Casualty of Conscience: Out of Integrity A Pastor/Leader at Willow Creek Community Church Is Leaving


They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Acts 15:39

Collateral Damage

One of the campus pastors at Willow Creek Community Church, (WCCC), announced that he was resigning his position. He explained it as consistent with the Acts 15 passage above, indicating that he had a fundamental disagreement with how the church leadership has handled the sin by Bill Hybels of sexually abusing women and the need for healing and reconciliation with many who have been wounded by past actions of Bill and his governing style. He followed his convictions, and because of this, he is collateral damage from the way that this whole sad situation has been dealt with. His church, because they had a leader with integrity, is the victim of the widespread failure of the WCCC leadership to align their principles with a Biblical model of accountability to sin. 

A Long Slide from Illusion to Disillusionment to Reality

For over 18 months, I have written about the scandal of sexual abuse that occured at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC), perpetrated by its founder, Bill Hybels. I acted on the underlying assumption, (dare I say illusion)that WCCC was a true church, grounded on the biblical design for a church. As such, WCCC would be dedicated to a thoroughly authentic commitment to truth-telling and integrity. My assumption was that when WCCC was presented with the truth that they would hold Bill Hybels’ publicly accountable for his taking sexual advantage of women who were under his employ as the senior pastor.  Most secular corporations would have to act to protect its workforce if a senior employee took this kind of sexual advantage. Look at Matt Lauer, who was condemned and fired for his misuse of power and position to exploit women. I believed, that as a church, and even more so than a corporation like NBC, they would see the light, and do the right thing. I hoped that the leadership of WCCC would strongly and publicly declare that the actions of Bill Hybels were sinful, extremely harmful to women in the church, and behavior like his would not be tolerated. 


But the truth is that the current leadership of WCCC has been confronted by many with their duty to protect the internal integrity of the body of Christ, and they have largely minimized or ignored the truth. It has become apparent to me and others who have attempted to hold WCCC accountable, that they have engaged in a strategy that can be characterized as “weathering the storm”. They are essentially ignoring all challenges brought to them that have asked them to deal with the sin in the church in an honest and forthright way. They are using  an atritional strategy, that involves the leadership “sort of” listening, acting like they agree, but then essentially ignoring and not addressing the truth in any real way. It is a passive resistant organizational strategy. The underlying goal, it appears, is that with time, the intensity of the concerns of those critics that are trying to hold WCCC to a truly Biblical standard of accountability, will wither and die. The critics in time will start to realize that they fundamentally are ignored, and will lose energy to continue the fight for truth. (Disillusionment)

The  confusion that we critics feel is due to the fact  that we assume that we are sharing a common view with the leadership of WCCC of what the church is and what it should do . That is not true. The current elders were immersed in the culture of WCCC, and so for them, focusing on the image and programmatic elements of the church is more important than focusing on the deep integrity issues of those in leadership. There is a lack of congruity between the concerns of the critics, and the values of the WCCC leadership. That is why it appears that  they are ignoring the concerns of the critics, and why there seems to be a lack of a serious and broken response by WCCC leadership to what has happened. 

It dawned on me that the real problem is that I am comparing the behavior of WCCC to my understanding of the church. I grew up the son of a pastor, where the responsibilities of a pastor/elder were drilled into my understanding. My father was mentored by A.W. Tozer, who taught him the deep and sacred oath that pastors must abide by to live a life above reproach and to care for the safety and well being of his congregants. I witnessed several pastor’s situations where sexual immorality by a pastor was dealt with swiftly and condemned publically. I studied theology at a seminary, so I also had that grounding in understanding the church. 

The leadership of WCCC, on the other hand, appear to have a whole different frame of reference for what the church at its core should look like. The trigger for me to recognize this was a statement in the description of what the church is looking for in its search for a new senior pastor. It indicated that the candidate does not necessarily have to have a seminary education. This, in some way made it very clear that the church is not concerned about having someone who has a thorough grounding in Biblical theology, particularly the theology of what a Biblical church should look like. It occurred to me that this is like seeking to hire a person to do work as a physician who does not necessarily have to go to medical school. It is because the WCCC culture has been created around a different model than what a Biblical blueprint would require. They can ignore what is true about a Biblically-grounded idea of the church and the handling of discipline of a pastor/elder.

An analogy comes from family systems thinking. If one grew up in a family that was abusive in multiple ways but had no other frame of reference for what a healthy family is supposed to look like, it is understandable why they would conclude that  their family is the way families are supposed to act. That is their normal. The critical description is what compromises the word “family”. So it is, I believe, that at WCCC, the word “church” has been defined by what WCCC is and presents to the world. Those who grew up in it, and have no clear alternative Biblical definition of what the church is supposed to look like, believe that the word “church”, as expressed by WCCC, is normal. 

This is an explanation for why so many at WCCC want to “move on” and get this all behind them. They were immersed in the culture of WCCC, and for them, the church as it is experienced at Willow is normal. This is one of the advantages of when you are a seeker oriented church. WCCC has not emphasized a deep Biblical awareness of what the church is supposed to look like, and so for the theologically nieve followers of WCCC, what they experience is normal. Therefor, there is no outcry for Biblical justice and truth telling.

Corporate Church

WCCC has been created  with a corporate framework. A psycho-historical  analysis of Bill Hybels and what drove his DNA and blueprint for the church, is critical to understanding how WCCC was formulated in a way that lacked a meaningful grounding in Biblical theology. From my gathering of information about his childhood experience, mostly from his sermons, it is clear that he grew up with a father who was demanding and hard to please. Although Bill has tended to idealize his father, in areas that he believed motivated him towards success, it is also evident that he did not experience a sense of unconditional love and acceptance from his father. As many who have experienced this lack of affirmational worth from a parent, Bill probably drew the conclusion that acceptance from his father would only be the result of his commitment to hard work and visible success. Then, the experience he had of understanding God’s love and acceptance when he experienced salvation,  influenced him to move out of the secular world of business, and into the spiritual world of building the church. Unfortunately, and I am sure away from his conscious awareness, he incorporated the metrics of the business world into the church world.


 It became obvious that as WCCC pursued a “seeker” model for church growth, the goal was an increase in numbers. Numbers would become a far more important measuring stick for success at WCCC than would the harder to quantify qualitative measure of discipleship and spiritual maturity. This “hit home” for me as one of my friends, who I was involved with in the men’s ministry, was let go for essentially not getting enough coaches and small group leaders. He was viewed as more of a pastor (what?!!) than, apparently, a recruiter. 

Corporate and Humanistic Creep

WCCC, instead of building on the foundation of what a true Biblical church would look like, began to build around the presuppositions of a corporate-looking church. In time, words like “McChurch” and “God’s Corporate Headquarters”, would be joked about as descriptive of WCCC. The internal metric for success focused on numbers, size of programming, number of attendees, size of buildings, number of serving areas, and income. Many on staff felt the pressure of being evaluated on the basis of a numbers-oriented criterion, and not the less-measurable quality of the believers’ internal life of faith. Staff reviews felt like they were based more on sales force criterion than pastoral goals. A REVEAL survey done a number of years ago substantiated that WCCC was good at everything, except for the maturing of the faith of believers. 

As WCCC grew into the behemoth it became, the thing that people always mentioned was its bigness. It became what it did because of the person, Bill Hybels, who was steering the ship. I believe he was guided by an unconscious need to succeed in a hybrid of corporation and church, with a lighter emphasis on church. BH envisioned his role as more of a CEO, than as a pastor whose responsibility was the spiritual shepherding of the flock. Although Bill’s father died in the infancy of the church, it appeared obvious that Bill was striving to live up to the legacy of success that his father had demanded of him. 

The Elitism of Leadership

As the corporate model of WCCC grew, BH focused more and more on leadership. But, the model of leadership was not that of what a Biblical view  would be of leadership. It was not the servant-leader style that Jesus encouraged. Instead, it became an evolving corporate understanding of what leaders should know and do. Bill Hybels championed the development of what was called the Global Leadership Summit. This somewhat elitist, over-emphasis on the leader roles in churches, which the summit focused on,  reflected the corporate model of WCCC.. The “experts” brought in to leadership summits were increasingly secular titans of the business and academic world. This emphasis allowed many to drift into a belief that the WCCC/BH endorsed model of leadership was somehow consistent with a Biblical model of pastoring or eldering. As the Global Leadership Summit grew, this became in and of itself another quantitative measure of Bill’s success. 

Although WCCC started with a great deal of passion and vision, as Bill Hybels consolidated his power and control over its direction, a shift away from the Biblical model of church started to take shape. Please, for a moment, indulge my background in studying philosophy in college, in order to illustrate what happened at WCCC. Historically Christians looked to Scripture to find the blueprint for what a church should look like and how it should be governed.  With the widespread growth of humanism, the ideas of human beings started to influence the concept of the church. Where as before, the church unfolded around the blueprint of Scripture, with the creep of humanism, the ideas of man started to edge out what a Biblical church should look like and how it should function. 

This concept of humanism creeped into WCCC, as a model of the church was developed around corporate, or man-generated ideas. I believe that WCCC depended on the humanistic influence of its broken leader and visionary guide, Bill Hybels. He created an ad-mixture of spiritual and humanistic ideas, which informed his vision of the church. If you add in some of Bill’s family of origin issues, how WCCC was formed can be explained. If you look at why a family develops the way it does, you have to understand the primary architects of the family, the parents. So it is with WCCC. The architect was Bill Hybels.

It Depends on What the Meaning of the Word “Church” Is

Seekers, who crossed the threshold of faith, and started attending WCCC, had to assume that the true church is what they were experiencing at WCCC. They had no other frame of reference. If you presume that WCCC is a healthy church, then what they do must be good and virtuous. The truth is that many who attend WCCC were indoctrinated with a flawed understanding of what the church is, but do not have any way to judge it against another standard. This, coupled with the fact that WCCC has looked so externally successful, is why multitudes that attend Willow are happy with it and want it to continue much like it has for many years. The flawed logic is that it is big, does great things, so it must be healthy and normal for what a church looks like.

WCCC as a corporate church is not so dependent on Biblical theology to determine what its blueprint should look like. That is why its requirements for a new incoming senior pastor/CEO would allow a non-theologically trained candidate to be eligible. The reason  WCCC leadership has not come out strong in its condemnation of Bill Hybels’ behavior is because they use a corporate, not a Biblical standard for how they hold a senior leader accountable. Every elder that is currently in a position of leadership, has been immersed in the culture of the corporate church. As a result they do not have a burning need to see the sin of Bill Hybels’ bullying style or sexual predation as something that needs to be condemned strongly. This is why, no matter how much critics from the outside, who may be presuming that WCCC is on the same theological page when it comes to understanding the church and the accountability of the pastor, are largely dismissed. Their words are falling on deaf ears. Corporations do damage control to restore their brand and bottom line. The bottom line of WCCC leadership is to make some cosmetic changes, but essentially continue the metrics of large programs, people, money, and serving opportunities. 

Some Elements of A Biblical View of The Church

The blueprint for the Biblical church is clear in scripture. If it was the foundation of how WCCC saw the church, it would be hard to understand how they have failed to hold the church to the standards articulated in Scripture. For instance, Bill Hybels has acted for many years with a lack of respect for those he oversees. Multiple stories of verbal abuse have come out from many staff members. One of my sources of information for this is multiple employees of WCCC who have come to my counseling practice over the years. He has led with a bullying style, and has been quarrelsome with many. But he got away with this because he was treated as the founding CEO, and not as a pastor who should have been held accountable to a Christ-like approach to those he led. 

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. I Timothy 3:2-3

If WCCC was focused on its Biblical mission, it would have emphasized not only seeker -oriented evangelism, which built the metrics of attendance, but also the qualitative part of the great commision, which is to make disciples of all men. 

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13

If WCCC was following a Biblical standard for leaders, it would have confronted the arrogance and inconsistencies of Bill’s behavior. They would have held him to a standard of humility and servanthood. The Biblical standard for leadership was set by the Apostle Paul who said that leaders should not be followed if they themselves were not following the example of Christ. (I Corinthians 11:1)

It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave. Matthew 20:26

For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. Titus 1:7-8

If the current elders at WCCC followed a Biblical model of the church, they would seriously recognize their responsibility to identify, call out, and protect against, anyone who represents a predatory threat to the women of the church. The incredibly anemic approach and lack of calling out what Bill Hybels did as sin, shows a lack of concern about the safe environment of the church for women. They also would be giving clear information about how they are seeking to guarantee that this does not happen again. 

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. Acts 20:28

Conclusions To Critics

I have been one who has been seeking to call the WCCC leadership to hold Bill Hybels accountable, and to strongly condemn the sexual abuse of women. I have concluded that until a Biblical model of church is created at Willow, my criticism rings hollow in the WCCC corporate model of the church. My dilemma is whether or not to continue to speak what I believe to be true. I am convinced that without a change from the humanistic conceptualization of the church at WCCC, Bill Hybels behaviors are nothing more than history. The strategy of WCCC leadership is simply to clean the church of all symbols of Bill’s presence and move on (as if the very culture and fabric of the church created by Bill Hybels can be scrubbed). From the perspective of the current leadership, the corporate church called WCCC must regain its brand and its metrics of success.  (Reality)

Sadly, the collateral damage to all of this is the dignity of women, the silencing of truth, and the over-focus on a corporate bottom line. And, for me, the loss of my truly courageous and integrity based campus pastor. He is, indeed, a casualty of conscience.