Some Closing Thoughts on Willow Creek Community Church

Summa Finalem (Summary Final Thoughts)

This will be my final blog on the Willow Creek travesty unless another victim, who has been identified, chooses to come forward. It is clear that despite how I, and numerous others, who have written about how Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) has handled the revelation of Bill Hybels’ sexual predatory behavior, the leadership of WCCC has realistically done very little to create change at the church.

I have, in earlier blogs, discussed the power of organizational systems, and nowhere is this more true than what has transpired at WCCC. The culture at WCCC is not one of transparency and confession, but rather focuses on how to best minimize the damage of any assault on the image of the church. And I must, sadly, say that the culture has weathered the storm and will continue basically unchanged. That is the power of systems and their self perpetuating capabilities.

The church was formed around core cultural values, and those values have basically been preserved. The pesky nature of all of us that have attempted to expose deep systemic corruption and immorality has been dealt with by the leadership primarily by ignoring what we have identified. The elders that now rule at WCCC were products of the culture and have “won” in some sense by acting like they cared, while substantively, and passive-aggressively, ignoring important change needs. The current picture of the church retains the celebrity model. In some ways it is even worse, since the current plan is basically to outsource the teaching to individuals who have some level of celebrity within Christendom, but cannot fulfill the role of elders/teachers to be immersed in the spiritual climate of the church. It is essentially an entertainment model.

Narcissism As The Enemy of Humility

Most of my writing about WCCC has focused on the impact of a narcissistic founder/senior pastor, and his blueprint for a church that unfolded around his own pathology. I and others have called upon the church to repent and to hold publicly accountable Bill Hybels. Our words have fallen on deaf ears for the most part.

Why have we not heard from Bill Hybels? The best evidence for his guilt in what he has been accused of is his silence. Most of us, if we believed that we were innocent, would vigorously defend our reputation. But Bill Hybels has left in the dark of night, never to be heard from again by the congregation. Remember in the family meeting how he said that WCCC would always be his home church, and that he would continue to stay involved? He stated that the congregation of WCCC was the greatest in the world, and he praised its generosity, etc.

So where is he? The reality is that his abrupt and complete separation from the congregation shows his essential narcissism. Narcissists do not attach well and can sever relationships quickly and without remorse. The reason for this is that narcissists see relationships as having value only so far as they further the agenda of the narcissist. When they no longer serve that purpose, they jettison them because they are capable of easy emotional detachment. If Bill deeply cared about the congregation, and it had real emotional importance to him, he would have attempted to reconnect. All of his bluster about how great WCCC was has not resulted in his showing one ounce of care and concern about the people of the church. Bill would call WCCC great because, as a narcissist, the church was an extension of him. The church is great because he is great. Now that the shame of his being found out has occurred, the church has no more value to him.

Narcissists struggle with humility because they confuse humility with humiliation. Since the core of the narcissist is shame, they cannot acknowledge their own failure, because it evokes the pain of shame. They therefore have to maintain rigid postures of denial to shore up the potential collapse that shame would bring. Failure is not looked at as a component of being a finite and flawed human being in need of God’s grace, but instead exposes the narcissist to the searing flame of public judgement. Bill has used the classic defense responses of those who cannot own their brokenness and flaws. He blames the women, defiantly seeking to portray them as out to get him. In some ways, true narcissists would rather die than admit failure. The Japanese culture used to have this strong, pride based defense against shame. They would commit hari kari to save face.

Organizational Narcissism

WCCC was developed by a narcissist, and developed qualities as an organization that reflect a narcissistic culture. How many times was WCCC talked about as cutting edge, admired in the world of churches as great? In some way the congregants and staff were caught up in the idea of specialness. Having WCCC on your resume was a feather in your cap. This specialness is the foundation of narcissism, and the members of WCCC got caught up in this. The facility had to be the best, and was big and beautiful.

WCCC as an organization shows the same inability to move towards humility as its founder did. The leadership has spent most of its time trying to get ahead of image problems. It basically sought to isolate the problems to the behavior of Bill Hybels, although it did not call him out in any strong way. What WCCC did not do was own that it as an organization is narcissistic, and cannot admit to failure in any real way. There has been no public ownership of the way that the church itself has been in the grips of a narcissistic identity and needed to repent. Everyone who enabled and sustained the organizational level of narcissism needed to own it and repent. The problem, much like identified with Bill Hybels, is that WCCC did not want to face failure, and its potential ill effect on its reputation. WCCC is culpable in enabling and sustaining the behavior of a bully and sexual predator. But, in owning this, it implicates itself and threatens its need to maintain its special status. Because the strategy was to identify the problem as caused by Bill Hybels, the church could shield its responsibility behind focusing on his behavior and attempting to “move on”.

Past As Prologue

I do not see substantial brokenness and honest repentance from the leadership of WCCC. The old system has done what systems seek to do, stay intact and resist change. There is still a pervasive containment of control in a few elders, and the resistance to a more public sharing of information still exists. There is no evident commitment to truth-telling. The overall image of the church is essentially what it was in the past. In some ways it is even worse, going to this model of “out-sourcing”, hiring of celebrity teachers who, as discussed earlier, cannot feel the spiritual condition of the church. If Jesus was walking the earth and came upon WCCC, I truly do not believe that He would recognize it as His church. It essentially maintains its corporate structure and entertainment focus.

If I was a woman at WCCC, I would not feel safe, because the leadership has taken such a tepid stance on the dignity of women and their need to be believed. The trauma that Bill Hybels perpetrated on the women victims has not been honestly faced and acknowledged. It continues to be a great irony that the church that Bill Hybels founded, and professed an egalitarian model of women’s involvement in the church, has essentially devalued women by not taking a strong stand publicly against the actions of Bill Hybels.

When an organization seeks to minimize its failure and does not do the deep cleansing work of ownership, confession, and change, the past truly still resides in the DNA of the organizational church culture. Because of this, the problems of the past still reside deep in the texture of the church as an infection in the culture. And, as any infection not treated by surgery, it is possible, maybe probable, that the systemic sin will emerge again. I do not have a lot of hope for long term change.

On a personal level, I spent time talking to the elders and asked them “Can you give me your Biblical framework for how you are dealing with the crisis that Bill Hybels’ behavior exposed”?. The head elder, Jeff Mason said, in the presence of witnesses, that he would go back to the full elder board and then would get back to me. That was back in November of 2019. I emailed him two times since to ask when they would get back to me, and his response was they would later. It has not happened. When your elders are not truthful, and rationalize their failure to follow up on a promise, it does not create a sense of trust in the honesty and integrity of their leadership. God help Willow Creek Community Church!