Willow-Gate: The Cover-Up

Willow-Gate: The Cover Up
“And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19

Everywhere in scripture the idea of darkness suppressing the truth is evident. Light is clearly identified as exposing truth. Those who have an interest in squelching the truth are motivated by human, not Godly, desires. Those who do not want the truth known work diligently to hide, minimize, and attack those who would seek to reveal the truth that can allow healing.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. James 5:16
Sin represents all human efforts to meet our needs in our way, with disregard for the will of God. It therefore represents a rebellion towards God and the path for which we are called. Sin generates shame for people with a conscience. And shame calls for some type of cover. In fact a root meaning of the word shame is “to cover”. Covering is the way that we hide or suppress the truth about our sin, for fear of further shame, or, because we all follow the path articulated in scripture which states:
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. Proverbs 16:25
So we all have a tendency to cover up and follow our own path.

Institutional Cover Up

“He who covers his transgressions shall not prosper…” (Prov. 28:13)
The most memorable concept of a cover up at an institutional level is Watergate. A crime occurred and a deliberate strategy was implemented to cover up what had been done. No one in the inner core of the White House would speak truth about what had happened. Only a persistent deep mole, “Deepthroat”, and a couple of tenacious reporters pushed for disclosure.
This is what is happening at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC). I would name the current situation Willow-Gate. If it were not for a number of individuals who courageously and with perseverance are pushing for full disclosure, the cover up would succeed. There is a cost to seeking and speaking truth. Institutions hate whistleblowers, and will often seek to discredit them, ignore them, or intimidate them. They hope they will die by attrition. Clearly, WCCC does not want the truth to be known, and that cannot be for Biblical reasons. If the leadership stood before God to account for their current strategy, they would be hard pressed to compile a rationalization that would satisfy a righteous God.
God would not endorse the strategy of protecting an image or a brand. In the world of counseling, we often identify what are called defense mechanisms. Denial, suppression, and minimization are powerful ways that people avoid and cover up the truth about themselves. They are primitive (child-like) because they force one to ignore what may be obvious to others. Willow is using these institutional defense mechanisms. Here is the absolute worst. Pretend that if they strip the church of all of Bill Hybels books, sermons, pictures, or references, maybe people will somehow disassociate Willow Creek from Bill Hybels. This is like a young child who believes that if he closes his eyes and cannot see someone they will disappear. So if we never mention the name Bill Hybels in a service, maybe people, at best, will forget that he was here. Maybe he will be scrubbed from peoples memory and we can pretend nothing happened and simply follow his game plan for the church without connecting his name.
But, we have to understand sin as both an individual problem and an institutional one. It is another primitive defensive move to believe that Bill Hybels sinned, he is gone, so the sin in the church is gone with his departure. His vision, values, and methods permeated and still are operative in the culture of WCCC. Everyone who allowed the idolatrous image of the perfect church is a participant in the sin. The church needs to confess not only Bill’s sin but the multiple ways that we followed after an unbiblical view of the church. We cannot just scapegoat Bill Hybels. After all, nobody put a gun to our head and said we had to follow his flawed vision. So the uncovering of sin must be both individual and corporate.
People in the Old Testament produced graven images that were false and idolatrous symbols of what they wanted God to look like. A church that creates a graven image that is a false representation of God is practicing idolatry. WCCC, by never mentioning the name of the idol, is not taking seriously the reality that the face of the image of Willow reflects the quality and character of Bill Hybels. Maybe everyone will not notice that we are continuing the core culture of WCCC if its founder and architect is never mentioned by name again.

Confession Heals
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. James 5:16
Confession is the reversal of cover up. Instead of suppressing the truth, a confessor reveals the truth. It brings out what is hidden into the bright light of truth. All manner of sicknesses, psychological as well as physical, are the result of a persistent effort to hide the truth about ones sin.

When I kept silent,my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin. Psalm 32:3-5
It is only a believer, who trusts the grace of God, that risks full disclosure. Christians who desire health, know that it takes more effort to suppress the truth than to contain it in the fig leaves of denial. Fear is the enemy of transparency. These include the fear of the judgement of others, and fear of having to make amends and reparations.

Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. Psalm 51:6
Hiding truth will always lead to destructive outcomes. Hiding is a short term strategy to prevent some kind of loss that we do not want to experience. But listen, GOD desires truth in the innermost parts of us and of our church! There is no rationalization that supports the hiding of truth from a Biblical perspective. Many of us who are calling for this feel like the prophets who basically felt like they were crying in the wilderness. The cry in its most basic form is that of “return to God, turn from false idols, and let the Truth of God reign”. God designed us, created us, calls us to Himself, and knows what brings healing, so why are we not following His admonition to reveal the truth in the innermost parts of WCCC? According to scripture, if WCCC persists in lies, denials, suppression of the truth, and pushing for a way that seems right to them, they are not going to move from a sick culture to one of spiritual and emotional health. There is no Biblical basis for a cover up.

Cover Of Grace vs. Cover-Up
Here is the deepest level of hypocrisy at WCCC. They preached grace. Bill Hybels consistently uttered the challenge to those who felt that they were beyond the reach of God’s love, to trust grace. But did he really believe in grace, and does the church now trust grace? It is an indicator of how much one trusts God’s grace as to whether they boldly bring their sin to the balm of His grace. People who do not share very transparently likely do not trust grace.

A very real question can be asked, based on the lack of transparent willingness to reveal the sin and brokenness in WCCC. Does Bill, and the leadership of WCCC, trust grace? I would say no. Instead of being honest, because they know that God’s grace is sufficient to heal the sin of the church, they are hiding in the cover of darkness. In effect they are saying we will control the narrative, we will cover up what needs to be revealed, because we do not believe that the church can be forgiven or will survive if it is honest about the amount of sin that has been committed.
It is important to say that the current elders at WCCC appear to be Godly people who have worked tirelessly and have shown a measure of compassion towards the victims. But the current strategy of institutional cover-up that is being followed came from somewhere, and is not Biblical. Is it, in fact, lawyers who are guiding the suppression of truth? Is it the deep enmeshment of the Willow culture that simply is continuing the cover up strategy that they have used to try to keep the public image of the church scrubbed from flaws? Is it a lack of wisdom by the elders and leadership? Who knows? The current elders are not being transparent about who is informing their approach to minimize calling sin out publicly. Apparently the elders are following their predecessor’s script of not informing the congregants. Why? I have attempted to access the elders to ask them where they are getting their direction, but they have stonewalled my efforts. If scripture was used as the guiding template for how to heal this crisis, we would not be seeing the level of cover up that is evident.

Tent of Meeting: When The True Church Shows Up For Cleansing
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will heal their land. II Chronicles 7:14
Unlike the “final” elders meeting of Tuesday, July 23, 2019, a true contrition meeting might look something like the following:

  1. Those who are true elders, and represent the spiritual condition of the culture of WCCC, would stand before the whole congregation to express the deep contrition and sorrow over the years of sin that existed in the church. Those elders would symbolize, possibly by an outward sign of sack-cloth and ashes, that the church is coming with contrition before a Holy God to confess its sin and the sin of its leader. They would read Jeremiah 14:20 20 We have sinned against you, Lord; we confess our own sins and the sins of our ancestors. …
  2. The leaders and people would cry out and seek the grace of God in the same way that the tax collector called out to Jesus “Have mercy on me, a sinner” Luke 18:13
  3. The leaders would acknowledge that the church is complicit in the sin, in that we lacked the discernment and courage to call out and root out this leader’s entitlement and the deep sin that it generated in the body of the church. Sin was dealt with in both an individual and corporate way with the children of Israel. It showed the seriousness of sin and how it permeates the very systemic core of a body of people.
  4. The leaders would enumerate the sins of both Bill Hybels and other leaders in the church who followed his leadership and abused people.
  5. The sin, one by one, would be named, detailed, and confessed. The leaders would say (a.) “On behalf of the whole congregation we acknowledge that Bill Hybels sinned in his sexual abuse of multiple women in our church. His actions have caused deep pain in the lives of women who thought that they could trust him. They experienced emotional wounding that we can only imagine. To the extent that we did not confront and demand change in the entitled behavior that drove his abuse of women, we repent and seek forgiveness. Many of us sought to protect the idolatrous celebrity status of Bill Hybels, and therefore, did not want to believe that he was capable of such sin. Because of this we repent and seek forgiveness. Also, to the extent that we participated in a cover up, by believing the narrative that these women were liars and colluders, we repent and seek forgiveness and restitution for these victims. We are deeply grieved by the awareness of how we let down courageous women (and they should be named and celebrated and compensated) who came forth, at their own peril, to stand up against Bill and his sin and for their own dignity. That we did not support them, and all who gave them credibility, (like Betty Schmidt, the long serving, highly respected ex-elder, whose story was falsely represented to support the false innocence of Bill) we repent and seek forgiveness. Lord have mercy. (b.) For the damage that has been done to your reputation by our failure to come clean and share the truth about the sin in our congregation, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (c.) For the people who have left our church in despair, due to a sense of disillusionment or belief that we have covered up and protected a sexual aggressor, we repent and seek your mercy. (d.) For thousands of women who are survivors of sexual abuse, and who, upon learning that a trusted pastor was in fact a sexual aggressor, experienced trauma and disillusionment, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (e.)For many staff that experienced the bullying tactics of Bill Hybels and other leadership staff who were groomed by him, and may have been forced to leave under the cover up of the lie that “God was leading them away”, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. For allowing non-disclosure agreements to be used as a means of suppressing the truth about what was really going on in the culture of the church, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (f.) For many congregants at our church who were assessed to be a threat to the image or assets of our church, who were labeled dangerous with little real evidence backing this up, who were subjected to an elder response team that lacked compassion and a pastoral approach to problems, and used such strong arm repression tactics as threatening arrest for trespassing, and sending scary and intimidating letters, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. For trauma this created and the lack of pastoral follow through with the people who were kicked out and are left with a bitter sense of injustice, we repent, and will seek them out to pursue forgiveness and restitution(g.) For allowing Bill Hybels to manipulate the leadership of the church to create a governance model that gave him near absolute power to push his personal agenda on the church, and for failing to detect that he had character defects that resulted in him acting in ways that were absolutely in contrast to the fruits of the spirit and the life of Christ, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (h.) For the leadership not being transparent, even in this post-March 2018 period in the church, and creating a cover up approach that is in absolute rebellion to Your call to uncover the truth and sin, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (i.) For allowing a culture of perfection and image to be the underlying strategy of the church, and for all the behind the scenes ways that we intimidated, bullied, or eliminated people who were a threat to this goal, and for all that was covered up, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. (10) For our multi-year support and identification with a leadership summit and association that professed to be focused on healthy leadership, even though its founder and teacher violated multiple qualities of Biblical leadership, we repent and seek your mercy and forgiveness. That we have allowed the leadership of the summit to get by without addressing the obvious hypocrisy of how the summit is going along, and acting like nothing happened, we ask for your mercy and forgiveness. (j.) Finally, and certainly not complete, we repent of the fact that we allowed our church to be built on a person, on the charisma of a leader who, on many levels, seemed so competent that we continued to support his behavior even though we should have clearly called it out as sinful. Your name has been defamed as the result of our church’s sins. We seek restoration of your name through the cleansing of our transgressions. We commit to protecting Your reputation by establishing the only real path of leadership in our church, and that is that we will follow leaders only as they follow Christ. Amen

“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psa. 32:1)



4 thoughts on “Willow-Gate: The Cover-Up

  1. So much applicability to Heartland Church in Rockford that was a Willow clone. The directional leader skipped town with his family and left the yes people and minions to run the church. So sad. There was so much opportunity for reconciliation but that never happened. No transparency.

  2. Very insightful. Perhaps another possible reason for suppression of truth and lack of confession might be the desire to continue in the same manner as always. People often suppress the truth through denial and hiding because they love the dark paths they are on. Confessing the full extent of the sin would require the church to make many and great changes, something that most are unwilling to do; perhaps even many in the congregation who enjoy the celebrity culture of WCCC.

  3. You have provided a beautiful portrayal of true repentance and humility. If only those participating leaders would embrace this depth of courage, vulnerability, and responsibility. I had once asked the same of a congregation; needless to say, it did not go so well. I am truly moved and feel less alone in the world knowing there are others brave enough to see, to speak, and to stand with the zealous heart of God. May God bless you as your honesty and compassion and truth bless others, just as you have blessed me.

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