Last week while I was on vacation, I caught recent news about Willow Creek Community Church, Bill Hybels, and the leadership at Willow.
To get you up to speed without all the details, Bill Hybels, who started Willow Creek Community Church and led it to become one of the biggest mega-churches in the United States, retired “early” a few months ago following growing allegations of sexual misconduct, affairs, and mistreatment of women.
When reports initially surfaced several months ago, the leadership at Willow protected Hybels (and themselves) while discounting the accounts of several women who accused Hybels of inappropriate actions.
Over the past week in the wake of a tenth woman coming forward with specific details of Hybels’ misconduct the elders and lead pastors at Willow resigned finally apologizing to the women who had been hurt by Hybels (and the board’s previous discredit of their testimony) and to the congregation for poor leadership and even misleading. And they called on Hybels to apologize and state the truth about the accusations.
While we were on vacation, we ran into a couple who go to Willow Creek Community Church. When we spoke to them early in the week, the elder board resignation had not yet happened. It was interesting for me to listen to them as they blamed the women (Nancy Beach and Nancy Ortberg in particular) for the recent problems at Willow. They seemed to have the same mindset of the board prior to their resignation. (We did not see them again, so I don’t know if their perspective changed following Wednesday night’s resignations.)
On the way home from Arizona yesterday, we “ran” into famous baseball pitcher, Randy Johnson, at the Phoenix airport. (I actually spotted him from across the security check-in area. I’m pretty sure he didn’t see me.) It’s easy to get excited when we run into someone we consider famous like Randy Johnson, Lynn Swan, and even Bill Hybels (these are some of the “famous” people with whom I’ve crossed paths).
I’ve had the opportunity to hear Bill Hybels preach and speak in person, and I’ve been to Willow Creek several times for small group leadership conferences. I’ve also read a couple of books by Bill Hybels. Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church have had a profound impact on many, many people. Thousands of people have been introduced to Jesus as a result of Hybels and Willow. And Willow Creek as been a model for many, many churches across the country and around the world.
This is good on one hand, but it is also scary on the other hand.
I don’t write about these kinds of topics very often. I honestly am afraid to say something stupid (maybe I already have in this post). But I’m supposed to be stretching myself and others, so I think it’s important for me to explore my thoughts on topics like this from time to time.
Here are a few things that scare me and/or stretch me about the Bill Hybels/Willow Creek Community Church situation:
- Many churches and ministry-based organizations are build on a singular person/personality. Willow Creek is known as Bill Hybels’ church. North Point Community Church is known as Andy Stanley’s church. Life Church is known as Craig Groeschel’s church. Saddleback Church is known as Rick Warren’s church. Even my own church, Christ Church of the Valley, to some extent is often known as Brian Jones’ church. Many of these men have done great things, but I’m quite confident they have also made mistakes. When we allow our churches and ministry organizations to be known more for a person than for the person of Jesus Christ, we are walking a dangerous line. I’m thankful for these individuals, but I need to be enamored with Jesus and not Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley, Craig Groeschel, Rick Warren, or Brian Jones.
- While I think it’s important for pastors to have a supportive leadership team behind them, I think a hand-picked elder board may present a bit of a problem when problems with the pastor arise. From what I read, the board of elders at Willow Creek was more or less hand-picked by pastor, Bill Hybels. Will hand-picked elders really hold the pastor accountable and will they be strong enough to take action to remove a pastor when the situation calls for such action? I’m not sure. I think Willow Creek provides a pretty clear example of the challenges faced by these kinds of boards given these situations.
- Boundaries are important. Hybels apparently helped break down some of the boundaries women faced in ministry leading to upfront leadership opportunities for women at Willow. Unfortunately by appearances, Hybels struggled to set appropriate personal boundaries. I’ve heard people say that personal boundaries shouldn’t be set so firmly as they prevent women from leadership opportunities. I believe there is a way to set boundaries that protect and provide equal opportunities for men and women.
- Women have a voice, and they must be heard. We all need to listen. We need to listen to their wonderful ideas. We also need to listen to their cries for help, and we need to take action.
- Leadership is tough, and leaders will be judged for all their words and actions in and out of the spotlight. This scares me as I consider what the Bible says about leaders and teachers.
- “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” James 3:1
- “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. 2 Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. Jeremiah 23:1-2
I’m not an expert by any “stretch”. I don’t know the intimate details surrounding the Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church situation. I’ve read some of the news articles and opinion pieces (New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Relevant Magazine). I’d encourage you to read for yourself and STRETCH yourself to think about how you can and should respond. I’d also encourage you to watch this video of Willow Creek Elder Missy Rasmussen: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/100031181-132.html.
Stretching is not just about growing our brains by filling them with more information. Stretching is about challenging our minds and hearts and about taking actions that take us out of our comfort zones. Stretching also happens when we pray. I’d encourage you to pray for Bill Hybels, Hybels’ family, Willow Creek Community Church, and the women and their families who have been impacted by this situation. I believe God works in the midst of our messiness, and I believe God will work in this situation.
If you are a pastor or are in church leadership, I’d encourage you to talk about this. Even if your church or ministry is in a healthy place right now, you can learn and grow.
I certainly don’t have all the answers related to this situation. I’d love to read your thoughts. I’d encourage you in your thoughts and comments to seek to be productive and healing. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.