Take Heed Willow!
What has happened at Willow Creek Community Church is a wake up call to all that focus on any other vision of the church than that of what Jesus has called it to become.
Matthew 23: 25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisee’s, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisee’s, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
A popular but at times somewhat trite statement that floated around years ago was the WWJD- what would Jesus do? As I pondered the current Willow travesty, the idea of seeking to look at it as Jesus might seemed appropriate. What would Jesus think about what has occurred at Willow Creek Community Church, and what would Jesus do? Jesus, I would think, should be the foundation of any critical evaluation concerning the church and its function. Is it not, after all, His church? And so, should not the church reflect what He has called it to become? Novel idea.
As more and more stories are starting to pour out of the seams of WCCC, a picture is coalescing that paints a painful image of disease in the inner structure of the church. Women who were placed in vulnerable positions of being propositions by an out of control pastor, who assumed that due to his position and power he could manipulate women for his own gratification. Multiple stories exist where either attenders of the church or employees were dealt with in a way that generated pain and shame, all in the effort to “clean” the church of any problems that might reflect negatively on the public image of the church. An entity within the church, the Elder Response Team, staffed by “fixers” essentially used the bigness of the church to intimidate and eliminate any who for any reason presented a problem. The “problem” could be that individuals were critical of things within the church, and so were labeled as divisive and had to be scrubbed from the body of Christ for fear that they might be rable rousers and disrupt the status quo. Sounds like Jesus from the eyes of the Pharisee.
I have no doubt that Jesus would look at many aspects of the Willow image as He did the Pharisees. A whitewashed tomb, a beautiful looking edifice on the outside, but a collection of dead bones on the inside. The historical trail of the employment churning at WCCC is littered with the horrific pain dealt to those faithful employees who for some reason (not a good fit) were purged from the ranks. Many had stood up to unfair practices within the church, and many confronted what they saw as moral inconsistencies. They, who had faithfully served the church, were suddenly spirited away with their critical silence guaranteed by severance packages and non disclosure agreements. The wineskin’s have begun to hemorrhage with hundreds of stories of pain and humiliation at the hands of fixers and cleaners who purified the church of any and all who represented some kind of blemish to the perfect image that the church wanted to portray. Many members at Willow were traumatized by being told that they were no longer welcome at the church because they had done (or thought to have done, never verified) something that was a threat to the church image. These people were not loved and cared for and followed up on, but rather cast out. Blemish eliminated. So much pain. And these leaders are going to be held accountable and cannot continue in a new Christ generated picture of the church.
The architect of all of this was Bill Hybels, who clearly drove the construction of the church governance model to fit his narcissistic personality. The church was an extension of him, and since he personally pushed for perfection, he demanded the same from his creation. His sense of special ness, the core of narcissistic behavior, allowed him to justify reprehensible treatment of any who would not get on board with his vision and image of what the church should look like. He placed it all in God-talk, so that any who heard it second guessed themselves and had a difficult time detecting that it was less about God and more about Bill. He perpetrated the notion that the church should present the very best to the world. That, he believed was what would draw them to Christ. A beautiful, well oiled organization, that testified to the perfect ness of God. But the perfectness of God is not the church, it is His grace that is perfect, and the church is simply a representation of the transforming work of God with visibly imperfect people.
Top down management. Over time Bill collected around him people who bought into his vision and into his repressive style of managing any problems that would result in dirtying the image of the church. After all, the church was an extension of him, out there in the public where it (and he) could be judged. The church was the clothing of the emperor, in the metaphor of the emperor with no clothes. Anyone who judged the image of the church or the tactics used to create it had to be dealt with in a swift and decisive way. People who were the attendants to Bill had to buy into his vision of the perfect church and to retain their privileged position of leadership, had to remain silent. That is why Bill churned the leaders under him. As leaders grew in influence or insight, that might result in questioning the emperor, they needed to move on, go to new pastures somewhere else. Bring in a new batch of highly idealistic but naive leaders, who could not substantially see what was going on and challenge the vision and the repressive governance that sustained its’ whitewashed appearance.
What would Jesus say about all of this? There is no doubt that he would have condemned what he saw as the repressive wounding of the sheep to sustain the fragile image of the shepard. Jesus would have quickly discerned and called out Bill for driving a church agenda that was more about him than about God. He would have easily identified the hypocrisy of Bill’s wounding people to create an outcome that looked good but not was good. He would have told Bill that He is not pleased with creating a perfect church on the backs of countless people’s suffering. No the ends do not justify the means. He would have confronted and called to courage any who allowed the tyrannical practices of Bill to continue. He would have called out Bill’s arrogance as completely at odds with his modeling of a servant leader. He would have told Bill the he had strained out the gnat and swallowed the camel, when he focused so much on legalistic adherence to behaviors that maintained image, while focusing away from the behaviors that came from a broken and contrite heart. Jesus would confront Bill with his sexual violation of women who were made in the image of God and as such are precious and worthy of the utmost respect. He would have condemned the utter self centeredness and hypocrisy of someone who was placed in a trusted position, but then shattered that trust with traumatic self indulgence. Jesus would call out to all that give Bill a pass because of all the good he created that our righteousness (acts) are filthy rags and that the condition of the heart is what He values most. And above all, he would call out to Bill to repent and confess his sin and apologize to every women that he has sinned against!
The day of destruction is, I believe, upon Willow. The courageous women who called out Bill were, I believe, the hand of God in this great winnowing process. When the storms come it tests whether or not the church is grounded upon the rock or upon sand. Many elements of Willow were built upon the sand of image and perfectionism. God has brought a great wrecking ball to bear on this situation, to deconstruct what was never His view of the church, and to reconstruct it on the rock of Christ. It is an opportunity for Willow to turn away from Bill and the image of the church that he perpetrated, and towards the church guided and constructed around His model of servant leader. Humility has to be the very most important quality, the litmus test, that is demanded of all leaders. Arrogance and indifference to the needs of God’s people must be rooted out at all levels of church governance. The church needs those with vision of how sinful, narcissistic systems are allowed to form and perpetuate systemic sin.
Fruit of the Poison Tree
The concept of the fruit of the poison tree is relevant to Willow at this point. The principle is that if a tree is poisoned, it can only produce poisoned fruit. Bill created a governance model that unfolded around his pathology. He selected and kept in place those who consciously or unconsciously bought into the image of perfection. The church is filled, at the upper levels of management, with people who “fit in” to what it took to sustain Bill’s narcissistically driven picture of the church. The Elder Response Team, in its current expression, is close to our conceptualization of the gestapo, who come in and intimidate and scare and drive out all that do not fit the requirements of sustaining perfection. The ERT must be dismantled and the people leading it must resign. They are responsible for much oppression and pain to many. Their style of purging the church in an unbiblical way is not acceptable. It needs to be replaced by a model driven by humility and compassion. This does not mean that true sin should not be confronted, but it needs to be done with the humble motivation of restoration, not elimination, of those who are caught in wrongdoing.
Galatians 6: 6 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.
The current ERT is staffed by individuals who many have reported act without compassion and certainly without the humility that allows one to recognize that we all sin and so should be very cautious about confronting someone else’s failure. These individuals have been Bill’s fixers, henchmen, and cleaners, and have not intervened with a spirit of restitution but rather of elimination. When your image of the church is perfection, you must drive out anything that threatens that image. When your picture of the church is that of a broken, but reconciled body of believers, the job of the leaders is to restore with humble compassion.
The current governance model is a poisonous tree and most of its fruit comes from that root source. That is why it is so hard to trust the decisions of any leader currently at Willow. They cannot be left in a position to influence the direction of the church since they have participated in a corrupt picture of what the true church of Christ must become. Bill created the church in such a way that it was dependent upon his and the leaders’s he chose governance. The governance structure evolved around his vision and values and have in place those people who will implement his picture. Can we trust them to have the discernment to make critical decisions about the direction of the church? I think not.
Matthew 16: 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hadesc will not overcome it.
Willow must put in place true servant leaders who understand the daily need to surrender to the Lordship of Christ, and see their role as stewarding this precious bride of Christ to be inside and outside the true character of Jesus. They must, like Peter, daily be reminded that the church is built upon the acknowledgement that Jesus, not the leader, is the sustaining bedrock of the church. They will be wise guardians of what is of real importance to Christ. They will have strong accountability around them, where the benchmark of their success is the depth of their humility.
Whoever gets chosen to implement an analysis of the governance changes necessary cannot just be academic experts. They must be people that have both the spiritual wisdom and the capacity to understand complex systems to determine whether they are sustaining Christ’s vision of the church or some limited human image.