The news coming from Willow Creek Community Church in the last week is incredibly sad. Allegations against long time pastor Bill Hybels from multiple women have turned out to be far worse than originally stated. The blowback resulted in two pastors resigning and last night the entire board of elders announced they would be resigning. For those not in the evangelical world, Willow Creek is a huge megachurch near Chicago which has many different sites where their church meets. To have the entire leadership resign is truly tragic and shocking.
I must admit however that ten years ago I would have been even more shocked than I am today. Ten years ago I was on the periphery of a situation that, while not abuse or harassment, was no less damaging to a Christian organization. I wrote about this story on this blog a number of years ago but I feel like I should retell it today briefly. I’ll use even fewer identifying details than when I first wrote my blog. I admittedly only have one perspective on the matter and want to be kind to people who lived it out much more closely than I did.
Tens years ago after college I lived overseas for a year as an intern with a Christian ministry. The organization had been started by a couple who soon got married after founding it. During my year both the husband and wife taught classes and preached sermons that I enjoyed immensely. I can’t express how much I respected each of them.
We lived on a somewhat sprawling missions base. Basically it was a big, incredibly beautiful piece of land with some buildings in the middle. The husband had an office right in the middle of everything, surrounded by windows. We called it the fishbowl. During the year the husband and wife had to travel back to the US for a couple months and for various good reasons, the husband ended up coming back a couple months early.
The ministry had a number of North American mission staff. One worked closely with the husband as his assistant among other roles. Her desk was in the fishbowl with him. I had to fly back for my sister’s wedding midway through the year. When I got back the husband and assistant picked me up from airport, a 2-3 hour car trip each way. Today such an extended time alone would set off alarm bells for me. Ten years ago I suspected nothing. I think often evangelicals “suspect nothing” because sex is largely taboo and we do not discuss it very openly. We also put pastors and leaders on a pedestal where they surely can do no wrong. This should change.
At the end of my fantastic year I got an email the first week I was home. The husband wrote that he had fallen short in a number of ways. Basically an emotional affair but nothing physical. He and his wife were returning to the States for counseling. I believed the email because why wouldn’t I? This guy had been a tremendous leader who had spoken into my life repeatedly. I shouldn’t have.
Less than a year later we get another email from the wife. The husband had an affair and had decided to get divorced. The marriage was now over. Again it should not have shocked me at the time but it did. When the allegations against Willow Creek’s Pastor came out I had a feeling they were even worse than what had been released. This past week has confirmed my feelings.
I do not mean to say we should speak out or judge before all facts are in. But if the #Metoo movement has shown us anything it is that we need to consider allegations with eyes wide open and at the very least not summarily dismiss them. The man who ran my ministry did not abuse or harass anyone but what began as a significant personal failing became a full-blown affair that destroyed a marriage.
It is really hard to write this. Even now, ten years later I hate to come off as disparaging. It feels both very close to me because I was there when it happened but also very far away. I was just a lowly intern who had no idea what was going on. The Board at Willow Creek does not have my lack of accountability. The fact that the Board did multiple investigations and found that Hybels did essentially nothing wrong is incredibly damning to their credibility. The fact that further, credible accusations only just now led to their resignation means all churches need to look even more carefully at their policies regarding leadership.
I learned a lot in my year overseas. Once during a lesson on leadership, the husband told our class of interns, “The greater the sin and the higher in leadership, the greater the consequences.” This is playing out tragically today for the Willow Creek community. May this sad sequence of events lead to greater accountability for church leadership and greater care for all church staff and members.