With the candid and courageous account of Pat Baranowski in the NYTimes, the previous courageous stories of Vonda Dyer, Nancy Beach, Nancy Ortberg, Julia Williams, and Moe Girkins (and others) are now undeniable. Willow is now at a crossroad.
These women represent the hundreds of noble Christians filled with goodness. They have served and toiled for the sake of the gospel through Willow. They are the ones who have made Willow what Willow is. They are the ones who gave up other jobs to join the ministry. They are the ones praying and reading the Bible and attending small groups and supporting the many ministries of this amazing church.
But that congregation of goodness has been violated by the actions of the leaders.
More than four years ago the Elders at Willow Creek Community Church were notified of accusations. The WCA, which runs the Global Leadership Summit, was also informed and it did not act. There were some Willow “investigations” but they concluded there was nothing against Bill Hybels. The truth of the women’s stories were therefore silenced and some of them were gaslighted. Some were publicly humiliated by what Willow’s leaders said about them. Instead of an honest investigation where stories were heard, the women were driven to go public in public media, like Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today. The former pastor and Willow’s leaders denied the truthfulness of the womens’ stories and told an alternative narrative: the women were liars.
Then some cracks in the Willow narrative suddenly appeared: “not all the women were lying.” That was an open door to wonder if perhaps the former pastor was the one who was lying, and that accepting his narrative Willow’s leadership was suddenly drawn into the same lying. What did “not all the women were lying” actually mean? We heard from Heather that she did not “always think all the women were lying.” Well, I asked myself immediately, why then did she defend that Willow narrative so vehemently in the family meeting? Was she misleading us then or now?
Cracks appeared, cracks that went unexplained. But we saw them.
Then Steve Carter broke ice and apologized to the women as well for his complicity in that narrative. Heather Larson hitched on to Steve’s apology but softened the apology, and then the Elders spoke of entering into areas of sin. A deeper crack, perhaps?
The issues of this period were basically Who’s telling the truth?
Sunday the NYTimes told a new story. It ended the Who’s telling the truth? discussion. Willow’s “the women are liars” narrative can no longer hold. The women told the truth. The narrative was the lie.
I weep for Pat Baranowski, for the life she has experienced as we weep for the women who have been sexually harrassed and abused by Willow’s pastor and shoved around and threatened by the process of trying to silence them. The story in the NYTimes is a tragedy, and it is beyond sad that a church leader and the church could do such things while accomplishing so many great things.
What is connected to this story is a history of mismanagement, powermongering, threatening, and offering money for silence (NDA: non disclosure agreements). In seminaries in the years ahead these themes will become central to church leadership discussions.
Willow will never be the old Willow. It can become a different Willow, but it will never be the same.
The Time is Up
Willow Creek’s leaders can no longer be in denial even if its former megapastor remains in denial. The grooming, the praising, the indulging, the turning-against, the gaslighting, and then throwing them under the bus are characteristic of these stories.
The women told the truth. The former pastor called them all liars. Willow’s leaders supported the narrative of liars. That story is no longer credible.
The leaders are complicit. The leaders — Heather Larson, elders, etc — supported that narrative and maligned the women. They, both WCCC/Elders and WCA, refused an independent investigation. They chose not to be transparent.
Their time is up.
What I mean is that those who created and sustained and continued that narrative — a narrative that both denied the truth of the women’s stories and the pastor’s sexual inappropriateness — forfeited their ability to lead Willow Creek Community Church and Willow Creek Association. Their time is up.
It is time to form an independent council of wisdom — leaders chosen by wise, non-Willow evangelical leaders — that can pastor what’s left of WCCC and the WCA, to investigate the governance of Willow and how it was able to be so thoroughly wrong, to work out a new governance and find new leaders.
The present leadership — from Heather Larson to the elders to the Human Resources and beyond — cannot lead Willow forward. They have failed miserably for four years.
And what about the area pastors? Where do they stand?
But with their time up, there is an opportunity for the time to be now.
The Time is Now
The time is now to be guided by this independent council of wisdom to tell the truth about Bill, to tell the truth about the women and Bill’s inappropriate, sexual relations, to tell the truth about governance that protected Bill’s reputation rather than Willow’s congregation, to tell the truth about bullying by the leaders through the Human Resources and buying silence through NDA (non disclosure agreements that amount to hush money), to tell the truth about how the WCA’s Board was told by the three who resigned when the WCA refused to investigate Bill Hybels, and to tell the truth about the need for an independent investigation. The investigators cannot choose those who have to be investigated. An independent leadership council must do the choosing. Willow must be willing to listen to the council. It is also time to tell the truth, in spite of what has been said by leaders after his resignation, about Bill’s continued contact with leaders at Willow to shape decisions.
It is time now to find the truth, to be transparent, to investigate the governance, and to tell that truth honestly.
The women told the truth. The Willow narrative is a false and deceptive narrative.
Why was it so easy for the journalists at Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today to find stories from women but Willow’s so-called investigation turned up nothing?
The time is now. Willow, your time is now. Time to find the truth, tell the truth, and live into that truth.
There is no forward til the truth is found and embraced. There is no forward until the Vonda Dyers and Pat Baranowskis are believed.
Who within Willow Creek Community Church or within the Willow Creek Association will have the courage to work for that truth?
Because of truth. Because of the gospel. Because of the grace of God.
Because of the women who have been wrongly maligned, unjustly accused, and publicly wounded.
Because of the structures that have been established that led to the protection of a leader rather than compassion for the women and care of the congregation.
Because of Willow Creek’s hundreds of ministry workers; because of the faithfulness of Willow Creek’s congregation. That’s why: hundreds have given up other jobs to work for less at Willow; hundreds are now doing the noble work of evangelism, compassion, ministry and it goes on and on. Thousands have given buckets of money to support the many wonderful ministries of Willow. They have made Willow what Willow is. The goodness of Willow can remain and create a new future for Willow.
That time is now.