Van Rue who was involved in Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Seattle writes a guest post on the developments of Willow Creek Church in the Chicago area. This is some analysis of the Independent Advisory Group Report and their findings on Bill Hybels. Van Rue raises some questions about what was published and if its legitimate.
“Leadership is an individual sport, one that has to be fine-tuned to each of the people that reports to you. Leaders also need to provide the direction, energy, encouragement and inspiration for each person who reports directly to the leader as well as for the overall organization.”
“Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain.”
Carl von Clausewitz
5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue,[a] and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness,7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities[b] are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 1:5-8 ESV
John Hancock Tower in Chicago
This blog really has not written about Willow Creek. The main reason why is that there is a lot in the evangelical world and one can’t write about all of it. I pick and choose what to write about. That said, I am always willing to let other people publish their thoughts or write what they desire. The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of people out there that have a lot to say. They have seen a lot and have much to share. That is why I have a liberal policy when it comes to publishing other posts that people approach me with. In regards to this blog it is my hope to turn it into a group of people of different perspectives for diversity. You can read about that in, “Writing for The Wondering Eagle.”
Van Rue has written a number of posts before on this blog. He was formerly involved in Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church in Seattle. You can read some of his work in, “Guest Post: Van Rue, Former Member of Mars Hill Seattle Writes About Shepherding Theology” and “Guest Post: Van Rue Formerly of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle on Shepherding Theology. Looking at Membership Covenants and Church Discipline.” Van Rue has been following the ongoing situation at Willow Creek Church as formerly led by Bill Hybels. He wrote a post that looked at the Independent Advisory Group and asks the question is it good enough? Or is it trying to do damage control? As for myself I have not been following Willow Creek so I am not qualified to speak to this, but Van Rue has been following the developments, and he also has a history with Mars Hill and can offer some good analysis. So with that explained I will turn the rest of this post over to Van Rue.
Willow Creek Community Church (WCC) finally released the report by an Independent Advisory Group (IAG) whose primary task was to investigate the claims of sexual assault & harassment against co-founder Bill Hybels. If you’re not keeping score at home (you can catch up here) multiple accounts of sexual harassment and assault at one of the nation’s largest and most famous churches Willow Creek began to reach the public a year ago in March of 2018, and lead to the retirement of Mr. Hybels and the resignation of Staff, Elders and others, that continue progressively today.
Willow Creek Church and Mr. Hybels have been enormously influential over the last 40 years in shaping US Evangelical Christianity, and arguably they are the driving force of the “Mega-Church Movement” that swept the US since the late 1970s. The WCC and WGA may be the most influential Protestant organization in the world today. As such anything that happens at or emanated from Willow Creek Church and its associated ministries, especially that of the Willow Creek Association (WCA; that host the Global Leadership Conference) and their appointed IAG is extremely influential and deserves extreme scrutiny. There are some helpful things in the recent WCC-IAG report, and there are some neglectful, and even a few that are damaging. The weaknesses are enough it should never serve as anyone’s example on how to address issues of church or pastoral.
The Hopeful and Helpful
There are six key take-aways from the 17-page report that are especially good and admirable. The IAG report identifies:
- The witnesses accusing Bill Hybels are “credible” (their word)
- They believe that WCC should provide counselling to those harmed by Bill at WCC expense.
- That Bill Hybels frequently verbally abused and demeaned both men and women subordinates.
- The WCC Board failed over many years to reign in or address Bill’s “behavior” (again, their words).
- Many of their policy recommendations are probably helpful (but didn’t acknowledge policy alone won’t fix issues of sin. Additionally, if WCC doesn’t survive good policy won’t really matter).
- Clearly described specific troubling predatory behavior Bill took to put women in vulnerable positions emotionally and physically. The behavior described is consistent with how sexual predators and pedophiles isolate, control and punish their victims that psychologists call “grooming” (although the report doesn’t use the word “grooming”).
The Issues WCC-IAG Neglects to Address Fully:
The WCC-IAG report falls short at enough points that it should never serve as a formula or modeled by churches or investigations into leadership failures or behavior. Mars Hill Church Inc. (Seattle WA) tried a similar board of advisors, and it did not work for them either, only a year later they dissolved. Despite 17 pages long, a lot of obvious and crucial elements are missing, some are actually quite startling. Key Omissions Are:
First, The utter lack of Scripture. The 17 page report only alludes one single verse in the bible (1 Timothy 3:2), and doesn’t quote any. There are secular movies that allude to more scripture than this report.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Heb 4:12
Second, if fails to disclose possible personal relationships by members of the IAG (Anne Lyon, Gary Walter, Leith Anderson, Jo Anne Lyon, Margaret Diddams, Leith Anderson) with Bill or Lynn Hybels. Since most of the IAG members had leading positions in large Christian institutions in the Chicago area and the US for decades, it’s likely that they would most have met or knew Bill personally and few might be friends. The depth of any relationship (or lack of relationship) ethically MUST be disclosed.
“For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach…” Titus 1:7
Third, the IAG report fails to adequately acknowledge in association with Bill’s sexual assaults the extreme pain, hurt, and anguish exhibited by any of victims of Bill’s sexual predation both initially and as they reshared their stories, some for over 30 years! (the report does mention some pain in their conclusion, but this covers the whole church, and is not specific to Bill’s victims). The failure to even thank these women for their courage for resharing their painful and vulnerable testimony … is cold.
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Col 3:12
Fourth, the report strangely fails to mention key details, like the number of Bill’s victims they actually interviewed. The number of Bill’s victims is crucial to discern the validity of the accusations, to establish they far exceeds the biblical number of witnesses (1 Tim 5:19), and utter breadth and duration of Bill’s sin and crimes, and to validate the work of the IAG. They also neglected to mention first account of sexual assault is from the mid 1980’s so almost all of Bill’s entire career was filled with affairs, harassment and assaults on women. This isn’t something that “just happened in a moment of weakness”. This more surprising when the report provides extreme detail and numbers on other far more trivial matters. 10 victims are publicly known at this time, a number that seems to go up every few months, and Bill’s assaults stretch back to the mid-1980s. The number of Bill’s victims and the length of this predatory sexual assault is important both biblically and for our discernment.
“Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” 1 Tim 3:2
Fifth, the language the report uses regarding Bill’s behavior is strangely minimizing, watered down and even sanguine. I am not sure whether Bill took someone else’s parking space, teased a girl on the playground, or just told dirty jokes. The words they exclusively use dishonestly apply more accurately to far less serious behavior than Bill’s: “sexually inappropriate words and actions” “sexual conduct allegations “, “sexual misconduct”, “inappropriate language”, “sexual innuendo” “inappropriate behavior” and the hyper-euphemized stand-alone “behavior. If you study the accounts yourself (For just one example of 10 accounts of sexual assault, see here) Bill’s horrendous actions are clearly illegal workplace harassment and many would constitute illegal sexual assault. Regardless of prosecutable standards in Illinois, these were extremely serious issues of both law and sin. The language needed to reflect the true level of criminality and spiritual destruction if it there was any intent to be truly honest. The IAG’s language choice is deceptive.
“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” Eph 5:3
Sixth, although the IAG report calls the accusations against Bill “credible” I find the choice of this word weaselly and hedging. The IAG stated, “Allegations of sexually inappropriate words and actions by Bill Hybels in the context of his ministry and leadership of Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association are credible.” They didn’t use: truthful, sincere, candid, frank, forthright, straight, genuine, or honest. “Credible” is a reluctant concession, not a full affirmation of truth or a support to Bill’s victims. Could you imagine the theological implications if the church considered Jesus to have just a “credible” claim of being the Messiah? The use of that word is unconscionable in the context of witnesses who have for years been cruelly dismissed and even slandered by the WCC/WCA boards, this is just one more dismissal of the full validity of their claims.
Seventh, the report fails to mention at any point that the majority of Bill’s sexual victims were employed at WCC, WCA or its associated ministries, most were members of WCC, or that some were in a counselling relationship with Bill. The first issue is of course that if WCC and WCA could be sued successfully for possibly tens of millions of dollars. The second is again legal, as in many states it’s a felony for pastors, counselors and healthcare workers to engage or pursue any sexual behavior with those in their care regardless of “consent”. The third is spiritual, it’s the greatest aberration and malpractice of pastoral trust possible to coerce those in their care (and some of these women were married) into a sexual relationship. The seriousness of all these points was shockingly ignored by the IAG report.
“Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” 1 Tim 5:20
Eighth, the report groups all “allegations” against Bill Hybels of both a managerial and sexual nature together in in one single section. This creates unnecessary confusion as to what the report actually addressing and severely minimizes the far more serious allegations of sexual abuse. Although the board summarizes in detail many of Bill’s other behavior completely neglects to summarize any events of Bill’s numerous sexual assaults… glossing over them entirety.
Ninth, as sexual abuse advocate in investigator Boz Tchividjian noted, “Less than one page of this (IAG) report is given to the substantive allegations bravely reported by so many women. Some of these victims spent in excess of 5 hours painstakingly sharing the abuse by Bill Hybels with this group–and virtually nothing is mentioned about it in the report.” Boz is being generous, if you separate the co-mingled accusation of poor management from sexual assault (see point Eight), less than ½ of a page or only 4 sentences of 17 pages is allocated to deal with Bill Hybel’s most horrific issues of sexual assault, harassment and predation.
Tenth, the far the most shocking omissions is the IAG report never once calls ANY of Bill’s actions “sin” or “sinful”. And never uses the words “confess” or “repent”. I think it’s clear to anyone (even those outside the church!) that a married Pastor who pursues unrelenting sexual assault over 30 years with multiple women, many married, counts as “persisting in sin”. As Paul says, “I say this to your shame…” The IAG report although it rebukes the board, fails to rebuke Bill himself in any way or identify any sin.
“As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” 1Tim 5:20
The Sins and Failures of the WCC and WCA Boards
Although IAG fairly rebukes the board of WCC and WCA for “failing to reign-in Bill’s behavior” (although they strangely never rebuke Bill), the boards sins are separate from Bill’s and shameful on their own. The IAG only had to look at former Elder Missy Rasmussen’s public confession or find former Elder Betty Schmidt’s shocking and sad account here. The board deliberately shaming Bill’s accusers in front of 30k people is horrible spiritual abuse, and their first investigation was a sham only to exonerate Bill. Bill during this time insisted on meeting with Elders one-on-one only and avoided meeting with 2 or more Elders to inhibit the Matt 18 process. (Yes, WCC was so dysfunctional that the Elders and Bill didn’t actually talk or meet for MANY years). The report fails to exonerate Bill’s accusers and validate they were Biblically justified in making their accusations public after failures WCC to provide a biblical process.
As Boz Tchividjian noted “the (WCC-IAG) report is virtually void of addressing the long-standing, life-destroying systemic culture that produced, empowered, protected and defended Bill Hybels.” As Boz implied, the WCC and WCA board members and even many staff are complicit in the sins of the of Bill Hybels and both boards. The IAG failing to mention these public and undisputed sins of the WCC/WCA boards is more than sloppy investigation, its utterly negligent.
Note: I deeply appreciate Missy’s heartfelt and courageous confession, but she is the only board member to publicly confess and apologize so far. However, Missy’s confession is Missy’s confession only, there is biblically no way anyone can delegate our responsibility to confess and make amends. Although resignation is helpful it’s not the biblical response to sin… confession repentance and making amends are. Since the board shamed the victims and even other board members publicly in front of 30k people, their confessions and apology must be both individual and also be public.
It should also be noted, that many board members and a few staff like Steve Carter & Marcus Bieschke, pushed internally for greater accountability. But these people were not only silenced some were like former board member Betty Schmidt publicly attacked and defamed. At least 2 board members of the Willow Creek Association (Jon Wallace and Kara Powell) and 2 members of WCC board (John and Nancy Ortburg) and co-lead pastor Steve Carter all courageously resigned in protest over the actions and inactions. There are other hero’s as well, like Vonda Dyer and Nancy Beach who tirelessly worked for justice quietly within the WCC System, which failed everyone.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
James 5:16a (see also: Matthew 3:5,6, James 5:14-16; Acts 8:22-24; and 1 John 1:9 et al)
The Greatest Failures of the IAG Report
Despite these other short-comings, some of them painfully obvious, the most damage area of the report are their suggestions to new WCC board on how they follow-up with Bill Hybels today. The report sadly states “Because Bill Hybels has retired and is no longer a pastor or employee of Willow Creek Community Church, the church no longer has disciplinary jurisdiction or authority. The church should not take further action.” At other points as well the IAG tragically attempts to protect Bill from future action.
The first problem with this statement is simply factual, Bill was an employee and member of WCC and the board within their rights to act on any and events that occurred during the course of employment. 1 Cor 5:12 (ABPB) gives us jurisdiction, Christians everywhere are responsible for the behavior of other Christians “For what business have I to judge outsiders? Judge the insiders.” The biblical response when a Christian sin and fails to repent is to speak aloud, publicly and deliberately against it, the Bible says “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” Matt 18:17a. And most crucially “As for those (Elders) who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” 1 Tim 5:20. Willow Creek Church has both the right and duty biblically and publicly rebuke Bill. Failure do so is to continue in their worship of Bill Hybels. The IAG report is utterly ethically and spiritually corrupt in attempting to protect Bill.
“As for those (Elders) who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” 1 Tim 5:20
Additionally, nothing in this report or its language prevents Bill from returning immediately to ministry. Bill fails the test of 1 Tim 3:2 in five separate ways. Bill is biblically unfit for ministry of any kind. This report does nothing to affirm the biblical qualifications of those in ministry, and leaves the door open for Bill to just seek counselling and preach again. This is a horrible travesty to the entire Christian church.
“Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable” 1 Tim 3:2
The IAG shockingly and completely fails to address the basic moral belief that a married Pastor, who sexually assaults the members and employees of his church in a predatory manor for 30 years… has committed sin.
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Matt 7:15
At multiple points the IAG report walks away from any chance to apply meaningful biblical truth, call out obvious sin, apply scripture in clear language or much say much that would inspire WCC to biblical action and response of simple repentance and confession. Worse it even tries shamefully at 2 points to protect Bill from future board action. They also fail in 17 pages to justly acknowledge the pain and trauma caused by Bill Hybels and the WCC board to his victims, or even simply thank the women who painfully shared their testimony. Bill left a trail of devastation behind him, and to ignore these women’s horrible anguish is to ignore both the full truth and the depth of sin by Bill and the WCC/WCA. The new board must publicly acknowledge and validate the horrible pain of these women before any reconciliation to happen, and it must rebuke Bill Hybels. If WCC Church fail to call sin “sin”, comfort the victims, validate their pain, and rebuke Bill, it’s the same as offering these women up as a human sacrifice to please the great Bill Hybels; They may through this neglect effectively enthroned Bill Hybels as their god. The report tirelessly and consistently minimizes the extent of Bills horrendous pastoral malpractice and sexual predation in so many ways, in so many places, that this could only deliberate.
Sadly, these failures won’t bode well for the future of Willow Creek Community Church, or even the Evangelical Church as a whole. The IAG failures let the entire Christian Church down. In the face of sin and its disaster, the followers of God are called to humble themselves (James 4:10), lament (Lamentations 1-5), to wear sack cloth (Neh 9:1), to cover ourselves in ashes, to weep and wail (Matt 11:21, Jonah 3:5-9, 2 Sam 3:31, Job 42:6, Isaiah 15:3). And as clearly commanded specifically to Christian leaders…
“Gird yourselves with sackcloth and lament, O priests; Wail, O ministers of the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth O ministers of my God, For the grain offering and the drink offering Are withheld from the house of your God.” Joel 1:13.
If Willow Creek is to survive it must do more than quietly “move on” as they seem bent on doing. The scales seem to be in God’s hand, will Willow Creek Church be measured and found wanting? If the board fails in this, or even fails to act quickly, the collapse of Willow Creek Community Church may stand as possibly the largest church disaster in Christian history outside of war or revolution.
“Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Rev 2:5