Willow’s Groundswell for Apology

Willow’s Groundswell for Apology April 29, 2019

This apology began with Kyle Henderson’s disquiet over how Willow and the WCA/GLS had responded to the women. It grew in conversation, especially with the women who had been sexually abused and harassed at Willow, and now has become a public — sign it — apology. It is the right thing to do.

Sign the Apology here

The Apology

We recognize that the conversations we had and the information we shared perpetuated a false narrative about the women who bravely told us the truth. Therefore our conscience demands that we apologize specifically for what we have done.

To the brave individuals who confronted the Willow Creek System,

When we first heard your claims, we did not believe you. We chose our love for Bill over our love for you. We discounted you. We decided that your words were not of value to us. We chose power and loyalty over truth and love. We were wrong.

We talked about you in ways that disparaged your character, accused you of collusion and assumed we understood your motives to be anything, but the revelation of truth. We were wrong.

We sat by silently while you tried to tell us the truth. We did not listen.

We continued to perpetuate the systematic silencing and questioning of women who were making allegations against those in power over them. We ignored the truth.

We failed to hold those who represented us to account for the way you were treated. We deflected our responsibility.

We failed to describe and label what happened to you as sexual harassment*, sexual assault* and sin. We failed to hear the harsh judgement on the failure of shepherds, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! …my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, . . . I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them (Ezekiel 34:1-10).

We minimized the abuse. At first, we described them as misunderstandings. Then, we acted as if they were over-reactions. We blamed the victims.

We sinned against you.

We are sorry.

We state without equivocation that Bill Hybels sexually harassed*, sexually assaulted* and sinned against you. His choice, his sin, was the cause of these situations. You were not at fault. You did nothing wrong. We have always known that Bill was a sinner. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). We assumed he knew this also. We are angry with Bill’s continued silence. We are angry that he continues to maintain that he has done nothing wrong. We have seen grievous injury around the world. We have seen the heroic efforts toward systemic reconciliation, but each of these processes begins with the telling of truth, truth and then reconciliation.

We want you to know of our admiration for your steadfast determination against huge obstacles to bring the truth to light. While some wish that you would have stayed quiet, we believe that the “truth sets us free.”

We believe reconciliation is the fruit of repentance. We believe in the power of the Gospel to bring healing to the world therefore,

We call to Bill with Nathan’s voice, “You are the man” (2 Samuel 12:7). We plead with Bill like the father of the near country, “Come home” (Luke 15:11-2). We call the community of people who have loved and followed Bill to pray and reach out in love toward him “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently” (Galatians 6:1). We believe it is the kindness of God that leads people toward repentance. (Romans 2:4).

In addition, to the broader church community,

We believe that the best of the church is ahead and not behind us in a broken system dependent upon silencing truth tellers. For too long, the church has hidden behind kingdom goals to justify sacrificing innocent individuals. In the name of Jesus who died on the cross and associated himself with the voiceless, we call for the church to be the protector of the most marginalized and powerless.

Finally, we urge all churches and Christian organizations to adopt and publicize policies and procedures which protect those who are reporting abuse in faith communities.

*Sexual Harrassment: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as” Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs-sex.cfm

*Sexual Assault: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -Any type of sexual contact with someone who does not consent. https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/sexual-assault-and-rape/sexual-assault

Why is this important?

When the outcry was first heard broadly through the reporting of the Chicago Tribune many people turned to the Willow Creek Community Church and to the Willow Creek Association to understand and interpret the situation. Each initially presented an institutional centric response and not a victim centric response. The IAG report has made clear that those responses defended “the women are not credible” response, when in fact the “women are credible.” Many people feel discouraged and disgusted that they chose to defend the institution instead of the individuals.

The women have called for further response in the area of lament, outrage and specific apologies. This corporate apology attempts to give voice to the large host of individuals that feel that these requests ought to drive us to action. For example see:

http://www.nancylbeach.com/blog/2019/3/4/rightwrongconfusedmissing-my-response-to-the-iag-report

This petition seeks to give voice to many people who need to apologize to the women and in some sense to many other women because this pattern of defending the institution at all costs continues to undermine the outcry of victims.

Read more about the situation and one churches’ journey to take responsibility for their own actions as part of the Willow Creek Association in this detailed report. https://drive.google.com/open?id=1cKyJr2PNFZm9QteiyFaYTl3SbKKitQaX

How it will be delivered

This apology with the names attached to it will be printed and delivered to each of the named women and their advocates.

Q: Why do we need to apologize?

A: The impacted women and their advocates deserve a full, detailed and unequivocal apology.

Last year, as information became available, the Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association led an institution- centric instead of a victim-centric response. Therefore, the women and their advocates were further victimized as people were told that the ones bringing truth to light were: lying, colluding, and had evil motives. Further, the institutions supported a narrative that the women and their advocates had been investigated and found to be “not credible.” Now, that the independent advisory group has finished its work and released its findings, those institution-centric narratives have been found to be wrong. The women and their advocates were found to be “credible”.

Many people passed along information supporting the institution and harming the women and their advocates. Many people were quick to believe the institution and very slow to believe the women and their advocates. These brave individuals speaking truth to power have paid a high price for coming forward. The followers of Jesus need to come and stand with the oppressed, marginalized and disbelieved.

Further, the women and their advocates names were spread around the world in a negative way. Now we must try to repair and rebuild the damage that was done.

Q: Who should sign the apology?

A: Everyone.

You might say, “I did not specifically do all the things listed in the apology.” True, but this is a corporate apology. We all participate in the systems of the world that grind up people. This is joining your voice and the chorus of others who say that victims should be heard and not shut out. This is a clarion call to the church saying that people telling the truth should be championed and not punished.

Too often, we just stay silent. It is time for the church to stand up. It is time for the detailed words of apology to be spoken to these women and, by extension, to other individuals who have tried to speak about injury that has happened to the them in the church and it has fallen on deaf ears.

Everyone should sign that believes in the power of repentance to bring healing to the world. The women and their advocates need to hear these words. In talking with them they have remarked about the silence of the church in the last year. Now is the time to speak. As we have more fully learned this last year #silenceisnotspiritual.

You might say, “We stopped hosting the GLS to stand with the women.” Signing the apology gives voice to what should have been said from day one. It helps you give voice to unease that you already feel. Its a way of showing others the right way to respond in these situations. You don’t have to sign because of your guilt, but you sign because of your love.

One woman in our church said, “I was not one of those women, but I have been that woman before.” She signed the apology because no one had ever said the words to her, and she knew they needed to be said.

Q: Isn’t this already over?

A: No.

The Elders of Willow Creek Church have recently announced that they are on a long deep pathway of bringing truth and reconciliation to this process. They will be bringing more updates over the next year. There is more to be heard and more to be learned.

These women and their advocates helped build the Global Leadership Summit and we cannot just turn the corner and leave them behind. We as a movement must seek truth and reconciliation. We need to tell the truth. We need to make amends. This is the powerful message of the cross that we have to offer the world, we must offer it now to these people.

Finally, the IAG report indicated that Bill was on his own. It said that the church had no responsibility and that he no longer worked for the GLN. Until we reach out as a global movement to Bill, until he hears of our love for him, until we beg him to come the way of repentance we can’t possibly be done. The women and their advocates have repeatedly stated that their motivation was to confront sin in a way that leads to healing. The apology speaks to Bill and calls him to repentance because we love him so dearly.

We are not asking that he be restored to a position, but to a relationship to the church. We cannot eliminate him, ignore him, or avoid him. We must plead with him to come home.

Q: Who developed The Apology and why?

A: First Baptist Church of Athens, Texas.

Our church has been a member of the Willow Creek Association for 23 years. We have attended the GLS since 1999. We co-hosted the event for several years at the first satellite location in Rockwall, Texas. We have hosted the event live in Athens for 11 years. In addition, we are the lead church in organizing, promoting and producing the GLS in Ethiopia. This last year, we oversaw 14 locations gathering 3,225 leaders. We are deeply committed to the GLS movement. In addition, we have invested time, money, and staff in the GLS. We think of the GLS as one of our core ministries. It is not something we do, it is something we are.

This last year, it became clear that the first information we received, believed, and then passed along was incorrect. We kept expecting that a specific apology would be presented to the women and their advocates and even to other GLS host sites. We expected a full-throated apology. After the IAG report and after the Global Leadership Network (formerly the Willow Creek Association) seemed to end the investigation and their responses, we were frustrated. We felt the apologies were muted and only partial. Then, the Spirit of God clearly moved in our conscience. We were expecting others to do what we needed to do personally.

We set out on the path of making amends for harms we have done. We participated in a systemic process to support the institution-centric narrative and thereby marginalized the women and passed on information about the women and their advocates that was false. We harmed the women. It was sinful. We spread rumors and false accusations about them. Our continued silence was a sin. God urged us to respond.

Our GLS team wrote this apology to the women and their advocates. We then reached out to the women. God created the opportunity for us to speak directly to each of the named women. We read them the apology. It was embarrassing and hard. Looking into their faces and knowing that we betrayed them was awful. They were each profoundly moved. There were many tears. They spoke of the pain caused by the silence of the church and the other Global Leadership Summit host sites. They remarked that we are the first people to fully apologize to them. The forgiveness that they offered to us was genuine and real.

Many more people need to apologize, but it would be difficult for every host site to call them directly and offer an apology. This corporate apology gives a chance for many people to speak directly to these women and their advocates. If God has been prompting you to say something to the women, if you feel that you wanted an opportunity to say, “I’m sorry,” then we would urge you to join this apology.

Sign the document and let them know that they are not alone.

First Baptist Athens prepared a document for its deliberations, it gathered the publicly available narrative, the GLS communication, the IAG report and other supporting information in the preparation of this apology. The pdf is available to download.

First Baptist Athens launched the apology on Palm Sunday 2019. During the service Pastor Kyle Henderson talks about the apology, meeting with the women and then talks about the qualities of a real apology.

A suggested outline for a specific apology:

  • I hurt you.

  • It was wrong.

  • I am responsible.

  • I am sorry.

  • There is no excuse.


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