By my calculations, I’ve stolen around 14 minutes of face time with Pastor Bill Hybels.
That number adds up to the time I attended Willow Creek Community Church as a teenager, interned there as a young adult, considered a key ministry role with them a decade ago, and randomly spoke with Bill at conferences. I’m not counting the numerous teachings I’ve heard Bill deliver, nor people I’m good friends with who’ve been good friends with him.
Does my 14 minutes qualify me to have an “insider’s” opinion about all the latest gossip about him? Nope—I have zero qualifications for that job. What we do know is that the Chicago Tribune has published an exhaustive expose of alleged “sexual misconduct,” and WCCC has responded to those allegations with an exhaustive and well-documented response. Like so much that lands in our news feed, this is a juicy story we all think we know something about. Maybe some of us do, but my guess is most of us have preconceived notions of what “Bill Hybels” and “Willow Creek” and “megachurches” and “pastors” and “church politics” represent, and therefore filter our conclusions.
Factor in the tension we feel between the experiences we’ve had with duplicitous people who’ve pulled the wool over the eyes of those closest to them, and the leaders we know who are the real deal, and generally live with courageous integrity. In a #MeToo/“fake news” culture, it’s challenging to find and stand on the precarious truth.
So what do you do when mega-leaders in your life mega-let-you-down?
We ache, because we know the “heaven” promised by the church is often “hell,” behind closed doors. We wonder if we’re the only God-honoring person left in our congregation–until someone points out our own blind spots. In my life, two key mentors were drawn into sexual sin. And, of course, I’ve served under toxic personalities whose dysfunctional behavior divided congregations. I know I’m not alone in these experiences.
I’ve had multiple friends from Willow Creek ask me what I think about all the chatter surrounding Bill Hybels. Between that and the chatter that surrounds other leaders, including Andy Savage, Frank Page and other scandals in the news, I’d like to offer some biblical examples and takeaways:
Matters of sin:
On the surface, King Saul began as “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites” who prophesied through God’s Spirit. Over time he sought to appease people instead of honor God, growing jealous of David and sinning against him with few holding him accountable for it. As the book A Tale Of Three Kings masterfully points out, in spite of this David committed to respect the “Lord’s anointed”—he honored God by honoring the authority over him, even when those around him said he was justified in creating a revolt.
Then again, David later had huge gaping holes in his own leadership journey. Despite his reputation as “a man after God’s own heart,” he descended into duplicity and adultery (murdering to cover it up). He did return back to God in humility after all was revealed, but one might wonder if David retroactively saw Saul differently in light of his own sin.
That’s a possible takeaway for us, isn’t it? It’s easier to look down on others who sin than to look up to a sinless Jesus and consider your own sin. I remember a great message by John Ortberg at Willow Creek that pointed out how Galatians 6 says to restore people we believe are caught in sin instead of clobbering them, as we also may be tempted to cross sinful lines in our confrontation.
On the other hand, it’s also short-sighted to assume that if a matter is investigated in-house that it won’t understandably cause questions by those on the outside-looking-in. We must always see the court of public opinion for the “perception equals reality” sham it is—yet it is still a “court” pronouncing “judgment” with its own “sentencing.”
Matters of disagreement:
The early Christians experienced such a powerful movement of God in the First Century that newly transformed people didn’t know what to do with their old lives or traditions. As clear doctrine was needed, leaders like Paul and Barnabas traveled to bring biblical unity to divided communities. Acts 15 records how the Church as a whole was encouraged as they helped Christians work through a huge disagreement.
Paul and Barnabas, though, apparently forgot what a great team they were. In the latter part of the very same chapter we read them disagreeing over who should travel with them. Despite the two men being on the same page doctrinally, they let personal preferences and perceptions divide them. Thankfully, instead of bad-mouthing each other in the years that followed, they each continued to minister and strengthen the church, never giving any evidence that they viewed each other as enemies. Imagine that—disagreeing about a personal issue without making it a personal issue.
I honestly wish Paul and Barnabas would have stuck together, though. I’ve lost track of the number of times church leaders opted to “agree to disagree” (a phrase that makes me want to vomit) by saying “Well, Paul and Barnabas went separate ways, so… why not?” Conflict happens when different values, terminology, goals, and more collide. Some struggle because the source of their leadership is entitlement, while others struggle because they’re constantly trying to prove themselves.
Note that Jesus says, in Matthew 18, when two or three come together in His Name He is there—and He said this while teaching about the path to restoration between people who’ve sinned against each other. Essentially: “When you come together to elevate My Name instead of your own, or the issue at hand, that’s when you see and feel Me the clearest.”
To confess my bias, I wouldn’t be who I am today had Bill Hybels not years ago been seized by a biblical vision to turn irreligious people into fully-devoted followers of Jesus. Any blessing I’m enjoying today as a man, husband, dad or pastor tracks back to me surrendering my life to Christ under his leadership. I actually have kept a photo in my office over the years of the chairs in the room where I first made this decision, just to remind me of where I come from.
Still, Hybels isn’t Jesus. Nor are the inspiring people who happen to claim he’s acted like a devil. This whole thing makes me grieve: if there was intentional inappropriate behavior, someone received that from someone they looked up to; if there was unintentional inappropriate behavior, people were hurt. If there was no inappropriate behavior, the hurt that’s been caused by the accusation isn’t just limited to the one accused but to his family and community. Never again will this particular church’s narrative be complete without someone pausing to remember this accusation.
- Leaders have power. Followers expect leaders to be reasonable with their power. You can’t control what others do with this tension, but you can hold each other accountable for our mutual gaps. We do this not to be satisfied personally or be proven right, but because we rightly hunger for Jesus.
- The only perfect Church is in heaven. Until then, every congregation on earth will fall short of the glory of God. Remember that you are just as much a flawed part of yours as the people you struggle with.
- It’s sometimes awkward for different genders and ages to do ministry together, but not impossible. The belief that there should be no boundaries is just as bad as having too many boundaries. Make sure your church has a policy everyone follows, so that if accusations arise your defense is visible in your routine.
- When you feel abuse has happened, speak up. If it’s a personality difference, don’t treat it like abuse. You may have to seek wisdom outside of yourself to know the difference.
- You may not know what your blind spots are, but you know where they are. Turn the light on them by getting a trusted friend to regularly inquire, “What three questions should I ask you today?” Share good ones and answer them honestly. It’ll put you on the spot to be honest with what you’re trying to ignore.
- Say out loud, as often as you can, what you know about Jesus and what is possible through Him. While it’s tempting to chat about what may or may not have happened in the life of a famous leader, we need to be reminded of what Christ can do, despite what humanity often does.
- If you find yourself caught up in a conversation about someone, find a way to pause and pray for that person. Be an example of intercession, not immature gossip-mongering.
- Don’t let the “little things” that seem innocent but really aren’t stack up in your life. Things like giving a student of the opposite sex a ride home, excusing your addictions instead of calling them addictions, getting caught up in late-night internet time without accountability, and so on. Entitlement leads to temptation. Pride keeps you from seeing the appearance of evil.