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.



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