It is coming up on 5 years since Bill Hybels, the senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC), was exposed in an article in the Chicago Tribune as having been sexually inappropriate with a number of women, both in and out of his church. The elders of Willow Creek Community Church attempted to get ahead of the potentially catastrophic consequences this revelation might create. They orchestrated a couple of what were called “family meetings”. It was obvious that their intent was to shield Bill. The focus of the meetings was to reassure the congregants of WCCC that the allegations that had come forward were untrue. They declared that they had thoroughly investigated them and determined that they were unfounded. The elders and church leadership did a good job of portraying Bill as the innocent object of women who felt scorned by him. and therefore, retaliated by making these accusations.
The “Me Too” Movement
This all occurred in 2018, which was the beginning of the “Me Too” movement. The “Me Too” movement created an atmosphere of safety for women to come forward and gave validity to the reporting of sexual abuse from high-profile, powerful leaders, mainly in the entertainment industry. This was a seismic cultural shift. The fundamental reason that the “Me Too” approach began to work was the fact that it was not just isolated women, but several women coming out at the same time. Before this, any individual woman who may have described a sexual assault by a powerful person was discredited. They were basically “gaslighted”, which is a way of demeaning and diminishing the credibility of a victim by focusing on some character, or psychological flaw. The difference now was that it was no longer individuals, but women becoming empowered by sheer numbers.
“Me Too” At Willow Creek Community Church
Interestingly, this is what happened at Willow Creek Community Church. There had been a number of accusations against Bill Hybels by individual women over the years. In responding to accusations, he utilized what is called “plausible deniability”. He knew, at some level, that the power differential was such that any individual woman would be discredited easily in favor of supporting his narrative. This shift, in 2018, as multiple women came forward describing similar experiences with Bill, became a tidal wave that could not be so easily disavowed. And the women that came out were high-credibility, high-character individuals. It became increasingly difficult to sustain the narrative of Bill being a victim, as the numbers supported the circumstantial evidence of his guilt.
As things began to crumble, and as accusations ramped up, it became clear that all of his denials and rationalizations were not going to be enough to protect him. The handwriting was increasingly on the wall. A strategic decision was made that Bill would retire earlier than originally planned. Another family meeting was scheduled at WCCC. The intent of the meeting was to announce that Bill was going to move up his retirement and leave his position as senior pastor. In hindsight, this was clearly damage control. The elders, and probably Bill, thought that this would derail the accusations and preserve the image of both Bill and the Church. The subsequent meeting was a tear-jerker. The elders and leadership at the church continued to provide cover for Bill (and probably cover for themselves due to their complicity in enabling his behavior). The elders and leaders portrayed Bill only in a positive way. It was clear, even to the end, that the elders were swayed by the power of his personality. As a result, they succumbed to protecting him as a victim.
Family Meetings As A Forum For Spinning A Narrative
At this meeting, Bill had his family on stage, and it came off more as a funeral, with sad faces, and even a dejected sense of resignation. As Bill was discussing his leaving, he strongly emphasized that Willow Creek Community Church was his home, that he deeply loved and cherished his congregants, and that he would continue to be involved. In fact, he indicated that he would be up in the seats attending services because this was his beloved home. WCCC, as he stated, is the “greatest congregation in the world”. Bill was given a severance agreement for his retirement, a “golden parachute”, as his contract with the church specified. This was because the church , ironically, had no morals clause in his contract and the elders and leadership caved to the possibility of legal action. I believe the hope of the elders and leadership was that this retirement would stem the flow of accusations and the turmoil that this situation had created. The ideal situation would have been that Bill retires, the focus goes away from him, and the new leadership would continue unscathed.
The Final Nail In The Coffin
Then came the New York Times article in August of 2018. A woman victim came forward, encouraged by a former pastor at WCCC, and with much more graphic detail, exposed a pattern of predatory behavior by Bill. That, coupled with all the earlier accusations, made it impossible for the church to go forward unscathed. In cascading fashion, the executive pastor, the new lead teaching pastor, and the elders announced that they would be resigning.
I Thought You Said WCCC Was Your Home!
It has been almost 5 years now and there has been no sighting of Waldo, Bill Hybels. How can this be, given the fact that he clearly, and passionately, indicated that he loved this church and would be in a continuing pattern of involvement? But no one has seen him. He appears to have ghosted the congregation, going off into the woods of Michigan. The congregants of WCCC had such a sense of trust and dependency on him and his leadership. They easily engaged in his visions and were sacrificial in seeking to live out what he defined as the work of the church. And then, suddenly, he’s gone. Everything that he had taught was shattered. The real legacy that he left, eclipsing the good that he had done, was one of betrayal and the undermining of trust. Bill left and gave no explanation for his radical abandonment. What explanation would make sense for why he has so radically disconnected from Willow Creek Community Church? It is only explained by understanding the dynamics of a charismatic and narcissistic leader.
Shame, Perfectionism, And Hiding
Essentialy what happened was that Bill lost control. He had been so adept at flicking accusations away as if they were annoying specks on his well-manicured image. Too many women saying the same thing was uncontainable. He was exposed, and there was no defense or cover, other than his continued declaration of his being a victim. He did what shame-based, narcissist people do. He left and is hiding both literally and psychologically, by staying outside the eyes of critics. Hiding is the most primitive of coping strategies. It is as old as Adam and Eve, who when they became self-aware, attempted to hide their faces from God. They covered themselves. It is as current as children, who when they see the disappointment of their parent, divert and hide their eyes from the gaze of the disappointed parent.
So, Where Is Waldo? Anywhere But Where His Critics Can Find Him
In summary, Bill Hybels was a tightly and compulsively self-controlled individual who had to project an image of perfection. His developmental history explains the reasons behind his personality formation. Everything about him reflected a need for control, both for himself and for what was essentially an extension of him, the church. Cracks began to form, threatening a revelation of darkness that was beneath the surface. He could not bear it. Could not stand in the presence of those who were beginning to tunnel beneath the facade and see his flaws. He could not bear it and had to flee and hide.
It is very unlikely that Bill will return to his church and the people that so faithfully followed his leadership. The needs of the people he led are secondary to his need to avoid the pain of standing naked in the light of his own brokenness. So this is an abandonment with no resolution. Where is Waldo? In the shadows hiding.
Guns, Fatherlessness, School Shootings, and Red Herrings
Guns And Red Herrings
In this blog I will share some thoughts that have come out of my reactions to the recent school shootings. As a clinical psychologist I have a number of serious concerns about what seems to me to be the underpinnings of this rash of violence.
So many people have attempted to explain what is happening in what I would call a reductionistic approach, focusing solely on guns as the cause of the shootings. While it is true that guns are the means by which shootings occur, what is neglected in the larger context of the culture is the fact that our national, degenerating, moral and emotional climate is the real cause of what we are experiencing. Guns are the red herring, paraded in front of us, to simplistically focus away from the real reasons that school shootings occur.
The Insidious Erosion Of Culture
As a philosophy student in my undergraduate years it was easy to follow the drift of culture away from objective truth and towards subjective values. The rise of existentialism as a philosophic rebellion against objective truth is the fundamental root of the deterioration of our culture. It is clear that we have gone from a society that uses objective standards of right and wrong to evaluate values, to a subjective belief that each individual can determine their own truth and create their own subjective morality. The result of this is the rise of radical individualism and resistance to any attempts to evaluate behavior against deeper truth principles.The concept of existentialism, which is humanistic, proposes that instead of essence preceding existence, it has turned this historical truth on its head, claiming that existence precedes essence. What does this mean?
Blueprints For Life
The concept of essence can be compared to a blueprint by which something is constructed. To build a house, a vision or picture of what the house should look like precedes the actual building. And the building is guided by the blueprint. So the essence of what a house is precedes its’ building. The existential notion, by contrast, says that we should start building with no pre-existent sense of what the house should look like, constructing as we go along based on the whims or impulses of the builder.
Our culture, by analogy, is telling children to build their own house, without blueprints, or the standardized codes that relate to safety, etc. For most of human history, it was assumed that there was a blueprint for what a human should be and what values should be adopted. This blueprint is in essence like DNA, a code that governs the unfolding of the developing human growth process. The moral code was built into the essence, or DNA notion, so that for a person to become a fully moral and healthy human, they must be directed by pre-existent guidelines. The foundation of this was the Judao-Christian worldview. With the rise of existentialism this pre-existent blueprint has been discarded. The new emphasis is one that asserts that there are no absolute moral values by which the unfolding of one’s life must be guided. Although this sounds liberating, and emphasizes human freedom, the actual results have produced a culture that has a deep sense of angst and a general lack of purpose. The scripture that captures the destructiveness of this notion is:
There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. Proverbs 12:26
The comfort of pre-existing values and a blueprint for human development has been lost. Individuals today are told that they can create their own values and their own blueprint. The siren call of this humanistic philosophy is the notion that we are all free to pursue our own impulses, and anyone who seeks to impose a judgment on those impulses are haters.
So we have a culture that fosters a belief that one’s own truth has to be derived from one’s internal set of preferences and that anyone who disagrees is essentially, as said above, a hater. At the worst end of the extreme might be a person who subjectively believes that sexual involvement with a child is perfectly okay. The only way that a subjective culture can argue against this behavior is possibly by saying that the perpetrator’s behavior hurts a child, not necessarily that it is morally wrong. Once you use the words “morally wrong”, you presuppose a pre-existent essence. Logically, from a subjective and humanistic sense, the argument can be used that a sexual molester feels that his impulses are just a part of who he is and it should be ok to identify as a child molester.
The most recent shooting, in Highland Park, IL was perpetrated by a man who illustrates the deterioration of values into its’ worst logical outcome. His statement on a social media posting was:
“Like a sleepwalker…I know what I have to do,” the narrator says in one video.
“I know what’s in it. Not only for me but for everyone else… there is no past or future, just the now. It is more abstract than I can ever imagine. I can feel the atmosphere pulling me in. It’s unstoppable….I need to leave now. I need to just do it. It is my destiny. Everything has led up to this. Nothing can stop me, even myself. Is there such a thing as free will or has this been planned out…it’s what I was sent here to do. Like a sleepwalker…walking blindly into the night.”
This is an example of what happens when existentialism degrades into its’ logical outcome-nihilism.
Nihilism means: the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence or arbitrariness of human principles and social institutions. When the guardrails of values are removed, life deteriorates into a meaningless and purposeless existence. And this is what was going on in the mind of the Highland Park killer.
School Shootings In The Context Of A Subjective Culture
It is my belief that the rise of school shootings is directly related to the deterioration of objective values within our culture, and at its’ worst extreme, boys with nihilistic views of life as meaningless, and that human life is pointless.
Here is the progression, or rather the regression, of the factors involved in the climate that fosters school violence:
1. Systematically attack and eliminate objective values in the culture.
2. As a result, infiltrate the notion of subjective truth into the mindset of the culture.
3. In throwing out the notion of objective values, deconstruct the notion of the importance of the traditional family. Instead adopt all manner of variants, including same sex parents, trans-parents, parents who cave to the notion of not imposing traditional gender assignment on children, etc.
4. Weaken the notion of marriage as a covenant connection between two people and instead focus on the subjective notion of marriage as two people who keep each other happy.
5. As a result of this diluted notion of marriage, increase the frequency of divorces, resulting in more and more children experiencing separation from parents.
6. Have a family court system that devalues the importance of fathers, resulting in children, and most importantly boys, having a lack of significant time and influence with their fathers.
7. As a result of this, and it is backed up by significant research, allow for the deterioration of the mental health of children, particularly boys.
8. Create a generation of depressed, anxious, angry, disenchanted, and purposeless children, again primarily boys.
9. Create a sense of impotent rage in many boys.
10. And then observe how these boys take out this un-directed rage on innocent children.
But the red herring folks will skip this drama at the back of the stage of causes, and self-righteously only focus on guns.
Our subjective culture cannot have it both ways. When it substantially undermines the limits that objective truth places on human behavior, how can it not understand that the subjective agenda of a school shooter results in a massacre? Guns are merely the instrument by which their agenda is fulfilled. Bombs, knives, and vehicles are other means.
Of God And Truth
We that hold to objective Truth are labeled bigots if we do not agree with the right of others to have their own individual set of values. This is so oppositional to the historical notion that truth, in the big T sense of the word, serves to guide individual behavior towards a set of moral absolutes. When you boil down the moral proscriptions of the Judao-Christian worldview, they are seeking to teach people to love and treat people as if they, along with themselves, have sacred value, and must be protected from the self-centeredness that subjective values create. People who follow these values would naturally subscribe to the notion that all people matter, because they are created in the image of God and should be treated as equals. I believe it was Dostoyevsky that said “Without God all things are permitted”.
It is clear that this has permeated our culture, entitling individuals to use their impulses and preferences as a justification for behavior that years ago would be shockingly abhorrent. But we have been systematically desensitized to accept what has historically been identified as morally wrong. It has been an insidious process, where in incremental ways, we have drifted to a valueless society. Those who are traditional or conservative in their values, as I am, are attacked as getting in the way of this progressive decline into the moral abyss. This is nowhere more obvious than in the deconstruction of the traditional model of the family.
In a subjective culture, which attacks anyone who judges an individual’s behavior as wrong, is quickly labeled, as stated above, a hater. This is an attempt to effectively hamstring one’s ability to determine if there are real and true principles by which we are to guide our life choices. Even people of faith get paralyzed by fear that if they support objective truth they will be attacked as having a biased view of life. It is so discouraging that even Christians, who used to hold to traditional values, have been emotionally bullied to change, by saying they now embrace values that they would previously have said were wrong. This is how the culture is shaping the person, versus a pre-existent value structure guiding one’s choices.
So what young boys, and by the way 90% of all shooters are male, grow up in is a culture that fosters a lack of direction and pressure to formulate one’s own subjective values. Our culture has undermined the traditional values that reflect our sense of the absolute sanctity of life. As a result this has dehumanized the traditional view of the grand creative value of individuals. Boys spend enormous times on war related video games, that systematically desensitize them to the value of life.
And then this woke cultural system, that has undermined Truth, has created the context in which boys feel a sense of being adrift, empty, purposeless, and angry. This rage, that resides in the emotional storehouse of the boy’s feelings, seeks an outlet. Unfortunately, since we have culturally undermined the sacred goodness of life, these school-shooting boys create their own sense of purpose, which often involves the acts of violence that give them their 15 minutes of fame. The woke architects of this cultural morass then rail in a moralistic way against guns. The statistics show that there were more guns per capita in 1980 than there are now. What is the factor that explains the fact that there were no mass school shootings back then, while there is an avalanche of these in our modern culture? Its’ the culture and the factors already listed.
This culture has obliterated the historical values that supported the notion of human dignity and purpose. This secularized society has infiltrated the minds of many young boys and has left them adrift. A particularly toxic and destructive element of our current culture is the fact that boys and girls are often separated from their fathers due to the divorce process. I have been a strong advocate of shared parenting if a divorce occurs. The family court system has so distorted the notion of what is in the best interests of children that they engage in a long protracted and extremely expensive process of trying to determine the “best parent” notion. This notion is frequently decided in favor of the mother. All the research has indicated that what is far more important than the subjective concept of the best parent, is the amount of time spent with both parents. All the literature supports the notion that there is a high correlation between the amount of time with parents and the amount of problems that a child will develop including academic, mental health, and negative legal outcomes.
Mental Health And The Deterioration of the Traditional Family
A good deal of research has isolated common factors in school shootings and mental health. One of the most glaring factors is the lack of significant father involvement in children’s lives. This factor, along with frequent bullying, and un-contained rage, are the factors that correlate with the rise of school shootings. The culture, and particularly the family law system, have ignored the real data and continued to see fathers as having less importance than mothers. This ignoring of the facts or the truth, is tantamount to ignoring the real solution to the problem. If this were like medicine, doctors who ignore best practices and continue to use old outdated and ineffective procedures, would be sued for malpractice.
And yet the family law system ignores what would start to solve the problem of why children develop mental health issues, leaving them vulnerable to acting out violently. Lawyers, who are trained in adversarial litigation, force fit their approach into an area that should not be approached from an adversarial perspective. We are truly experiencing the break down of the traditional family, and family courts have largely ignored the scientific data. Because of this, it is my belief that the family courts are complicit in the creation of the deep causes that result in school shootings.
Boys And Elephants
In looking at common factors for boys who engage in school shootings, a consistent indicator is that of an absent father. Other indicators are mental health problems which are a direct outcome of the absence of fathers in the home. Boys need the containment of a strong father to process the feelings of aggression that often accompany their developmental maturity. An example from nature is the story about elephants in a preserve in Africa. The employees on the reserve notice that there were a number of adolescent male elephants who went into puberty, called musk, where their testosterone levels were very high. What they would do with this sexualized energy is attack animals that were weaker than them. They solved the problem by bringing in bull elephants, who contain the aggression of the adolescent elephants. A lesson from nature.
When fathers are absent, boys effectively have no bull elephant, or wise and strong male figures, to contain their feelings of aggression. This may clearly explain the frequency of assaults, rapes, and sexual aggression among our young males in our culture. Family Court is complicit in maintaining an environment in which boys are denied the frequent access to their fathers.
Our culture has broken down traditional family values. Uninformed social influencers have supported the notion that one parent can parent effectively. As a result there has been a deep bias against guaranteeing that children grow up in an environment where they receive the full benefit of two parents. There is no reasonable explanation for the way that the family courts resolve custody in imbalanced way. I’ve said this before and I truly believe it that when children become aware of how the family courts allowed them to be absent from their fathers, for something equivalent to malpractice. Keeping a child from a parent, many times due to the alienation of a child from the non-residential parent, is child abuse. The current family court system is a “pay to play” scheme, often bankrupting parents, which adds another level of strain on the children, leading to even higher levels of emotional distress. If the current system were the only way to deal with things we would have to accept it, but clearly the research indicates that it is the most unhealthy way to deal with custody.
Two summarize, it is clear that the boys engaged in school shootings are underdeveloped, immature, aggressive males who have experienced the detrimental effect of father absence. If the woke culture we live in would understand the truth of this and address it vigorously instead of, as I indicated, reductionistic glee focusing only on guns, we may be able to see significant progress in reducing these horrific cultural traumas. The reality is that a whole range of social issues are directly connected to the way in which the family courts allow for separation of children from fathers. They should be culpable and held accountable. We need a large grassroots connected force of people who demand reform in the family court system. If not children will continue to be wounded emotionally and shootings will very likely continue.
It has come to my attention that WCCC has hired a company that essentially helps to rebrand the church. Rebranding is a popular process that is used by corporations to create a new association between their products and a more positive reputation. Rebranding is often used when a company has developed a bad connection between their product and a negative characteristic. An example would be that of ValuJet that was renamed AirTran. Facebook recently changed their corporate name to escape negative brand associations.
In 1992 a ValuJet plane crashed in the Everglades killing 110 people. It was discovered that ValuJet’s maintenance company, SabreTech, was responsible for dangerous cargo conditions that led to the crash. The company was then renamed AirTran. The intent in this rebranding is that magically, people would forget the negative aspects of the company when it was ValuJet and would now have a more positive confidence in the company’s product. Essentially, rebranding can be a form of smoke and mirror transformation, that allows the company to move on and distance itself from the past. It is the manipulation of language as a way to refocus customers away from any negative associations.
WCCC has been working hard to change the presentation of the church to the world. It has moved away from much of what used to define it as a church. They have currently altered the font of its’ logo. It would not surprise if they changed the name of the church itself. Due to the scandal perpetrated by its’ founder, Bill Hybels, the worldwide reputation of WCCC was severely tarnished. The church has lost over half of its’ congregants, lost a vast number of staff members, lost well over one half of its’ yearly donations, and lost many of its’ previously effective programs. Those are not just the consequences of Bill Hybels’s behaviors, but, looked at from a Biblical perspective, are the result of the failure of the whole church to repent of its’ corporate sins.
The way that the leadership of the church initially dealt with the revelation was frankly to deny and gaslight those who had exposed the sexual sin of Hybels. Then, rather than honestly and Biblically addressing both the sin of Hybels and their own complicity, they took the path of cowards. They resigned so that they would no longer have to take any public ownership for the way that they had been a part of the governance system that allowed Bill Hybels to exercise dictatorial control and the abuse of women that came from his sense of entitlement.
The church then put an interim leadership in place that continued the strategy of minimizing both the sin of Bill Hybels and the complicity of the leadership and the congregants. This approach is in direct contrast to both the Old and New Testaments focus on repentance of the whole body of the people of God. Simply put, Bill Hybels could not have gotten away with decades of behind-the-scenes abuse, both sexually, and in his management style, without a multilevel complicity of those who surrounded him. It seems clear that the response of the church leadership attempted to silo his behavior and distance themselves from the ways that they had engaged in actions that resulted in their own complicity in the sin.
The true church, clearly described in the New Testament, and foreshadowed in the Old Testament, focused both on individual as well as corporate sin. The church is described as a body, much like the human body, where there is a vital interdependency, so that the behavior of one can create consequences to the many. I Corinthians 6:19,20, focuses on the fact that we are not independent and the owners of our own being. In truth we are bought with a price, and so are indebted to God. And the Lord’s Prayer shows our mutual indebtedness when it focuses on the way that we pray for forgiveness for our debts as we forgive others. There are many indicators of the importance of corporate repentance in the Old Testament. One that is so clear is the story of Ezra. As the spiritual leader of the children of Israel, he called God’s people back to obedience to God and named the sin. He included himself in responsibility for the sin.
“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. “ Ezra 9:6,7
If Ezra had acted like the leadership of WCCC, he would have been seen slinking away and hiding. He would have disassociated himself from any responsibility for the sins of the people or leadership. He would never have articulated in detail the complicity of both the leadership and the people in the sins among them. He would have focused on moving towards the future quickly or rebranding (renaming Israel) to somehow magically make the world think that this was an altogether new group of people with no connection to the past. No, he stood amid his people and repented. He took sin seriously, and the reputation of God as paramount. He clearly realized that if he and the people failed to name their sin and repent, that they could not presume the blessing of God. Because WCCC has run away from naming and repenting of their corporate sin, the church is seeing dire consequences. David as well lamented for the state of the church.
“Your glory, O Israel (Willow Creek Community Church), lies slain on your heights. How the mighty have fallen! … How the mighty have fallen in the thick of battle! Jonathan lies slain on your …2 Samuel 1:27
Individual Vs. Corporate Responsibility
WCCC has focused exclusively on individual responsibility. The name of Bill Hybels is not mentioned. His books have been removed. Any honor that he has been given, such as having his name on areas of the church, have been removed. It is a kindergarten way of handling the past. If we pretend that he does not exist anymore, we can move on. Cancel culture at its’ best. The goal is to put all the responsibility on Hybels so that we can extricate the church from the past and any responsibility that the body of Christ might have in the creation of a culture that allowed for the narcissistic entitlement and abuse that he demonstrated. I have heard things like “he was too powerful to control’, or “I was so mesmerized by his confidence that I was too fearful to question him”. The belief was that Bill Hybels would not repent so there was nothing that could be done.
If WCCC had embraced their corporate responsibility, they would have accepted that sin in a body often involves both personal behaviors and the organizational action that supports the sin. Here are the multiple levels of complicity that supported the sin of Bill Hybels.
Starting at the greatest level of complicity, the congregants of WCCC participated in a distorted understanding of servant leadership, by placing Bill Hybels on a pedestal of celebrity. The public image of Bill was that of success at multiple levels. He consulted with presidents, corporate CEOs, and was known worldwide. This kind of success allowed those who observed it to never look behind the curtain to see that he was a flawed person who should have constantly pointed people to Christ, instead of himself. The people of WCCC, if led appropriately by leadership, should confess, and repent of the idolatry of celebrity.
The congregation also was complicit in the idolatry of elevating the church building, the churches worldwide influence, the perfection of the stage performance, and the greatness of the programs at WCCC . In some ways, the idea that if things look good they must be good.
The elders, in that they clearly had a front seat to the bullying management style of Bill should confess that they failed to confront him. They were complicit in allowing him the autocratic leadership style that he demonstrated. This supported the sin of Bill.
Every staff member that felt they had derivative value by being in the presence of Bill Hybels, feeling that his choosing them validated their importance, should repent. All the yes men and women, who were the narcissistic support figures of emperor Bill, should recognize, own, and confess their complicity.
All of church should corporately publicly confess the degree to which their failure to confront Bill, when they clearly knew of his celebrity influence over the congregation, created the foundation for his sin.
The church and its leadership should confess to the fact that they allowed elders, who should have been the thermometer of the spiritual temperature of the church, to be passive in their response to Bill’s sin. The spiritual protection of the church was so weak that Bill’s sin was minimized or rationalized.
The leadership of the church should confess the way that so many people, both in the church and in the world at large, have become disillusioned in the church. Many have even turned away from God due to the actions of Bill and the leadership. Many former Willow members and attenders have a deep sense of distrust in the church and have hesitated to reengage with a church. It is God’s reputation that has been sullied, and as a result, who knows how many have been hurt.
The leadership should, like Ezra, lament the way that the church, being organizationally guilty, allowed Bill to harm not only the women victims, but all women in the church.
Those who allowed Bill Hybels to leave with a golden parachute, taking the hard earned money of those who sacrificed to give to the church should confess to the misappropriation of money. In essence, he was rewarded with a luxury life in spite of his moral failures. He “fleeced the flock”. Also, the secrecy that characterized the handling of money and payouts in the church should be acknowledge and repented over.
Those who implemented the despicable practice of making individuals sign non-disclosure agreements, which were “shut up” tactics, should repent. This corporate suppression of truth is contradictory to a Biblical culture of truth telling.
The current state of Willow, if we are to believe what scripture teaches about failure to repent, is directly connected to the church as a whole’s running, like Jonah, from the truth and from obedience to God’s word. Willow has lost its influence in the world. They could have been a shining light that pointed the church towards how to Biblically deal with both the sin of the individual, and the sin of the church. But they have slunk away from the shadows of the past, and, instead, believe the lie that the church can move forward without the cleansing and purging of sin from the past. They think the new branding, new vision, new programs, etc., will, like the magician who uses slight of hand, get the world to forget.
Only ownership, confession, and repentance for sin will restore Willow to some prominence. And this is not as a brand, but rather the bride of Christ. Anything short of this process is simply humanistic, corporate strategy to succeed without the power and presence of God’s power. The church must bend the knee.
14 If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7
Willow Creek Community Church Elders: Sorry Before Sorrow
II Corinthians 7: 10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
An Incomplete Investigation
The constant mantra of the elders of Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) is that they have apologized. It is true that they have apologized, but the apologies ring as inauthentic and certainly incomplete. The elders act as if what has been revealed is the complete story of the abuse inflicted on women by Bill Hybels. Because they failed to engage a competent agency, such as GRACE, to do a thorough investigation of the whole history of abuse at WCCC, they are apologizing just for what has been revealed. The reality is that there is evidence that the extent of the abuse has not been revealed.
Sorrow Should Precede Sorry
When someone apologizes before doing the demanding work of entering the sorrow that should come from a deep and empathic awareness of the pain that was inflicted, the “I am sorry” is more for the perpetrators and supporters of the abuse. I am sorry absolves those who either inflicted or supported the abuse, by saying that they apologized and so should be let off the hook of responsibility. But this kind of sorry does not ring true, but instead seeks to roll right over the depth of pain to move on. When those who have been harmed do not feel that those who apologize have entered a mourning process for the extent to which they inflicted pain, the victims do not feel that an authentic feeling “I am sorry” is true. It is an incomplete and superficial process that in the rationalizing mind of perpetrators, absolves them so they can move on. Entering deeply into the pain and experience of victims allows for true remorse to grow. Anything short of that is for the perpetrators and not for the victims. As I have mentioned, and will expand on in my next blog, the victimization of the women at Willow, was not just the isolated acts of one man, Bill Hybels. The church participated in the enabling of the abuse.
The reason that it is so important to sit in the ashes of mourning is that this demonstrates how seriously perpetrators take the pain they have inflicted. If I hit someone out of anger and then quickly ask them to forgive me, I am putting the victim in a bind. “Do I accept this superficial apology or do I need to know that the perpetrator is REALLY sorry, has entered into my pain, and will not therefor re-offend. Cheap apologies come from immature perpetrators who simply do not want to feel their own guilt. To do that, I must minimize my awareness of the pain that I have inflicted and put the victim in a bind of having to forgive before they are understood. I do not trust someone who apologizes too quickly. They simply have not done the hard work of emotionally entering into the extent of the pain created. Therefore, they are likely to rehurt a victim.
Apology Without A Deep Investigation
The elders at WCCC have apologized with a sanitized version of Hybels’ conduct, but they have resisted a deep dive into investigating the likely reality that this was a pattern and practice of BIll Hybels at WCCC. It appears, from the women that have come forward to me, that this was a sordid practice within the culture of WCCC. The elders have resisted a qualified investigative effort, such as what GRACE would provide, to seek to get at the extensiveness of the abuse going on at WCCC.
I believe that the sinful culture of WCCC is much more extensive than what has already been revealed, and because of this I believe the apologies offered by the elders, past and present, are sanitized and hollow. The elders have said they are sorry for the abuse of the women that have come forward. But the deeper sorry must come from owning that the culture of WCCC was corrupt. And it remains corrupt so long as the leadership of WCCC refuses to admit to the dark underbelly of WCCC.
Over the course of this moral crisis at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC), one thing stands out that disqualifies the elder’s apologies as authentic: a lack of true empathy for the deep wounding of the women victims and a true acknowledgement of the extensiveness of the culture of sexual abuse at WCCC. Apologies can be simplistic or genuine, can be a pro forma way of moving forward with the appearance of remorse. Without a substantive revelation of how Bill Hybels’ abusive conduct impacted the victims, and how the church enabled a predatory culture, apologies are incomplete and simply ways to try to divert people into moving on.
I will restate that apologies that are offered too quickly are often simply an attempt to mollify the victims of wrong actions, so that the offender can be released from guilt. As such, these kinds of apologies are more for the offenders than for the victims. When this happens, the victims of hurtful behaviors know that these apologies are hollow and do not resonate with the real pain that has been inflicted.
The women victims of the sexual predatory behavior of Bill Hybels have not felt satisfied that the apologies offered by the elders of WCCC have a ring of authenticity. These apologies have failed to boldly implicate the sinful sexual behavior of Bill Hybels, have failed to share the extent of the traumatic pain experienced by the women victims, and so have softened the culpability of WCCC in these devastating insults on the women.
The apologies of the elders of WCCC have lacked a sense of genuine empathic expression of the deep pain of the women victims. Empathic apologies take time, take wrestling in the mud of a victim’s pain, so that the offender “gets”, at a deep emotional-marrow level, the extensiveness of the devastation of the perpetrator’s actions.
The nature of an empathic apology involves an offender doing a deep dive into the consequences of their behavior to a victim. Most people do not want to comprehend the level of devastation of their inflicted behavior on a victim, because it brings a sense of guilt and shame. So, to protect themselves from their own culpability, they must gloss over the true cost of wrong behavior to the victim, seeking to move forward quickly with a simplistic statement of “I am sorry”. They do not really say what they are sorry for, because they have not allowed the consequences of their actions to fully impact them. Victims can only trust the authenticity of an apology when the offender thoroughly names their actions, and describes an awareness of the level of pain this has generated in the offended.
This again is why one should not apologize too quickly. Instead, the offender should sit with and listen deeply to the pain experienced by the victim, so that the real scope of the offense can be comprehended. Those that seek genuine forgiveness must sit in the ashes, feel the dirtiness of the perpetrated behavior, so that they are washed over by the sorrow that they feel, both for their own behavior and the pain inflicted. Only then can a victim trust that the offender is taking the offense seriously, and may be less likely to re-offend.
Cheap Vs. Genuine Apologies
It is painful when a spouse hurts their partner deeply, and then tries to force an “I am sorry” to try to get the offended person to move on. (Move on, where have we heard this?) The offender wants to move on, because if they sit long enough to fully comprehend the extent of their hurtful behavior, they will have to deal with their guilt. An “I am sorry”, without sorrow, is more for the offender than for the victim. This is a “cheap’ apology, since it does not cost the offender much and in their mind absolves them of responsibility. Genuine apologies are costly, because they take the time to listen and move into sorrow for the perpetrated behavior.
Sorrow Before Sorry
A number of the elders at WCCC are women. Women have the capacity to comprehend the devastating effects of sexual abuse, because they statistically experience it at a greater rate then men. It would follow that the female elders at WCCC would lead the way in the full elder board entering into a season of sorrow. This would allow the full emotional impact of Bill Hybels behavior to move them to deep repentance about the way that WCCC participated with and enabled the abuse to occur in its midst.
Deep sorrow results in a naming of the sins and of the real consequences of sin. This involves a real investigation into the true nature of systemic sin that existed at WCCC. There is no clear indication that the elders and leadership at WCCC have experienced the deep sorrow, the Godly sorrow, so necessary for a genuine repentance, followed by a seeking of forgiveness. If they have, they have not shared, at a transparent level, the extent of their brokenness on behalf of the victims and the church members.
Those that are responsible for the pain inflicted on the women victims, from Bill to the elders to the leadership and to the congregation that idealized him should must sit longer in the ashes of destruction. Deep sorrow must precede “we are sorry” for it to have any substance of being genuine. If the elders, on behalf of the people of WCCC, had expressed Godly sorrow they would have shared the following (this is a kind of stream of consciousness expression of what I believe a true and authentic apology would be look like):
-We have sorrow for the fact that our senior pastor, Bill Hybels, betrayed trust, acted in such a sinful way, and destroyed the spiritual and emotional lives of the female victims.
-We call out what BH did as sin, so that we do not minimize it and sanitize it in any way.
-We have entered into the experience of the female victims and understand and weep over the levels of inflicted pain that they have experienced.
-We comprehend and feel deep anguish over the ways that BH used his power to push and pressure them to give into his selfish sexual desires.
-We have sat with and allowed ourselves to seek an empathic awareness of what it was like to be betrayed by a trusted leader.
-We have listened to comprehend the confusion, hurt, anger, and distrust, that the intrusive behavior of BH inflicted on the women victims.
-We have sat in the ashes with the female victims, as both they and we understand the painful consequences of sin.
-We have listened, and as hard as it is to take in the breadth of the devastation that BH’s behavior inflicted on these women victims, we have allowed it to move us to sorrow and compassion.
-We have, in hearing the consequences of BH’s sinful behavior, come to an understanding of how traumatic these actions were and have for many of the women created lifelong symptoms that are hard to erase.
-We have, in investigating how extensive this behavior was, recognized that the church itself was culpable for its enabling of such horrific behavior. We allowed the idolization of BH to give him a pass, which allowed him to continue a pattern of predation on innocent women.
-We get, and feel sorrow for, the fact that for many of the victims they have experienced depression, anxiety, rage, distrust, physical sickness, relational harm, employment disruption, spiritual disillusionment and even falling away from faith, becoming targets of BH protectors, hyper-vigilant to further abuse, anger at the elders for coming across in such a minimizing way, low self-worth, disconnection from community, anger at the way their husbands were treated as BH sought to groom them to diminish their partners so he could gain access to them, gaslighting by being attacked as unstable or liars or mentally ill, having their reputations and their job qualifications attacked, anger at God for allowing this to happen while the perpetrator gets minimal consequences, destruction of their dreams and goals in life due to excruciating emotional pain, anger at the ways the church and its methods of protection left them feeling helpless to talk about what they had experienced, having a sense of false-guilt for some of the actions of BH and their involvement in them, anger at being treated as just an object for BH’s pleasure rather than what he had hypocritically called them as daughters of the Most High, anger for some that their lives have been destroyed by this abuse, etc.
Sitting In The Ashes
If the elders at WCCC had sat long enough in the ashes of these women’s lives, hearing the litany of pain that BH had inflicted, they should have experienced profound sorrow. Sorrow then moves to repentance, which would involve a very public revelation of the pain and suffering experienced by the women victims. Ownership on behalf of the leadership of WCCC should have led to a profound expression of the sorrow felt and the level of apologies needed. Apologies needed to be expressed primarily to the women victims and then to the congregants who have been affected by the trauma in the church. Sorrow-filled empathy is the prelude to genuine repentance and ultimate forgiveness. Saying “we are sorry” without the expression of genuine sorrow is simply a strategy to “move on”. The ultimate problem for the church is that a lack of sorrow means a lack of taking this level of abuse seriously. This subjects the church to the possibility of more abuse down the road. Women of WCCC beware, the elders taking the sexual abuse of its females so lightly does not bode well for creating a safe and protective church environment.
So, elders of WCCC, show a true posture of grieving and sorrow. Only then will the women victims start to believe that the torture of their abuse will be taken seriously. It is the victims who need to determine if an apology is genuine and complete, not the elders. Only the women victims “know” at a deep level, whether they have been heard and the apology sought is genuine. The elders assuming, they have done their job only meets their sense of what an apology needs to look like and allows them to “move on”. A public confession of the sins of Bill Hybels and the church in enabling him, sends a message to the women victims that they are being taken seriously and that the sin of sexual abuse of women is no longer tolerated. Without a genuine apology, WCCC is seeking to place a bandage on a gaping wound the size of the Grand Canyon.
My next blog will focus on the importance of repentance over rebranding as it looks at the corporate sense of responsibility.
It has been over three years since the disclosure of Bill Hybel’s sexual abuse of several women. My brother was in South Haven for a vacation last week and happened upon Bill bringing his sailing boat into the harbor. This, plus the experience of going to Willow Creek South Barrington for a recent family meeting, prompted me to write down some thoughts about where I see things at this point in the Willow saga. I have written in the past about Bill and his narcissism and how he had such a strangle hold of control over the church, and so has seemingly continued to control the response of the church in such a tepid way towards his abuse. What I have not focused on as much is the fact that what Bill did was sin. It was both Bill’s personal sinfulness, as well as the fact that he sinned against the women. The more I contemplated this, the more I realized that I have been analyzing his behavior from a psychological perspective, but have not drilled down to the core problem, which is sin.
Sin was a word not often used in the vocabulary of Bill, or, for that matter, other leaders at Willow Creek. Sin was referred to as “foul ups”, “mistakes”, or other tepid words that reduced the idea of sin to a comfortable, secularly acceptable concept that focused more on the behavior of people, and less on the idea of sin as an offense to a righteous God. This diluted notion of sin is really the explanation for Willow Creek’s leaderships pathetic response to Bill’s sin. He just fouled up, made a mistake, acted like any red-blooded man would.
As I have been thinking about it, the response of leadership at Willow Creek is consistent with the public minimization of what he did. The family meeting at Willow Creek that I attended continued this emphasis on suppression of bringing forward the absolute sinfulness of his behavior. Someone brought up the reality that Bill’s name had not been mentioned at Willow since he left. What followed in the answer of Dave Dummit and the campus pastor of South Barrington was disgusting. They basically planted the seed of rehabilitating Bill’s reputation by compartmentalizing Bill’s behavior into two camps. The first camp is to see him as fouling up and the second camp was the bringing forward of his many accomplishments.
The answer by these leaders was to say that we can hold in tension the diverse views of Bill. I am hesitant to bring this comparison up, but it is somewhat like saying what Adolf Hitler did good (rehabilitating the post WWI spirit of the German people, building extraordinary architectural wonders, retooling the German economy, etc.), while he had this bad part of him that resulted in the massive destruction of the Jews and the German people and the killing of millions in the war. Can we hold these two parts of him in tension? I do not think so.
If Bill’s sexual abuse of women came at the end of his leadership at Willow, then maybe we can more easily understand this as not congruent with his general character. But Bill began sexual abuse of women early in the development of the church. So, his character was driven more by selfish entitlement, and was there, not as a “shadow” (as the leaders attributed his behavior), but really informed his deepest motivations. His need for adulation cannot be discounted as a shadow of his character, but instead what was existent in his motivation to create this great reflection of his own accomplishments. In looking at Bill and Willow, can it be said that the ends have justified the means? The means, by the way, were in many ways the result of the adaptation of “best practices” of a church modeled after corporate structure.
It seems that the only people who have been horrified by what Bill did to women are those that have a background in a more Biblical model of what the church should be and how elders and teachers should act. This is the tradition of my early life. My father was a pastor who sought to build and maintain a Biblical notion of what the church is supposed to express to the world. There was no minimization of the concept of sin. Sin was defined as the core condition that created evil behaviors, in rebellion against a righteous God, and it was expressed in many self-centered expressions. These were not defined as “foul ups”, but rather the deepest factor in the motivation of selfish behavior that hurts others. My father started his ministry under the tutelage of A.W. Tozer, and then planted a daughter church from Tozer’s Southwest Alliance Church. My dad and mother were steeped in the wisdom of Tozer. I ran across a quote of Tozer that explains the deep divide behind a more Biblical view of man and the church, than the shallow and methodological approach that Willow followed. Here it is:
“The poor quality of Christian that grows out of our modern evangelistic meeting may be accounted for by the absence of real repentance accompanying the initial spiritual experience of the converts. And the absence of repentance is the result of an inadequate view of sin and sinfulness held by those who present themselves in the inquiry room”. A.W. Tozer
And another relevant quote:
“The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshiping men. This she has not done deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic.” ― A.W. Tozer, Tozer on the Almighty God: A 366-Day Devotional
And one last quote that I think is relevant to the contrast between Willow and a Biblical model of the Church:
“We now demand glamour and fast-flowing dramatic action. A generation of Christians reared among push buttons and automatic machines is impatient of slower and less direct methods of reaching their goals…The tragic results of this spirit are all about us: shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies…the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities…. salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit. These and such of these are the symptoms of an evil disease.” ― A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God: The Human Thirst for the Divine
My father would say that “Tozer would roll over in his grave” if he saw the dilution of the sanctity of the church and the diminishment of the righteous demands of God on our lives that Willow demonstrates.
It is a truism, that Tozer would support, that one’s view of sin is connected to one’s view of God’s awesome righteousness. I thought about what Tozer might say in response to the way that Bill’s sin was diminished. He, consistent with the concept of God’s righteousness, would likely call both for repentance by Bill for his sin, but would also admonish the leadership, on behalf of the people of Willow, to show clear and visible expressions of repentance (such as in the Old Testament where sackcloth and ashes symbolized the deep remorse felt by those who sinned). Why is a more public demonstration of repentance so important? Let me try to explain view from scripture.
Jeremiah called out to the people of Israel Daughter of my people, clothe yourself with sackcloth, and wallow in ashes! Mourn, as for an only son, most bitter lamentation; for the destroyer shall suddenly come on us. Jeremiah 6:26
People who identify with their own potential for sin see brokenness and mourning as both a reverence for the righteousness of God, that was broken by the person who sinned, but also identified that sin as something they themselves could commit. Believers are called to restore those who are caught up in sin with a spirit of gentleness knowing that they themselves are vulnerable (Galatian 6:1). That is why true repentance is not judgmental of others, but reminds one of the fact that sin is an offense to God and a reflection of not just the individuals sin against God, but their own potential for sin. So repentance was a communal thing, calling the people to recognize the offense as against a righteous God and each person’s culpability in sin.
Elders and pastors are the spiritual representatives of the people of God. They are supposed to be so spiritually attuned that they can detect and protect against the intrusion of sin into the midst of the people of God. They sit at the gate of wisdom, protecting the church from the infection of sin. But if they have a diluted view of sin, they will not recognize it. Willow’s elders have been more qualified for governmental issues in their model of organization, and not so focused on their spiritual maturity. Why is the spiritual maturity of elders so important? If they were spiritually mature and astute, they would, as Tozer states, have a reverential understanding of the righteous expectations of God, and they would be able to detect it and protect the people. In the Old Testament, over and over, if the leaders of the people of Israel were not protecting the spiritual condition of the people, they would allow all manner of idolatry to penetrate the body.
It is clear in looking back on the actions of Bill Hybels, that the elders, especially towards the end of his ministry, did not protect the church from both his hubris driven controlling behavior, and his sexual impropriety. They failed to sit at the gate of wisdom to hold accountable his sinful behavior. Bill has chosen to stay silent about the sinfulness of his degrading behavior towards the women that he used for his own sexual gratification. Consistent with his view of sin, he may have only seen it as a foul up or mistake, although he has not even admitted even this view of his behavior.
How a church responds to sin shows how much they respect and fear the righteousness of God. When, as Tozer would state, the church has a low view of God and His righteous demands, it has a cheap view of sin. The response of the elders when all this sinful behavior became public shows this diminished view of sin. The elders and leadership of the church should have come out with a public admonishment to Bill to confess, because they had a view of sin that indicated how horrific and destructive Bill’s sin was to the women who were used and abused. The church as the Body of Christ is called to live in such a way as to accurately reflect the righteous character of God. Willow failed to reflect that Bill’s behavior violated the character and reputation of God. The weak and almost non-existent response of the leadership and elders was complicit in failing to declare that Bill’s behavior did not protect the reputation of the Bride of Christ. We, as believers, are called to be the incarnation of Christ, seeking to closely reflect the very righteousness of God (II Corinthians 3:2).
God absolutely hates the sexual abuse of women. As a psychologist, I can attest that there are few things that are more devastating and traumatic than sexual abuse. God loves women and sees them as daughters who must be treated with the utmost respect and understands the devastating effect that abuse can inflict on them. When the church takes the sin of sexual abuse lightly, since they are to reflect to the world who God is, they are effectively saying that God does not care that much about the abuse of his cherished daughters. I would conclude that those (the world of non-believers) who have observed the apathetic treatment of Willow’s abuse victims should rightly conclude that God, and the Willow leadership, has a low view of His righteous expectations and abhorrence of sin. And how tragically ironic, that Bill Hybels, who said that he elevated and valued the importance of women, was secretly showing his real view of women as objects of his own predatory selfishness.
Willow, consistent with scripture, should not believe that they will flourish without repentance, and the re-establishment of the high view of God’s righteousness and abhorrence of sin that Tozer describes. Beware of the destroyer.
Most of the current research on child development emphasizes the absolute importance of the attachment and bonding process on healthy maturity. Breaches in the attachment process, particularly lengthy and pathological ones, have a devastating effect on the emotional, relational, and neurological growth of children. Divorce is the most frequent form of attachment disruption for children. When a divorce occurs, the child is thrust into a situation where the constancy of their attachment relationships with parents is disrupted. At a deep neurological level, disruptive detachment generates trauma, which leaves the child feeling unsafe, confused, disoriented, and often hinders significant aspects of the developmental process. When, on top of the attachment disruptions of divorce, the child is significantly separated from a bonded relationship with one parent, the negative effects are exponentially accelerated.
The complicity of a parent, and even the family court process, in the unnecessary attachment separation from the other parent is child abuse. Child abuse is any unwanted intrusion into a child’s life that generates trauma. Trauma, as many studies have shown, generates a dysregulation of a child’s ability to stay present and focused on the developmental challenges of maturing. Pre-occupation of a child on the loss and rupture of a previously close and connected attachment with a parent significantly hijacks the child’s neurological capacity to stay calm, and therefore, capable of the focus and attention needed to cope with developmental challenges. So, thinking of child abuse, a separation that is unnecessary is the imposition on a child of traumatic challenges that they do not deserve. In the case of divorce, children do not want or deserve the destructive consequences of a prolonged detachment from a parent.
When the concept of un-necessary detachment is discussed, it focuses on the fact that children should not have to experience the trauma of detachment unless it is unavoidable. An example of an unavoidable detachment would be the death of a parent. This detachment is permanent and uncontrollable. But, in divorce, if, due to the decisions of either a family court, or, an alienating parent, the detachment is forced on the child due to the interests of others, this is child abuse. To reiterate, child abuse is inflicted on a child by the emotional needs of others. A parent that lacks their own self-regulating ability, will often seek to resolve their emotional needs by inflicting pain on a child.
There are two large areas where unnecessary detachment occurs. First is when the family courts, who are often woefully unaware of the traumatic impact of detachment, generate parenting decisions that by their nature inflict significant loss of attachment on one of the primary parents. Courts look at divorce primarily as a legal resolution of the dissolution of a family unit and are not always sensitive to the intense and traumatic disruption of the regulatory process of a child in development.
Children do not ask to be divorced from either parent. Even aside from the clearly unconstitutional violations of a parent’s and child’s right to equal access, the empirical research supports the fact that it is in the best interests of a child to maintain equal involvement with both parents. Courts and judges are often unaware of the developmental research on best interests. But, as the saying goes, innocence is not an excuse. Particularly when that lack of knowledge has so devastating an effect on innocent children.
Courts are designed to litigate and almost treat the divorce process on a par with the criminal court adversarial design. Lawyers are trained to litigate, and so they see divorce as primarily a legal resolution. Mental health professionals see divorce as a primarily relational and emotional process that needs to be resolved in the least intrusive way that preserves the essential emotional needs of both the divorcing parents and the children. The family court process often creates a worst-case scenario that inflicts huge degrees of trauma and stress on all members of the family. Divorce attorneys often see divorce through the lens of adversarial resolution, where a zero-sum strategy is used to win. It is clear to me that money is a huge mitigating factor on who gets a favorable outcome, and so attorneys can manipulate vulnerable divorcing parents to fight to win.
The most vulnerable members of the divorcing family are children, who deeply love both parents and do not win when they are deprived of one of their parents. The least destructive disruptions of divorce are when the parents separate, but the child can maintain at least an equal ability to stay attached to each parent. Courts who minimize the impact of this are complicit in child abuse. It is unnecessary to make the child divorce a parent, and so, as has been discussed, unnecessary detachment inflicts trauma on a child and is child abuse.
There are, in fact, necessary reasons that an unequal level of attachment might be good for a child. This occurs when a parent is demonstrably found to be a danger to a child. The court, for a long time, has allowed unsubstantiated stories about the child abuse of one parent towards a child. These often result in bogus orders of protection or no contact orders which are the weapons often of an alienating parent (discussed in next blog post). Obviously if a parent is so impaired that they inflict more damage on a child then the benefits of attachment, the child must be protected. But absent clear and convincing evidence (not just the hearsay of a targeting parent) the bias must always be on the side of the overwhelming benefit of equal attachment to both parents. That is why I strongly favor legislation that would, again in the absence of clear and convincing endangerment, automatically give the parents equal time.
In the years that I have spent observing family court and family court attorneys and judges, it is clear to me that decisions are often made not on the merits of equal parenting attachment, but instead on other, far more subjective factors. Whichever parent has more money and can employ a more aggressive attorney often gets the more favorable outcome. I have seen behind the scenes collaboration between attorneys and judges who rule favorably in the direction of the attorney who contributes more to the judge’s election campaign or has an outside social relationship with the judge. These individuals would never admit this, but it happens frequently.
Decisions can often also be the result of the subjective bias of judges. Historically the subjective bias of a judge has been in favor of the mother, based on the discarded baseless notion of the “tender years doctrine”. Some of the worst examples of subjective bias on the part of a judge is when their personal feelings about a parent color their capacity to rule in the healthy best interests of assigning equal parenting time to the parents. One memorable case that I have been witness to a father who, angry (and justifiably so) that his children were removed from him due to the obvious and arbitrary dislike of a judge toward the parent. Judges who are subjectively biased have personal pathology that goes unchecked. In this case the judge did not like the pushback that this parent gave to him and punished him by imposing a plenary order of protection judgement restricting him from contact from his children. This is not justice, but instead is the pathological imposition of rulings that punish a parent that the judge just does not like. Therefore, I am opposed to the absolute immunity that family court judges are given. This is often like giving immunity to a child molester and then letting him be a scout leader just because of the subjective bias of a judge. They need to be held accountable when they obviously demonstrate bias that results in rulings that absolutely stem from their personal, often narcissistic, need to show their power. The real victims are the children who have their constitutional and emotional rights to have equal access to their parents.
When this unnecessary detachment of a child from a parent occurs, and it is the result of a subjective pathological bias of a judge, they need to be held accountable. When a judge does not have the empathic awareness that parents are vulnerable and traumatized and may often show anger due to this, the judge’s personal anger at the anger of a parent should not inflict the kind of trauma on innocent children. Anyone, who does not believe that many judges are human beings with personal histories that may involve their own pathology and bias, are fooling themselves. The concept of blind justice is often a joke in the family court. None of us should be blind to the unrecognized bias that filters our perception and decision making. Judges have no accountability to their own pathology. And children lose and so are subject to child abuse.
Why has no one who covered for Bill Hybels written a similar apology to the women violated by him? Is it because, much like it seems Bill has done, they do not want to embrace the humility necessary for seeking forgiveness? Even if Bill, the perpetrator, cannot embrace the grace necessary for entering the broken space of repentance, what about those who, as in Ravi’s case, enabled his behavior? Why has there been no strong endorsement of the shameful way Bill’s victims were vilified? Why no courageous endorsement of the horror of the violation of these women’s sacred boundaries?
Ravi was a classmate of mine at Trinity, and we shared a love of philosophy. We talked many times about intellectual topics as it related to our faith in God. I recognized his immense intelligence even at this stage of his life. We drifted apart over time, checking in over events we attended. I was disheartened when, little by little, information leaked out about his inappropriate sexual behaviors. But, as I reflected on it, I was not surprised. Ravi, though brilliant, lacked emotional/social intelligence. This is a recipe for emotional isolation and vulnerability to the pseudo-feelings that sexual experiences provide. Individuals like Ravi get trapped in the burden of their own success, feeling both anxious and irritated by the demands they take on.
Without the deep accountability that tough and confronting brothers provide, people like Ravi and Bill, formulate a shadow life that soothes their sense of isolation, while forcing them to live compartmentalized lives. They then form a cadre of attendants to their isolated experience by protecting and defending the successful person. These attendants have such a personal “buy-in” to the fame of the person, that they derive “worth by association”, and therefor do not call out inappropriate behavior.
Bravo to this person who owned the fact that it was not only the perpetrator, Ravi, but also those who sinned by association, being culpable in the denial and protection of failed leader. It took guts to say what he did. He recognized that he was caught up in the way that Ravi was able to manipulate the truth. The part of him who benefited from the truth not coming out, was complicit.
Where are those who provided cover for Bill? Why are they not stepping up and owning their complicity in the tragic abuse of these women? Cowards? If they would step up, even though Bill does not have the courage to face his own shadow, it would so powerfully affirm the pain of these women.
As an aside, the strongest indication of the guilt of someone is their running away and avoiding the people they have sinned against. Where is Bill? Why has he not been back? He often said that Willow was the greatest community in the world. He also said that Willow is his home church, and that he would be around and attend. We have all played “where is Waldo”. Should we play “where is Bill”?
After my last blog about the power of culture, the unrest at Willow Creek North Shore (WCNS) campus, has moved me to develop this concept further. Culture is like Pac-Man, where the figure goes after the little elements to consume them, and this is an analogy to how culture will swallow up strategy. This is being seen in the push back of the congregants at WCNS. This is a clear example of what happens when leaders with strategic vision collide with the real flesh and blood needs, values, and feelings of the constituents.
I have many times noted that those in Christian leadership positions often focus more on vision casting and strategic change, and less on the very powerful elements that comprise human culture. As a result, the culture resists the strategy. The new strategy seeks to change the culture of an organization, which represents a threat to those engaged and loyal to that culture.
I once had a young pastor come to my counseling office who was defeated, dejected, and generally depressed. He had come out of seminary a fresh-faced, enthusiastic graduate, who had highly idealized views of how to lead a church. He was called to a small church in Iowa and set about trying to implement his vision. After two years, he gave up. The church culture was run by three prominent families, who had absolute control and they did not want change. He did not have the skill-set necessary to know how to deal with this. It has always been my view that the courses seminaries need to teach is about church culture, and how it can destroy pastors who do not understand it. They do not use emotional/social intelligence to assess how to create change in a healthy way.
What has happened at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) is that the elders selected a leadership team who have demonstrated, at this point, a clear tone-deafness to the larger cultural issues. As a psychologist trained in larger systemic elements, my focus is on the system into which the strategy seeks to create change. Systems have to be ready to align with change, and a good part of that is that the culture, in the form of the constituents, has been consulted and are slowly allowed to buy into the envisioned changes.
People who have insight into the emotional and social intelligence elements of leadership recognize that change, particularly large-scale change, should never be initiated when that culture has experienced a high level of stress from recent events. For instance, a person who has just lost a loved one should not change jobs until they have stabilized from the trauma of loss. At WCCC, it is clear that the church is still in the re-stabilizing process of having absorbed the loss of a senior pastor, who was un-masked as having a power and control style of leadership, along with using that power to sexually abuse women. This was a shock that rocked the emotional rickter scale of the WCCC culture. It has been clear that the leadership of WCCC chose to ignore the substantial trauma that this revelation created, and pushed for change and a future focus.
The second major stressor on the culture of WCCC has been the Covid-19 pandemic. This has been a destabilizing event, causing a loss of in-person community, which is emotionally devastating to a community that loves and connects with each other. A systemically-aware leader would know that this is the worst time to implement strategic changes to a culture. But the leadership of WCCC, ignoring the need to address the emotionally-destabilizing elements of the two major stressor events at the church, devised the new vision to move forward. They are now beginning to see the consequences of their lack of wisdom or larger systemic intelligence, when they sought to shoe-horn change into a damaged culture.
The leadership culture at WCCC has been addressed in my previous blogs, primarily, pointing out the narcissistic, top-down, power and control, secretive, and generally damaging approach of the senior pastor and those who were his attendants to the throne (Emperor Who Had No Clothes). I want to point out that a lot of the culture of WCCC was, albeit created by corrupt leadership, good in many ways. Those that came as congregants to WCCC loved what they experienced. They loved the worship, the opportunities to volunteer as a community in all kinds of service areas, the campus pastors and their leadership, the sense of love and community that was created, and many other things. It can be said that much of the culture of WCCC was loved and valued. Minus the scandal of leadership, much of what had been constructed culture-wise was desired and loved.
The scandal of leadership that occurred in the revelation of Bill Hybels’ behavior, left a sizable void in the trust of leadership at WCCC. Why would it not? The new leadership at WCCC largely ignored the stressful and traumatic impact of the leadership failure, and certainly failed to recognize the issue of leadership mistrust that had been created. What was needed was a pastoral type that put a pause on any substantial changes and instead focused on binding up the wounds of the church and restoring trust in leadership. Instead, the tone-deaf approach focused on strategy, strategy, strategy!
The elders are the ones that are primarily at fault for this. They resisted truly dealing with the emotional and sinful elements of past leadership behavior, and instead kept wanting to push forward. They obviously chose a senior pastor that aligned with their desires. Now I believe that they have locked themselves into a decision that is clearly being revealed as unhealthy to the culture of the church, but they do not want to admit that it was bad judgement. This reminds me of something in professional football. Sometimes a general manager will draft a quarterback in the first round, lock into a very expensive contract, and when it becomes obvious that the quarterback may not be talented enough, they will stick with them. They have made a strategic decision and they do not want to admit it because they have spent so much money.
The culture that has existed at WCCC, as explained above, created a community that allowed congregants to feel connected. There is never a more important time to preserve the elements of connection than in a crisis of stress, such as the ones where the Hybels’ situation and the Covid-19 pandemic created. To try to shoe-horn a change, that essentially looks like an attempt to dismantle the very elements that bring comfort to people, is highly threatening, and will be resisted.
The leadership needs to humble themselves, admit the fact that they failed to assess the traumatic elements of the culture at WCCC, put a pause on the vision, focus more on the healing necessary for the culture to stabilize, address the truth about the financial situation of WCCC, address the truth about Bill Hybels’ sin and not just minimize it as a scandal. They need to acknowledge the significant lack of trust in leadership and commit to what it takes to rebuild this absolutely. necessary component. Only then should they help the church look at strategy and change, with the full engagement of the congregation. Communicate rather than assume everyone is good with your vision!
As a follow-up to my previous post I believe it is important to note that when the church was looking for a new pastor the staff was polled to determine what they most desired in a new leader. Their collective response was that they needed a pastoral type, who would have the capacity to work on addressing and healing the cultural trauma that had been experienced at Willow. In spite of the fact that this was the desire of the staff, it is my understanding that the elders ignored this and pursued a more CEO oriented leader. This again reflects the significant disconnect that the elders have with the true spiritual cultural elements of the church. Basically what they did was hire the new leader, like buying a car, and then gave him the keys to the car and withdrew any effective oversight. As a result he surrounded himself with a close cadre of male leaders. There is a rumor going around, and Dave Dummit needs to address this, that one of the senior leaders, Chris Hahn, was fired from his last job due to excessive power abuse. Even though this was brought to the attention of the elders, they allowed Dave to override any concerns and hire him. All of these decisions reflect the mentality of current leadership, which is to make decisions in secret, not responsive to the overall needs of the congregation, and bully their way through to push their agenda. There is clearly a mutiny of some sort going on, most seen in the angry pushback of the North shore campus. The church leadership should see themselves as a representative government, who seek to ascertain the pulse of the needs of the church spiritually and emotionally, and then lead from this discernment. Instead, as I’ve written before, they completely ignore the culture and the dramatic wounding that has occurred, and push forward. Their lack of any significant addressing of the abuse of the women that have come forward, really reflects an approach that devalues women. Also their lack of placing women in strategic positions of upper management indicates a diminishing of the role of women at Willow. I believe that God is not going to allow Willow to recover and flourish unless they’re willing to heed the admonition of scripture that “if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray I will heal their land”.
I absolutely have to write a response to what’s been going on lately at Willow. I have said for years that if the culture of a church is not taken into consideration, it will eventually destroy any new strategic objectives. Willow Creek has had a culture that has focused on excellence, seeker-sensitivity, the development of multiple ministries, and a certain form of worship. That implicit structure is reflective of the developed DNA of the church. People who have been involved with Willow for years love a lot of the elements of this culture, and many of the elements resulted in wonderful things in the lives of many believers.
Then, into that culture came the tsunami of Bill Hybel’s behavior, that, when it was finally acknowledged, shook the foundation of the church. The core message that was generated was distrust of leadership. How do we know what’s going on behind the scenes in the lives of leaders? And, if we don’t know, and they are engaging in some kind of behavior that could eventually be threatening to the core values of the church, will we re-experience the pain of the original trauma?
The elder leadership has neglected the larger “elephant in the room” elements of the trauma that’s been inflicted on the culture. They continue to operate on the assumption that, in time, a new leader and a new vision will allow for the past to simply dissipate. I have said for a long time that the elders have severely miscalculated what the church culture experienced. I know from personal experience, that my sister has gone to Cherry Hills Community Church in the Denver area. Shane Farmer arrived, and over time, he attempted to produce a significant culture change. It has taken 7 years, but there is finally significant blowback from his attempted changes, and he may not survive as the pastor of that church. When leadership discounts the emotional temperature of a church, devalues the emotional experience of trauma, and pushes forward in an effectively -bullying process, it eventually will backfire on them. And I believe that is what’s happening at Willow. Northshore is a mess right now with the decision of the lead pastor to resign. Dave Dummit is forcing changes on the already-fragile and emotionally- distraught culture of Willow Creek. He apparently believes that he can compel everyone to get on board with his vision of things and it will be so great that any problems of the past will be forgotten. He is forgetting the statement that “culture will eat strategy for breakfast”. And that is true.
I believe what we’re seeing is the systematic dismantling of Willow Creek, led by the hubris and insensitivity of a male-formed leadership team. They believe that they can effectively convince the congregants of their vision and values. They will have a vision-casting night coming up soon, but what they’re doing is not advancing their idea of vision and values. But, rather they are telling the congregation that this vision and value structure has already been implemented, and everyone has to get on board. What they are failing to recognize, at a deep level, is that the congregants are the ones that have funded Willow Creek through their tithes and offerings. They have ownership, and the right to know what is going on inside the church. The way this new management team has operated has simply continued the deeply- flawed principles of deceptiveness, patriarchal decision-making, keeping people in the dark, and believing that they are smarter than the body of believers.
Unfortunately, as I have said, they will eventually find out that culture is more powerful than strategy. The leadership of this church has failed to truly assess the damages of the trauma that Willow has gone through and has inflicted on the people and culture. They have failed to recognize that change must be titrated and massaged over time, versus rammed through by people acting as if they have more wisdom or knowledge than the body. There are substantial changes to the culture of Willow, that can be looked at if you go to http://www.willowcreek.com. The new leadership has essentially created a more complementarian view of women in the church than the well-established values of equality with women. There are no women in the core-operating structure of leadership. The inner ring of power is surrounded by a secondary ring composed of campus pastors who have very little true input.
The new vision of Willow is to pare down staff, pare down programs, centralize leadership to the South Barrington campus, and control the finances of all the campuses. There is very little autonomy given to campuses to develop the very real and unique vision and values that they may have. The process of getting rid of staff has again shown a lack of emotional and social intelligence, leaving many people on staff feeling pushed out of their ministry positions. The current leadership is using the excuse of the Covid-19 to justify this, when the reality is that it is simply consistent with their new vision and values. As has been said and Biblically-supported for years now, unless the church leadership, and the elders, humble themselves, repent, and do deep repair of the damage that has been done over the last two or three years at the church, the leadership will find that the culture, in the form of the people of the church of Christ, will assert the power that the culture holds to resist being forced to accept something that they’ve had no real say about.