September 16, 2019

I’ve had two stints as a professor in a seminary, schools designed to educate those in the church and especially those called into its various ministries. Two decades of my teaching career. My first stint involved a massing learning curve about pastors while the second stint, at Northern Seminary, is (what I think is) my sweet spot. I love teaching students who love the church.

While we have plenty of students who are not going to be senior or teaching or lead pastors, the pastoral calling transcends those adjectives. So, in my classes we talk lots about churches and pastors and the pastoral calling.

This all led to my book Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church. Which made my ears and eyes sensitive to Willow Creek’s summary description of what they are looking for in a pastor.

God’s design for you and for me, for all Christians, for the whole church is expressed with living brilliance in Romans 8:29-30:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.  And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified (NRSV).

The design of God for all of us is to be “co-morphed” into his Son’s very image. I call this Christoformity, a slightly more accurate expression than “Christlikeness.” Conformity to Christ, co-morphing into Christ is Christoformity.

If this is God’s design for us, then this is absolutely the design of the pastoral calling. Pastors first and foremost are called to pastor people toward Christoformity. This theme shapes all eight chapters in Pastor Paul. I develop these themes: friendship, siblings, generosity, storytellers, witness, world subversion, and wisdom.

All as instances of the theme of pastors as culture makers, as those who nurture a culture of Christoformity.

So, two big ideas: pastors pastor people, and pastors pastor people by nurturing Christoformity.

There is not the slightest hint that Willow Creek’s pastor job description comprehends this as the central shaping vision for the pastor they want. Besides being the one and only pastoral search description I have ever seen that does not state that its pastor is to match up favorably with the elder/bishop list of the 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (or Titus 1:7-9) and besides not having anything along the line of the pastoral ends/goals, the job description focuses on the very culture formed under Bill Hybels. That is, a culture in which the pastor is an entrepreneurial leader who expands the Willow Creek brand.

All of Willow Creek’s elders need to stop right now and read Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor: A Memoir. Over and over in his long career of pastoring and teaching pastors, Peterson warned against what Willow Creek seems not to have heard. The church is not a business and pastors are not CEOs, not business leaders and not entrepreneurs, they are pastors-of-people called to nurture spiritual formation in the “same direction” (or Christoformity).

At the bottom of this post the job description is posted.

Here’s a word cloud of the terms Willow Creek uses in its job description. Word Clouds aren’t everything but they can be telling. This one is. I have a few more thoughts below the Word Cloud and then the actual advertisement of the job description:

Some expressions in the job description are praiseworthy:

  • Values and champions women in leadership roles at all levels of the organization, in both executive and ministry capacities.
  • Has likely worked in a nonhomogeneous environment and embraces a diverse culture.
  • Can balance being accessible, while also exhibiting healthy personal boundaries.
  • Is known to be a humble servant leader. This shows up in learning, asking questions, and relying on the strengths and gifts of others.
  • Displays a high level of emotional and relational intelligence.
  • While very grace-filled, holds to a traditional view on marriage (between one man and one woman).
  • Has likely weathered a season of great pain and loss which has helped humble, refine, and shape him or her into a better leader and pastor.

Now some observations about the job description:

First, no Jesus, no Christ, no Bible, no gospel — that is, in the main words. They are buried into tiny words or they are not there. Amazing. Jesus appears twice. Christ once. God four times. Bible not at all. Gospel not at all. What’s a pastor job description without these terms prominent?

Second, the focus is “Willow” as in “We are Willow Creek.” Also Barrington, Chicago, and South (as in South Barrington). This is an advertisement seeking someone who can carry on the Willow Creek brand.

Third, the biggest two words of substance in the job description’s Word Cloud are “pastor” and “leadership.” Leadership is hardly a significant term in the NT for the calling of pastors. Both leading and pastoring are functions performed by various other people found in terms in the NT like elder, bishop, deacon, apostle, prophet, teaching, evangelist. Still, I like the term “pastor” but I get nervous about “leader” as it took the church world by storm in the wake of pastors focusing on the leadership models in the business world. (In the 1980s, I think.) This led rather abruptly to the sudden appearance of an adjective “servant” as in “servant leader” to correct the business model. The term “leader” from the business world, in other words, was not good enough: the pastor is a “servant” leader. That term “servant” appears once in Willow Creek’s job description. Eugene Peterson’s entire complaint about pastors in the last quarter of the 20th Century was that the business leader model had taken over. He has been ignored in this job description’s emphases.

Fourth, Willow Creek wants a leader who is both theologically grounded and (or but) that person does not need a theological degree. That’s a very very rare combination. So rare that this Willow Creek job description is stomping recklessly on thin ice. Two decades in a seminary have shown to me that we seminary professors are not naive about what can and what cannot be accomplished in a seminary. Rare is the seminary professor who thinks we can turn people into flourishing pastors. I’ve not met that “rare” one. Seminaries do not turn people into pastors but we can enhance the gifts of the pastor. Pastors need a theological foundation and the surest way to get it is through theological education.

The absence of theological terms in that Word Cloud, along with the desire for “theologically grounded without needing a theological education,” conform to one another. That is, those who devalue theology don’t think theology is needed. (They’re wrong.) What Willow Creek surely needs, following on the heels of a pastor who was not theologically educated but who did get help from some theological mentors, is someone who has a seminary degree (preferably an MDiv). Such a pastor can give theological shape to the church and re-form Willow Creek into a theologically-sound infrastructure. What is lacking at Willow Creek (theological depth) is why the elders can form a job description without it (theological depth).

What’s a pastor? is the question I constantly have as I read this job description.

I see some things that are cringe-worthy: “motivate and inspire high-capacity men and women to use their gifts to further the vision.” What about the 95% who aren’t high-capacity? This is so Willow-speak, so Hybels-speak. And, I don’t know what to make of this one: “Has life experience in connecting with professionals, entrepreneurs, and people who have outwardly made it in life but are seeking significance.” I’m glad it is followed by a “heart for the under-resourced,” something Willow Creek has done well for years.

The elders could benefit from revisiting this job description.


Denomination: Nondenominational

Weekly Attendance: 21,000 at eight locations

Neighborhood: South Barrington, Greater Chicagoland, Illinois

The role: Leading from the South Barrington campus, the Senior Pastor will wear the dual hats of pastor (able to discern God’s direction for the congregation) as well as CEO (with organizational leadership skills to lead a complex organization with more than 350 employees). This leader will bring the right balance of preserving what is, but also will fan the flames of Willow’s DNA of boldness, innovation, and creativity.

Meet Willow Creek Community Church: 

Willow Creek Community Church is a local church with a global impact. One church in eight locations; more than 21,000 people gather every weekend across the Chicago area. Each Willow Creek church offers the same high-caliber teaching, experienced live at South Barrington and via high-definition video stream at regional locations. In addition to live worship, each site offers a unique assortment of classes and workshops, robust programs for children and students, and plenty of volunteer opportunities where members and guests can meet people and make a difference in their own neighborhood.

Thousands of local churches across the globe can trace their beginnings to an inspiring vision they received while attending a leadership conference, event, or service at Willow Creek. Although the past year has seen some turmoil for the church, the leadership has not lost its heart for reaching those far from God through relevant, biblical teaching and weekend services, developing impactful teams, and leading compassion and justice initiatives that change the community both in Chicago and around the world.

Casa de Luz, Willow’s Spanish-language congregation, meets at the South Barrington campus and serves their Spanish-speaking community. Each regional church— irrespective of its location or language—is both an extension of Willow Creek and a fully functioning local church with its own staff and ministries to meet the needs of its local community. Although most weekends are live-streamed, each regional Lead Pastor has the opportunity to teach live eight to ten times per year.

The central campus of Willow Creek in South Barrington and its regional campuses, governed by a unified body of elders (installed in January 2019), are united by more than just the “Willow Creek” in their names. Each shares a single-minded focus: to reach people who are far from God and to help them become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.

After our recent visit to Willow, we are convinced she has bright days ahead. This is a fantastic opportunity for a God-centered leader to join the team to continue the rebuilding which has already begun.

About the Senior Pastor: 

The Senior Pastor will lead and serve the Willow Creek Community Church at all its locations to become a thriving, healthy family of local churches. This man or woman will provide overall leadership and vision for the entire network of regional campuses. They will ensure Willow Creek’s vision and strategy is clear and understood across all locations, that the right leaders are leading and serving the campuses, and that Willow Creek is positioned for strength well into the future.

The Senior Pastor will have the ability to dream and cast vision for the next season of congregational life and community impact. The ideal candidate will demonstrate spiritual leadership, an authentic walk with Jesus, and a proven commitment to balancing the rhythms of work and life. He or she will be a proven “leader of leaders” who can motivate and inspire high-capacity men and women to use their gifts to further the vision.

The Senior Pastor will accomplish the following goals: 

In Spiritual Leadership:

  • Although not expected to deliver the message every weekend, when teaching, communicate biblical truth in an inspiring fashion that helps reach irreligious people and help people at all levels of their spiritual journey to become fully devoted followers of Jesus.
  • Exemplify a life of walking closely with Jesus, including strong spiritual leadership in the home.
  • Can balance leadership and vision along with accountability and submission while working with a board of lay elders. The Senior Pastor will meet with the elders regularly and will have full voice into all matters, but will not be a voting member of the elders.
  • Help bring healing to a staff and congregation that has experienced significant loss.

In Visionary/Organizational Leadership: 

  • Bring strength to Willow’s network of churches through a unified vision, while continuing to provide a great deal of autonomy that has allowed the regional sites to attract top talent and thrive as self-supported congregations.
  • Focus initially on strengthening Willow as a local church. Once strength is restored and Willow is healthy and thriving once again, continue Willow’s legacy of high-impact ministry outside the walls in the Chicago area and around the world.
  • Lead the executive team to bring unity and clarity to all programs and ministries, so that all of Willow is pulling for the same mission and vision.
  • Work with the elders to clarify the relationship with Global Leadership Network (formerly WCA). Note: GLN (WCA) is no longer under the authority of the elders but still occupying space in the building.
  • Focus on building an executive team. Initial hires are likely to be a Teaching Pastor, as well as a South Barrington Lead Pastor to focus on the broadcast campus and largest staff.
  • Put emphasis on leadership development, individually modeling this at the highest levels. Equally, place a focus on building processes and systems so that managers and team leaders across Willow are being developed.
  • Provide leadership to help Willow discover her target audience. In the past, it was “unchurched Harry and Mary.” This needs to be redefined for 2020 and beyond.

What you bring:


Willow Creek values candidates who are life-long learners. Proven leadership experience is important, and this individual should be theologically grounded, but a formal theological classroom education is not a requirement for selection.

Experience and Skills

  • Has a proven communication gift with the ability to effectively deliver talks with a large audience in a room that seats 7,500, while simultaneously engaging with people who are viewing from other locations via high-definition video.
  • Has the ability to deliver messages that reach the seeker, as well as provide depth to help believers grow in their faith.
  • We have a strong preference toward leaders with multi-site or complex organizational experience.
  • Has life experience in connecting with professionals, entrepreneurs, and people who have outwardly made it in life but are seeking significance.
  • Has a heart for those who are under-resourced and history of fighting poverty and injustice.
  • Has a track record of developing and equipping leaders.
  • When you look in the rearview mirror of this leaders life, you see growing organizations.

Personal Characteristics

  • Values and champions women in leadership roles at all levels of the organization, in both executive and ministry capacities.
  • Has likely worked in a nonhomogeneous environment and embraces a diverse culture.
  • Can balance being accessible, while also exhibiting healthy personal boundaries.
  • Is known to be a humble servant leader. This shows up in learning, asking questions, and relying on the strengths and gifts of others.
  • Displays a high level of emotional and relational intelligence.
  • While very grace-filled, holds to a traditional view on marriage (between one man and one woman).
  • Has likely weathered a season of great pain and loss which has helped humble, refine, and shape him or her into a better leader and pastor.

What it’s like to live in South Barrington, Greater Chicagoland, area:

Each Willow Creek campus is located in the greater Chicagoland area. Chicago is the third most populous city in the United States, after New York City and Los Angeles, with 2.7 million residents in the city, and 9.5 million in the metropolitan area. In addition to its renowned upscale establishments and restaurant districts, the city’s unique location on Lake Michigan, its rich architectural heritage, its lively theater, arts, and comedy community, and its vibrant nightlife attracts residents and tourists alike. Chicago was recently named the fourth-most “walkable” city of the 50 largest cities in the United States (2011, Walk Score).

Chicago has numerous nicknames, including Chi-town, Windy City, and Second City. The city is a center for business and finance and is considered one of the world’s top global financial centers. Located near a portage between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River watershed, Chicago has remained a major hub for industry, education, telecommunications, and infrastructure since its founding, with O’Hare International Airport being the second busiest airport in the world in terms of traffic movements.

Chicago offers a large array of cultural, historical, sporting, and entertainment focal points that bring thousands of tourists to the area yearly. Grant Park hosts the annual Taste of Chicago festival, while also featuring Millennium Park, home to the iconic Cloud Gate Structure, Buckingham Fountain, and the Art Institute of Chicago. The city is home to numerous major-league sports teams, world-class museums, and the Magnificent Mile shopping district, all along the beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline, creating an atmosphere not soon to be forgotten.

Willow’s broadcast campus is located in South Barrington, a suburb of Chicago just about an hour away,  is consistently ranked one of the best places to live in Illinois. Living in South Barrington offers residents a suburban feel and most residents own their homes. In South Barrington, there are a lot of parks and great green spaces to enjoy, as well as proximity to the greater city of Chicago while still feeling like a “small town,” with just over 4,000 residents. The public schools in South Barrington are highly rated.

Think you’re a great fit for this role? Become a candidate here. 

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.”

*Sexual Assault: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -Any type of sexual contact with someone who does not consent.

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:

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.

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.

February 28, 2019

Willow hired an independent advisory group that was to review the allegations against Bill Hybels, the culture of governance at Willow, and processes around the allegations.

Willow posted the report today.

The advisory group found the women credible, Bill Hybels guilty of verbal and sexual behaviors, verbal abuse of both women and men, and an assortment of power problems — creating a culture of fear.

Nothing new here. True but not new.

What’s next?

It’s now up to Willow to do the right thing.

Willow must publicly (from the stage) receive this report, admit failure, apologize to the women and announce they are exonerated. They need to apologize to those railroaded out, to those who were gaslighted, to those who signed NDAs under duress.

Willow needs to apologize for the failure of the church to hold Bill in check, apologize for a culture of fear developing.

Willow needs to have a service of confession and repentance.

Not a production, not an opportunity for congratulations for doing it right, but a time that is remorseful … no music, no performance, lots of reading of Scripture, offering of prayers of confession, heart-felt prayers of repentance.

Then Eucharist.

Then leave in silence.

This story is not about the advisory group; it reported its findings. It’s for Willow to respond, and the response is contrition.


September 19, 2018

This is Willow Creek’s announcement, and the bold faced words are from me:

The purpose of the council is stated in general terms. 

The Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) and the Willow Creek Association (WCA) joined to commission an external independent review and advisory group. The request is for this group to 1.) Consider allegations related to Bill Hybels as founder and pastor of the church and founder and spokesperson of the association; 2.) Review organizational culture of the church and association; and 3.) Make recommendations to the church and association for future actions.

Comment: Notice they are to “consider allegations.” It does not appear they will investigate the past accusations against Bill Hybels. Does this mean Willow is officially agreeing with the women’s innocence? 

Reviewing the organizational culture: big ambiguous terms. I’m not sure what it means but I hope it means a thorough examination of power and power abuses, and the good structures that work well. It needs to examine why the previous leadership refused to listen to the women and why it protected Bill and the reputation of Willow. It needs to investigate terminations and their NDAs and let the people who experienced them talk. It needs to investigate the Human Resources Department thoroughly.

How the group was chosen:

Evangelical Christian leaders outside of Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association nominated members for the advisory group. Once organized with co-chairs additional members were added. The group chose to be called the Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group (IAG).

There are two co-chairs, with two others. I had thought there were four but I was mistaken. It appears there are only four on this council.

The group is co-chaired by Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent Emerita of The Wesleyan Church, Indianapolis, IN, and Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, Washington D.C. Other members are Margaret Diddams, Provost of Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, and Gary Walter, past president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, Chicago, IL. The group may also engage additional resources and consultants as needed to fulfill its mandate.

The council is autonomous.

The IAG will work autonomously. WCCC and WCA have pledged their full cooperation, but neither will be represented on the IAG nor party to the group’s work except for providing information as requested. The group hopes to complete its work in early 2019.

The council is not open to media interviews but I urge everyone to consider what they would recommend to the council by writing in to the address below or leaving a message the number below.

The Independent Advisory Group has decided to decline press inquiries and interviews while they complete their review and develop their recommendations. Individuals who desire to convey information to the advisory group may do so through a separate independent organization unrelated to the Willow Creek Community Church, the Willow Creek Association or the IAG: 630-682-9797 x1292 or

September 13, 2018

More and more churches and Christian institutions are establishing and demanding non-disclosure agreements as well as (even more) non-disparagement agreements.

What’s Going On?

Non-disclosures, for the sake of this blog post, pertain to intellectual property like a church creating a discipleship computer program with a person’s knowledge; that person leaves and is asked/required not to talk about that program.

Non-disparagements pertain to not talking bad about the institution, not telling dirty secrets, not disparaging the institution or the pastor or the people at the institution.

Money is often involved; yea, nearly always. Sometimes lots of it.

In non-disclosure agreements money can be exchanged as a reasonable severance for work done, and such standard severance is often not a problem in churches. One friend told me he was paid one month salary for every year he had worked as his severance upon leaving.

Money being offered in non-disparagement agreements can be a messy and sometimes profoundly evil transaction. At times people are asked with an offer of money to hide acts that are wrong, evil, and even criminal; some are asked for money not to talk about a corrupted institution. And sometimes sizable sums of money are involved. Way too much money for churches. Sometimes the discussion involves ambushing the employee, sometimes there are threats and bullying and intimidation. Sometimes all that is said is “Please finish well” with a meaning that is very clear to the employee.

The Problem

In Non-Disparagement Agreements the money can easily become hush money, bribery, silence for shekels. It’s morally wrong and contrary to truth telling. (And I’m not saying all NDAs are always always always wrong.)

I’m willing to stiffen that judgment with some starch: no one with a theologically-informed ethic should be thinking of non disparagement agreements when the issue is dirt on the floor in the church. Such a person, instead of advocating silence, should be advocating rebuke and repentance and a return to basics, including unflinching truth telling.

Willow Creek South Barrington (I don’t know about other campuses in this regard) is guilty here and it needs to be discussed.

[Not only has Willow — again, always South Barrington in this article — signed NDAs they have also initiated more than fifty restraining order type letters (one published on this blog last week) that are absent of pastoral expression or pastoral plans for restoration. (These are not in view below.)]

All that matters in what follows is (1) non-disparagement agreements about (2) actions that are unChristian and sinful for which (3) Willow offers money and a person signs an agreement of silence with money exchanged. My contention is that Willow is morally wrong offering such an agreement. I assume there are times when the best situation is for both parties not to talk. However, it is never right to hide a sin for money. I hold the stronger party most liable for creating the situation. The stronger party (Willow) is asking the employee to compromise her or his moral integrity to sign the agreement. But the stronger party is implicated for sin its own action because they only reason for asking for the agreement is because it knows something that is wrong has been done and it wants it not known.

Some Questions for Us to Discuss

My questions: Is it right for a church, and in most cases the Human Resources Department of a church, to demand or to contract silence about an unChristian, unbiblical and perhaps even criminal action? Is the person who signs such a contract/agreement obligated to silence? What if the contract was agreed to under some coercion or duress or threat or bullying? What if the person who signed the agreement comes to a conviction later that the church was profoundly wrong and they now regret having signed it? Can they speak up?

Thinking about NDAs through the Demander

The Demander (Willow Creek’s Human Resource agent with WCCC behind it) has sometimes violated the relationship he/she has with the Demanded as brother or sister in Christ. Instead of gospel-shaped truth-telling, the Demander violates the gospel. The Human Resources Deparment at Willow Creek has sometimes violated the gospel in creating a Non-Disparagement Agreement in exchange for silence when the matter being silenced is a moral or professional failure and WCCC then also prohibits the truth from being told.

Now more questions: What if the one who is being asked to sign an agreement recognizes Who it is that is demanding the agreement as inconsistent with Christian truth? What if one realizes that what was asked of the person is out of line with Christian fellowship? What if “I” then become convinced the Demander was acting in an evil system of powermongering that needs to be resisted by telling the truth? Would not the Demanded become the prophet telling the truth to the Demanded and the System that created the Demander?

Here’s the bigger question: Why in the world is a church in this situation? Are not Non Disparagement Agreements already an admission that something is seriously wrong?

It is my contention that when the Demander has violated “in Christ” relationships (truth-telling, silencing sins and violations, etc) the agreement ought to be reconsidered and considered invalid. But don’t do so until you talk to an employment lawyer.

September 6, 2018

I post this from Jim Bedell.

From Jim Bedell:

As the curtain gets pulled back on Willow Creek Community Church, the practices of the church are beginning to be revealed as a collective effort to create a smooth running and flawless image. The tactics used can be understood as essentially repressive. In other words, information about how the church was managed was secretive and kept from public scrutiny. From Non Disclosure Agreements to sending people away that many in the church loved, the common theme was that of keeping people unaware of the reasons behind many of the moves that were made. The paternalistic approach of “trust us, we know best” was pushed by leaders from  Bill Hybels to the elders and to many other top tier leaders. Like a dysfunctional family, secrets were the fabric of the policies and practices of a church bent on presenting an image of a perfect church. All in the distorted name of Christ. God would want us to show the world the best of who we are, they implied.

Perfect Trauma Storm

When image is more important than integrity, any method used to clean the church of anything that looks ugly gets justified. The most painful repressive “cleansing” tactic of Willow was the actions of the Elder Response Team. Although ostensibly formed to deal with issues like confronting people who might come into the church to scam members financially, or those that might aggressively seek to push an apostate set of beliefs, or those who might be pushing a pet political agenda,  the reality of many of the actions of this group was the elimination of people who represented some blemish to the church’s reputation or brand. People who might have had a past sexual issue, for instance,  that could come to light, were dealt with by what amounts to an un-biblical excommunication of those individuals. Almost all of these individuals simply did something that potentially brought negative press to the church. In a healthy church these issues would be worked out in a way that is spiritually restorative, based on Galatians 6 principles and Matt. 18 procedures. The intent should be to help and heal and retain people in the fold of the church. The methods of the ERT, on the other hand, resulted in people being put outside the church in a way that violates biblical standards. Tossed on the dung heap and never followed up on in a restorative way. Problem over, image protected, and on to the next challenge. The ERT members likely assumed that their actions would never see the light of day. But, due to the courageous willingness of many who are recognizing the abuse they endured, a narrative of trauma generation is beginning to be comprehended.

The stories that are coming out  share a common theme. Someone came to the ERT with a concern, often based on hearsay, that compelled the ERT to call a meeting. The ERT  members did not give a clear explanation of what their concerns were or what they wanted to talk about, creating an aura of angst on the part of the person being called to the meeting. Going in, the individuals who were called to this church court had elevated anxiety. What did I do, am I in trouble, what will happen? All questions that jack up the anticipatory fear of individuals. No real clear indication of what this was all about. Enter the scare chamber. Then, this authoritarian group of ERT members, who outnumbered the congregant, brought them onto the church’s turf in the most scare producing environment possible. As the meeting proceeded, the members essentially ambushed the  congregant with a litany of accusations. From the perspective of someone like myself, who deal in the treatment of trauma clients, you could not create a more trauma incubating environment. And the ERT is not innocent due to ignorance.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Many who experienced the actions of the ERT developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Why? Because these ERT meetings were the perfect storm for trauma creation. As has been explained, the power differential of the ERT representing this monolithic giant that has projected the illusion of perfection is so great that intimidation is enormous. Intimidation causes massive fear. Fear of judgement, fear of being abandoned by ones’ church, fear of others looking down on them because the ERT has deemed them so flawed as to warrant expulsion.

Excessive fear puts the individual in a place were trauma based memories get formed in the brain. The most lasting consequences of this is the development of a general sense of vulnerability, where authority figures become intensely threatening and where events that remind the person of the original trauma get heightened. As an example, many people received certified letters (shown below) by a person who served them to their home. The ringing of the door bell got associated with the trauma of receiving these letters from the church and so any time their door bell rang they jumped and felt a sense of terror. Long lasting consequences of these trauma generating tactics of the ERT. Real damage to real people. And could anyone, if they knew of this, possibly reconcile this with the love of Christ? We were mesmerized and kept in the dark. All in the name of cleansing the image of the church. One person shared that they found out that before this brutal process occurred and letters were sent, the church wanted to know if the person tithed. Those that did not give much were easily expendable. All of these tactics were done to cleanse the image of the church. Much like ethnic cleansing resulted in all that were considered defective, so those that represented some flaw that could become a blemish on the church’s reputation had to be excised like a wart.

Damaged Souls

Many of the victims of the ERT abusive behaviors describe symptoms that reflect PTSD just from the conditions of the meeting. But, to ratchet  up the intimidation even more, as a follow through, the ERT would resort to THE LETTER. The letter was the ultimate scare tactic, the nuclear option, signed by an ERT member and sent out from the church’s law firm. Can we create a bigger scare tactic than this? This is the final trauma inducing move, calculated to so frighten the individual that they do not dare associate with Willow people and slink off in a deep sense of shame. The efforts of the ERT are to get people to go away, a form of non-biblical excommunication. They are scared into silence, which has a double negative consequence. First, these individuals, who need to process this trauma, in essence are directed to live with this pain and secrecy in silence. This is a factor in intensifying the trauma. The ERT banks on the idea that they are big and the person is small, and no one will believe them. Second, it effectively keeps information contained, so that the actions of the ERT are kept from critical scrutiny by the public. The dynamics are essentially like David and Goliath.

David And Goliath

Think of it. You as a little insignificant attender of this mega-church, who has tried to volunteer and give what you can to the church, gets brought into this scare chamber, where all the power is on the side of these  imposing judges and jurors. (It is reminiscent of the Star Chamber,  a former court of inquisitorial and criminal jurisdiction, known for its’ intimidation of all that came before its’ body.)  Then, often without fact checking the stories that had been told to them, they render a judgement about the congregants  life. This church, your church, to which you have felt a sense of connection , often for many years, suddenly gives you the nuclear sanction-ostracism. You are banished, thrown away so that the church was swept  “clean”.

Coming Out of The Shadows

A courageous group of people who were victims of this abuse have begun to emerge, empowered by telling their stories and getting the support and empathy of many people. These stories are becoming a clear indication of a pattern of unacceptable actions by a church that advertised itself as a place for grace.

 Theresa’s Story

To illustrate the tactics of the ERT the story of Theresa is instructive. Theresa gave me permission to share her story which is an exemplar of so many stories that are coming to the light. She grew up at Willow. She spent years in the church, feeling much of the good that existed in the experience. She felt that it was her spiritual home and her church friends were part of her extended family. Over time she became a volunteer and towards the end of her time was a girls small group leader in Student Impact. She got together with other female leaders socially and they shared intimate information about their lives. She heard stories of behavior by leaders that would likely be frowned upon by the church but did not want to tell on people.

At one point Theresa shared that she was engaged in premarital sexual relations with her fiance/now husband. She revealed this behavior to a staff leader in Student Impact, acknowledging that this leader might want her to step down. Instead, the staff leader told her to continue her role as small group leader because she was loved by her girls and needed.  She was assurred that it was alright that she continue leading and so she did. She was on the verge of completing her time of serving as she was about to get married in the fall, and this was the early spring.

Theresa went on a vacation with her fiance and brought back some bracelets for her girls as gifts. At a point 8 months after she  finished with her role as leader, she was asked to meet with the staff leader and another leader.  They informed her that there were rumors of parents that were not happy with her because of her having given her girls the bracelets that somehow represented the premarital sexual behavior that she had shared earlier and gotten permission to continue her serving. These were murky statements like “people are upset”, without any specific person being named and no attempt to follow the Matthew 18 process that was outlined as the way church conflict should be resolved.

Theresa was then asked to talk with the executive pastor of the campus church she attended and at which she served.  At this time, she was dealing with the death of her biological father, who she had met when she was 15 but had not had a relationship with,  and was about to celebrate her bridal shower. She connected via email with the executive pastor, they decided to meet a few weeks later, and so she felt she had followed their protocol. She has a copy of the email that verified that they had pushed the meeting out to a later date, acceptable to the executive pastor. Then, while she was home, she gets a knock on the door and receives a certified letter. This is the letter.


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The letter obviously implied that she was avoiding communication over the issues that had been raised. The letter implies that she was still engaged as a volunteer, even though she had ended her involvement due to her impending wedding. This was the beginning of years of trauma, depression, hurt, and shame. She felt like she was treated like a pariah, thrown on the dump outside her church. No shepherding counsel to help her if they felt she was in error.  She was a vulnerable person who was powerless against the might of this institution. She is a fighter and immediately called and had a meeting with the ERT.


She called and got a meeting with the individuals listed on the letter. She then sat with who she now understands is the ERT and showed them evidence about how she was scheduled to meet with the executive pastor and that she was not ignoring their desire to talk further about the situation. They implied that she was posting negative information about the church on the internet and potentially trying to influence her girls. None of this was verified as true. Theresa believes that what drove much of this was the potential for her outing the staff member who had revealed potentially damaging person information.

Finding out that they had jumped the gun, the ERT members basically said, “oops”, I guess we made a mistake. No empathy for the pain they had inflicted. No suggestions as to how they could make this right for Theresa. Just “oops”. No recognition that this intensely intimidating experience was the basis for the development of PTSD. They lacked the social/emotional intelligence that would help informed people to recognize that the tactics they were using  were destructive and spiritually damaging. And by the way, as said above, these ERT leaders run recovery groups at Willow for victims of abuse. What??

This is one of a multitude of stories that are coming out and must be dealt with by the church. Theresa is scheduled to have a meeting with myself and the people involved in this travesty to try to get resolution and healing. The church needs to allow multiple people to confront their abusers in a protected atmosphere. If the church chooses to keep this deeply repressive and damaging practice from being dealt with, it will likely experience the public exposure of these practices.

August 6, 2018

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.

The Basics

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?

Pat Baranowski

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?

Why now?

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.

Why now?

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.


July 24, 2018

The Bible’s Warning to Leaders

From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture speaks emphatically about character alignment in leaders. It’s impossible to miss God’s point. Leaders have an impact on lives—sometimes for good and sometimes for harm. We will be held accountable by God when our actions are inconsistent with God’s expectations of leaders (Gal. 5:22-23, 1 Tim. 3:1-14).

Passages like Matthew 18:6Acts 20:28Romans 2:21-23, and James 3:1 give sober caution to anyone eager to become a teacher or leader. Choose wisely, because the Bible also makes clear that those with power rarely manage it well. That’s why successful leadership depends on systems of accountability.

Without accountability, bad leaders do enormous damage to decent people, to struggling communities, and to important reform movements. Because of this, many of us are outraged by accounts of inappropriate behavior by Willow Creek Church founder Bill Hybels. We’re disappointed because WC’s prominence as a leading egalitarian megachurch demands greater accountability.

The Impact of WC’s Failed Leadership

We owe the women who came forward to expose Hybel’s ungodly behavior our support and gratitude. With them, I grieve WC’s silencing of accusers and their centering of image over repentance and responsible change. I also thank Scot McKnight for carefully tracing these failures in his recent blog.

Over the years, WC leaders heard stunningly similar testimony from multiple sources that Hybels had repeatedly violated women’s boundaries and trust. These circumstances should have provoked a vigorous and independent investigation for the sake of WC’s soul, its influence in the world, and all it represents for believers (and egalitarians).

But rather than admit failure and work to create systems of accountability, WC leaders externalized blame and sought to control the narrative. They circled their wagons and neglected the obligations their influence demands. These are the very challenges women survivors continue to face in churches, communities, and work places around the world when they expose abuse.

Yes, we feel betrayed.

Consider also that many Christians have worked for decades to earn enough trust to have an opportunity to teach biblical gender equality in non-egalitarian communities. WC’s influence as a leading evangelical church and their prominence as an egalitarian voice come with an obligation to demonstrate character alignment in their treatment of women. To whom much is given, much is expected.

They’ve also placed at risk the egalitarian advocacy of Christians in countless other communities. The damage done to the gospel, God’s family, and to the egalitarian cause is inestimable. As McKnight observed, WC has squandered forty years of trust.

Their failures press us to ask difficult questions about power, fame, and the responsibilities that accompany influence. We can’t change what’s happened nor can we direct the future of WC and its leaders, but we can learn from their mistakes. And thankfully, there are other prominent egalitarians who have modeled character alignment throughout their public and private life, like former president Jimmy Carter.

The Fully Aligned Character of Jimmy Carter

One of the most admired US citizens in American history, Jimmy Carter’s life of public service moves in one direction—elevating women’s voices. Carter identifies “women’s rights as the fight of his life” and his organization—the Carter Center—is focused on championing women’s global equality through programs like the Human Rights Defender Forum.

Carter and his wife of seventy-two years, Rosalynn, work long hours together each week fighting disease, ending violence, and amplifying women’s voices and experiences. In my time at the Carter Center, I witnessed the Carters arrive hours before the meetings began, work hard throughout the day, and then entertain international delegates through dinner and into the evening.

President Carter has consistently centered women’s experiences and worked to expose and challenge patriarchal policies and practices. In his meticulously researched book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power, he said: “the most serious unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls, largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts and a growing tolerance of violence…”

A devout Christian and unashamed egalitarian, Carter broke company with the Southern Baptist Convention when they marginalized women leaders on mission fields, in hospitals, prisons, the academy, and churches. For Carter, the treatment of women is one of the truest tests of a leader’s character.

Carter’s life is a testament to the “long obedience in the same direction” that God requires of leaders. Those of us beleaguered by disappointment with failed leaders can look to Carter and men and women like him for inspiration. Even as we lament mistakes made, we take heart in the examples of other leaders who are worth our admiration and imitation.

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).

July 3, 2018

By Andy Rowell, posted with permission.

Open Letter to Willow Creek Association Board and Tom De Vries

Dear Tom De Vries and the Willow Creek Association Board,

I’m a ministry leadership professor at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and I attended the Global Leadership Summit last year. Bill Hybels was one of my heroes.
I am concerned about the latest article in the Daily Herald about the GLS and about the May 17 public statement by the WCA.
Benjamin Ady reports that as of June 8th he had heard that 205 of 700 North America sites (29%) have pulled out of hosting the GLS including Christ Church of Oak Brook and Eagle Brook Community Church.
Therefore, it was hard for me to imagine the statement in the Daily Herald article today was truthful about the same number of attendees being expected this year. But then I looked at the exact quote and I see that it could be weasel words. “the number of registered attendees both for South Barrington and around the world is right on track with previous years, De Vries said.” Possible translation: Attendance is way down in US and Canada BUT the home site and other international sites are expecting stable attendance.
The article did not note that the WCA Board has put out a statement about the issue:
It seems to me that this statement is rather weak and leaves room for a comeback for Bill Hybels and does not take any responsibility for holding him accountable or looking further into these issues. It is hard to understand what a board is for if they abdicate these responsibilities.
Furthermore, the WCA Board has been avoiding responsibility since 2015 when three members resigned because of a failure to look into these issues.
See these comments from Nancy Ortberg about being on the WCA Board.

Months later, at a meeting with certain Elders and Willow Creek Association Board members, Bill was asked about these women. Bill characterized both of them as “having drinking problems,” being “unstable” and “stalking his family.” I was the only person on either Board who knew the identities of both women, and I knew they were smart, kind, and diligent leaders.

At this same meeting, Bill was asked about his “special arrangement with I.T.,” where his emails are permanently deleted on a frequent and regular basis. During that meeting, an Elder told a WCA Board member that Willow Creek had “no document retention policy.”  This was the first time either Board had heard about this arrangement, but both of these women told us separately that Bill had told them about this “special arrangement” years prior.

Bill also admitted that the woman alleging an affair had spent many nights at the Hybels’ home when Lynne was out of town.

In July 2014 I told the Elders about the story from 2006. They had not been aware of it and did not ask a single question, nor ask for the woman’s name until I brought it up again three months later.

In addition to everything we were learning, I and others on the Board of the Willow Creek Association grew deeply alarmed at Bill being allowed to continue in a counseling relationship with this woman who was suicidal, as well as the slipshod nature of the investigation and the overall lack of accountability in the Willow Creek culture.

Then see this section of an article from the original article about the allegations against Hybels:,amp.html

For Ortberg and two other board members, the decision was the last straw.

Ortberg, along with Jon Wallace, president of Azusa Pacific University, and Kara Powell, executive director of a research center at Fuller Theological Seminary, resigned from the association board in January 2015, later citing what they deemed an inadequate review.

“It is our firm belief that leaders should be open to examination of and accountability for our actions,” Wallace and Powell said in a joint statement provided to the Tribune earlier this month.

Ortberg told the Tribune that the board’s decision not to pursue another inquiry was, in her opinion, a “complete abdication of fiduciary responsibility,” and left the board vulnerable to litigation if the allegations were proved true.

Soon after, there was more fallout from the board’s decision. Compassion International chose not to renew a long-standing sponsorship of the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit.

“The decision was made, in part, as a result of Compassion’s concerns over WCA’s process for reviewing complaints regarding Willow Creek Community Church senior leadership,” the organization said in a statement.

You can see my summary of the events and a few comments at:
It seems to me as well that there should be a public list of who are the Board members of the WCA so they can be held accountable for their role in this. It seems odd, secretive, and inappropriate that there is not a list on the WCA website.
I have nothing against the Global Leadership Summit–I love it actually–but I am troubled by Tom De Vries and Dick DeVos and whoever else from the Willow Creek Board made the May 17 statement and then also De Vries’s comments in this article. It perpetuates the culture of secrecy and lack of accountability and half-truths that got Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association into this situation. The Willow Creek Community Church elders and pastors have begun to sharply reverse course and admit Hybels and the church Board and pastors were in the wrong–not the women and the reporters telling the truth, and it is time for the WCA to do the same. Someday conceivably Bill Hybels could make some sort of return to something but how will you and the 400,000 GLS attenders know whether that is appropriate unless you all have had an independent credible investigation look into what happened and how both the Willow Creek Community Church elders and the Willow Creek Association failed to stop it and give recommendations going forward? Demonstrate your leadership competence and integrity by paying for an outside investigation and then giving up all control over what they look into, who they talk to, and the nature of their public final report. Please be different than many organizations that hire a public relations firm to put the best face on things and then hope people move on to focusing on other things. If other pastors are any indication, Bill Hybels will reappear soon and the outcry and sense of cynicism and anger toward leadership and Christians will bloom again. Take this seriously now. It is not going away. Many sites have pulled out this year because it is unappetizing to receive leadership training from a group that is downplaying the misconduct of its leader with half-truths. The Global Leadership Summit will never recover its credibility and thus also its ability to do its mission unless the WCA Board addresses the abuse of leadership power by its founder and its failure to listen to those who were concerned including the resignation of three board members in 2015.
Andy Rowell

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