This past August, Director of Vocational Formation Geoff Vandermolen, Senior Pastor of Madison Square Christian Reformed Church Dave Beelen and I took a number of students to the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. This trip was part of an elective Leadership class.
This year’s summit took place during a turbulent time in the history of Willow Creek Church. The church is still dealing with the after effects of major allegations against Senior Pastor Bill Hybels that eventually led to his early retirement. The allegations then led to questions of how the Willow Creek Church elders dealt with such charges through the years which then led to the resignation of the elders as well as the co-pastors who were chosen to be successors to Bill Hybels.
The paragraph above does not do justice to the story of pain and struggle that continues to affect the alleged victims, as well as the church and the Willow Creek Global Leadership Association that grew out of the vision of Bill Hybels. As students, our class went to learn. What did we learn?
Sin is sticky, messy and stupid. It never affects just a few people. It twists and turns. We all have personal stories about sin, but we discussed how leadership gifts and position do not immune us from the need to be on guard against the temptations of money, sex and power.
Accountability is not just a good idea, it is vital for a church body. The accountability structure of Willow Creek Church did not work. It seemingly favored in every turn Bill Hybels and it placed all those with the courage of sharing their stories of discomfort, discrimination and abuse on the defensive. We may never know the truth of all the stories that have been shared, but the story of how an elder board responded shows an integrity gap that eventually was too large to ignore.
Apologies need to be specific and focused in order to be an apology. Willow Creek Association President Tom DeVries opened the conference with a statement and then followed that up with an apology where persons were named. There is a power in naming and in direct response to the ongoing pain of people who have suffered in silence for years.
God is still on His throne and a Church is still at work. The conference began with a Wednesday night worship service of testimony, prayer and song. Willow Creek members sat near our group and thanked us for coming. They also asked us to pray for them.
We saw those leading us in music with tears in their eyes and lament in their voices. At the end of the conference, we had a tour of the church that included a tour of their care facilities with a special focus on their clothing store, car care garage and grocery store.
We met one of the food pantry leaders, a woman who said that she began intending to volunteer once a month; but nineteen years later makes this her weekly and even daily place to serve with her children. We came to learn at a conference; but we left seeing a church, a church that is hurting, still being an instrument of God’s grace to a hurting world.
More will be shared by others about Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Church; but I invite you to also know that God is at work and His chastened church is still learning and serving. May we be in prayer for that church and all churches dealing with sin. I guess that means all churches and all leaders. May we be found faithful as we continue to learn to serve well for God and His glory.