In April, Bill Hybels resigned from Willow Creek and the church promised investigation into the new allegations against him. In the beginning, he denied the truth of the women’s stories. Earlier this month, Pastor Heather Larson and the church elders also resigned; they had backed Hybels when allegations first arose. Women who have come forward include Pat Baranowski, Vonda Dyer, Nancy Beach, Nancy Ortberg, Leanne Mellado. The church has issued apologies, publicly and privately. Hybels spent four decades as the lead pastor of Willow Creek.
From an outsider looking in at this situation and how it continues to unfold, there are some lessons that we in Safe Church Ministry should consider.
First, ministers carry a great deal of power and privilege, whether they are aware of that or not. They are seen as trustworthy and compassionate leaders who teach and share God’s love with the Body of Christ. More often than not, because of their role, people in the pews tend to place them on a pedestal – as someone who can do no harm and as someone they are called to emulate with their relationship to Jesus Christ. And so, when stories of abuse arise, fellow ministry staff, lay leaders, and worshippers often want to believe the minister and defend him/her as their initial reaction. In this article from Christianity Today, Willow Creek elder Missy Rasmussen, said, “We trusted Bill, and this clouded our judgment.” Power in itself is not evil or wrong, but when abused, power can begin a cycle of harm that not only is detrimental to the “victim” but also to the community.
It is important to remember that ministers are human, beloved children of God who are not free from the brokenness of sin. If and when allegations of abuse come forward against your minister or colleague in ministry, do not rush to conclusions, do not rush to defend or qualify the actions, and do not dismiss them as impossible. With other leaders in your community, take the allegation seriously, reach out for support, and pray for God’s guidance and love. Safe Church Ministry have many resources available including “Responding to Abuse: A Toolkit for Churches” as well as classis coordinators and staff who you can speak with in confidence.
Second, this story brings up questions of accountability and supervision. For many of the same reasons discussed above, congregations may not see the need to offer and manage supervision and/or may be fearful in raising critique and concerns. However, ministers are often in relationship with folks who are in more marginalized/vulnerable positions (like folks with disabilities, women, racialized people). To promote safety for both pastor and congregant in community, in relationships of trust, accountability is necessary. In the example of Hybels, he started the church and so there may have been an added layer of fear that without his leadership, the church may cease to exist. Ministers may recognize and encourage this tendency, causing harm to themselves and their community. At Willow Creek, the leadership had rushed through reviews and met new allegations with defensiveness. Elder Rasmussen said, “We are sorry that we allowed Bill to operate without the kind of accountability that he should have had.”
Oversight of ministry and clear lines of accountability are essential in creating and maintaining healthy pastoral relationships. This oversight should be offered by a group of competent, gracious, faithful leaders who care both for the community and the pastor. Policies are essential to guide you if and when an allegation of abuse arises. Encourage your pastor to seek mentorship and support from other clergy throughout their vocation. Also, the church is larger than the leadership of any one person or minister. The church is the Body of Christ in the world to serve and glorify God; it does not rest on one person’s shoulder. We are to serve God as faithful disciples of Jesus together.
Third, though really this is the place to start, we can remember to pray. Pray for the women who come forward, telling their #MeToo truths. Pray for the leadership of your church and other churches as they seek to respond with compassion and grace. Pray, too, for the minister, that they may live out their vocation faithful to God, to their community, and to themselves. It is with God’s love that we grow to live and serve God’s people. Continue to hold Willow Creek, its members and leaders, the women, and Hybels in your prayers that God will continue to be present and help restore what has been harmed, including the unending love of God.
If this situation has triggered you in any way, reach out. You are not alone in the Body of Christ.
As you reflect on the news of Willow Creek church and some of the learnings in this blog, consider these questions:
- What are the learnings you see in midst of this situation, for your own lives and congregations?
- How can you care for yourself and others who may be triggered by this news?
- If you are in a similar situation, what will help you remain faithful to God's mission and ministry?
- What are your prayers for Willow Creek and the world?