What Lessons Can We Learn from What’s Happened at Willow Creek?

  1796 views

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?
Posted in:
Image Credit

The Network hosts user-submitted content.
Posts don't necessarily imply CRCNA endorsement, but must comply with our community guidelines.

Let's Discuss…

We love your comments! Thanks for your help upholding the Community Guidelines to make this an encouraging and respectful community for everyone.
Community Builder

Thank you Miriam for helping us think through lessons we can all learn from the experiences of Willow Creek. I'm sure the Church will be learning lessons from this experience for many years to come. I'll pray that we, here in the CRC, take these learnings to heart.

Community Builder

Ministers are just teaching Elders within the church. Thus one of the first levels of accountability, should be through the plurality of the Elders that lead the local congregation. We need to actively reduce the distinction between lay elders and ministers, as Scripture knows of no such distinction.

Agreed. Reformed Polity while not a panacea against abuse is certainly one good layer of safeguard. In recent decades too many of our churches have chosen to defer to a more corporate staff model not only opening up potential for abuse, but also putting our Ministers in positions that they may be ill equiped for. 

Hi Lloyd! I tend to agree that emphasizing the priesthood of the believers here is a good step. It would help the system as whole to realize that the pastor is not above the elders. There should be parity that allows for healthy discussion and hopefully for vulnerability by all the elders as they take on gospel ministry together in our challenging world.

Participant

I read the sad news as well.  Learnings?  Someone else has said somewhere on this network(?) that it is amazing that persons who do counseling professionally always do so under the supervision of another.  But pastors, who spend part of their work counseling, have no such supervision in place.  Perhaps we need to change this reality, not just voluntarily but professionally, that is, pastors be required to have some kind of supervisory relationship that supports and watches over their interpersonal ministry work or something like that.  Our church polity has the Council or Elders overseeing the pastor, however, most likely there is no expertise on that body to oversee in the ways needed for closer accountability in personal and occupational boundaries and so forth.  

Colin.

Participant

Willow leadership stated they failed in the accountability department.  I wonder what they will do differently moving forward?

I think there is a need for pastors to have in place regular evaluative processes that can cover their ministry work but also how they are relating to staff and parishioners.  I have found this to be new ground for many churches even though there often are well skilled HR people in the congregation for whom this rhythm of work, evaluation, reflection, growth plan are a regular part of their careers.  Such evaluation work should include an opportunity for any in the congregation to bring forward (through evaluation survey or in person) any concerns or incidents of a pastor crossing a boundary or acting wrongly including of course any abusive situation.  The HR Team we recently formed in this church in part to conduct staff evaluations (including pastor, and that's where we have started) incudes three persons with HR and supervisory experience, as well as one person who is a professional counselor.  What a blessing to have such a group help guide myself and our Council through this process.  

As said earlier, pastors, because they do pastoral counseling need to have a supervisor with whom they debrief on some regular schedule concerning the care given and the effect of the events dealt with on the pastor as well as the keeping of boundaries.  

There is still way too much isolation for pastors; too much going it alone and congregations and Councils expecting that to be the norm and proper way.

Thanks for keeping this moving forward Bonnie & team.

I agree with what's been said here, but I also think there's a missing piece.  We tend to always point towards lack of supervision or accountabiity, and in this case the church has admitted that certain questions weren't asked, and that there was a bias.  But in many of these kinds of situations, there is also a lack of transparency on the part of the pastors.  I say that as a pastor....all the necessary checks and balances are in place...but if I can't admit that I'm being tempted to cross a line....then they just become more places to lie....

    But there is another side to this.  When I look at the CRC situation, outside of lack of transparency among those tempted to cross lines, the biggest challenge I see is conflict between creating a "safe space" for pastors to admit to temptation while also providing real accountability.  All of the people who I, for example, might confide in about a temptation (a trusted group of elders, collegues, etc) are also the people who might some day have to vote on my suspension or fitness for ministry.   I haven't found a solution to that dilemna.  

Participant

I think you are absolutely right. Pastors (and church leaders and all of us) need safe spaces where we can go to share our struggles - to find help and healing and grace in the midst of the struggle. We have to remember that we are in spiritual warfare - of course there are going to be struggles, there will be wounded soldiers. The battle can't be avoided, but maybe we can avoid some of the casualties. I remember a conversation with a distraught pastor, who was grieving the fall of a beloved colleague who was now facing jail time for serious criminal sexual behavior. He asked, where could this pastor have gone, before it got to this point? Where could he have found help before it reached this level? Such a good question! And I had no answer. We could only grieve together.