Willow Creek Community Church. Decide- Damage Control Or Damage Repair?

For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. Luke 8:17

What Is A Brand?

When a corporation has a product that needs a recall, its marketing department goes into mega spin control. In essence, the strategy is based on deciding what the minimum amount of disclosure has to be regarding the flaws of the product, in order to attempt to reduce the amount of loss of sales and income. The brand of the company is under attack, and the negative impact of a disclosure of product failure must be minimized at all cost.

A brand is the collection of beliefs that the public has about the company and its products. It usually is connected to a mission statement and some advertising jingle that seeks to encapsulate the essence of the product. For example “Things go better with Coke”, seeks to attach the notion that drinking Coke has an emotional hook for people, and will result in their lives somehow being more satisfying. If a recall of Coke products occured, due to a health threatening ingredient being accidentally introduced to a Coke drink, this would massively create a problem for the Coke brand. The full force of the company’s spin control experts would be brought to bear on this threat to the brand. The goal is damage control. The goal is to admit the least to lose the least. That is the bottom line. The trust that a brand seeks to develop has to be restored.

Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) has collected over time a brand that is currently under siege. The brand of WCCC encapsulates the things that the church represents. For instance, the church has disseminated over time, the idea that they are seeker-sensitive, putting forth a program that is just enough spiritual to kind of look like a church, but not so religious in nature as to alienate non-believers. The motto of the church is to convert irreligious people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus. To produce this product, the church has committed to an image that is attractional to those outside of Christ. Deep in the brand assumptions of the church is that WCCC must look excellent, have an image that is just short of the environment of Disney World. The deep underbelly of WCCC has been managed by doing whatever is needed to eliminate anything that might rupture this public image. Messy staff issues were handled in secret, sending people away with the public lie that staff had been led by God away from ministry at WCCC. Lies and deceit were part of the modus operandi that allowed the external brand image to be maintained as excellent and awe inspiring. The congregation was not privy to the ugliness. Thus they were mesmerized by the brand, and felt a sense of pride in their association to such an excellent organization. Brands are, in effect, like the identity of an individual. They represent the values, mission, vision, and operating principles of the entity. The product is what is consumed.

Damage Control

WCCC’s brand is under attack. It’s world wide reputation, which if we as attenders were honest, made us feel pride by our association with such a “wonderful” church. We like the brand and the attention that it has gathered in the church world. Watching such an excellent spectacle on stage was hypnotising, and left us with such a good vibe about how the church could be just as excellent and entertaining as the secular world.

Then came March of 2018. Articles came out about the sexual misconduct of our wizard-like senior pastor. It could not be true! We were under attack. Our identity as Willow Creekers was under attack! And then we watched as the spin-control started. A bogus investigation was revealed that had cleared our vaunted leader of all wrong. He was simply under attack by a cabal of histrionic women who had projected their adolescent infatuation onto this innocent senior pastor. They simply turned their feelings of rejection into attacking him, seeking to destroy him out of their own misplaced desire for him. This is called “plausible deniability”, used by celebrities to deny any responsibility that they have. Of course we can easily see that this senior pastor, Bill Hybels, a good-looking, always tan, seemingly self-confident leader, would be the object of the longings of women that would swoon at his presence. And that is why we can spin and rationalize away the culpability of someone we so do not want to believe is capable of such harm.

So the elders went into spin-control mode. In coalition with this senior pastor, who they could not control, they comforted the congregation that this was all lies, colluding, and an attack on an innocent man. All the while they knew that this man had manipulated them for years. They agreed that the women were lying. Damage control. Our brand is under attack and our brand maintenance involves hiding any flaws. Why? Because the bottom line is under fire. The church could lose people, and as a result, revenue. The spin doctors, probably a combination of marketing experts and lawyers, pushed leadership to minimize the damage. They must have felt momentary victory when the people at the family meeting stood and applauded this poor victim pastor.

Due to the fact that more damning information came out in August, 2018, the collusion and lies strategy could not work. Steve Carter, the face of the church at this point, had had enough and bravely left. Now the breach to the brand was becoming serious. They were leaking water fast and furiously. So, strategy number 2 started to evolve. They would have the elders all resign. Heather Larson would leave. Then, they would start a search for new elders. The strategy, to control the damage, emerged from the same culture that developed the problems in the first place.

The problem with this strategy was that it turns out that it was simply a continuation of maintaining the brand as it existed. The people who were responsible for selecting the elders were either former elders, leaders in the church, or congregants. These people had all been immersed in the culture and brand of WCCC themselves for years, and likely had a subjective bias towards continuing things as they were. So this search committee, not fully understanding the damage inherent in the behavior of the senior pastor, selected the current elders. They got elders in place, who on the surface, looked like they were doing a good job of taking the problems seriously. They listened to the stories of the women who had been abused and, according to some of the women who shared their experience, seemed to be genuinely compassionate and sorry for the pain the women had endured.

Then came the “final” meeting on Tuesday July 23, 2019. It was brand-protecting, in that the elders gave a tepid rendition of the pain that had been inflicted on the women who were sexually violated. The elders, in effect, said we have done what was needed, done the minimal due diligence, and now, on to the future. The brand took a hit, we have lost some people, our revenue is down, but we have weathered the storm. Full speed ahead!

Damage Repair

Damage control is different than damage repair. An analogy might help. If you have a shiny Mercedes Benz that you notice has some rust showing through, you could do one of two things. You could get a can of paint that is the same as the car color and spray it over the rust. The rust is now covered over. It might look a little bumpy, but it is gone, and the essential flaw-free image of the car is returned. That would be damage control. It is a short-term solution, because the underlying corrosion will return soon and the rust will re-emerge.

Taking the car to an auto body specialist and having them cut out the area of the car that is rusting is damage repair. It takes longer, and is more expensive, but is also more permanent.

The only conclusion that one can reasonably make from observing the strategy of the elders’ “final” meeting on the Hybels situation is that they are trying to paint over the rusted image of the church. The problem is that they have not fully investigated and revealed to the congregation the true assessment of the damage. Since the ugliness of the damage is trying to be concealed, the church does not know how desperately rusty the underbelly of the infrastructure of the church has been, and how far the brand of WCCC differs from the brand being based on the person and character of Jesus Christ. WCCC does not need brand control, they need to re-brand. They need to repair the damage.

The new brand must be based on an honest and transparent reflection of a people who take sin seriously, and are willing to courageously expose brokenness publically. Then people will understand that a truly Jesus-based brand will be vigilant about sin in its midst and will have elders and leaders who can detect it and deal with it openly. The congregants of WCCC are not children who cannot handle the reality of real sin and problems in the church. As I have said in the past, this reflects a paternalistic approach that leaves leaders as elitist controllers of the truth. Elders need to be accountable to the people in an honest and transparent way. No more decision-making that leaves the congregants puzzled and frustrated. No more senior pastors who are celebrities who believe in their own invincibility, and control elders who should have the spiritual guts to confront all forms of ego-driven entitlement.

Expose The Damage

WCCC has revealed that it is interested only in damage control. If it was concerned about true repair, it would openly and publicly give a list of the damages that have been inflicted on the church by the entitlement of Bill Hybels and the way that his power and control oriented methods of management have wounded so many. We need to appeal to the elders to pursue repair and rebranding. Here, as best I understand it, is the list of grievous damages that the have been revealed in the last 18 months:

  1. Damage to the Reputation of Christ. Since the church is the physical representation of those who identify with the life of Christ, WCCC’s scandal and the revelation of allowing a man to design a church that in so many ways does not reflect the character and values of Jesus must be acknowledged, lamented, and changed.
  2. Damage to the Lives of Precious Daughters of the Father. As a Christian psychologist, I have witnessed the devastating impact of all levels of sexual abuse on the lives of women. Although each woman that was sexually violated by BH has their own experience of the symptoms that get created by an abuser, I can list a short number of common results of abuse. Trust issues are at the top. At any level, if a previously trusted individual violates the boundaries of a woman’s right to feel safe physically, there is a dramatic shift in trust. Now, men may be seen as potentially non-trustworthy, which produces a hypervigilance in the presence of males. This low grade anxiety is a damage to the psychological equilibrium that a woman might feel pre-abuse. Depression and anxiety often increases as a result of abuse. Awkwardness and fear in having to work in the presence of an abuser undermines a woman’s ability to function professionally. Anger at the abuser who has more power than the woman is a chronic result of abuse by a senior member of the work environment. This can cost the woman the ability to focus and stay engaged. At worst, some women develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as they must deal with the trauma of having to adapt to an intrusive violation of their body, mind, and spirit. The cost of moving from a care-free, to a vigilant, anxiety-based life, is the real damage that many women report. So, do the elders at WCCC want to minimize the public report of damage done to the women that came forward? It appears so.
  3. Damage To Women Who Attended The Church Who Had Histories of Sexual Abuse. A huge cost to women who attended WCCC, but were not directly abused by BH, is the activation of fear and further distrust that gets created from learning that another man, this time one who posed as so self-disciplined and trustworthy, had in fact violated women in the church. This is real damage. Many of these women have their trauma reactivated by awareness of the abuse of other women. I am afraid many of these women had no place to go to process their possible pain. The church offered no awareness or resources to multiple women who may have been affected. Many of these women may have simply left the church, branding (bad brand) it as just another hypocritical place where men can abuse women with no real consequences.
  4. Damage To Multiple Staff Who Were Treated Abusively. As a person who has counseled multiple ex-staff at WCCC for almost thirty years, I can account for the damage done to so many. The bully tactics of BH was evident to many people, but he was enabled by a weak leadership who could not contain his ego-driven need to push forward his agenda. He got rid of staff that he did not like or who he felt threatened by, and did it in ways that left them feeling shame and rejection. I remember one staff member who came to me after Bill had gone by her desk and reprimanded her for it not being up to his standards of organization. He asked her “would God be happy with your disorganization? “BH set up an Elder Response Team and Human Resources Team that is responsible for multiple staff being treated in un-Christlike ways. The emotional cost of these sinful ways of handling people are great and should be made public so the true damage to staff can be comprehended by the larger WCCC family.
  5. Damage To Many People Who Were Effectively Ex-communicated By WCCC. WCCC used tactics that were an extension of their image-obsession in dealing with “problem” people. People who had done something that in the estimation of WCCC leadership created a problem to the image of the church were forced to meet with the Elder Response Team. The people that comprised this team showed very little Christ-like compassion and generated, as I have blogged before, a trauma generating environment that left people anxious and angry. They would use an unbiblical strong arm tactic by having the church’s lawyers send scary letters implying that they could be prosecuted if they did not comply with the church’s demands. Often people who were long term attenders at WCCC were told that they would be prosecuted for trespassing on any WCCC property were they to attend a service. The church had security members with pictures of these “criminals” and would intercept them and escort them off campus. The senior member of the ERT was a man who was a former emergency room physician. He had absolute power, under the permission of BH, to make heartless decisions. He literally treated people like they were in his spiritual emergency room. He would often kick them out of the church with absolutely no regard for the after-care of their souls. Unlike Jesus, who would go after the one and leave the 99, he discarded them like infected tissue. The damage to the spiritual lives of so many people are the unreported cost of a system of control and management that wounded so many of God’s children.
  6. Damage To The Idea Of Leadership. One of the most unacknowledged costs of the behavior of BH is the hypocrisy of his authoring and stewarding the idea of Christian leadership. Leadership was his passion, I believe, because it fit his narcissistic need to be special and have a platform for his entitled agenda. He created the Global Leadership Summit as a showcase for his notion of the importance of teaching leadership. Although he had multiple experts in the world of leadership who taught real authentic things, like being a humble leader who is transparent, he,in fact, violated many of the principles of leadership that he championed from the pulpit. Subjects like emotional and social intelligence were taught as essential to leadership, all the while that BH was leading out of a cold indifference to the consequences of his bully-like management style. How can a person so compartmentalize their life that the truth does not penetrate the practice of Christianity? So, the damage to many who are disillusioned by the hypocrisy of a leader who promoted healthy leadership while exercising damaging practices himself, is great. Can we so quickly roll over and move beyond acknowledgement of the deep damage of these practices? It appears, from the elders’ behavior, as well as the leadership of the Global Leadership Summit, they can.
  7. Damage To Trust In Leadership At WCCC. The fact that we were lied to by our leaders created a serious breach in trust. Trust is the currency of leadership, and when it is compromised, how can we be confident in the direction leaders want to take us? The victimized women were portrayed as liars and colluders, Bill was protected, and we were treated like dumb sheep. How do we repair the damage to trust in leadership?
  8. Damage To The Body Of Christ. It is undeniable that the last eighteen months have resulted in hidden costs to the people who have gone through the turmoil that this has brought into their lives. Focusing on the pain has often interrupted the ability to continue to grow in Christ. The questions that have shaken the faith of many is a huge cost and part of the damage that needs to be publicly acknowledged.
  9. Damage That May Only Be Recognized In The Future. Much of the damage may be hidden only to be revealed later. There may be untold damage to those who left the church disillusioned by the tragedy. There may be those who were on the verge of moving towards a life of surrender to Jesus who, due to the hypocrisy, moved on.

Damage Cost

The cost may be so much higher than I can even articulate. If the damage is kept hidden in the interest of damage control, it, like the rust on the car, will re-emerge. The hidden things will be revealed. Why? Because they are like cancer to the life of the true church of Jesus. WCCC needs to rebrand and the brand must closely reflect the values and actions of a church that is following hard after the blueprint that Scripture has revealed as necessary in the life of the body of Christ. WCCC is doing damage control, not damage repair. And that is because they are minimizing the cost of the damage that has been inflicted. They are painting over rust.

If the current leadership of WCCC does not acknowledge publicly the true cost of the damage that the church has sustained, how can we be reassured that they are implementing the kinds of change that will prevent this kind of damage in the future? It may take, like the French Revolution, a demand for change by the proletariat.

3 thoughts on “Willow Creek Community Church. Decide- Damage Control Or Damage Repair?

  1. Amen! I, for one, want the whole truth! I want the victims given the chance to say whatever they need on stage or unedited video or whatever medium THEY need. I believe the congregation is in large part, NOT like children who need to be spoon-fed only watered down versions of whatever is the truth, and I find it insulting to have been treated otherwise. Keep preaching!

  2. Excellent, as always. Thank you for laying it out so clearly.

    Between what’s happening in the wider church and in my local church and family, I just keep thinking, ‘it shouldn’t be so hard.’

Leave a Reply