You have likely heard about the resignation of Bill Hybels as Lead Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. There are allegations of inappropriate behavior with women, including lingering hugs, suggestive comments and more, brought by former staff members, followed by investigations and much discussion.
It has all played out on a public stage, which has been extremely painful to watch.
Willow Creek and Bill Hybels have done so much for so many – me included – it’s excruciating to see a church with such expansive global impact struggling amidst accusations of impropriety. Bill was slated to retire this Fall, having already named successor Heather Larson as Lead Pastor, and Steve Carter as Lead Teaching Pastor. This week he accelerated that retirement, stepping away from his role at the church and also indicating he would not be involved in this year’s Global Leadership Summit, a ministry of the Willow Creek Association.
As our staff met the next morning, here are some things I shared with them about what it means for us, in three main arenas.
FIRST, as far as the actual situation goes, we will not be speaking out to “take a side” so to speak. We confess agnosticism because we simply don’t know all there is to know. There are alternative narratives, which do not agree with each other, stated by people we deeply respect and love. Our best posture in things like this is to say less and pray more.
This is not a cop-out. It is the more powerful and wiser response. We will pray for healing, for unity in the church, for the integrity of leadership, and for anyone who may have been hurt to feel empowered and heard, and for anyone wrongly accused to be vindicated. God and time are going to do much more here. But we will not engage on the issue itself — because there is nothing of light we can shed. But we must pray for our brothers and sisters, for unity and truth at Willow, for unity and effectiveness in the church at large, and for the damaging impact to be as minor as possible to the witness and name of Jesus.
SECOND, Mountain has been a host site for the Global Leadership Summit. We’ve been watching closely to see how this unfolds. With the announcement this week that Bill would not be involved in this year’s Summit, we are moving forward with plans for a great Summit this August. It remains one of the strongest leadership events anywhere in the world.
THIRD, perhaps the most important takeaway for us – and a way God could use this dark moment for good – would be to allow this situation to cause us – and Christ followers and especially Christian leaders and staff everywhere — to think deeply and introspectively as individuals, and teams.
This whole episode can serve as a sobering reminder of several important perspectives:
- Without asserting that the allegations are all true or that they are all false — that is beside the point — the whole episode is a reminder for us to, first of all, BE HUMBLE.
We are all VULNERABLE. I keep telling myself, “Ben, people who are stronger than you, smarter than you and holier than you have stumbled and made grave errors, shipwrecking their ministries, tarnishing their reputation and the mission they are part of.” Be humble. If you think you are not vulnerable, you are the most vulnerable. We are all vulnerable — so it is appropriate to be circumspect — (a great old word, meaning wary, cautious, prudent) and to be humble and even appropriately scared.
We are humble because, in this bold new day of empowerment, any of us is vulnerable to allegations anyone can bring.
More importantly, we are vulnerable to Satan and his schemes and attacks.
We are vulnerable to our own flesh and our own stupidity, to our own pride and lapses in judgment. 1 Peter 5:8: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Be humble.
- This is a reminder for us to BE SMART. Be smart about what you do. Don’t trust yourself. Be alert all the time. Have your radar up. Avoid any appearance of evil, refusing to let yourself be put in a situation that would tempt you, give the other person the wrong idea, or be perceived as untoward.
Another dimension of being smart is understanding that this kind of thing doesn’t usually start suddenly, but with a slow fade in our souls. There is a slide toward unseemly correspondence or interaction, playing too close to the flame, accompanied by gradual “frog in the kettle” flirting with danger. The fade includes lies we tell ourselves involving justification, rationalization, minimization, with slippage around the edges of your moral purity – you feel like you deserve a break, you begin to seek unhealthy escapes, or you feel entitled because things are tough at home, or you feel like you’re above the law because you give so much…those are all lies and we’ve just got to be smarter than that. Be smart.
- And this should remind us to BE CAREFUL. For us at Mountain this means we live behind the “hedges of protection” we have chosen for ourselves. One of Hybels’ admissions was that he was unwise in his decisions about the positions he put himself in — with women alone, in places and situations that leave it open for something unscrupulous to happen, or that make it possible for someone to allege something. Our hedges keep us from the appearance and opportunity of evil.
I don’t want to debate about what the hedges should be. And you are free to disagree. But we think it’s important to have them – safeguards, accountability, pre-determined boundaries that help us live where we want to be relative to interactions with others to whom we may be inappropriately attracted. It keeps us from having to decide what to do in various situations. It’s already decided.
At Mountain we’ve adopted hedges that will sound antiquated to many. Some public figures recently were completely lambasted for adhering to such restrictive guides. I admit they are not always convenient. But neither is the fallout of ignoring them.
In the spirit of Ephesians 5:3, “But among you there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people,” some of our hedges (listed in our staff handbook and recited publicly frequently) include our commitment to avoid dining, traveling, and meeting alone with the opposite sex, avoiding making remarks about or showing affection to others of either gender that could be questioned. We don’t visit the opposite sex alone at home and are careful with the content and amount of communication we have with anyone – and any other measures we can take that will help us remain strong in the battle against attractions that are not honoring in God’s sight and which could negatively affect the church or harm our Christian witness. Hedges provide protection.
So we can be Humble, Smart, and Careful. And we will also…
- Be cautious, but not FEARFUL. One thing this does NOT mean is that we should all tiptoe around in some kind of perpetual awkwardness, with a hypersensitivity around all this stuff as if we need to be super-nervous or edgy all the time. Nor does it mean that we will stop working with men and women together, side by side. No way. That would be like when a girl breaks up with a guy, and he says, “I’ll never trust another woman again.” That’s not the right conclusion. Because there are dangers involved in working together doesn’t mean we don’t work together, it means we are humble, smart, and careful.
We want to demonstrate men and women working together in mutual respect, in relationships based on high regard — without having those relationships sexualized or tainted by power.
The Apostle Paul and Jesus – much against the grain of their culture — both demonstrated the beauty and power of ministry teams composed of both men and women all through the New Testament. The goal is not to avoid working with men and women together, the goal is to be wise and pure about it so we can demonstrate what healthy ministry teams look like.
- And we will be OPEN and CARING. If anyone has a concern in this area, everyone, including leadership will listen with compassion and fairness, to all voices. We want a culture where stuff doesn’t NEED to go underground or become festering grievances but can be dealt with in God-honoring, healthy, Spirit-directed ways. We will ALL work to create a climate and a culture where concerns are received, allowing them to be aired and heard in ways that give dignity to everyone involved. We have a protocol in place allowing everyone to have a voice, and concerns can be dealt with fairly and with godliness and concern for everyone involved. We value the voice of truth and will seek to protect this place from being contaminated with any deceit, wherever it comes from.
- And finally, we need to allow this painful incident to make us AWARE of how much heartache and damage is involved in something like this. That awareness is a great and healthy deterrent to keep in the forefront of our minds. There is so much pain on all sides — for the families, spouses, staff, their families, for the church and everyone who has prayed for it and invested in it. There is so much wasted Kingdom energy required to manage this sort of thing. We need to be aware of the damage that comes to a watching world who is often disillusioned – this stuff is printed in the Chicago Tribune! The comments section is so painful to read! We need to be aware of the severe toll on young Christians who often fall away because of stuff like this, and on so many others who will be so angry, leave the church, question God, feel abandoned, and so much more. There is so much negative impact. The more AWARE we are of that at every moment, the less likely we are to slip into some dreamy, altered, non-reality state of mind where we make a bad decision we will regret later for its painful ripple effects.
So there are some things this incident at Willow can serve to remind us about. Be:
- HUMBLE — because this can happen to anyone.
- SMART – live behind hedges which keep you out of stupid situations.
- CAREFUL BUT NOT FEARFUL — stay committed to demonstrating how men and women can work together for the glory of God.
- OPEN and CARING — to make this a place where you never have to worry if your voice would be heard.
- AWARE — of the tremendous cost involved when we get embroiled in this stuff.
- AND ONE MORE — PRAYERFUL. We need to pray for Willow, for all of us in the Body, and for ministry leaders with targets on our backs.
Colossians 3:1-14 seems fitting:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.