Willow Creek Community Church: Sorrow Must Precede Sorry

Willow Creek Community Church Elders: Sorry Before Sorrow

II Corinthians 7: 10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 

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An Incomplete Investigation

The constant mantra of the elders of Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) is that they have apologized. It is true that they have apologized, but the apologies ring as inauthentic and certainly incomplete. The elders act as if what has been revealed is the complete story of the abuse inflicted on women by Bill Hybels. Because they failed to engage a competent agency, such as GRACE, to do a thorough investigation of the whole history of abuse at WCCC, they are apologizing just for what has been revealed. The reality is that there is evidence that the extent of the abuse has not been revealed. 

Sorrow Should Precede Sorry

When someone apologizes before doing the demanding work of entering the sorrow that should come from a deep and empathic awareness of the pain that was inflicted, the “I am sorry” is more for the perpetrators and supporters of the abuse. I am sorry absolves those who either inflicted or supported the abuse, by saying that they apologized and so should be let off the hook of responsibility. But this kind of sorry does not ring true, but instead seeks to roll right over the depth of pain to move on. When those who have been harmed do not feel that those who apologize have entered a mourning process for the extent to which they inflicted pain, the victims do not feel that an authentic feeling “I am sorry” is true. It is an incomplete and superficial process that in the rationalizing mind of perpetrators, absolves them so they can move on. Entering deeply into the pain and experience of victims allows for true remorse to grow. Anything short of that is for the perpetrators and not for the victims. As I have mentioned, and will expand on in my next blog, the victimization of the women at Willow, was not just the isolated acts of one man, Bill Hybels. The church participated in the enabling of the abuse. 

Empathic Apologies-

The reason that it is so important to sit in the ashes of mourning is that this demonstrates how seriously perpetrators take the pain they have inflicted. If I hit someone out of anger and then quickly ask them to forgive me, I am putting the victim in a bind. “Do I accept this superficial apology or do I need to know that the perpetrator is REALLY sorry, has entered into my pain, and will not therefor re-offend. Cheap apologies come from immature perpetrators who simply do not want to feel their own guilt. To do that, I must minimize my awareness of the pain that I have inflicted and put the victim in a bind of having to forgive before they are understood. I do not trust someone who apologizes too quickly. They simply have not done the hard work of emotionally entering into the extent of the pain created. Therefore, they are likely to rehurt a victim.

Apology Without A Deep Investigation 

The elders at WCCC have apologized with a sanitized version of Hybels’ conduct, but they  have resisted a deep dive into investigating the likely reality that this was a pattern and practice of BIll Hybels at WCCC. It appears, from the women that have come forward to me, that this was a sordid practice within the culture of WCCC. The elders have resisted a qualified investigative effort, such as what GRACE would provide, to seek to get at the extensiveness of the abuse going on at WCCC. 

I believe that the sinful culture of WCCC is much more extensive than what has already been revealed, and because of this I believe the apologies offered by the elders, past and present, are sanitized and hollow. The elders have said they are sorry for the abuse of the women that have come forward. But the deeper sorry must come from owning that the culture of WCCC was corrupt. And it remains corrupt so long as the leadership of WCCC refuses to admit to the dark underbelly of WCCC. 

Over the course of this moral crisis at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC), one thing stands out that disqualifies the elder’s apologies as authentic: a lack of true empathy for the deep wounding of the women victims and a true acknowledgement of the extensiveness of the culture of sexual abuse at WCCC. Apologies can be simplistic or genuine, can be a pro forma way of moving forward with the appearance of remorse. Without a substantive revelation of how Bill Hybels’ abusive conduct impacted the victims, and how the church enabled a predatory culture, apologies are incomplete and  simply ways to try to divert people into moving on. 

I will restate that apologies that are offered too quickly are often simply an attempt to mollify the victims of wrong actions, so that the offender can be released from guilt. As such, these kinds of apologies are more for the offenders than for the victims. When this happens, the victims of hurtful behaviors know that these apologies are hollow and do not resonate with the real pain that has been inflicted. 

The women victims of the sexual predatory behavior of Bill Hybels have not felt satisfied that the apologies offered by the elders of WCCC have a ring of authenticity. These apologies have failed to boldly implicate the sinful sexual behavior of Bill Hybels, have failed to share the extent of the traumatic pain experienced by the women victims, and so have softened the culpability of WCCC in these devastating insults on the women. 

The apologies of the elders of WCCC have lacked a sense of genuine empathic expression of the deep pain of the women victims. Empathic apologies take time, take wrestling in the mud of a victim’s pain, so that the offender “gets”, at a deep emotional-marrow level, the extensiveness of the devastation of the perpetrator’s actions. 

The nature of an empathic apology involves an offender doing a deep dive into the consequences of their behavior to a victim. Most people do not want to comprehend the level of devastation of their inflicted behavior on a victim, because it brings a sense of guilt and shame. So, to protect themselves from their own culpability, they must gloss over the true cost of wrong behavior to the victim, seeking to move forward quickly with a simplistic statement of “I am sorry”. They do not really say what they are sorry for, because they have not allowed the consequences of their actions to fully impact them. Victims can only trust the authenticity of an apology when the offender thoroughly names their actions, and describes an awareness of the level of pain this has generated in the offended. 

This again is why one should not apologize too quickly. Instead, the offender should sit with and listen deeply to the pain experienced by the victim, so that the real scope of the offense can be comprehended. Those that seek genuine forgiveness must sit in the ashes, feel the dirtiness of the perpetrated behavior, so that they are washed over by the sorrow that they feel, both for their own behavior and the pain inflicted.  Only then can a victim trust that the offender is taking the offense seriously, and may be less likely to re-offend. 

Cheap Vs. Genuine Apologies 

It is painful when a spouse hurts their partner deeply, and then tries to force an “I am sorry” to try to get the offended person to move on. (Move on, where have we heard this?) The offender wants to move on, because if they sit long enough to fully comprehend the extent of their hurtful behavior, they will have to deal with their guilt. An “I am sorry”, without sorrow, is more for the offender than for the victim. This is a “cheap’ apology, since it does not cost the offender much and in their mind absolves them of responsibility. Genuine apologies are costly, because they take the time to listen and move into sorrow for the perpetrated behavior. 

Sorrow Before Sorry

A number of the elders at WCCC are women. Women have the capacity to comprehend the devastating effects of sexual abuse, because they statistically experience it at a greater rate then men. It would follow that the female elders at WCCC would lead the way in the full elder board entering into a season of sorrow. This would allow the full emotional impact of Bill Hybels behavior to move them to deep repentance about the way that WCCC participated with and enabled the abuse to occur in its midst. 

Deep sorrow results in a naming of the sins and of the real consequences of sin. This involves a real investigation into the true nature of systemic sin that existed at WCCC. There is no clear indication that the elders and leadership at WCCC have experienced the deep sorrow, the Godly sorrow, so necessary for a genuine repentance, followed by a seeking of forgiveness. If they have, they have not shared, at a transparent level, the extent of their brokenness on behalf of the victims and the church members. 

Those that are responsible for the pain inflicted on the women victims, from Bill to the elders to the leadership and to the congregation that idealized him should must sit longer in the ashes of destruction. Deep sorrow must precede “we are sorry” for it to have any substance of being genuine. If the elders, on behalf of the people of WCCC, had expressed Godly sorrow they would have shared the following (this is a kind of stream of consciousness expression of what I believe a true and authentic apology would be look like):


-We have sorrow for the fact that our senior pastor, Bill Hybels, betrayed trust, acted in such a sinful way, and destroyed the spiritual and emotional lives of the female victims.

-We call out what BH did as sin, so that we do not minimize it and sanitize it in any way. 

-We have entered into the experience of the female victims and understand and weep over the levels of inflicted pain that they have experienced. 

-We comprehend and feel deep anguish over the ways that BH used his power to push and pressure them to give into his selfish sexual desires. 

-We have sat with and allowed ourselves to seek an empathic awareness of what it was like to be betrayed by a trusted leader.

-We have listened to comprehend the confusion, hurt, anger, and distrust, that the intrusive behavior of BH inflicted on the women victims.

-We have sat in the ashes with the female victims, as both they and we understand the painful consequences of sin.

-We have listened, and as hard as it is to take in the breadth of the devastation that BH’s behavior inflicted on these women victims, we have allowed it to move us to sorrow and compassion.

-We have, in hearing the consequences of BH’s sinful behavior, come to an understanding of how traumatic these actions were and have for many of the women created lifelong symptoms that are hard to erase. 

-We have, in investigating how extensive this behavior was, recognized that the church itself was culpable for its enabling of such horrific behavior. We allowed the idolization of BH to give him a pass, which allowed him to continue a pattern of predation on innocent women.

-We get, and feel sorrow for, the fact that for many of the victims they have experienced depression, anxiety, rage, distrust, physical sickness, relational harm, employment disruption, spiritual disillusionment and even falling away from faith, becoming targets of BH protectors, hyper-vigilant to further abuse, anger at the elders for coming across in such a minimizing way, low self-worth, disconnection from community, anger at the way their husbands were treated as BH sought to groom them to diminish their partners so he could gain access to them, gaslighting by being attacked as unstable or liars or mentally ill, having their reputations and their job qualifications attacked, anger at God for allowing this to happen while the perpetrator gets minimal consequences, destruction of their dreams and goals in life due to excruciating emotional pain, anger at the ways the church and its methods of protection left them feeling helpless to talk about what they had experienced, having a sense of false-guilt for some of the actions of BH and their involvement in them, anger at being treated as just an object for BH’s pleasure rather than what he had hypocritically called them as daughters of the Most High, anger for some that their lives have been destroyed by this abuse, etc.

Sitting In The Ashes

If the elders at WCCC had sat long enough in the ashes of these women’s lives, hearing the litany of pain that BH had inflicted, they should have experienced profound sorrow. Sorrow then moves to repentance, which would involve a very public revelation of the pain and suffering experienced by the women victims. Ownership on behalf of the leadership of WCCC should have led to a profound expression of the sorrow felt and the level of apologies needed. Apologies needed to be expressed primarily to the women victims and then to the congregants who have been affected by the trauma in the church. Sorrow-filled empathy is the prelude to genuine repentance and ultimate forgiveness. Saying “we are sorry” without the expression of genuine sorrow is simply a strategy to “move on”. The ultimate problem for the church is that a lack of sorrow means a lack of taking this level of abuse seriously. This subjects the church to the possibility of more abuse down the road. Women of WCCC beware, the elders taking the sexual abuse of its females so lightly does not bode well for creating a safe and protective church environment. 

So, elders of WCCC, show a true posture of grieving and sorrow. Only then will the women victims start to believe that the torture of their abuse will be taken seriously. It is the victims who need to determine if an apology is genuine and complete, not the elders. Only the women victims “know” at a deep level, whether they have been heard and the apology sought is genuine. The elders assuming, they have done their job only meets their sense of what an apology needs to look like and allows them to “move on”. A public confession of the sins of Bill Hybels and the church in enabling him, sends a message to the women victims that they are being taken seriously and that the sin of sexual abuse of women is no longer tolerated. Without a genuine apology, WCCC is seeking to place a bandage on a gaping wound the size of the Grand Canyon. 

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My next blog will focus on the importance of repentance over rebranding as it looks at the corporate sense of responsibility.