Willow: Why The Women Went Public?

Willow: Why The Women Went Public? July 9, 2018

The two narratives, as I described here, that shaped everything about Bill Hybels and the women accusers were these: Willow’s narrative was that Bill was innocent of all charges, the women were liars and those acting were colluding to tarnish Bill’s reputation before his retirement. The Women’s narrative is that Bill crossed lines morally and sexually, they want these actions admitted, they want confession by Bill Hybels, admission of complicity on the part of any Willow’s Elder’s involved, confession of being wrong about calling people liars and colluders, and a genuine 3d party investigation into (1) what happened between Bill Hybels and the women as well as an investigation into (2) how Willow (church and association) governs itself and governed these accusations. In other words, the women want Willow’s elders and WCA Board to be examined, not least for its most recent announcements.

Before I proceed: We need to remind ourselves of the significance of what we are watching: this case will be a textbook case for decades on the failure of a church — its Elders, its Boards —  to listen to women, to evaluate accusations, and to have policies in place for handling a one-of-a-kind world-influencing leaders. How the Elders handled this case will be subject to intense discussions. Seminaries around the world will discuss the “Willow Creek Case” for years.

The genuinely surprising element in this case happened when Steve Carter, lead teaching pastor, apologized to the women. Then Heather Larson offered a softer and very general apology but that was followed up with a written apology on the part of the Elders who publicly stated that Bill Hybels entered into “areas of sin.”

By any account, these apologies and admissions at least call into question the counter-accusations by Bill Hybels (of women lying, of collusion) and these apologies get close to admitting complicity of Willow (Elders and WCA Board) as an institution in the public statements about the women.

Why This Post?

In her apology, Heather Larson raised once again her difficulty with people going to the news media and social media instead of privately to Willow leadership (behind closed doors). The Why? of public statements is what this post is about today. In a previous post I called the public statements of the women “prophetic” and I stand by that description, but in today’s post I want to explain why it is that in a church like Willow Creek Community Church this kind of prophetic action was both necessary and inevitable. I will proceed slowly to my point because there are some elements of the Willow Creek Case that need to be understood clearly first. I will sketch the importance of goodness, the meaning of autonomy, and then what happens when a problem arises in autonomous churches.

Some of what I write below is theoretical rather than a specific description of specific people at Willow. Nor is there any suggestion that what follows describes all the leaders of all times at Willow. It manifestly does not. Still, the big ideas are worthy of our serious consideration to explain why some “did not like how the information came out in the various (news, social) media.”


All churches require goodness among leaders to flourish in love, unity, and holiness. Churches can “succeed” without goodness but to flourish in love, unity and holiness requires some goodness. (I don’t mean sinlessness but I do mean by “goodness” what Dallas Willard made popular with the term “Christlikeness.” I want to use this term “goodness” because it is so rarely used and therefore can awaken us in a new way of thinking.) Both leaders and the people must be marked as well by goodness. Churches don’t work well without this kind of goodness. Leaders, it needs to be noted, are always tempted away from goodness in the seductions of relishing celebrity and exploiting power. The people are tempted to turn leaders into heroes and believing so much in their leaders that they surrender power to the leader.

Churches that are filled with goodness flourish no matter what the structure (denominations and independent churches). Churches marked by goodness develop the instincts of goodness; these instincts are often inarticulate and even unknown to those acting out the instincts. Success in a church does not correlate automatically with goodness. Success and Christlike flourishing, then, are not the same.

No church is perfect; no leader is perfect; no church is completely good and neither is any leader. Scripture and the wisdom of the church are our guides to goodness through thickets of corruption and sin.

What follows is absolutely essential to understand to comprehend why the Women had to go public.


Willow is an independent church, which means it is self-ruled (or autonomous). Some don’t know this but Willow is not part of a denomination. The church is on its own.

Autonomous churches, like Baptists and many independent non-denominational churches, have no one or organization above the pastor or elders. They are an island to themselves. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does mean that goodness is especially needed because each church has to re-create its own infrastructure and each church then also has to monitor itself.

Autonomous churches therefore have autonomous pastors, and that means these pastors have no one to whom they answer other than the Elders/Deacons. Goodness is beyond needed for such pastors because the temptations of a pastor away from goodness are toward power and toward celebrity. It is not uncommon in autonomous churches with autonomous pastors that Elders or Deacons are “on the side” of the pastor. If goodness is present, no problem; if not, enter problems.

Some pastors in autonomous churches become too authoritative. We are hearing lots about this with respect to Willow. When pastors become autonomous and authoritative and when they are as big as Willow, the church can easily become a top-down organization and become a centralized institution. This deprives the people of the church from genuine participation and of forming the sorts of associations needed for individual gifts to flourish. This kind of centralized culture deprives many of a voice.

This does not mean the people are not participating in Willow for Willow’s level of voluntarism is noteworthy. But, participation and voice with leaders are not identical.

And this must be said: I have encountered one noble Christian after another at Willow. The accomplishments at Willow are because of the lay folks giving their heart to the gospel work of that church. Let no one dispute the commitment of Willow’s people, and the problems that arose have taken the people by surprise. Blindsided and backhanded is how some have described it to me.

Furthermore, top-down management promotes a lack of responsibility on the part of the people, often a lack of accountability for both leader and people, a clear absence of ownership by the people, a lethargic passivity by the people, and it creates spectators of the people and performers of the leaders. The leaders develop a persona made visible by public appearances. One does not know the genuine article; one knows the persona presented on stage. For most people there is no way to find the truth of the leader’s character. Many people are marked by allegiance to the leader rather than free-flowing giftedness set free to do the work God has called them to.

In autonomous churches with centralized autonomous pastors, what happens when a problem arises among the people who routinely have little voice?

Problems Arise

The problem of autonomous churches is autonomy at the top: too much authority in the inner circle at the top and voicelessness for too many.

Autonomy at the top breeds powermongering, and that always leads to sharing authority with like-minded who think alike and behave alike and reinforce what is alike. Many of the “not likes” then are excluded, silenced, and even afraid to speak up.

The evidence of powermongering is silencing and bullying – verbally, institutionally, opportunity, and development/advancement. Success in such churches is shaped by loyalty to the autonomous pastor and his retainers. Advancement is given to those who clearly are “for the team” but many know that “team” in such churches becomes an inside group of power brokers.

A problem arises, a woman makes an accusation, what happens?

Instead of the goodness-instinct of listening and investigating, autonomous churches that are centralized can become anti-Christian and non-Christian in their treatment of others. What the power brokers think of first is protecting the institution, which is (sad to say) protection of the power at the top.

The culture shaped by such centralized authority structures usually has an order or process of handing complaints and accusations. The “Team” doesn’t like criticism because it damages the institution. So such institutions want to keep things “inside” so they can be controlled by the power brokers.

They fear populist criticism, they fear going to the media, including social media, because media can damage the institution.

Notice how I have described this: the accusers, the victims, the women are not heard and what happened is of less concern than what happens to the institution. This priority to the institution is a form of silencing. (When women are silenced systemically or ignored or not believed there are two theological failures: the image of God is more important than systemic institutions, policies, and programs; the egalitarian themes of which Willow has been proud are deconstructed.)

In a denomination, where there are institutions and people “above the local church,” persons in a church can approach the denominational authority. Furthermore, denominations have formed grievance processes that deal with potential problems among leaders in a church. That is, wisdom has been formed for how grievances proceed. The processes are wise and I’ve seen them work numerous times. Please don’t understand me to be saying “If Willow were in a denomination this would not have happened.” I don’t believe that because of the “goodness” issue above but if they had been in a denomination I would be willing to say it would have been far better for Willow than it is now. Nothing works perfectly. Willow’s process, however, lacked the wisdom of denominations or outside unbiased voices and its process was profoundly imperfect and corrupted.

Back to problems arising in an autonomous, centralized church with an autonomous pastor. What happens when an individual or a group of individuals, who are disempowered and outside the power cliques, want genuine evaluation and redress for an injustice?

If they follow the autonomous church’s process the accusers far too often learn that appealing to the structured authorities falls into silent dismissals or pretentious evaluations or lengthy delays that wear down the accusers. This is what happened at Willow.

What may be complicating the matter is a question some of us have: Have there been non-disclosure agreements that prevent former employees from talking? That is, severance pay for silence.

Going Public

So people went public because Willow should not have asked people to wait this long. Four years was (more than) enough for these women.

We would not know any of the truth of this problem at Willow (Association and Elders) had they not gone public. Four years of silence, four years of nothing being known, four years when others may have spoken up. We know what we know only because the women had the courage to go public.

Notice that they did not go public right away. Rather, following the guidelines of Matthew 18, Bill was first approached by at least two women (Julia Williams, Vonda Dyer); then a few went to both Bill and the Elders – for four long years of patient attempts to get Willow to admit what had happened, what the Elders have now described as Bill “entering into areas of sin.” The group then was represented by those individuals and then by more-than-one-person going to the Elders, and when it was discerned, after patient but persistent (failed) attempts, that they were not getting a genuine hearing for the voice of the accused women, only then did they go public. Their action has prompted other women to come forward.

It appears to me that what the women did was soundly biblical and patient. I find no fault in their decision to go public. The time for a prophet is when the priests aren’t marked by goodness.

When people know their stories are being diminished or devalued or ignored, there’s only one thing to do if the Boards (Church Elders and Association) doesn’t respond according to truth (I assume the women are telling the truth, and Steve Carter and the Elders agree and Heather seems to as well). What are they to do?

Go public.

So, Willow’s (autonomous, centralized with an autonomous pastor and Elders who supported the) Church and Association made public prophetic speech the only option. There was no denominational structure left or outside objective voice to speak into the issue. Some independent churches have outside respected, caring and unbiased voices represented on their elder boards to counteract this dynamic. The WCA does have outside voices, but the WCA Board was deemed subordinate to the internal church board in this matter.

So, Willow has itself to blame for the electric media and social media that brought the story to the public. Unchecked autonomy always results in a populist revolt.

What Willow Creek Church and Association need now is to cede autonomy and authority on this matter to a panel of highly-respected, victim-approved evangelical leaders who can guide Willow into a new future, one that flourishes in goodness by listening to the stories and investigating Bill Hybels, the leaders, and the Elders.

It will begin when Willow (WCA, WCC, Elders, leaders) admit fault, confess their particular sins to those particular women and to the Ortbergs and Mellados for labeling them as colluders, and they will need to apologize in the contexts where these things were said (whether private or public).

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