Willow Creek Community (Church?) (Company?)

As I have written about what I believe to be hurtful practices of Willow Creek Community Church, the push back has been around protecting it with arguments that sound more like corporate spin than biblically consistent justifications. For instance, an argument in support of Non Disclosure has been “well I work for a company and they have NDLs, or, we have an HR department and they get rid of destructive employees”. Or “we have a narcissistic CEO and we just have to tolerate him”. All arguments that support protecting a company/corporation. I wrote the piece below a few months ago but held back from publishing it on this blog. The reactions to my blog about the trauma creation of practices within Willow got me to realize that so many people that defend Willow do it with the conceptualization that it is a corporation and not a church. My attempts to clarify my confusion led me to these musings.

Cognitive Dissonance

It is the pesky little word ,”church” that causes my confusion as I look at the scandal that has a cloud hovering over Willow Creek. As I have contemplated my struggles about what is going on, it came to me, actually at 5 am this morning (dare I say in a whisper?), that perhaps I am not looking at this correctly. In the study of human thought, a concept called “cognitive dissonance” has been discovered and about which much has been written. Essentially, what CD means is that it is difficult for us as humans to hold two diametrically-opposed concepts at the same time. To do so requires some pretty tricky mental gymnastics. For instance, if I say that I believe in equality and caring for the poor, but accumulate billions of dollars without much charity, there is a fundamental conflict. Now, I can resolve this conflict in a number of ways. I can radically start to distribute my resources and bring my assets down to a moderate amount. Or, I can decide that I really do not care about the poor, so that my current wealth is not in opposition to my notion of charity.  I can do all kinds of rationalizing to compartmentalize my thinking so I do not see the contradiction and, therefore, I am not anguished. I could rational that in the future I will distribute my wealth, so that I am not currently in conflict with my ideals. Etc. All this is what we call rationalizing or the rational lies we tell ourselves.

Perspective Shift?

So all that to say, as I look at the handling of the scandal at Willow, maybe  I need to  shift my perspective on what Willow fundamentally should be conceptualized as an organization.  I could then reduce my cognitive dissonance.  I have been analyzing the response of the elders from the presumption that Willow is a church. As such they should respond consistent with the underlying wisdom that informs elder’s ability to discern and call out sin. As a church, I have clearly indicated that I believe the actions of the elders shows a significant level of failure.  They did not identify, call out, and decisively act, in dealing with the sin exhibited by Bill Hybels in his intrusive violation of the sexual boundaries of the women who have come forward. As I have written before, I believe that the most important job of elders is to protect the body of believers by having the capacity to identify, call out, clarify, and root out sins that endanger the integrity of the body of Christ, the church. Elders are protectors of the reputation of the bride of Christ. If the elders are blinded by personal loyalties, then, as the guardians of the integrity of the church, they cannot be successful in their responsibilities, and the body of Christ is left in a state of vulnerability. In the Old Testament metaphor of the walls and gates of the city (the church), the elders have not been the sentries at the opening, and have allowed sin to stay unrecognized in the assembly of believers.

What Is Sin?

Following on this reasoning, that the elders have not come out and boldly pointed out that what Bill did was sin and call him to confession, they essentially are saying to the congregation that a man’s unsolicited intrusion into a women’s God given sacred space of worth and dignity is acceptable. So, if the elders have daughters, they are, by their tacit failure to clearly label this kind of behavior as sin, giving license to a man to “hit on” their daughters in ways that may leave them traumatized. The elders are supposed to have a level of biblical insight that allows them to identify, call out, and protect the body of Christ from the malignancy of sin. The elders have to know what sin is so that they have a template that allows them to compare the behavior of individuals in the church with the parameters of what biblically defines sin. So, whatever the elders do not recognize as sin, in essence, gives permission to the congregation to model behaviors like Bill’s. This again presumes that Willow is a church. The weakness of the admission that Bill “entered into areas of sin” is about as bland and evasive a declaration imaginable. What does that mean? It’s like saying that maybe he wandered into a strip club. He entered an area of sin. They made it look like he innocently meandered into some kind of behavior that, unknown to him, had sin potential. But did his behavior represent sin? I do not know how you could seriously say that you understand the biblical definition of sin, and not see that it is essentially a violation of other’s needs to fulfill your own. Do not steal. Do not violate the rights of others to have what they own by taking it away from them. What part of Bill’s behavior does not fit that definition? There have been numerous people who have been banned from Willow for far less serious infractions.

Willow As Company/Corporation

Now, if instead of conceptualizing Willow as a church, it is considered a company, privately held, then the behavior of the elders makes more sense. It is really congruent with a board that is tasked with the responsibility to protect the bottom line. So, if it is a company, then the products it produces are all the religious things it does, all the productions on Sundays, all the materials it creates, the classes it sponsors, real estate assets it accumulates, financial capital it garners, intellectual property it produces, personnel it employs, and most of all the brand that it develops to market itself to its’ potential customers. If I can shift my understanding of Willow to that of a company, the behavior of the elders comes into alignment with expectations, and my tension goes away. They have responded in a way that protects the bottom line. They have tried to minimize the damage of the crisis in reputation that Willow has gone through due to Bill’s behavior. If they are a company, then we should applaud them, tell them “well done”. If they feel an obligation to protect the founder of the company because he deserves praise for what he created, then they are doing a good job. Then the use of Non Disclosure Agreements make sense, because the brand must be protected. Then the use of ERT actions that damage people make sense.

Pesky Word

It is still just that pesky word “church” that is in the name. It bothers me deeply. Willow Creek Community Church. If it was Willow Creek Community Company I could understand the behavior of the elders. Confusion developed when Willow went to a one board model of governance. It collapsed the responsibility of what formerly were two entities; one of the elders tasked with the spiritual condition of the church, and one to oversee the business side. When the elders are not an autonomous body that can critically evaluate and call out wrong behavior by the leaders, it erodes the system of checks and balances. Because the elders now have the responsibility for the business side of the church, they may feel a greater obligation to protect the bottom line issues, the company-oriented issues.


So, I challenge the elders of Willow to clarify their conceptualization of what Willow is fundamentally. If they say it is essentially a company, then my cognitive dissonance goes away. But at the same time, I believe they need to change the name. Make it a para church organization that peddles spiritual products and services. But to call it a “church” they need to reconcile how their failure to recognize, call out, and appeal to Bill to come back and repent and seek forgiveness squares with the biblical conception of the body of Christ.

If the elders need a primer in what they should do if they are a church, how about this:

They should declare this: “What Bill did was sinful. He took advantage of some dark part of his soul that rationalized putting women in vulnerable positions to gratify his needs. He took advantage of his developing hubris to power up on women who did not welcome his attempts to get them to give into his needs. As elders we need to hold Bill and his behavior up as sin, so that others who may seek the same tactics will have an example of what is not acceptable in God’s sight. We are accountable only to God. Our true bottom line is the spiritual currency of the body of Christ. We as leaders are held accountable for using our position of authority to provide wise clarification of what sin is and call people to repentance.  Bill needs to repent, ask forgiveness of the congregation, and seek restoration. He needs to call every women that he offended and ask them for forgiveness. We at this point need to ask for the forgiveness of the church in having steered things away from the truth. We repent of the way that we have colluded in the repression of truth. We repent and will turn away from this behavior. We will fear God before we fear men. We will humbly seek to restore your trust as we return to our God ordained responsibilities.”

This is what they should do if they want to call Willow a church. If not, rename it. Either way, you can clear up my confusion.



Trauma Incubator

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

Perfect Trauma Storm

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

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

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

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

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

Damaged Souls

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

David And Goliath

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

Coming Out of The Shadows

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

 Theresa’s Story

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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