About Willow Creek: What Do I Think?

I’ve been asked by at least fifty different people, both in person and via the Internet, what I think about what happened at Willow Creek Community Church. Which means I’m asked “Scot, you were part of the church for almost a decade, so what do you think happened?” What I think can be reduced to this simple assertion: Willow Creek Community Church, including Bill Hybels, the Elders, and now lead pastor Heather Larson and lead teaching pastor Steve Carter, have forced me to choose between one of two narratives. Either the Narrative of Willow or the Narrative of the Women.

What follows is what I have learned, mostly through news reports but not solely based on news reports, and why I have decided as I have.

Why write about this? Because I believe a profound injustice has been done, and because I thought it would be resolved by now. It has not been so I want to engage the conversation. I am aware that Willow Creek hired Crossroads Resolution Group, but hiring Crossroads is not a resolution.

Reports Phase

When Kris and I, sitting in our pleasant place, the back room, saw at almost the same moment that the Chicago Tribune published an article on Bill Hybels and Willow Creek and that it concerned serious allegations, we both went silent and began to read the article. At the bottom of this story is that a woman confessed to Leanne Mellado that she had a fourteen-year affair with Bill Hybels. That woman eventually recanted her confession but the Mellados and Ortbergs knew there was more than this recanted confession and they pursued it with the leaders at Willow Creek. Other stories have since come to light. The women who have told their stories are to be honored for their courage. To speak into the powers of a place like Willow requires more courage than most have.

The Chicago Tribune article is where I want to begin. There were two principal stories: one about Nancy Beach, whom I know, and the other about Vonda Dyer, whom I don’t know but I do know about her devout Christian character from people I trust. I knew enough of the two that the stories seemed credible. When the article then found support of Beach’s and Dyer’s allegations of sexual improprieties — support that came from the Ortbergs as well as the Mellados, who have been onto this story since its beginning, I knew Willow had more than a challenge. Willow had a very serious problem.

Kris and I began to discuss it and then I said “My guess is that three things will happen soon.” First, Hybels and Willow would deny the accusations. Second, more stories would likely to come to the surface. Third, Hybels and Willow would admit improprieties and Willow would have a huge challenge on how to support as well as either defend or discipline their incomparable founder and pastor.

I also said my biggest fear was that Willow’s leadership and Hybels would handle it in the worst possible way and make life difficult for Willow Creek Community Church, for the women, and for all of us. They did what I feared most: they came out strong arming, they came out swinging and gaslighting the women, and Hybels and Heather Larson and the Elders publicly accused the women – all of them – of lying and then that they were all colluding to tarnish Bill Hybels’ reputation before his retirement. Here’s why this was a fear: if Hybels says it is all lies and if the pastors and the Elders agree to that narrative or at least institutionally support that narrative, then if that narrative proves to be inaccurate, Willow has more than a problem. Willow’s integrity is at stake. Willow’s vaunted place of being a church focused on leadership is at stake.

There is a common narrative told when sexual allegations are lodged against a Christian leader: accusations are made, strong denials by the leader and his elders/board, the leader and church create an alternative narrative of what really happened, more accusations come to light, more denials, more accusations, and then reconsiderations by church leaders and sometimes, but not always, confession, repentance and restoration to leadership of the leader. We’ve seen this often enough that it is now a predictable narrative.

Willow Creek’s leadership chose what I said immediately was an egregiously unwise decision: it chose to narrate the allegations as lies, the women as liars, and the witnesses to the women as colluders. Alongside that accusing narrative chosen by Willow Creek’s leadership ran another narrative: Bill Hybels was innocent, the work of God at Willow Creek will continue, and we’ll get through this. They called this difficult challenge a “season.” This combined narrative of accusing-the-women and defending-Bill is both a narrative and a strategy.

Decision

When allegations arise and when churches accuse the accusers, one and only one thing happens: the audience – those of us who are not involved directly – has to decide who is the more credible. Two, three, then seven, and now nine women making accusations, many with a discernible pattern, and another (or more) claiming an affair who has recanted her story and the church has accepted the recantation … when this many come forward the audience is forced to decide: Believe the narrative of Willow’s leadership or believe the narrative of the women?

It was foolish on Willow’s part to create this narrative. This is the fault of the Elders, the dual head pastors, and their advisors. The narrative they chose mattered and still matters. Here’s why: Nancy Beach, Vonda Dyer, the Ortbergs, Mellados and Betty Schmidt are not only credible people but they are deeply loved at Willow. Thinking of them as liars in collusion to tarnish Hybels’ reputation before he retired is beyond nonsense, and whoever colluded to create the narrative is unwise. It sickened me to see Willow’s leadership turn against these credible leaders. I believe an apology is due to all those maligned by what Willow’s various leaders have said about the women and those they claim colluded.

Wisdom

There are also some features of Willow leadership’s narrative that call into question the wisdom of the pastors and Elders, and I don’t know how to say this other than “call into question the wisdom.” I question their wisdom for the following reasons:

First, it took three or four years of patient persistence by the Ortbergs and Mellados before they tired of Willow Creek leadership’s failure to perceive and investigate the realities. Their decision to go public was not rash; it was not done without attempting to do what was right; Willow chose a path that led to the decisions to gaslight the women.

This leads to a brief response to Willow Creek’s leaders asking people not to go public and contending that going public is “unbiblical.” Yes, and No. Yes, one should go to the person one-on-one when that is possible; in this case the women will have to make that decision. Many, if not most, of the women who know they have been sexually violated will not meet with the perpetrator privately; nor should they be asked to or told to. Then, Yes, keep it with the church as much as possible. The Ortbergs and Mellados did that very thing, and they did this for four years.

Is it biblical then to go public? The Bible’s language for this, and it is all over the Bible, is prophetic action. At times one has to go public, has to announce things public, has to speak the truth to the powers because the powers won’t listen. Prophetic action is profoundly biblical; it has been the agent of truth-telling, repentance, and restoration time and time again in the history of the Bible and the history of the church. Prophetic action should never be the first thing someone does; and in this case the Ortbergs and Mellados very biblically waited and waited and waited before they went public. When interpersonal and behind-closed-doors in the church options are worn out and not finding the truth, then public, prophetic action is both warranted and biblical.

(I will say more about “biblical” and “unbiblical” near the end of this piece.)

Second, there is the incredible admission by Bill that a woman spent nights at his home when Lynne was out of town. This admission seems to have met with no resistance, no decision to prohibit such an unwise action, and no follow up on the decision. How can the pastors and Elders have known this and not done something? What kind of moral leadership is this? What does it mean to have an Elder-led church? Maybe action was taken, but I am unaware of it. Did the Elders respond to this and what was the outcome?

Third, Willow’s Elders evidently saw nothing wrong with Bill counseling a woman who (1) was labeled “suicidal” and (2) who had made allegations of an affair — in his home alone. The issue is the impropriety of a woman being with Bill alone in his home.

Fourth, the pastors, and again I mean Heather and Steve, and the Elders continue to claim the investigation was independent when it wasn’t: a company known in Chicago for making issues go away and problems to disappear was hired and a company that admits some if not all of the principal accusers did not participate in the investigation. What kind of investigation is it if the principal accusers don’t participate? What kind of investigation is it if it is not a third party, objective investigation? It’s not an investigation into the pertinent facts. The Elders continue to contend there was no finding as if “no finding” by an incomplete investigation is a “finding.” Wrong, the only reasonable report is “to the degree that we had participation, and we didn’t have participation from the accusers, we found no fault in Bill Hybels.” That’s more accurate. To continue to tell the public the investigation found no fault is a manipulation of reality.

Fifth, Willow’s Elders continue to push their narrative even if it has minor softening moments: they then announced they wanted to hear from the women. They also wanted people to cease going public and using social media and instead to come to them because, they want us to believe, they are trustworthy. That Willow’s Elders don’t see the problem in thinking they are trustworthy after the above is asking to rewrite history. Their attempt to contact the women has been revealed to be a thin deception. Some of the women have described these “contacts” (Dyer, Ortberg, Beach) and they also knew that the conciliation group had previously dismissed power abuse accusations against Hybels.

Sixth, Willow’s Elders have now said not all the women are lying. This creates a powerful undercutting of Willow’s own narrative. Not all the women are lying, it is said. That means some are telling the truth. Which ones? Which stories? Which means Bill is not telling the truth some of the time. Which then becomes false accusations by Willow’s leaders against the women. Which means Willow’s pastors and Elders must apologize for slandering the women, and they must apologize to those who supported the women (Ortbergs, Mellados, and Betty Schmidt).

What Do I Think?

Willow Creek’s leadership should have chosen to seek the truth at all costs, patiently listened to the stories of each woman in a safe environment, asked the congregation to await its findings, and only then gone public. But Willow’s leadership chose early on not to proceed in this way and seems intent on getting this story behind them as quickly as possible. What they most needed and what they still need is a genuinely independent investigation.

I believe the women.

This is what it all looks like to me: Willow’s strategy has not been an impartial investigation but an attempt to accuse the women, to wear them down over time, to soft-pedal around issues by slight shifts in the narrative, and at all costs to avoid admitting the women were telling the truth. Perhaps I’m wrong but I can only go on what I can find to be credible witness.

What Does the Bible Say?

Willow’s Elders and leaders misused the Bible to push against the approach of the Ortbergs and Mellados and the public airing of their stories by the women. It began with Matthew 18, and the claim was that the women should meet with Bill privately according to Scripture. This is profoundly mistaken as neither abused women nor those accusing a man should ever be asked to meet with the man alone. They also appealed to 1 Timothy 5:19 that a church should never accept an accusation against an Elder unless there are two or three witnesses. Wow, using this text, if one thinks about it carefully, could be needlessly harsh: (1) it means no one-on-one sin unseen by anyone else could ever be lodged against an Elder/pastor; furthermore, (2) “two or three” comes from the Mosaic Law and (3) the Mosaic Law itself shows this is a misuse of 1 Timothy 5. The Law itself did not always required two or three witnesses. The singular text is Deuteronomy 22:25-27, which I will quote so it is clear:

Deut. 22:25   But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor. 27 Since he found her in the open country, the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her.

This text is about as close to the Hybels vs. the Women case as the Bible has, and I have seen nothing from Willow indicating this text has been considered. What does it say? First, it is one-on-one between a man and a woman, and two or three witnesses are not needed, and they are not needed in the very set of laws of Moses that often speak of two or three witnesses. Second, this act of sexual violence against a woman becomes known because the woman made an accusation. Third, the Law of Moses clearly favors the story of the woman though there are none to confirm her story. One woman’s accusations against one man are always hard to evaluate, but it is not hard to evaluate when the woman’s accusations sound like the accusations of other women against the same man. The “cry for help” is now being heard in the stories of nine women about Bill Hybels’ abuse of power and sexual misconduct spanning decades.

Furthermore, backing up to the need for two or three witnesses in 1 Timothy 5:19, the stories of the women to the degree they mesh in details become two or three (or more) witnesses. Instead of dismissing them, Willow must instead honor their word on the basis of two or three witnesses.

As mentioned above, I wanted to say something else about being biblical or unbiblical. Let us suppose, that it was unbiblical for the principal persons to go public and to have remained at the interpersonal or church level. Let us, just for the argument, say they were unbiblical. Even if they were acts deemed unbiblical, that doesn’t mean the “case” can be dismissed. One gets the impression that this counter-to-the-accusers argument is a diversion as much as it is an accusation that the accusers were acting contrary to the Bible. Nor does this supposition about being unbiblical mean the women are liars or that Bill Hybels is therefore innocent. The acts themselves are independent realities whether Willow’s preferred process was followed or not. Willow must deal with what happened.

Conclusion

My aim is not to act like I know all that happened. I do not. I believe the women on the basis of what I have learned. I am, as I said at the outset, often asked about the Willow situation and I have done my best to discern the facts. What I do know is this: Bill Hybels and Willow Creek’s leadership have undone forty years of trust for many. A church that has stood valiantly for women in ministry, that has always stood for Christian grace and truth and forgiveness for repenters, that has supported #metoo in various places, that then responds to women as they did to these women unravels the thread Willow has woven for four decades. Many of us are asking why Bill Hybels and Willow Creek’s pastors and Elders slandered the women, calling them liars and colluders, and still refuse to offer them apologies. Willow is being undone as we watch, and the pastors and Elders are at the center of the unraveling.

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