98.6- Willow Creek Has A Fever

The title 98.6 refers to the temperature  which the human body seeks to maintain for optimal health. The complex physiological process that works to keep the temperature at this normative level is at work continuously, detecting changes and then making the adjustments necessary to keep the body regulated. The temperature of 98.6 can be viewed as the “set point” around which the body either works to increase or decrease its’ temperature to keep it at its’ optimal healthy state. Body temperature is a good example of what is called a “system”, which is an interconnected collection of elements that work in concert to maintain and sustain itself. The body seeks what is called a healthy “homeostasis” which is a stable steady state.


Examples of systems are evident from the macro level to the micro level in nature. The solar system is a collection of planets that revolve around the sun. The angle of the planets and the orbits are precisely set to maintain the intricate movement of all bodies together in a complex interaction between gravity and motion. One significant alteration of any of the planetary bodies would move the system from harmony to chaos. The same thing is true at the micro level of sub-atomic particles. They too reflect a harmonious interconnection that maintains a steady state of interaction.

It is evident at every level that to understand any one element in life, one must understand its’ dependency on the larger system. Systems nest inside one another so that systems themselves become part of a larger system of interconnected systems. An example of this is a thermostat. The human body as a temperature system is nested inside the larger system of earthly temperature. When a person is in a room with the temperature set at 72 degrees Fahrenheit, the thermostat is the set point for a system of regulating the increase or decrease of temperature by the heating and air conditioning system. If the furnace fails resulting in a drop in temperature, the body system seeks to compensate by raising the temperature, by such complex processes as shivering, etc. This is an example of how systems are interrelated  and nested inside of one another.

Set Point 

The notion of set point is critical to understanding systems. The set point is essentially the aspect of a system around which it organizes. The simplest understanding is that of the body temperature set point. We are created in such a way that our body temperature set point has been established to be at around 98.6. The body systems organize around maintaining this established temperature.

Another physical example of set point is that of body weight. We all create a set point of what our weight is going to be over time. The set point in this situation is not always the healthiest for us as individuals. I have established my set point at over 20 lbs higher than my optimal weight for my body type. As such, my body systems operate to keep me pretty close to that set point. When, on occasion, I have lost weight, over time, if I do not sustain the reduced weight, I systematically move back up to the set point that I have established. This is an example of how a set point can be created that is not healthy, but the body tends to sustain it as the weight that I have maintained over time. Set points can be changed, such as in weight, but they have to be maintained for a long enough period of time that the body adjusts its systematic regulation to sustain this new set point. Unhealthy set points tend to have a powerful impact on systems, so that even with short term change, they tend to pull the system back to established set points.

Relational Systems

It appears, in looking at the universe, God has created all of life around a complex process of the systemic organization of individual elements around more sustaining interrelationships. From ecology to physics to biology, systems sustain and maintain the order we see in the universe. Without systemic regulation, the universe would dissolve into chaos. God so designed life that systemic organization is the inevitable way around which life moves away from chaos and towards regulation. The heavens declare the glory of God, so that as we look at the complex organization of the individual to the larger system, we get a glimpse into the very character of God. He is both One and a Trinity.

Relational systems are the complex interaction of individuals nested in a larger social network. Family systems are essentially the way that individual family members organize their relationship to one another. In dysfunctional family systems, the family organizes itself around a complex set of relations that sustain the unhealthiness of the family and the individual members.

An alcoholic family system organizes around the alcoholic family member. If, for instance, a father is the alcoholic, the family member must adapt to sustain the unhealthy behaviors of this individual. Families establish set points, much like the example of body temperature. The set point of the alcoholic family system revolves around the notion of protecting the family members from the abusive behavior of the symptomatic member. These families might describe their set point notions as “we have to avoid stirring up dad and having him throw an explosive angry outburst”. Simpler said, this family has to avoid conflict at all costs and placate the “monster” in the family. If one member of the family breaks the rules and challenges the alcoholic, the rest of the family organizes to force the system back to the “steady state” of peace and calm. They can do this by getting angry at the challenging family member. Whatever restores the family to its’ set point is what is values. If one member of the family develops symptoms as a result of the unhealthiness of this family, the family will scapegoat that member and make them what is in family systems counseling  called the “identified patient”.

The family is so unconsciously committed to sustaining the system as it is that they cannot see the essential unhealthiness of the larger relational system. The set point is the basic state that the family must maintain- avoidance of the anger of the alcoholic. The set point creates a set of values that the family absorbs and implements. These values are things such as “do not feel, do not talk about what you are experiencing, do not challenge the elephant in the room, do not have your own needs or feelings, do not trust, stay on guard at all times, etc.” These values then are sustained by behaviors that come to bear on the system to keep it in its’ steady state set point. These behaviors are things like punishing anyone who challenges  or comments on what is going on in the family. The family operates in harmony,  keeping the system organized around whatever  set point values and behaviors have been created.

The Church As A System

As I have witnessed and written about what has happened at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) I must confess that I feel somewhat weary and burned out. This flows from how powerful and resistant to change systems can become. WCCC is simply a much larger and complex interconnected system. Analyzed based on systems concepts, the set point of the church reflected its’ architect, Bill Hybels. That set point clearly was the emphasis on creating a church that looked good on the outside with multiple ministries that reflected its’ focus on numbers as a metric of success. The values that flow from this set point concept are those of notions such as “guest experience must be excellent, we must be as good as the world to impress non-church-ed people, focus on building numbers and serving opportunities that help large numbers of people, do not pay too much attention to the distressed individuals because this takes up too much resource time, programs must be flawless and entertaining, maintain control over any potential defects being exposed, only people that are 100 percent behind maintaining our set point values are a “good fit” at WCCC, etc.”  The set point of WCCC and Disneyworld are very similar.

The set point and values connected to it are supported and protected by a set of behaviors. These include ” trust us, do not talk about the elephant in the room, do not challenge the architect of this spiritually unhealthy set point, do not challenge any of the values of this system, get rid of any who are not on board with this unhealthy set point, make decisions by only those who have bought into the unhealthy set point values, do not share any information that might expose failure of sustaining the set point values, put pressure on people to use the metric of success that this unhealthy set point mentality drives, punish any and all who seek to move the needle from the set point established in this unhealthy system, employ only those who buy into the set point values, do not let the larger uncontrollable elements of the system have much say in the values and behaviors of the church, etc.”.

Fever In WCCC

This well oiled system, which created a great deal of external success, has a fever. A fever, such as when the body goes from 98.6 to 102, is a traumatic intrusion into the body system. The immune system is activated to bring to bear all of the complex protective functions that combat and seek to restore  the body to its healthy set point.

What if the set point is not healthy? Using the example of weight, my set point is established at a weight that is not optimal for my health. But systems seek to maintain and sustain the set point values that have been created over a long period of time. When I lose weight, my body wants to get me back to the “normal” if unhealthy set point that I have established.

This is an example of what has happened at WCCC. The crisis of exposure of the leader and architect of WCCC as having sinned in a dramatic way has sent the well oiled elements of the church’s system into chaotic disarray. Systems hate chaos and will always seek to restore order based on the set point that was established. This is a concern that I have as I look at WCCC. The people who were so immersed in the set point values in the first place, are trying to reformulate the church and move it out of chaos. But, from my perspective, they are doing it in a way consistent with the original set point values and behaviors. There is still massive deception and failure to keep people informed about the decisions that are being made. They are still operating essentially with the mentality of “trust us”.

Clue phone to leadership! You were part of the system, you absorbed the values and behaviors that sustained the system as it was. You are so immersed in its ethos that you cannot differentiate from its methods and values. Without a systemic evaluation, which it does not appear anyone currently assessing WCCC has the capability of doing, you are very likely to reformulate the church based on the core set point values. That is what leadership knows and the staff has followed. The experts that they are bringing in do not appear to be doing any systematic system evaluation.

WCCC has a fever and it appears they are trying to deal with it by a return to an unhealthy set point. As I have written elsewhere, healthy system change occurs when people are able to heal from the trauma of how the system has been shifted. There is no systematic willingness to bring the elephant in the room to full exposure so that people can process and heal from such a traumatic disruption in trust. The WCCC approach, consistent without fundamental challenging of the core set point of the church, will be to flee the chaos in a way that goes back to the essential elements of the original unhealthy system components.

Kingdoms Of This World

WCCC is not Disneyworld and as such should not have its set point and values built around that secular view of excellence. The set point of the church should be a healthy church culture, modeled after Christ, and reflecting the core values of Christ. Systems can be in conflict. The communist system is in conflict with a capitalistic system. The church should be in conflict with the systems or kingdoms of this world. Its’ set point must be clearly that of the values of Christ’s Kingdom. Only when WCCC set point is changed and properly aligned with the set point of Christ will it move towards health.

One thought on “98.6- Willow Creek Has A Fever

  1. Sadly, I agree. After more than half my life spent at WCCC, I am beginning to lose hope. The amount of time allotted for the approximate date of the outside investigation, with silence in between about what or how they are doing feels like more of the same.
    Steve Carter has a heart that beats in such a different, transparent, vulnerable direction than Willow, I think he faced pushback every day of his tenure there. I had more hope of the entire culture of Willow changing if Steve was given the Senior Pastor role, with accountability,even now, than I do with what feels like steady bleeding without a doctor in the house. I, myself, have come up against the will of senior leadership several times over the last 10 in particular, where evidence was shredded or I was demonized and punished. I refused to be pushed out. I spoke privately with the elders and am still giving Willow more rope. I will leave of my own accord if necessary, but my story would become public if I ever had to face what I’ve already endured, and was pushed again.

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