Willow Creek offers lessons in accountability

The Rev. Bill Hybels, right, and his two successors, lead pastor Heather Larson, center, and lead teaching pastor Steve Carter, left, of Willow Creek Community Church. Carter resigned this week, and Willow Creek is investigating more allegations of misconduct against Hybels. Photo courtesy of Willow Creek Community Church

(RNS) — Church leaders do not need standing ovations.

That was my first thought as I read in March about how congregants of Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago rose to their feet to cheer in support of then-Pastor Bill Hybels, who had just denied multiple allegations of sexual misconduct reported by the Chicago Tribune.

“The accusations you hear in the Tribune are just flat-out lies,” Hybels reportedly said at the meeting.

In April, Hybels fast-forwarded his retirement plans and abruptly resigned. At that meeting, which also ended with a standing ovation, Hybels admitted only to putting himself “in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.”

Willow Creek’s woes now continue, thanks to its larger-than-life founding pastor. New harassment allegations against Hybels surfaced in a New York Times report over the weekend. Co-pastor Steve Carter then resigned, and the congregation announced an independent investigation would look into Hybels’ alleged history of misconduct. Whether co-pastor Heather Larson will stay remains an open question. Meanwhile, another question looms large: What will other pastors and churches learn from this sorry episode?

If they take away anything, it should be this. You can have all the clever innovations, seeker-friendly methods and oversight structures in the world, but trouble will catch up with you if you’re afraid to hold a leader accountable.

A unique sadness hangs over this particular situation because so many of us had a sense that Willow Creek was supposed to be different.

Hybels founded Willow Creek Community Church in 1975. He went door-to-door asking neighbors why they didn’t attend services, and he designed a church around their objections: multiple service times, age- and affinity-based programming, and no churchy jargon that would be off-putting to a newcomer. Willow Creek catered to religious “seekers” and by the 1980s was one of the largest churches in America. The separate Willow Creek Association, founded in 1992, creates training materials for its more than 13,000 member churches from 90 denominations and 45 countries. Willow Creek is one of the most admired and widely imitated churches in America.

The Rev. Bill Hybels, the former senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., speaks on Jan. 26, 2012. Photo by Marc Gilgen/Creative Commons

Much of the admiration is well-deserved. Willow has resisted the allure of partisan politics that dominated and then compromised so many other evangelical churches’ witness over the years. The church has poured its heart into local outreach rather than culture wars. Neighbors in Chicago and beyond have benefited from that discipline.

Unmoored from any denominational tradition and flung across expensive neighborhoods, the entrepreneurial startup grew like a tech stock in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, it has been the envy of the evangelical world and spawned thousands of imitations. Yet along the way, experiences of Hybels’ alleged victims didn’t come to light. Or if they did, they were apparently not taken seriously.

The so-called seeker-sensitive multisite church model that Willow Creek inaugurated is truly a reflection of its place and time: individualistic and celebrity-obsessed. Looking back, it is insane to think people believed this was the way of the future. It was so dependent on Hybels himself and so enamored with management formulas that the importance of timeless virtues, including humility at the top and courage among the rank and file, tragically fell by the wayside.

To be sure, Hybels didn’t make it easy for congregants to view him as a mere mortal in need of accountability. Just look at his obsession with leadership succession. That the process of finding a successor took six years signals what it was: an exercise in self-aggrandizement. Who could replace the great Bill Hybels? Well, no one, apparently. Willow Creek appointed two pastors to follow him.

Another sign of trouble: Before Hybels’ resignation, he was going to remain an active member in the congregation in retirement. That almost never goes well; a much-loved pastor’s continued presence can undermine new leadership. For Hybels to seek exception to this well-understood rule made it another exercise in self-aggrandizement. It served his unmet psychological needs better than the needs of the congregation and its mission.

My prediction is that Willow Creek and the leadership training seminars that bear its name will soon cease to exist without Hybels. Demand for the seminars has been too closely linked to the personality and credibility of Hybels. It withers without him.

Willow Creek did many things right over the years and is, I trust, trying to do the right thing now with this new investigation. But the damage is done, and the seeds of its downfall were sown long ago.

After 35 years of management gurus, economies of scale and efficiency gains, Hybels has proved that you cannot run a church like a crisis PR firm. Churches need oversight, confession and repentance. Willow Creek has instead been mired in damage control and media relations.

Maybe it’s time for a new rule: No more standing ovations for pastors. God knows them fully. We do not. Judgment and mercy belong to him alone. It is enough to bring our hands together in prayer.

Applause is a distraction and a temptation that we — and they — would be far wiser to avoid.

(Jacob Lupfer, a frequent commentator on religion and politics, is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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  • The accountability we NEED is to be in and with the attenders or members of churches. When that happens, the much-ballyhooed Christian “discernment” (also known as our in-built BS detector) will actually operate. First of all, anyone who attends a church which insists that the entire Bible is inerrant should wake up, splash his/her face with cold water and get out of that place. EVERYONE with even a modicum of education knows that Genesis is full of baloney, Revelation is gobbledegook, the 613 supposed commandments to the Jewish people include some which are properly illegal in civilized nations, some which are properly unconstitutional in free nations, some which are silly and irrelevant in a modern world and all of them completely out of priority until Jesus found and advertised the two that matter. Using the entire Bible to paint the picture of God is religious malpractice. The first duty of lay Christians is to get the evangelical churches off of this one-line lie. Do not let your pastor preach nonsense about what the Bible is!

    Secondly, anyone who sits for more than one year under the preaching of a single pastor is basically a groupie. Get up and move. If you like church, attend a different one every Sunday until you have visited every one within 50 miles. Savor each experience. Walk among strangers. I have seen this “idolize the pastor” thing too many times. It’s sick and the same people who have rehearsed it for years are the ones who think their Donald is heaven-sent and should be untouchable. Horse-hockey!

  • Accountability is the by-product of truth, which no self-interested institution can ever be trusted to provide. Anyone who hasn’t figured out by now that no church can police itself just hasn’t been paying attention.

    Willow Creek is also a case study on why a free and independent press is important. Another good thing to keep in mind during the “any news I don’t like is fake news” era.

  • So we are now informed that “EVERYONE with even a modicum of education knows that Genesis is full of baloney, Revelation is gobbledegook.” Okay.

    First of all, patently & demonstrably false anti-biblical statements (like the above), have nothing to do with Jacob Lupfer’s article. Lupfer said, “You can have all the clever innovations, seeker-friendly methods and oversight structures in the world, but trouble will catch up with you if you’re afraid to hold a leader accountable.” Which is okay, I can get with Lupfer’s statement. But Lupfer’s statement isn’t an attack on the Bible.

    Secondly, such PDFABS’s are indeed pure falsehood, and pure falsehoods are no good for anyone (“with even a modicum of education,” so to speak.) This foolishness is supposed to be the domain of atheists, not professing Christians. It is time to get back the Bible — ALL of it. It’s reliable and trustworthy already.

  • We have been through this already. You are entitled to your opinion that everything in the Bible is literally true and reliable. I am entitled to my opinion that such statements amount to religious malpractice——no matter who insists upon them, including all leaders in any churches. It is not enough that church leaders be “accountable” for their sex behaviors WHILE teaching fibs to everyone within earshot. We need to hold religious leaders “accountable” for their public statements on doctrine. If, in the pulpits, they are conditioning their permission for people to know Jesus upon whether those people will embrace and repeat historical falsehood to the rest of humanity, we need to call them out on THAT point of “accountability”.

  • If they take away anything, it should be this. You can have all the clever innovations, seeker-friendly methods and oversight structures in the world, but trouble will catch up with you if you’re afraid to hold a leader accountable.

    You can apply all the image-management techniques available to you, use tons of lipstick to doll up the pig, and when all is said and done, the pig will still be there, fully visible to anyone with eyes in her or his head.

    Again and again, these stories center on the astonishing sense of entitlement that some folks have, the astonishing sense that other folks are there to be used and disposed of for the pleasure of the entitled — and faith communities and secular institutions won’t get far down the road to solving these abuse problems unless they ask themselves where that sense of entitlement comes from, who has it more than others, why it’s there, and what can be done about it.

    What Cardinal Cupich says in a recent interview with Michael J. O’Loughlin applies in spades to the Catholic church, where the soon-to-be-released Pennsylvania grand jury report says that church officials put the image of the church above accountability and the safety of children — all over again. But it also applies to other faith communities and to secular institutions, mutatis mutandis, with the term “clericalism” translated into the language of those other institutions.

    Cupich says,

    “I really believe that the issue here is more about a culture of clericalism in which some who are ordained feel they are privileged and therefore protected so that they can do what they want.”


  • Thanks. I prefer believing that I try to agree with serious scholars. I’m an amateur, but we should all seek to know truth about religious writings.

  • The list of 613 commandments is not contained in the Bible. It is based on the Torah, but the idea of 613 is a later rabbinic statement. In fact, there are single verses that account for more than one commandment, in some formulations of the list.

  • True. I would settle for recognizing that burnt animal sacrifice was always a load of nonsense, that the lengths to which Jewish people must go to separate meat and dairy is a load of nonsense, that the fixation on avoiding pork is nonsense, that Genesis is completely inadequate for truthfully explaining creation, that the Babel story is baloney, the Sodom story is baloney, the Noah/flood story is baloney, the commandment to not wear clothes made from two kinds of material is silly, and that even much of the lore surrounding David is entirely questionable.

    It is not a good thing to “make” people pretend to believe in this stuff ——or worse—–to be hoodooed on all modern issues by those who actually think they do believe such things. Christianity today needs a thorough dose of honesty injected into it. One thousand years ago, most might have been excused for having no means by which to know better, but that innocent ignorance no longer “works” without a lot of base-level lying. It’s time to insist on blowing the baloney whistle.

  • Btw there’s no commandment against “to not wear clothes made from two kinds of material.” The commandment is not to wear wool and linen together in a single garment. Ironically, this commandment as stated in Leviticus 19:19 is only one verse after one of the two commandments that Jesus identified, as you say, as the ones “that matter.”

  • A better lesson is that ethics and integrity are never going to be found in a megachurch.

  • You are correct that it is a GREAT irony that one of the least important commandments is juxtaposed with one of the most important—–side by side in Leviticus. As far as I’m concerned, the entire OT has that problem. No prioritization, no filter, no common sense on display.

    As for wool and linen, the KJV translators wrote it that way. Many to most of the other translators do not. Biblegateway.com allows you to look at dozens of them at once.

  • It isn’t true that that Jewish leaders of the time would have seen “love your neighbor as yourself” as an afterthought. Hillel, who lived a few decades earlier, summed up the law as “what is hateful to yourself, do not do to others.” Of course Jesus formulated the same idea differently. In fact, Mark 12 recounts that a scribe commended Jesus for stating that God is One and there is no other (this becomes kind of ironic with the Trinity but it is certainly in line with Jewish theology), that you shall love God with all your heart, understanding and strength, and that you shall love your neighbor as yourself — a commandment more important than burnt sacrifices, cf. Hosea 6:6 (“I desire mercy, not sacrifices”).
    Lev. 19:19 mentions only the word “shaatnez,” meaning mixture. Deut. 22:11, however, says “shaatnez tzemer u’fishtim yachdav.” Deuteronomy often being a re-statement of the “earlier” material. Christian Bibles tend to also translate tzemer u’fishtim as linen and wool, although you’re right, the KJV put “linen and wool” in Lev. 19:19 where it is not precisely present. The “yachdav,” meaning together or as one (echad=one), provides the basis for the rabbinic interpretation that it has to be one garment.

  • Just as Jesus was accountable to his Heavenly Father, and the apostles were accountable to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, so each of us should be accountable to others in authority to avoid the traps of temptation vulnerabilities. This is similar to what happened in 1 Corinthians chaps 1 & 3, where the church in Corinth was personality driven, almost cult-like. The high ethical standards set by Jesus for his disciples indicates a high degree of integrity among the numerous eyewitnesses. There is less opportunity to misrepresent the experiences of the many eyewitnesses. Every church is filled with flawed individuals. Every flawed individual has the great opportunity to be born of God’s Spirit from above and to live and talk in that Spirit. Jesus is central in all of this.

  • Hillel, Hosea and some others were probably trying to drag religion to kindness because they felt in their hearts that it should be something more meaningful than hierarchy, ritual, authority, mystery and dogma—–always as uphill slog.

    Never get the idea I don’t like Jewish people. We have six million in the USA and those who voted in the 2016 election only went Trumpee at the rate of 29%, with 71% rejecting Trump and Trumpism. That says a lot in favor of American Jewish people having better judgment than our 81%-Trump-supporting white evangelicals.

  • There were bishops who believed they were privileged and therefore did not obey Canon Law.