It is coming up on 5 years since Bill Hybels, the senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC), was exposed in an article in the Chicago Tribune as having been sexually inappropriate with a number of women, both in and out of his church. The elders of Willow Creek Community Church attempted to get ahead of the potentially catastrophic consequences this revelation might create. They orchestrated a couple of what were called “family meetings”. It was obvious that their intent was to shield Bill. The focus of the meetings was to reassure the congregants of WCCC that the allegations that had come forward were untrue. They declared that they had thoroughly investigated them and determined that they were unfounded. The elders and church leadership did a good job of portraying Bill as the innocent object of women who felt scorned by him. and therefore, retaliated by making these accusations. 

The “Me Too” Movement

This all occurred in 2018, which was the beginning of the “Me Too” movement. The “Me Too” movement created an atmosphere of safety for women to come forward and gave validity to the reporting of sexual abuse from high-profile, powerful leaders, mainly in the entertainment industry. This was a seismic cultural shift. The fundamental reason that the “Me Too” approach began to work was the fact that it was not just isolated women, but several women coming out at the same time. Before this, any individual woman who may have described a sexual assault by a powerful person was discredited. They were basically “gaslighted”, which is a way of demeaning and diminishing the credibility of a victim by focusing on some character, or psychological flaw. The difference now was that it was no longer individuals, but women becoming empowered by sheer numbers.

“Me Too” At Willow Creek Community Church

Interestingly, this is what happened at Willow Creek Community Church. There had been a number of accusations against Bill Hybels by individual women over the years. In responding to accusations, he utilized what is called “plausible deniability”. He knew, at some level, that the power differential was such that any individual woman would be discredited easily in favor of supporting his narrative. This shift, in 2018, as multiple women came forward describing similar experiences with Bill, became a tidal wave that could not be so easily disavowed. And the women that came out were high-credibility, high-character individuals. It became increasingly difficult to sustain the narrative of Bill being a victim, as the numbers supported the circumstantial evidence of his guilt.

As things began to crumble, and as accusations ramped up, it became clear that all of his denials and rationalizations were not going to be enough to protect him. The handwriting was increasingly on the wall. A strategic decision was made that Bill would retire earlier than originally planned. Another family meeting was scheduled at WCCC. The intent of the meeting was to announce that Bill was going to move up his retirement and leave his position as senior pastor. In hindsight, this was clearly damage control. The elders, and probably Bill, thought that this would derail the accusations and preserve the image of both Bill and the Church. The subsequent meeting was a tear-jerker. The elders and leadership at the church continued to provide cover for Bill (and probably cover for themselves due to their complicity in enabling his behavior).  The elders and leaders portrayed Bill only in a positive way. It was clear, even to the end, that the elders were swayed by the power of his personality. As a result, they succumbed to protecting him as a victim.  

Family Meetings As A Forum For Spinning A Narrative

At this meeting, Bill had his family on stage, and it came off more as a funeral, with sad faces, and even a dejected sense of resignation. As Bill was discussing his leaving, he strongly emphasized that Willow Creek Community Church was his home, that he deeply loved and cherished his congregants, and that he would continue to be involved. In fact, he indicated that he would be up in the seats attending services because this was his beloved home. WCCC, as he stated, is the “greatest congregation in the world”. Bill was given a severance agreement for his retirement, a “golden parachute”, as his contract with the church specified. This was because the church , ironically, had no morals clause in his contract and the elders and leadership caved to the possibility of legal action. I believe the hope of the elders and leadership was that this retirement would stem the flow of accusations and the turmoil that this situation had created. The ideal situation would have been that Bill retires, the focus goes away from him, and the new leadership would continue unscathed. 

The Final Nail In The Coffin

Then came the New York Times article in August of 2018.  A woman victim came forward, encouraged by a former pastor at WCCC, and with much more graphic detail, exposed a pattern of predatory behavior by Bill.  That, coupled with all the earlier accusations, made it impossible for the church to go forward unscathed. In cascading fashion, the executive pastor, the new lead teaching pastor, and the elders announced that they would be resigning.

I Thought You Said WCCC Was Your Home!

It has been almost 5 years now and there has been no sighting of Waldo, Bill Hybels. How can this be, given the fact that he clearly, and passionately, indicated that he loved this church and would be in a continuing pattern of involvement? But no one has seen him. He appears to have ghosted the congregation, going off into the woods of Michigan. The congregants of WCCC had such a sense of trust and dependency on him and his leadership. They easily engaged in his visions and were sacrificial in seeking to live out what he defined as the work of the church. And then, suddenly, he’s gone. Everything that he had taught was shattered. The real legacy that he left, eclipsing the good that he had done, was one of betrayal and the undermining of trust. Bill left and gave no explanation for his radical abandonment. What explanation would make sense for why he has so radically disconnected from Willow Creek Community Church? It is only explained by understanding the dynamics of a charismatic and narcissistic leader.

Shame, Perfectionism, And Hiding

Essentialy what happened was that Bill lost control. He had been so adept at flicking accusations away as if they were annoying specks on his well-manicured image. Too many women saying the same thing was uncontainable.  He was exposed, and there was no defense or cover, other than his continued declaration of his being a victim. He did what shame-based, narcissist people do. He left and is hiding both literally and psychologically, by staying outside  the eyes of critics. Hiding is the most primitive of coping strategies. It is as old as Adam and Eve, who when they became self-aware, attempted to hide their faces  from  God. They covered themselves. It is as current as children, who when they see the disappointment of their parent, divert and hide their eyes from the gaze of the disappointed parent. 

So, Where Is Waldo? Anywhere But Where His Critics Can Find Him

In summary, Bill Hybels was a tightly and compulsively self-controlled individual who had to project an image of perfection. His developmental history explains the reasons behind his personality formation. Everything about him reflected a need for control, both for himself and for what was essentially an extension of him, the church. Cracks began to form, threatening a revelation of darkness that was beneath the surface. He could not bear it. Could not stand in the presence of those who were beginning to tunnel beneath the facade and see his flaws. He could not bear it and had to flee and hide.

It is very unlikely that Bill will return to his church and the people that so faithfully followed his leadership. The needs of the people he led are secondary to his need to avoid the pain of standing naked in the light of his own brokenness. So this is an abandonment with no resolution. Where is Waldo? In the shadows hiding. 

Leave a Reply