical view of the church that a critical analysis can be justified.

 

Wrong Rock

Was WCCC built on the right rock?

Matthew 16:13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter,[b] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[c] will not overcome it.

Jesus spoke in the language of wisdom, which was often cloaked in parables. The disciples were common men, fishermen mostly, who were grounded in the earthy elements of life, and so were able to follow the often nature based teachings of Jesus. The passage above shows the complexity of how Jesus challenged the disciples to grapple with the way that wisdom is portrayed, always in a process that involves pushing below the surface meaning of things to the deeper revelation of truth. In this passage we see this progression. The earlier verses  (Matthew 16:5-12) discussed bread and yeast. The surface focus was on bread and the disciples struggled with understanding what the meaning of this was.  But as Jesus continued to challenge them, they slowly descended to grasp the deeper meaning of what Jesus was teaching. They came to recognize that they must be aware of the penetration of “yeast” which, on a physical level, activated the process by which bread is leavened, but, on a spiritual level, represented allowing any teaching to penetrate their thinking about who Jesus was, and what His Kingdom was about. As with yeast and and how it causes bread to expand, if the “yeast” of false teaching penetrates the church, it could leverage the growth of the church in unhealthy ways. Jesus challenged them to be on guard and vigilant, so that they could first recognize unbiblical teaching, and then, resist its’ entry into their understanding of truth.

It is in this context that Jesus asks Peter to answer the question of who He was. Jesus was testing the disciples to see if they knew the truth that He had been teaching them. When Peter replied that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah and the Son of God, Jesus knew that Peter understood the truth. It was upon the rock of his understanding that Jesus declared that His church would be built. It was not based on the biological lineage of Peter, but instead the spiritual lineage of all those who recognized that Jesus and His Kingdom would be the stone upon which the builders would erect the church.

Jesus called the disciples to be vigilant so that they could recognize any teaching that veered from the truth. The “yeast” of false truth could slip so easily into the minds of men that they must be clear first, of what the truth is, and secondly, to combat its’ influence in the church. The disciples so knew who Jesus was and what His character was like and what His vision was, that they could discern if a “church” were to be built that significantly varied from this model. They were, as I believe all leaders in the church are, given the responsibility to discern whether or not the church was progressing consistent with having Christ as the rock and foundation. 

This biblical teaching informs the evaluation of what happened at WCCC. Essentially, WCCC was built on the wrong rock, the wrong person, and the wrong vision of what Jesus’s Kingdom was all about. It was built upon the personality of a flawed human being, and it unfolded around the limitations that were inherent in a broken and sinful humanity. And the cautionary tale is that the leadership, who were essentially like the disciples, did not recognize the “yeast” of untruth. They either did not see or were powerless to alter where this leader was creating a vision that unpacked the brokenness of his life more than the understanding of how Jesus was to be the rock around which all things in the church were erected. They have a level of culpability around their failure to adhere to Jesus’s admonition to be vigilant in order to identify and stand against the “yeast” of false teaching,  If current and past leadership individuals were honest, they would publically repent of their failure to either recognize the false truth of a church built around the personality of a man, or their timidness in confronting the sin that should have been evident in their midst.

 

Flawed DNA 

Another way of looking at how a church can be formed around the brokenness of a man verses being constructed with Christ as the center, is the example of DNA.

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 3:11    

The twin towers have fallen. Although this writing is about Willow Creek Community Church, the same dynamics apply to Harvest Bible Chapel. Two charismatic leaders with deep character flaws have steered the construction of their churches around the pathology of their personality disorders. Two churches  were successful in having  individuals buy into a narcissistic leader driven picture of church and served as the attendants to the deeply flawed vision of celebrity pastors. The falling was inevitable if you believe scripture, which, as the verse above clearly establishes, declares that the church can only last when it is built on its’ founder and architect, Jesus Christ.  

The heavens declare the glory of God… Psalms 19:1. We can see God’s design in nature, where He reveals his awesome creativity. When DNA was discovered, it was like science had peeled back the deep mystery of God’s plan for the unfolding of life.  DNA reflected the way that God shows that life and design occurs before its unfolding, consistent with the blue print of how life gets revealed. DNA determines, with some exceptions due to environmental factors, what the fully unfolded image of life will look like.  

For the most part, DNA as the deep mystery of God’s imprint on life, determines what gets revealed. In the body, the genetic blueprint guides the building process of the biochemical structure of formation. If, for some reason (this is where we understand original sin as having penetrated even the biochemistry process) a person’s DNA has chromosomal damage, the external unfolding of life will reflect the unique mutation of the genes. All manner of characteristics can unfold that veer the manifestation of life from the perfection that healthy DNA would reflect, to the limitations we see in people with physical or intellectual deficits.  

This understanding of DNA can inform one as to how WCCC unfolded. If Jesus Christ was the foundation of the construction of the church, it would unfold as the pure and perfect reflection of all the vision and values that Christ had for the church. Ephesians 2:20 further illustrates the concept of how the unfolding of a building or organization is based on foundational guidelines.  

…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. Eph. 2:20 

The cornerstone can be likened to the idea of DNA. It guides the construction of the building that unfolds. Cornerstones set the direction of the building, keeping it level and square, so that what rises above is solidly anchored and strong.  

When it comes to the church, scripture clearly says that Christ alone must be the foundational stone, or DNA, used for the construction of the church. If it is faithfully used as the blueprint, the unfolding of the church will look consistent with the original creative intent of the founder. It will, in a deeply spiritual way, be the incarnation of Jesus, living out publically the character and behavior of Jesus. Interestingly this verse also talks about the apostles and prophets who, as they are faithful to building the church on the Christ centered DNA/cornerstone foundations of the church, will steward the design and construction of the church to be a reflection of the intent of the architect and founder. Those with discerning wisdom, will look at whether the formation of the church is varying from the blueprint, or the spiritual DNA of the architect, Jesus Christ.

 

Any church built upon a flawed and broken person is destined to fail. Only Christ’s church will prevail. The gates of hell will not prevail against it and a church built on the flawed spiritual DNA of a man or woman will not be allowed by Christ to succeed long term. The church is the most evident concrete manifestation of who Christ is and how Christ followers are to live. Because of this, a church built on the wrong foundation, cannot and should not continue.   

In a nutshell, the spiritual DNA of both WCCC and Harvest, unfolded around the flawed design of broken men.  (continued)

A Non-Binary Approach To The Willow Creek Community Church Situation

My last blog focused on what I believe is a serious trauma that was inflicted on the church congregants by the destruction of the illusion of the perfect pastor/perfect church. This I believe has had a profound effect on the level of trust and safety of many attenders, some of which have responded in their own personal trauma based ways. I believe that the church must step up and courageously speak to the “Elephant In The Room” if safety and trust are to return.

Recently I got a comment on my blog site by a person named Alex. Here is the comment that he shared:

“The WCCC congregation has moved on. We’re doing great things and we’re strengthening the torn fabric of our church. We’ve admitted our faults, we’ve let go of all the pertinent people, and we’ve MOVED ON. Things are really good at Willow right now. Having you continue to pick at the proverbial scab is doing NO ONE any good. You continue to harp on the fact that we haven’t done enough. What else can we do? We’ve admitted there was sin, we‘ve chosen a whole new elder board, we’ve admitted over and over that we were wrong, and we’ve put things in place to ensure that nothing like this will happen again. What would satisfy you? Reparations? Public flogging? Your blog is written anonymously which tells us that in all likelihood you’re afraid of your own convictions (probably because they’re highly flawed) and that the anonymity of the internet is the perfect place for you to continue to opine on matters that everyone else seems to have moved on from. God has not forgotten our church. He sees our brokenness and the earnest efforts of the new leadership to do the right thing. And He is honoring that … no matter what you anonymously say.”y

I must say I was somewhat amused by the fact that the commenter was communicating anonymously about my anonymity. I will admit that I am a novice in the social media world and did not realize that nowhere on my blog site did I have personal information about myself. I have no need to be anonymous, as what I write comes from my heart as well as my mind. I have corrected the lack of information so for Alex, I can be contacted directly.

Who Is Alex?

I do not know Alex but from the way in which he wrote the comment, it sounds as if he believes that he writes for the whole congregation. He uses the word “we” consistently in his comment, which would lead me to that conclusion. Is Alex a leader at the church? Does Alex have both the theological expertise and the organizational insight to make the sweeping conclusions that he declares? Is Alex someone who liked the image of the church and longs for it to return to its public status and glory? Is Alex a part of a group that is closed and  basically an echo chamber for all the goodness of Willow? Why would Alex want Willow to move on so quickly? Does he believe that a church, that has had over forty years of identified sinful government practices, should be able to change so quickly? We do love our illusions and desire their return.

Is Criticism Of Willow Wrong?

I have encountered a number of people who wonder if I am a Willow or Bill hater. They do not like the fact that much of what I say in my blogs focus on what went wrong and what needs to be done. As a result the assumption is that I am out to destroy Willow and Bill’s reputation.

Let me say in bold letters “I LOVE WILLOW CREEK AND BILL HYBELS!”  I still attend Willow Creek Crystal Lake, but I do not love some very serious aspects of what has gone on in the church and with Bill. I think of the verse where Jesus says:  “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  Matthew 10:34

Many people are black and white in their thinking. Things are either all good or all bad in their view of the world. It reminds me of the confusion now days with gender identification. Some people have come up with the word “non-binary” if they cannot identify as either female or male. Well I am non-binary when it comes to analysis of Willow and Bill.  I do not identify with the group that sees Willow as all good or those who see it as all bad. One’s inability to see the bad within the good cripples their ability to make substantial changes for the better.

I believe (and if my theological and Biblical training at Trinity Divinity School gives me some credibility) that Jesus was pointing to a very non-binary way of looking at life. As such, he did not come only to bring the peace of white washing everything as good, but instead came with the sword, to separate truth from error. It is the purging process that brings healing and growth. Jesus focused on the vine, and in many ways this could be viewed as the church, with its connection to Jesus, that had to be pruned. The “sucker” branches were stealing nutrients from the flourishing vine. Therefore, it is that when we look at the church, if we cannot see the cancer of sin as a part of the overall function of the church, then the church cannot diagnose and excise what is malignant. People who so quickly want to return to a broad brush focus on the goodness of the church are running from a deep dive into the cancer that, if not excised, is doomed to re-emerge and reconstruct the church around the DNA of pathology. They call for peace at all costs. Jesus, I am confident to say, was more concerned about people being good than looking good.

Why Do We Need To Learn From The Past?

The past is important primarily for this reason. It contains information that we need to extract about what went wrong and why. People who do not want to dwell in the past for very long are seeking to simply re-establish peace. They want peace without purging what was wrong.

As a psychologist, I see many couples in my practice. I have had people who come in for marriage counseling and they explain that this is their fifth marriage and they are having the same problems they had in their first. When asked why, they tend to explain the reason as in their poor choosing ability. “I keep choosing the same kind of person!” they state.  As we explore their marriage, what usually gets uncovered is that they, being unaware of their own wounds and brokenness, keep recreating the same relationship dynamics with new people. Because we as fallen individuals have a bias towards our own goodness, we see the problem as outside of ourselves. It is only when we do a deep dive into how we have been hurt and how therefore we keep recreating our own hurt, that we can start to change. This takes time and comes with an understanding that our default way of doing relationships is guided by these past wounds and coping patterns.

In many ways, this pattern can be seen in churches that form around the brokenness of leaders. Because charismatic leader types are often narcissistic in their personality development, the idea of looking internal to their own brokenness evades them. They design the church around the DNA of their own brokenness. As I have pointed out before, they can create the church in their own image by using deceit and a lack of transparency.

Alex, Why Am I Harping On This Or Picking At The Same Wound?

My dentist, or more frequently my dental hygiengist, tends to bring up every time I get my teeth cleaned that I need to work more on flossing. I personally feel that my teeth are doing fine and I do not need the lecture. However, the truth is, my hygiengist particularly sees what I do not see, he or she sees pockets that get formed that can hold disease when I do not floss. They care more about the health of my teeth than I do.  If I lived in denial, I would not go to the dentist, believe that things were ok, and only when pain flared up would I seek help. By that time what was a problem becomes a disaster.

So it is with the church. People who clearly see things that others (even leaders immersed in the church) do not see, are not bringing problems forward just to be negative, but because they care for the long term health of the church. There are, I am sure, people who simply want to tear down the church because of some hidden grudge, but those can be detected if they bring forward no solutions. In a way, like a parent to a child, if you love your church you will bring discipline to it so that healthy change can occur. Individuals who are satisfied with an incomplete and unhealthy model of the church, only wanting it to look good, do not love the church at the deepest level. It is like a parent who settles for a child’s less than potential performance because they do not want to have done the hard work of bringing discipline to the child.

Therefore Alex, I am afraid, I am going to keep picking!

 

 

Willow Creek Community Church Crisis: Where We Are At

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

Institutional Trauma

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

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

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

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

Two Great Illusions Destroyed

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Intersection of Individual and Institutional Trauma

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

Church Culture Audit-Part 2

 

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ  (Corinthians 11:1 NIV)

As a follow up to my first blog on auditing a culture, the above verse came to mind as a perfect introduction to the basis of auditing the culture of a church. Paul basically said that he only qualified as a leader to be followed to the extent that his life mirrored or copied the life of Jesus. This foundation is the truly unique and exclusive basis for a metric of evaluation inside the Church of Jesus. Anyone who would become a leader must be measured by the extent to which he or she lives in a way consistent with the character and behavior of Jesus. The life and model of Jesus is he only authority upon which the life of the believer can be judged.

The church, unlike a corporation, has as it’s bottom line, the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Essential to this formulation is the systematic goal of bringing every person into conformity to the example of Christ. To this extent we can measure others behavior as “Christ-like” or not. We can ask the question of another’s behavior “does it measure up to the characteristics of the life of Jesus?”.

The Willow Creek Association, which sponsors a leadership summit, should adopt as its credo the above verse, which clearly establishes that the basis of all good leadership is the degree to which leaders model their lives around the characteristics of Jesus. Corporations, which have different bottom lines, can adopt different measures for the health of leaders.

Bill Hybels Measured Against The Life of Christ

As more and more stories are compiled about the behavior of the senior pastor and founder of Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) the question that comes to mind is “how did he get away with this?”. Clearly his bullying style of leadership consistently violated the standard of how Christ lived. Did WCCC, who holds itself out as a church, fail to use the metric of Christ-like behavior to evaluate, confront, and challenge Bill’s behavior as inconsistent with a leader who submits to the Lordship of Christ? Were we all mesmerized?

Oprah Winfrey, in discussing Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of boys, said something profound about celebrities. She said that when we make Icons out of celebrities, we fail to see the con dimension that they may possess. She said it is like looking into the sun. We get so blinded by the celebrity that we cannot clearly see the brokenness. We all want heroes and idealize those that we place on pedestals. In doing this we suspend our capacity to see them as having significant broken parts. We then give them a pass when it comes to their destructive behaviors.

Does The End Justify The Means?

It seems clear in looking at Jesus that He was more concerned about character than about numbers. He cared more about the process than the product. When the product is more important than the process, people get hurt. Focusing on the product mesmerizes us and causes us to suspend our judgement as to the process of how the product gets created. We make the erroneous conclusion that because the product looks so good, it must have been created by a good process. But that is clearly an error in our judgement and focuses more on results than righteousness. Jesus would never have glorified something that came at the expense of the mistreatment of people. All of us who allowed this to happen at WCCC hold some responsibility for allowing Bill to delude us into the assumption that the end justified the means.

As we look at the “product” of WCCC, it is evident that many people suspended the use of the metric of the example of Christ in giving Bill Hybels and others a pass when it came to the behaviors utilized to produce the product. Significant sinful manipulation was utilized by BH and others to force their agenda on the growth of the church. Bullying to get his way, threats of employment retaliation, belittling and destructive criticism, cleaning house of any who resisted his “vision” of the development of the church, were just a few of the tactics utilized.

Bullies and Abuse

Bullies, and BH fits this category, do not get their power by accident or out of a vacuum. They groom  their victims in various and complicated ways. Grooming is a systematic process that over time alters the perception of victims to convince themselves that the abuser is not doing something to hurt them. Bill groomed people of WCCC by presenting himself as confident, as possessing the gift of visionary leadership, by pulling off a substantial number of “successful” programs and building projects. All of this groomed, or manipulated, the perception of him by others so that en masse we gave over our critical evaluation abilities to his seemingly confident leadership. As a result, we were bullied and groomed to give him a pass when he powered up on others to get his way, when he threatened to leave if his agenda was not endorsed, or when his sexual advances occurred.

The Life of Jesus As the Only True Metric To Measure Leadership Success By

So many people were duped, mesmerized, seduced, groomed, and overwhelmed by the power of this charismatic leader. We looked at him as if we were gazing into the sun, so that the broken parts of him did not stand out as in radical contrast to the life and character of Jesus. Many levels of leadership at WCCC conspired, if unconsciously, to sustain the inappropriate power of this leader. Many, besides Bill, need to repent and acknowledge their role in sustaining a destructive culture of Bill worship. He created the culture that remains to a large extent at WCCC. Deceiving, hiding information, getting rid of people who may have called him on his behavior, etc. The worst and most culpable were those who adored him and wanted to be in his presence, and so did not have the guts to call him out. In truth, as we evaluate the culture in hind sight, it would have taken the equivalent of a “palace coup” to force him to change. Instead, he would isolate and eliminate any who challenged him. His sexual shadow is the only thing that would bring him down, coupled with the courage of brave women who finally found a collective voice.

A New Commitment to The Metric of Christ-like Behavior

As WCCC seeks to recover from the trauma of building its’ foundation around a “house of cards broken man”, a new bottom line must be established. It cannot be numbers or programs or  buildings or money, but instead, a clear formulation of the behaviors and character modeled by the life of Jesus. As believers, we are all on solid ground to call our leaders to task when their behaviors and character do not measure up to the example of Jesus. We must not follow anyone whose life does not closely follow the example of Jesus. We must not get caught up in the hypnotic appeal of celebrity or human measures of success. We must hold out clearly and confidently those behaviors and characteristics of Jesus as we are measuring the right of others to lead. We must not allow our leaders to hide in the sunlight of their own celebrity so that they are not available to the real scrutiny of any or all believers.

Absolute Bottom Line Qualities of Leaders Who Measure Up To The Character of Christ

 

Humility– do leaders respectfully listen to the ideas of others and incorporate their needs or views in decision making?

Gentleness- do leaders come across as harsh and belittling of those that oppose them or gentle and confident?

Patient- do leaders take time to listen or get annoyed when others do not fall lock step in line with their agenda?

Confidence- do leaders exude confidence or cockiness? Cockiness is connected to arrogance and a condescending view of others.

Respect- do leaders come across as listening with intent to understand and value the input or others or do they manipulate and produce fear in others to get their way?

Honest and Transparent- do leaders regularly open up about their sins and ask for accountability or do they hide behind a veil of perfection?

Character- do leaders use as their measuring stick for their personal success the qualities and character of Jesus?

Fruit of the Spirit- do leaders exude growth and evidence of the fruits of the Spirit?

 

Priesthood of Believers

In the fellowship of believers in the Kingdom of Christ we are equal in value. We have different gifts but are one in worth. Leadership is but one of the many equal gifts, and should not be given an elite status. As such every believer, using the metric of the behaviors and character of Christ, should measure any believer, leader or not, against this standard. If WCCC learns anything it should be to remove leaders from any elite and unapproachable standard, and should, like all other believers, be held accountable to the authority of the behaviors and character of Jesus. The church janitor who is spiritually mature should be able to call out the lead teaching pastor when behaviors are exhibited that are clearly inconsistent with the metric of Jesus.

Elders As The Culture Auditors

It seems clear that in the church the elders should be those whose lives most reflect the maturity of Christ-like behavior and should be on the forefront of auditing the spiritual condition of members of the body of Christ. Leaders need to truly subject themselves to accountability around behaviors and character consistent with the life of Jesus. Elders must be confident and courageous in holding any member of the body of Christ to the high standard of living consistent with Jesus. Anything less is a breach of their Biblical responsibility.