Elephant In The Room: Trauma At Willow Creek Community Church

The Unspoken Known

The Unspoken Known is a reference to the process, sometimes unconscious, whereby something is understood to be present in ones’ experience, but not articulated. The idea of the “elephant in the room” is a similar concept, where something is shared by a number of people, but not acknowledged and discussed. As an example, a family may have experienced the traumatic sexual abuse of a child, but no one wants to talk about its’ impact on the family and its’ members. It is known but remains unspoken.

The Unspoken Known can have huge implications for a group. An example, written about by a family systems author, John Bradshaw, can serve to explain the consequences of what happens when a group shares an experience that is then, not discussed. Unspoken, it gets deposited as a family or group secret that shapes the historical narrative of that body of people.

Bradshaw shares the story of Jane Fonda. When she was just 13, she experienced the death of her mother, Francis Fonda. The death was explained to Jane as caused by a heart attack, and its’ emotional impact on each family member was ignored. Jane and her brother Peter received no comfort from their father, Henry, who was severely stunted in his capacity for empathy. Henry, an actor, just went on with his life. He attended a private funeral for his wife, and then went back to acting that night. Jane and Peter, lost in a powerful tsunami of grief and fear, were left to cope on their own. The mother was not talked about, but instead, was systematically deleted from the children’s experience. Henry expected his children to model coping after his own, showing little emotion, and pushing forward with life.

The children, meanwhile, had intense feelings and questions, but acquiesced to the unconscious pressure to deny emotions and suppress questions. The loss of the mother created a pale of darkness over the household, but the known sense of grief was never discussed. Jane Fonda shared that this felt sense of grief with little acknowledgement shaped her coping for years. She, in fact, felt some childish guilt for the loss of her mother, as if she had not done enough to keep her alive. The interior sense of loneliness and fear and shame was a powerful factor in the formation of her sense of dependency upon absent men to define her value as a women.

Jane’s mother, it turns out, had bi-polar disorder, and, probably triggered by an impending divorce from Henry, killed herself. Henry, hobbled by his emotional immaturity, could not reveal the dynamics of the mother’s death, so that the children could be freed from their sense of false guilt and shame.

And this is what happens when a powerful and traumatic event occurs among people, but is not acknowledged and emotionally processed. Individuals who share a traumatic experience are forever bound in a sense of knowing something that is not processed. The results are often debilitating emotional consequences that can bind the group to its’ secrets.

Organizational Heritages

Churches are just bigger families, with similar systemic components. Churches have histories, with both painful and positive experiences, that collectively represent its’ story. Often its’ positive experiences are celebrated and well spoken about, while its’ pain is avoided and denied. The painful experiences shape the culture of a church, creating a history against which the church learns to cope. A split in the church, for instance, can generate a narrative of how vulnerable the church can be, and may create a coping style that intensifies its’ attempt to control against future splits. These unconscious experiences and the consequences they generate are often not discussed, but rather coped with in a secretive fashion.

Every group that identifies itself as bonded by something in common, is subject to creating an institutional heritage, represented by the events of the past, the residual pain they may have generated, and the coping methods that developed to deal with the problems. These are not articulated, but reside in the “collective unconscious” of the organization. They have a powerful impact on the formation of group dynamics.


For example, the family as an organization, collects its’ experiences as a narrative history, and can pass it on from generation to generation. If a family experiences the unfaithfulness of one parent towards the other, the whole emotional climate of the family is altered. The family may go from one of being playful, joyful, open, expressive, and generally happy, to one of being cold, shut down, silent, closed, and generally sad. All of this can happen without the parents sharing the cause of this dramatic alteration of the family experience. In closed families, the individuals are left to try to figure out what caused the change. They are left confused, fearful, and angry. They have to experience an environment that moves from one that was basically nurturing, to one of gloom. The younger the child, the more likely the child is to take ownership for the change.

The above is the essence of what are called “family secrets”. They are catastrophic experiences that each member of the family endures, but are not acknowledged. As a result, each person is left to cope in the best way that they can. There may be a subtle shift in the behavior of parents, whereby the offended parent may start to drop comments about the un-trustworthiness of the other parent. What enters the family heritage (some call this the “collective unconscious”) of emotions and beliefs can be fear and lack of trust in close relationships. These accumulated feelings and beliefs can be passed from generation to generation. The consensus belief can be “do not trust men/women because they will betray you”. Known, but never spoken about so they can be processed in a less toxic way.

Willow Creek Community Church-The Unspoken Known

In the last seven months, Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) has experienced a traumatic rupture in its’ family. Trauma occurs when something happens that greatly alters the predictable patterns of people’s need for trust and security. WCCC, for many, much like a family, was the cocoon into which members entered to feel fed, encouraged, safe, understood, and protected against the storms of life. The Unspoken Known was that here is a place that is led by this father-figure, Bill Hybels, who reassured everyone that they were loved and treasured by a heavenly Father who is quick to offer grace as the antidote for failure and sin.

It was so reassuring to trust that this father-like figure was up in front giving us an example of someone who walked and talked with God, and encouraged everyone to do the same. Attenders looked at the beauty and organization of the church and felt awed by its’ ability to reflect such a wonderful image of success. Everyone could trust WCCC and its’ leadership. Right? Attenders could trust the message of God’s grace and could rely on the leaders, because they were seeking to steer the church towards a faithful representation of God’s Kingdom. It was such a well-oiled machine, that attenders had to believe that whatever was behind all of this had to be good, moral, virtuous,and God-led.


Into this somewhat peaceful and comforting church family came the quaking of a foundational rupture. The quiet peace and sense of pride, that many felt by association with this organization, was suddenly fractured profoundly. At first, as in any shocking event, the implications could not be fully understood or embraced. The need to believe that it was not true was great. The desire to maintain the status quo, was powerful, causing even elders and leaders we trusted, to go into overdrive to deny its’ truth and devastation. Thus began a long, and arduous process, of slowly, with great resistance, peeling back the layers of deceit, and finally, grudgingly, acknowledging that this trusted father-figure had betrayed his church. He had done what no one wanted to acknowledge. He had betrayed women, violated their rights and respect, and took, selfishly, what was not his to take. The man who was so closely identified with everything that is WCCC had betrayed the sacred trust of the people.

Collateral Damage

The true collateral damage to WCCC is the faithful flock of parishioners. They responded to every challenge Bill gave to give, both financially and in terms of volunteer time. He painted such a compelling picture of what the church was supposed to look like. His charismatic enthusiasm swept parishioners along in this grand notion that the church was hope of the world. The man who had claimed the gift of leadership, had led them down a path of self-sacrifice, while he, in fact, was self indulgent. These people, initially, so wanted to believe that this all was not true, and that the false narrative floated by this man was correct. His self-protective story was that a cabal of women were out to get him, to ruin his reputation. We so want our heroes to stay true and virtuous.

The collateral damage in all of this are the thousands of people at WCCC who suddenly, like Jane Fonda, had to experience the loss of the one upon whom they placed their trust. And, as the inner core of WCCC was slowly revealed, many leaders under the spell of this narcissistic leader stayed loyal to their mentor. Many of the underling leaders in the church knew the aggressiveness of this man. They knew that he ruled by force, and lacked the core competency of every real Christian leader, humility and compassion. They knew that he was setting up repressive ways to sanitize the church, to make it look perfect, in the image that he sought to personally portray. This was another element of the unspoken known. They knew, but could not confront it in any meaningful way.

The Spoken Known

As the carnage of WCCC unfolds, it strikes me that the solution that is being offered is to work as quickly as possible to put a tourniquet on the bleeding. The problem is that the ones seeking to solve the problems have been bred in the solution-oriented values of their fallen leader.

It is so obvious that WCCC does not want to process this great cataclysmic trauma in an emotionally healthy way. They, in some way, are using the Henry Fonda approach. Talk as little as possible about the pain inflicted and move forward. This approach is what led Jane Fonda to a lifetime of eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. WCCC needs to process what has happened, not just in an informational or update oriented way. People need to sit and speak about what they know. Their trust is shattered. They have a right to question the decisions of leaders who are still at WCCC and were groomed by a man who has proved to be deceptive.

Every traumatic event in our culture is followed by generating counseling resources to process the emotional components of the experience. It is well known that when people cannot share the emotional aspects of a traumatic event they tend to develop unhealthy patterns of coping. When I did crisis intervention in New York City after the towers fell, the first responders who processed the extreme emotional pain of the event were the ones that got healthy. The ones that did not had high levels of destructive coping. If the secular culture understands the absolute importance of letting people process the emotions of a trauma, why does WCCC not set up resources for people to gather and process the pain of this experience?

Rather than letting this life changing trauma be acknowledged and spoken about collectively, the leaders that remain seem to be bent on only staying in the realm of information. Updates about who is doing what, who is choosing elders, who is doing the investigation. The real issues, which are going to create lasting consequences to the church, are being ignored. People are leaving because they do not feel heard, or conclude that the church is not interested in the pain that has been inflicted. The church is focusing on strategic interventions, but not the emotional healing that is necessary to a long term mending of broken souls.

Solution-oriented people look at emotions as impediments to progress. They do not want to wallow in the pain. But God does want us to sit in our pain. He does want us to fully embrace the level of hurt that occurs when people do not follow His ways. The leadership of WCCC needs to embrace the level of pain that exists, because pain teaches a profound lesson. Do not do what you have done in the past that creates the destructive level of this pain! God wants us to fully sit with the pain to get how serious it is when leaders act in ways that are inconsistent with His will. Check out the prophets of old who sat in sack cloth and ashes. Sitting too little in pain dulls the reality of how we created it in the first place, and how deeply important it is to learn the lessons that help to prevent it in the future.

If the institutional pain is not properly processed, by sitting with people who are encouraged to speak and share the impact that this trauma has had on their lives, both emotionally and spiritually, I fear that the patch sown on a leaky life raft will eventually be torn away. The truth is that the leader of WCCC, BH, had very poor emotional and social intelligence. That is why the leaders who were groomed by him, are not focusing on the emotional and spiritual carnage of this trauma. They, like him, are solution focused. They look out there and not in here. They look to strategy and not to processing. Damaged souls at WCCC must have a forum to process and heal. To speak what they know. To be given validity to the anger, hurt, sadness, distrust, fear, loss, and betrayal that they have experienced. It is interesting but I (and many others) as a systems oriented Christian psychologist who specializes in the emotional impact of trauma, have not been sought out or consulted. Our culture, which does not have a spiritual orientation, looks to people who deal with trauma to help people heal. WCCC, it seems, looks to strategic experts.

Everything that I am observing by current leaders is just a continuation of the “trust us” deceptive model of communication that has existed at WCCC for all of its existence. Do the present leaders really not understand the tendency to distrust leadership at WCCC? The relevant question is how, when these groomed leaders seek to create a new governance model, can anyone trust that they know what they are doing? They tend to go to experts and try to get the attenders to trust that just because they have engaged experts we should trust them. But how do we know that they have the competence to even select experts? Their lack of addressing The Unspoken Known elements of the emotional trauma that exists in the membership of the church speaks to a possible lack of expertise in truly solving the problems that this trauma has created.

Do the current WCCC leaders really grasp the problems of the church that has led to this current debacle? How do we know that they have gotten it, when they refuse to really sit with the people and process the level of pain that has been inflicted on so many?

Personally, I am not impressed with all the experts that are being called in to fix the church. It seems clear to me that the pain that exists has never been fully listened to and acknowledged. You cannot treat a disease that is not properly diagnosed. And the disease at WCCC is the un-dealt with emotional pain and trauma that exists as a result of the betrayal of trust by Bill Hybels. Only when the extent of the pain is explored can a diagnosis and solution be formulated in the context of truth. There has been scant talk about Bill’s behavior and its destructive impact on the church. Everyone knows it but no one wants to speak to its’ traumatic consequences. Placing a bandage over a festering, uncleaned sore will never allow healing.

WCCC leaders, do what is right! Acknowledge the level of unspoken pain and trauma that this has created. Make the Known Spoken! In failing to truly process the emotional impact of this crisis on the church, you are denying the fact that God has created us all with feelings that need to be acknowledged and affirmed. We need an emotionally healthy church. Leaders who do not understand the vital impact of feelings cannot lead the church to spiritual and emotional health. WCCC leaders, focus light on the secrets! Light heals and reveals. Let there be light! Sadly, if this is not done, the light of God’s blessing on WCCC may go out.

6 thoughts on “Elephant In The Room: Trauma At Willow Creek Community Church

  1. Jim when you talk about the pain of the people you don’t really mention the various levels of pain the different people have or are experiencing. The congregation is made up of new attenders, three week attenders, three month attenders and 30 year attenders. Some have really no pain over this as they are new to Willow and some have very deep pain because they have been there decades. I’m curious how you would specifically suggest the church leaders try to address the long continuum and varying degrees of emotional responses.

    1. I believe that people need a place to talk and process whatever unique pain they are experiencing at this point. This situation has created a wide variety of complex feelings and an emotionally healthy church would work on strategies to allow the pain to be processed no matter the level of attendance.

  2. I agree, wholeheartedly, with this post. I wish one of the “family meetings” could have been a town hall of sorts so that the congregation could have asked questions live and not through the filter of email. I wish that could have happened while Heather, Steve and the Elders were still there. If they had done that, maybe they wouldn’t have had to resign. This entire situation still lacks complete transparency. I realize that it’s very hard to root out a toxic culture especially when those steeped in it cannot see clearly and think they’re doing the right thing because that’s how they were trained. I believe the current acting pastors are doing the best they can under the circumstances.

  3. I wonder how Lynne Hyvbels is processing all of this, and pray she has people she can lean on.

    Is Bill undergoing any sort of restorative healing at all? Has he come to grips with all the pain he has caused?

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