Willow Creek Community Church, once considered one of the most influential churches in the evangelical world, has still not come to terms with the harm its founder caused. It’s all the more disturbing when you realize how fresh the trauma is and how much time the church’s leaders have had to figure out a path forward.
Here’s a refresher: In March of 2018, we found out that Pastor Bill Hybels, who founded the church just outside of Chicago, had overstepped his boundaries with multiple women. Months later, there were more stories about how he sexually harassed his assistant for years in the 1980s.
When those initial stories broke, Hybels denied the allegations to his congregation while flanked by his handpicked replacements Steve Carter and Heather Larson. He said the church elders had investigated the situation and had cleared him of any wrong-doing. The congregation gave him a standing ovation at the time.
By the end of the year, those replacements had resigned — as had all the elders.
During all that time, the victims were called liars. They were treated as if they had coordinated to take down a prominent pastor. Their stories weren’t taken seriously until mainstream media reported on what happened — and even then, many church members refused to believe them. And even when the new elders met with members a year later, they just tried to pretend like nothing had ever happened. Which meant there were also no apologies.
It was devastating to see that for another reason: If any church could have set the standard for how to handle this kind of crisis, it would’ve been Willow Creek. They were the gold standard for evangelical churches for decades. If they failed so miserably at this, how could anyone expect better from the Catholic Church or Southern Baptists?
It’s now been more than three years since Hybels’ actions came to light. Many of the leaders of Willow Creek were not around when all that happened, and part of their job has been to rekindle trust between worshipers and themselves. There have been internal fights about how to move forward, but those aren’t unusual for a megachurch (or any large company) with someone new at the top.
But even with all those changes, you would think everyone’s on the same page when it comes to dealing with the scandals that nearly took down the church.
Earlier this week, Senior Pastor Dave Dummitt and Campus Pastor Shawn Williams held a meeting with the church’s “core” members, which is something they regularly do to talk about internal issues and plans for the future. Nothing weird about that.
At one point, they took questions from the audience and one of the questions was why the name “Bill Hybels” was rarely mentioned anymore. (It’s unclear if that question came from someone who was genuinely curious, had no idea what happened with him, or wanted the church to honor its founder more.)
The correct answer would have been to say something like this: “Well, because he sexually harassed multiple women, and we’re ashamed that he was allowed to get away with it for so long, and our jobs have been in part to figure out how to move forward as a church and make sure everyone, especially women, feel safe here. Bill Hybels was part of this church’s past, but he will never have anything to do with this church’s present or future. That’s why his name doesn’t come up on this stage.”
But I’m not on Willow’s payroll. These guys are. And that’s not the answer they gave.
Williams’ answer boiled down to the fact that he’s a newer hire and lacked experience working with Hybels:
… What I recognize is there’s a lot of landmines that I don’t even know they’re there, and I find them out when I step on them, okay? And I have. And I’ve stepped on a lot of them in the last 10 months — unintentionally, but I have…
… I recognize that this can also be a very polarizing reality within our congregation, as far as people’s perspectives of all that played out in 2018… I’ve talked to people that just can’t understand why Bill was treated the way Bill was treated. I’ve also talked to those that just can’t really understand or wrap their heads around those who were victims and were affected deeply.
I’ve talked to those who are incredibly angry with the elder board who was present at the time, and I’ve talked to elders who served on that particular board… And so talking about just a wide wide perspective that gets around here, and everybody has very emotional opinions…
Why is there polarization? If there are church members who still think Hybels did nothing wrong, the church’s new leaders should make it abundantly clear they’re not welcome here moving forward. Tell them they are free to celebrate a predator on their own time.
Williams added that he met Hybels twice and once was “pretty personally life-changing.” He called Hybels a “once-in-a-generation leader” but that there was eventually a “shadow” on that leadership… which is wildly understating what happened. But when it comes to holding those conflicting ideas in one’s mind, Williams said “I think it’s actually possible to hold both.”
No it’s not. You can acknowledge that Hybels found the church and inspired people. Those are facts. It’s also a fact that he abused multiple women and broke their trust, the worst kind of hypocrisy for a pastor whose reputation was largely built on avoiding scandals. Anyone who still thinks he’s a good man, however, is ignoring all the victims. You cannot hold the view that Hybels was a decent person without throwing those victims under the bus.
And yet Dummitt agreed with everything Williams said, merely adding, “We gotta get there at the right time in the right way.”
Which is a weird way of telling everyone it’s fine to ignore the elephant in the church.
And then the two of them moved on as if that was just another question.
Both of those men — current Willow Creek leaders — who are undoubtedly aware of everything Hybels did are trying to play “both sides” of sexual harassment. If they’re not willing to call out Hybels as abusive, because they’re afraid of alienating longtime church members who knew him well or because they genuinely don’t think he did anything wrong, then Williams and Dummitt are part of the same broken culture that nearly tore apart the church. What’s the point of bringing in new leadership if they’re acting just like the old leadership?
They’re too cowardly to call out the church’s founder, which means this church has not moved on. It’s still as broken as it ever was, and the members cannot count on these men to provide a path forward.
One of the first steps to overcoming the trauma of abuse is acknowledging what happened. These people are unwilling to do that. And there’s no reason for them to be hesitant! They’re not guilty! They weren’t around when it happened! They didn’t help protect Hybels at the time! And yet it’s like they’re still trying to suck up to him — or at least the church members who decided Hybels’ sexual harassment was acceptable because of whatever he did for Christianity at large.
Laura Barringer, who has been very outspoken about church abuse, shared that video and called the men’s responses “careless and deeply offensive” to the victims:
I am crushed watching this video from @WillowCreekCC. The words by @davedummitt and Shawn Williams are hurtful. This display is careless and deeply offensive to those wounded by Bill Hybels. https://t.co/A4uytQUAeW via @YouTube
— laura barringer (@laurambarringer) May 29, 2021
Others echoed her frustration:
I made it 30 seconds before turning it off. They started off by joking. Then the crowd laughed. Then they joked about a senior leader who was on staff during Hybels' abuse to come up.
Willow Creek does not care about victims. They care more about their idols.
— Chris Hennessey (@chrishennessey) May 29, 2021
This is not something two men ignorant of trauma and abuse are qualified to glibly discuss on a stage.
You barely mentioned the people who really matter here, and that is the victims.
— Elisabeth Arnold Ingram� (@ElisabethIngram) May 29, 2021
Dave-I challenge you to convene a panel of victims and allow them to tell the full unvarnished story before your congregation. And then, yes have a conversation about that history and whether or not it should be celebrated. The speed of the leader was abusive.
— Katie Loveland (@KatieMLoveland) May 29, 2021
If you are taking about him being a “once in a generation leader” and fail to explicitly say that he was a serial abuser who destroyed people’s lives, you aren’t really holding things in tension. You’re lying. That isn’t something to celebrate.
— Andrew Jones (@andrayjones) May 29, 2021
Imagine a man, a pastor, saying to a women who'd been raped "God has this way of not wasting pain"
I think this is one of the cruellest, stupidest, most f***ed-up things I've heard in a little while. https://t.co/P3hwT2NUh9
— Benjamin Ady (@tripleoxymoron) May 29, 2021
(That last thread from Benjamin Ady, who first posted the video clip, does an excellent job of breaking down the language the men used to describe Hybels, in so many glowing ways.)
I’ve said this before, but by now, anyone who’s still attending or giving money to Willow Creek is part of the problem, too. They don’t give a damn about the victims there. It’s been three years and the leadership is as broken as ever. How much more evidence does the congregation need?
The Titanic has sunk. Get on a lifeboat and save yourselves. The new captain ain’t gonna help you.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)