This is the 4th in a series of posts about Willow Creek Community Church: its seeker-sensitive approach, its performing arts, and its international influence. Today we turn to one element of the tragedy of WCCC.
WCCC serves as an example of what can happen when one man/pastor has too much power. Bill Hybels and Willow Creek are, or were, synonymous and identical. What was good about Willow often went to his credit, and what was good about Bill often made Willow what it was.
When the curtain was pulled apart and then torn down in The Chicago Tribune revelations by Manya Brachear Pashman, we learned of widespread power abuse and sexual harassment on the part of Hybels. Though he denied it – and still does as far as I know – the Willow community and wider evangelical community realized the women were telling the truth. Most reasoned that Vonda Dyer, Nancy Beach, and Nancy Ortberg couldn’t all be fabricating a story, and when Pat Baranowski’s story was published in The New York Times the tide turned against Willow’s support of Hybel’s story. Then when the investigation by a supposedly “independent” team divulged the power abuses and narcissistic leadership, the inner workings of Willow became suspect to the core. Hybels proved to be an irresistible force that the elders simply could not control.
So much good can be all but destroyed when the curtain is pulled open, and some of this story is told in A Church called Tov. (Much more than can be told here and we tell stories of many other churches and leaders.) Toxicities can develop and our concern is to help us all turn toward nurturing goodness (tov) in our churches. Tov cultures discern toxicities and they resist the toxicities. Toxic cultures use the tov for their own self-promotion.
We are convinced that the tov/goodness of Willow’s ministries may be stained by the tragedies but what is redemptive will remain redemptive.
God’s work is not ultimately thwarted by human corruptions, but earthly reputations can be destroyed by human corruptions.
The WCCC is the story of toxic sexual harassment, of women who resisted and who were wounded by their resistance, and who will in the end be on the side of what is tov and right. It is a story of courageous women coming forward when it could have cost them so much but who, for the tov of the gospel, said what was true and painful and pierced the Willow bubble.
I applaud those women – and the many who are wounded resisters. We see you. You will be seen in the kingdom as justice warriors. Thank you.
Time and time again I have been asked “How can this happen when so much good has happened?” There is no good answer to this other than (1) God works through broken instruments and (2) those who are masked and working corruptions behind closed doors may be in other ways quite effective and powerful. It’s just common sense, even if it runs against the grain of our convictions that God blesses (only) godly people. (I have also been asked “What can I/we do now so this doesn’t happen to us?” Which is why Laura and I have wrote A Church called Tov.)
The importance of the privacy of a pastor’s life can become a hidden life of secrecy.
Almost always such pastors have “retainers” who know what’s happening but don’t call it out, who protect the man of power, and who find others who will come alongside in the protection. The closer the person is to the pastors of power the greater likelihood of their contribution to the problem.
What we have learned is that such pastors often create and nurture a power-through-fear culture that sustains the pastor’s celebrity and centrality. We used to call such persons “Yes Men” but in many of the churches we write about it is both “Yes Men” and “Yes Women.” It involves elder boards and leadership teams and deacon boards and relatives and families. A network of power and protection can form. Claims of accountability sound the right words but often are little more than a smokescreen of moral claims that turn out to be hollow, superficial, and fraudulent.
Corruptions don’t exist entirely on their own very often.
Corruptions emerge from corrupted cultures.
The need is for different cultures to form, what we call tov cultures.
When one man (or woman, but this is far more rare) is so utterly central to the identity, form, and attraction of a church the entire edifice becomes a frail, feeble, and easy-to-collapse architecture. The hurricane of revelations about Hybels and his retainers, then, have blown much of the structure down.
It’s a very sad story for us because we love Willow, we have grown through Willow, and we have friends who still are working to sustain so many good ministries.
Truth is truth and the numbers and the giving have sustained seemingly irrecoverable blows and the future of Willow as it was are more than threatened.
Tomorrow we look at another element in the tragedy of Willow.