Tuesday, August 14

Willow Creek: A reflection

Willow Creek is about four miles from my house. I've been there a couple of times. I've never been drawn to go to church there; it's always seemed too big and just, well, too much for me. I have good friends who go there and love it there and those friends are now grieving for their church, for their leadership, for their community.

Because Willow is in my community backyard, it's hard not to know about all of the stories. The local papers lead with those stories though, I have to say, with some restraint. There doesn't seem to be much glee, no sense of schadenfreude.

It was with interest and some trepidation, then, I read the opinion piece "As Willow Creek reels, churches must reckon with how power corrupts."

Over the weekend I was talking with a friend of mine about the difficulties (too small a word) in which Willow Creek finds itself. I've never been a fan of Bill Hybels and I think some people who know me know that. Just had to do with the whole megachurch thing which isn't my thing. I've never read his books and I've heard him speak exactly once. It was fine. Anyway, I told my friend I was imagining what it might be like to have been in a position to try to hold someone like Hybels accountable. Honored, at first, I think, to be part of the inner circle. Easy enough, perhaps, to suggest he rethink something when they were first starting in that Palatine theater. Easy enough to be that partner and spiritual critical friend in those first years of growth. But then he was able to build Willow Creek. THE Willow Creek. That huge campus in South Barrington. And with that he became not just Bill Hybels, but BILL HYBELS.

Now maybe if I'd known him since the beginning I'd be okay having that, "Hey Bill, you wanna keep it real?" conversation with him. Perhaps challenging a few things that seemed a bit out of line. But if I'd joined the ministry team after the opening of the South Barrington campus, I wondered if it would be harder. I wondered if some would think, "Who am I to question Bill Hybels? I mean, it's Bill Hybels!" And then the man and his reputation become something larger than they are and should be because the more deferential the people become, the harder it is to be humble. I'm just guessing, of course. I cannot presume to speak for Mr. Hybels or any of his associates.

I had a weird flashback while I was thinking of how hard it might be to try to be the one to suggest that Hybels was behaving badly and suggest he curtail some things. I worked for a company called Trintex that became Prodigy. At the time of the company's genesis, the corporate giants that were a part of this experiment were CBS, IBM, and Sears though it wasn't too long into the experiment CBS got cold feet and pulled out. Anyway, John Akers was then CEO of IBM and Eddie Brennan was CEO of Sears. A lot of the technology employees were from IBM including my director, Paul. We were going to a meeting during which we would be doing a "show and tell" for the board and Mr. Akers and Mr. Brennan. Paul and I were in the elevator headed up to the conference room when Mr. Akers got on the elevator. I thought Paul was going to stroke out. I was too young to be awed, but I was excited to be a part of the presentation and I recognized Mr. Akers when he got on the elevator. Mr. Akers had a piece of lint on the lapel of his navy blue suit (with a very thin chalk stripe). I said, "Excuse me, sir" and motioned to his lapel. He smiled and brushed it off. Paul's eyes nearly popped out of his head. I know this is not at all like holding Bill Hybels accountable for his actions, but this recollection came back to me because I realized then that Paul never would have said anything. He was too much in awe of the man. Who was just a man with some schmutz on his lapel. What I also must note is that throughout the meeting, both Mr. Akers and Mr. Brennan were just nice people. They didn't seem to be too impressed with who they were or what they did.

That brought back other recollections of men and women of positions of power who abused them. I remember being in a meeting for which several people had been required to prepare reports for the president. One of the directors got up and started to speak. Within minutes, maybe seconds, the president started to shred him mercilessly. Everyone went mute. We were all terrified of her. And, what we all agreed upon when she was nowhere near was that she was terrible at her job. But it was easier to keep our heads down and try to do our work as well as possible.

I think it may be harder to help manage the power perspective of a pastor. He or she is a person of God, after all. God! Who messes with God? And so, I read the article with interest. It's easy to say that structures should be in place to help hold leadership accountable. There's a whole Willow Creek Association to do that, but what if those structures can't withstand the personality? What if there is too much concern that the reputation, the image must be protected at all costs? What if that leader is too able to keep the more insidious side of himself or herself hidden? What if some people see glimpses of it and say nothing because they figure they must be wrong or must have misunderstood, that it must be them not that leader?

Leaders of churches are human beings with all the faults and flaws attributable thereto. Did Willow and Bill Hybels become victims of their own success? Is it because of the growing celebrity status they shared--Willow because of Hybels and Hybels because of Willow?

This is what I do know. Many of the people of Willow Creek are grieving. I'd be willing to bet they're not entirely sure what they're grieving other than the Willow Creek they know and love is under attack, isn't what it was even a month ago. They're grieving the change. They're grieving the people who aren't members who think they know more than they do. They're grieving because there are people who think that somehow Willow Creek deserved this comeuppance.

As I said, I've never been a fan of Willow Creek. It's too big for me. But the people I know who go there are people of profound faith. Their spiritual needs are met there so Willow has to be doing something right.

As they steer this course, seeking new leadership, regaining their footing, being introspective and reflective of what they do well and what they need to change, the evangelical community needs to pray with them and for them. It's not just big churches that falter. It's not just celebrity pastors who stray. This could happen to any pastor in any church anywhere. The on-going story is just less likely to be told on an international stage.

My hope and prayer are that Willow Creek will be a model of recovery going forward, not just a morality tale of how the mighty can fall.