Culture As Pac-Man

After my last blog about the power of culture, the unrest at Willow Creek North Shore (WCNS) campus, has moved me to develop this concept further. Culture is like Pac-Man, where the figure goes after the little elements to consume them, and this is an analogy to how culture will swallow up strategy. This is being seen in the push back of the congregants at WCNS. This is a clear example of what happens when leaders with strategic vision collide with the real flesh and blood needs, values, and feelings of the constituents. 

I have many times noted that those in Christian leadership positions often focus more on vision casting and strategic change, and less on the very powerful elements that comprise human culture. As a result, the culture resists the strategy. The new strategy seeks to change the culture of an organization, which represents a threat to those engaged and loyal to that culture.

I once had a young pastor come to my counseling office who was defeated, dejected, and generally depressed. He had come out of seminary a fresh-faced, enthusiastic graduate, who had highly idealized views of how to lead a church. He was called to a small church in Iowa and set about trying to implement his vision. After two years, he gave up. The church culture was run by three prominent families, who had absolute control and they did not want change. He did not have the skill-set necessary to know how to deal with this. It has always been my view that the courses  seminaries need to teach is about church culture, and how it can destroy pastors who do not understand it. They do not use emotional/social intelligence to assess how to create change in a healthy way. 

What has happened at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) is that the elders selected a leadership team who have demonstrated, at this point, a clear tone-deafness to the larger cultural issues. As a psychologist trained in larger systemic elements, my focus is on the system into which the strategy seeks to create change. Systems have to be ready to align with change, and a good part of that is that the culture, in the form of the constituents, has been consulted and are slowly allowed to buy into the envisioned changes. 

People who have insight into the emotional and social intelligence elements of leadership recognize that change, particularly large-scale change, should never be initiated when that culture has experienced a high level of stress from recent events. For instance, a person who has just lost a loved one should not change jobs until they have stabilized from the trauma of loss. At WCCC, it is clear that the church is still in the re-stabilizing process of having absorbed the loss of a senior pastor, who was un-masked as having a power and control style of leadership, along with using that power to sexually abuse women. This was a shock that rocked the emotional rickter scale of the WCCC culture. It has been clear that the leadership of WCCC chose to ignore the substantial trauma that this revelation created, and pushed for change and a future focus. 

The second major stressor on the culture of WCCC has been the Covid-19 pandemic. This has been a destabilizing event, causing a loss of in-person community, which is emotionally devastating to a community that loves and connects with each other. A systemically-aware leader would know that this is the worst time to implement strategic changes to a culture. But the leadership of WCCC, ignoring the need to address the emotionally-destabilizing elements of the two major stressor events at the church, devised the new vision to move forward. They are now beginning to see the consequences of their lack of wisdom or larger systemic intelligence, when they sought to shoe-horn change into a damaged culture. 

The leadership culture at WCCC has been addressed in my previous blogs, primarily, pointing out the narcissistic, top-down, power and control, secretive, and generally damaging approach of the senior pastor and those who were his attendants to the throne (Emperor Who Had No Clothes). I want to point out that a lot of the culture of WCCC  was, albeit created by corrupt leadership, good in many ways. Those that came as congregants to WCCC loved what they experienced. They loved the worship, the opportunities to volunteer as a community in all kinds of service areas, the campus pastors and their leadership, the sense of love and community that was created, and many other things. It can be said that much of the culture of WCCC was loved and valued. Minus the scandal of leadership, much of what had been constructed culture-wise was desired and loved. 

The scandal of leadership that occurred in the revelation of Bill Hybels’ behavior, left a sizable void in the trust of leadership at WCCC. Why would it not? The new leadership at WCCC largely ignored the stressful and traumatic impact of the leadership failure, and certainly failed to recognize the issue of leadership mistrust that had been created. What was needed was a pastoral type that put a pause on any substantial changes and instead focused on binding up the wounds of the church and restoring trust in leadership. Instead, the tone-deaf approach focused on strategy, strategy, strategy! 

The elders are the ones that are primarily at fault for this. They resisted truly dealing with the emotional and sinful elements of past leadership behavior, and instead kept wanting to push forward. They obviously chose a senior pastor that aligned with their desires. Now I believe that they have locked themselves into a decision that is clearly being revealed as unhealthy to the culture of the church, but they do not want to admit that it was bad judgement. This reminds me of something in professional football. Sometimes a general manager will draft a quarterback in the first round, lock into a very expensive contract, and when it becomes obvious that the quarterback may not be talented enough, they will stick with them. They have made a strategic decision and they do not want to admit it because they have spent so  much money.

The culture that has existed at WCCC, as explained above, created a community that allowed congregants to feel connected.  There is never a more important time to preserve the elements of connection than in a crisis of stress, such as the ones where the Hybels’ situation and the Covid-19 pandemic created. To try to shoe-horn a change, that essentially looks like an attempt to dismantle the very elements that bring comfort to people, is highly threatening, and will be resisted. 

The leadership needs to humble themselves, admit the fact that they failed to assess the traumatic elements of the culture at WCCC, put a pause on the vision, focus more on the healing necessary for the culture to stabilize, address the truth about the financial situation of WCCC, address the truth about Bill Hybels’ sin and not just minimize it as a scandal. They need to acknowledge the significant lack of trust in leadership and commit to what it takes to rebuild this absolutely. necessary component. Only then should they help the church look at strategy and change, with the full engagement of the congregation. Communicate rather than assume everyone is good with your vision! 

Follow Up

As a follow-up to my previous post I believe it is important to note that when the church was looking for a new pastor the staff was polled to determine what they most desired in a new leader. Their collective response was that they needed a pastoral type, who would have the capacity to work on addressing and healing the cultural trauma that had been experienced at Willow. In spite of the fact that this was the desire of the staff, it is my understanding that the elders ignored this and pursued a more CEO oriented leader. This again reflects the significant disconnect that the elders have with the true spiritual cultural elements of the church. Basically what they did was hire the new leader, like buying a car, and then gave him the keys to the car and withdrew any effective oversight. As a result he surrounded himself with a close cadre of male leaders. There is a rumor going around, and Dave Dummit needs to address this, that one of the senior leaders, Chris Hahn, was fired from his last job due to excessive power abuse. Even though this was brought to the attention of the elders, they allowed Dave to override any concerns and hire him. All of these decisions reflect the mentality of current leadership, which is to make decisions in secret, not responsive to the overall needs of the congregation, and bully their way through to push their agenda. There is clearly a mutiny of some sort going on, most seen in the angry pushback of the North shore campus. The church leadership should see themselves as a representative government, who seek to ascertain the pulse of the needs of the church spiritually and emotionally, and then lead from this discernment. Instead, as I’ve written before, they completely ignore the culture and the dramatic wounding that has occurred, and push forward. Their lack of any significant addressing of the abuse of the women that have come forward, really reflects an approach that devalues women. Also their lack of placing women in strategic positions of upper management indicates a diminishing of the role of women at Willow. I believe that God is not going to allow Willow to recover and flourish unless they’re willing to heed the admonition of scripture that “if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray I will heal their land”.

It’s the Culture, Stupid

I absolutely have to write a response to what’s been going on lately at Willow. I have said for years that if the culture of a church is not taken into consideration, it will eventually destroy any new strategic objectives. Willow Creek has had a culture that has focused on excellence, seeker-sensitivity, the development of multiple ministries, and a certain form of worship. That implicit structure is reflective of the developed DNA of the church. People who have been involved with Willow for years love a lot of the elements of this culture, and many of the elements resulted in wonderful things in the lives of many believers.

Then, into that culture came the tsunami of Bill Hybel’s behavior, that, when it was finally acknowledged, shook the foundation of the church. The core message that was generated was distrust of leadership. How do we know what’s going on behind the scenes in the lives of leaders? And, if we don’t know, and they are engaging in some kind of behavior that could eventually be threatening to the core values of the church, will we re-experience the pain of the original trauma?

The elder leadership has neglected the larger “elephant in the room” elements of the trauma that’s been inflicted on the culture. They continue to operate on the assumption that, in time, a new leader and a new vision will allow for the past to simply dissipate. I have said for a long time that the elders have severely miscalculated what the church culture experienced. I know from personal experience, that my sister has gone to Cherry Hills Community Church in the Denver area. Shane Farmer arrived, and over time, he attempted to produce a significant culture change. It has taken 7 years, but there is finally significant blowback from his attempted changes, and he may not survive as the pastor of that church. When leadership discounts the emotional temperature of a church, devalues the emotional experience of trauma, and pushes forward in an effectively -bullying process, it eventually will backfire on them. And I believe that is what’s happening at Willow. Northshore is a mess right now with the decision of the lead pastor to resign. Dave Dummit is forcing changes on the already-fragile and emotionally- distraught culture of Willow Creek. He apparently believes that he can compel everyone to get on board with his vision of things and it will be so great that any problems of the past will be forgotten. He is forgetting the statement that “culture will eat strategy for breakfast”. And that is true.

I believe what we’re seeing is the systematic dismantling of Willow Creek, led by the hubris and insensitivity of a male-formed leadership team. They believe that they can effectively convince the congregants of their vision and values. They will have a vision-casting night coming up soon, but what they’re doing is not advancing their idea of vision and values. But, rather they are telling the congregation that this vision and value structure has already been implemented, and everyone has to get on board. What they are failing to recognize, at a deep level, is that the congregants are the ones that have funded Willow Creek through their tithes and offerings. They have ownership, and the right to know what is going on inside the church. The way this new management team has operated has simply continued the deeply- flawed principles of deceptiveness, patriarchal decision-making, keeping people in the dark, and believing that they are smarter than the body of believers.

Unfortunately, as I have said, they will eventually find out that culture is more powerful than strategy. The leadership of this church has failed to truly assess the damages of the trauma that Willow has gone through and has inflicted on the people and culture. They have failed to recognize that change must be titrated and massaged over time, versus rammed through by people acting as if they have more wisdom or knowledge than the body. There are substantial changes to the culture of Willow, that can be looked at if you go to The new leadership has essentially created a more complementarian view of women in the church than the well-established values of equality with women. There are no women in the core-operating structure of leadership. The inner ring of power is surrounded by a secondary ring composed of campus pastors who have very little true input.

The new vision of Willow is to pare down staff, pare down programs, centralize leadership to the South Barrington campus, and control the finances of all the campuses. There is very little autonomy given to campuses to develop the very real and unique vision and values that they may have. The process of getting rid of staff has again shown a lack of emotional and social intelligence, leaving many people on staff feeling pushed out of their ministry positions. The current leadership is using the excuse of the Covid-19 to justify this, when the reality is that it is simply consistent with their new vision and values. As has been said and Biblically-supported for years now, unless the church leadership, and the elders, humble themselves, repent, and do deep repair of the damage that has been done over the last two or three years at the church, the leadership will find that the culture, in the form of the people of the church of Christ, will assert the power that the culture holds to resist being forced to accept something that they’ve had no real say about.