Willow Creek Community Church: A Cautionary Tale (Section 2)

DNA As A Metaphor for Personality Development 

Since I am more familiar with WCCC and its leader Bill Hybels, I will focus on it versus Harvest. As I mentioned, doing a deep dive into the spiritual DNA of James Macdonald would reveal similar dynamics. Think of personality elements as similar to DNA when it comes to the construction of the church. Much like a physical organism unfolds faithfully around the biochemical code of DNA, so organizations who have a leader with flawed personality DNA will unfold the church around the vision and values of that person.  

It is clear to most of those who served close with Bill Hybels (BH), that he was a man driven by a need for perfection, both for himself, and for those around him. This drive enabled him to appear extremely disciplined and productive. Being a leader put him in a position to drive WCCC to unfold its’ structure and governance around the vision and values of his flawed spiritual DNA. The DNA imprint that BH would inflict on WCCC  was formed early in his life. From glimpses into his childhood from individuals that were close to him, and what he has revealed,  BH had a stern and demanding father who was bigger than life to him and set up almost impossible expectations for Bill to attain. Those early influences began to form his values and his ideas about what his success should look like. One element that is crucial to a narcissistic development was that of his father giving him challenges that were difficult, and yet he generally succeeded in completing them. This resulted in two significant lessons. First it resulted in him then being risk oriented, and second he developed a strong sense of self-confidence and a belief that he could do new and different things. He transferred this to WCCC, as the organization in which his flawed spiritual DNA would unfold.   

Creating a physical body in the image of one’s DNA generally unfolds faithfully, short of environmental influences, consistent with the blueprint structure coded in the genetics. Creating an organization, such as a church, from the flawed spiritual DNA of a broken man, is a little trickier. Some leaders who drove the development of their churches around their own flawed DNA have been confronted and either changed or left leadership. So how did BH manage to get a complex organization like WCCC to so faithfully follow his clearly narcissistically formulated image of the church? Why, at multiple intervals over the course of a 40 some year history, did not other leaders in positions of influence over the church not call him out on values and behavior that so clearly deviated from what the church would look like if Christ was the DNA/Cornerstone of the church?  

Power, Charisma, and Force of Personality 

Narcissistic people appear on the surface to be extremely self-assured. They deeply believe in their own superior ideas and visions, and they drive them forward with high intensity. People around the Narcissistically Driven Leader (NDL), shrink back from these kinds of leaders because they often do not have the same level of self-confidence as the NDL. They easily draw the conclusion that their ideas or judgements about things are not as valid, so that they slowly, but surely, give ground to the charisma of the seemingly self-assured leader. They give ground and the NDL takes ground. The people who support the NDL get smaller while the NDL gets bigger.  

The only people that survive around the NDL, are those who compliment his narcissism by supporting his vision, values, and the behaviors used to sustain them. NDLs cull the ranks of anyone in their organization that represent a threat to their absolute need for power and control.

Since the NDL gets bigger and bigger, and begins to take on an aura of celebrity, people that serve around them bask in the glory of this leader’s “importance”. Those people supporting the NDL must either subjugate their values and ideas to the leader’s, or leave. These supportive people have their own “buy in” if they stay. They are part of the inner circle of the NDL. They have a sense of “specialness by proxy” and do not want to jeopardize this privileged, inside status. Nathans, who might point out the sinfulness of the NDL, do not survive.  

NDL leaders in the development of a church, insidiously form the kind of support process that allows them to unfold the unhealthiness of their flawed spiritual DNA. They cannot do this by themselves. They collect and retain people who are loyal to their vision. Because they often drive organizations forward intensely, people who support them either get on the train or get out. Speed of the leader, speed of the team. NDLs criticize, intimidate, cajole, power up on, and generally bully anyone who represents a threat to their pathological vision of the church. Their seemingly impressive “successes” further solidifies their power, and so allows them to continue abusive policies to control outcomes favorable to their vision.  

Culpability Of Those Who Enabled BH 

Matthew 7:17- .Even so every good tree bringeth forth good. But a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit,… 

Consistent with the idea of flawed spiritual DNA, this verse clearly shows that if the foundation of something is wrong, it will produce bad outcomes. Here is a list (not exhaustive) of the bad fruit that was evident in the management of WCCC. If we need a counterbalancing list of good fruit, we can use the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The sources of this information are many current and former staff at WCCC as well as multiple people that have come to my office after years of abuse in the Willow environment.

-BH would bully people who opposed him. 

BH would belittle people who had differing ideas than he did. 

BH would, through the use of the Human Resource department of WCCC, get rid of employees that he felt did not support his vision or values.  

BH manipulated the elders and executive leadership team to get his way. He would use such tactics as saying that if there was a disagreement, he would threaten to leave if they did not go with his ideas. 

-If BH was confronted about his behavior, he would rage and demand to know who would say such negative things.

-BH consolidated his power by appealing to his influence, saying things like WCCC would not survive without him. This is clear evidence of self importance and the fact that he had built WCCC on the foundation of his own broken spiritual DNA. 

-When those who were supposed to oversee him confronted him, he would disagree with them and say “If I brought this to the congregation, who do you think they would believe?” 

-BH used his force of personality to get his way and deceived the elders and leadership. I have confirmed one incidence of this is (via a former elder). When he invited Bill Clinton to speak at the leadership summit, per their request, he promised the reluctant elders that he would have Clinton admit to having an affair with Monica Lewinsky and apologize. He also  agreed he would not let Clinton talk about anything political. Clinton did the opposite of what BH had promised to the elders at the time. The Clinton situation was a clear reflection of BH’s narcissism, showing that he had the clout and influence to pull in a president of the US. Although he knew there was deep opposition to having Clinton come to the church, given his involvement in the sexual abuse of an intern, BH pressured to get him to the leadership summit. In light of BH’s sexual abuse of women, it is now not surprising that he would allow a sexual predator to come teach on leadership.

-BH claimed to believe in the equality of women in the church, but when strong women confronted him, he powered up and demonstrated that he really thought he was superior to them. He objectified women by approaching them for his own sexual gratification, revealing the ugly core of entitlement that NDLs often reveal.  

-BH culled the ranks of experienced employees, keeping a cadre of young, impressionable, and adulating staff that guaranteed that he would not be challenged.  

-BH allowed the formulation of the Elder Response Team, who, although possibly doing some good, were primarily used to eliminate any person who was a threat to the image of the church. They used unbiblical means of intimidating and often traumatizing people who, when they were kicked out of the church, were never followed up on to minister to their pain. He placed a person who had little pastoral experience as the head of the Pastoral Team. This, by the way, is further evidence of what a NDL leader tends to do. This man was a Medical Doctor by profession, not experienced in pastoral care of a congregation. BH favored recruiting people that had success in the marketplace or professional positions, because this enhanced the appearance of the staff who were high profile recruits. The narcissistic elements of this are essentially the ability to say “see, people who are highly successful in other areas of life are willing to sacrifice that and work for me”. 

-BH used lawyers to scare and intimidate people. Here is further evidence of BH’s deep hypocrisy- During one of the family meetings when he was defending himself against all the “bold faced lies” of the women who had come forward to expose his sexual sinfulness, BH was asked, “why don’t you call them and talk about things with them to seek to reconcile”. His response was, ”There are lawyers in the way of me doing that. You know how lawyers are. I wish that we did not have to deal with lawyers”. But there is evidence that he would have highly threatening letters sent from lawyers telling people they could get arrested if they set foot on WCCC property. The attorney that signed the letters rubber stamped them, not doing the due diligence to verify what the person was accused of doing.

-BH caused extreme anxiety in the lives of those who produced the services at WCCC. Many can relate that they developed physical, stress related problems, due to the fact that BH would scold or criticize them if some aspect of the service went wrong (microphones were off when they should have been on). 

I can go on about the bad practices that were essentially ways that BH managed the church in deceptive and manipulative ways. Why did so many shrink in deference to him? If Christ was the foundational DNA of WCCC, would any of the above behaviors have been tolerated? The truth is that BH had a powerful, mesmerizing influence over the church. When discussing WCCC one did not think of a church that Christ has built, but instead thought of BH. One could not separate WCCC from BH. Wrong rock.

I have not heard many  leaders at WCCC publicly acknowledge that they participated in maintaining BH’s ability to rule the way that he did. If they cannot acknowledge this how can we trust that they have the current wisdom to know what Biblical leadership is all about?


2 thoughts on “Willow Creek Community Church: A Cautionary Tale (Section 2)

  1. Yes! The best column yet! Yes to all that! Even as a lay leader, I knew BH was trying to get to rid of me using multiple people and tactics and it wreaked havoc on my health and my reputation. But, I still stand.

  2. With regards to Clinton speaking at Willow, the Elder left out part he/she probably didn’t remember: the congregation booed when we heard he would be speaking. Bill gave the congregation a very stern talking to about Clinton being our God-ordained President and that we were to treat him with respect, and that Bill had made a commitment to be Clinton’s spiritual advisor the whole time he was in office, regardless of what he might do, and finally that (said in a way to get a laugh) obviously Clinton hadn’t told Bill all his secrets or something to that effect. So, we were cowed into silence.
    Bill used Clinton as a reference in a sermon once, too. He said that if Clinton was going by in a parade and stopped and singled us out, it would be a little like the way God singled us out and loves us. Except, in the long run, I don’t think the people Clinton singled out felt very special or protected or treasured at all!

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