Many who attended the elder-led congregational meeting at Willow Creek Community Church last night seemed pleased with what they heard. At the beginning of the service, the congregation gave Willow Creek Acting Senior Pastor Steve Gillen a standing ovation. And at several points throughout the night, the congregation clapped in response to elder comments.
However, the approximately 1,100 people at last night’s meeting represented a fraction of Willow’s total regular attendance of approximately 24,000. Also, there were some at the meeting last night—and many others watching reports and camera footage posted online—who were sorely disappointed.
“Lies, lies, lies!” said longtime Willow member, Amy Love, as she met friend and former member, Rob Speight, in the lobby. Wiping away tears, she asked Speight how she could stay at the church, given the leaders’ refusal to confess and name publicly all the wrongs that had been done and to make restitution.
Love and others like her said they were hoping the elders were going to give a full accounting of the harm done to the women who had publicly accused founder Bill Hybels of sexual misconduct and abusive behavior. The service included general calls to reconciliation and forgiveness, but there was no mention of the women or their advocates.
Evelyn Gutierrez, a church member and former staff who was part of the elder selection committee, posted about the meeting on Facebook: “I honestly have no words. So very disappointed and angry at the same time. So much of this felt contrived and was about how great Willow is, supporting the GLN (Global Leadership Network), etc . . . Nothing about the women who have been deeply hurt by this church and its senior pastor. Don’t know what I’m doing next. I just don’t feel I can stay any longer.”
Nancy Beach, a former teaching pastor and one of more than 10 women to speak out against Hybels, said in a blog post this morning that she was “stunned and devastated” by last night’s meeting. Beach said that in the past several weeks, she and other alleged victims and their advocates had met with the elders and had hope because of the elders’ seeming compassion and empathy.
But Beach said, “(L)ast night . . . that hope evaporated.” She added that in March of 2018, the church had held two public meetings where Beach and others were called “liars” and labelled “colluders who mounted a campaign to bring down the church.” The meeting last night “did not name any of the sin and abuse and deceit and failed leadership,” Beach said. “Nothing was owned. No apologies were offered. They just taught about reconciliation.”
“Last night . . . that hope evaporated . . . Nothing was owned. No apologies were offered. They just taught about reconciliation.”
Initially, Willow Creek spokesperson Katie Franzen told me that last night’s meeting would not be recorded nor posted to the church’s website. However, yesterday, Willow Creek tweeted that the service would be recorded, but then several hours later, removed the post.
When I asked Franzen about it, she said the earlier tweet had been based on a “miscommunication” and that the church would not be posting video of the event. Nevertheless, someone in attendance posted videos she recorded with her phone online, which I’ve posted below.
The elders spent much of the meeting last night preaching about forgiveness and reconciliation, though at times, the message was confusing. Elder Steve Kang urged everyone to become an “ambassador of reconciliation” and to examine themselves instead of accusing others.
“Before we put our finger on somebody else, criticizing, or saying things we should not say—if we do that, my finger points upward. I am judging God,” Kang said. “And the three fingers that are at me, I am judging myself.” Kang added that people should offer reconciliation without any “preconditions.”
Yet Elder Shoji Boldt, quoting Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “This is what healing demands. Behavior that is hurtful, shaming, abusive or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth . . . (I)f you want real forgiveness and real healing, we must face the real injury.”
“This is what healing demands. Behavior that is hurtful, shaming, abusive or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth . . . (I)f you want real forgiveness and real healing, we must face the real injury.”
Boldt said the elders had concluded steps one and two and now would move on to steps three and four. (On Friday, the elders released a “last statement,” which acknowledged that the women’s stories were credible and admitted that they had been subject to “verbal and written attacks.” However, the statement included no detail about the stories. And in response, one of Hybels’ alleged victims, Vonda Dyer, urged the elders to tell the full story of the women’s abuse.)
Boldt then led the congregation through prayers where she asked them to examine what stories of “hurt and harm” they might be holding. She encouraged people to reflect on “broken relationships” and how they had “caused harm” or been “complicit or vengeful.”
Elder Sylvia Escobar spoke next, encouraging congregants not to get “stuck in judgment” and to settle matters quickly with adversaries. Steve Gillen then returned to stage and led the congregation through communion. Other elders spoke after communion reminding congregants of Willow’s mission, updating them on the ongoing senior pastor search, and encouraging them to pray for the upcoming Global Leadership Summit.
Jim Bedell, a Christian therapist who’s attended Willow Creek for 30 years and counseled many staff over the years, said he was perplexed by the meeting. On Facebook, he posted:
Am I the only one who is utterly confused about the theme of reconciliation at the elders meeting? Who am I supposed to reconcile with? Bill Hybels? He chose not to come. Who else? I do not feel that I need to reconcile with anyone right now. I do however need to reconcile the reason behind tonight’s agenda and a real lament on the part of Willow for the huge damage that one man inflicted on so many people. No mention of Bill or public statement about how wrong Willow has been in the treatment of the women who were victims of a powerful predator. Weak and cowardly meeting.
Bedell’s post got 47 comments, all expressing similar sentiments. Steve Gentile, who attended Willow for 30 years wrote, “I thought I was in the Twilight Zone. I came home and told my wife I have no idea what they were trying to convey.”
Janelle Morse, a small group leader who’s been attending Willow since 1985, expressed her disappointment in a Facebook post addressed to alleged victims, Beach and Dyer, as well three of their advocates—Betty Schmidt, a former elder, Leanne Mellado, a former staff member, and Nancy Ortberg, a former teaching pastor. “I wish we would have spent time hearing your stories, naming your hurt, asking you for forgiveness, and reflecting on ways we could renew our relationships with you,” Morse wrote. “I wish we would have prayed for each of you by name.”
Yet Morse told me today that she loves her church and intends to stay and lobby for change from within.
As I was leaving Willow last night, a kind woman approached me and asked what I thought of the meeting. I returned the question, and she said she thought it was wonderful and gave closure to the painful events of last year.
Then I took off my reporter hat and expressed that I was disappointed that the elders didn’t tell the women’s stories in detail. And as Beach suggested in a post in March, I told her I believed that the church should consider giving two alleged victims—Pat Baranowski (Hybels’ former assistant) and Vonda Dyer—some sort of financial compensation for the lost income they suffered as a result of Hybels alleged actions.
The woman expressed surprise. She said she didn’t realize the women had suffered financial loss. I encouraged her to read more blogs.