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 http://www.willowcreek.com. 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.