Willow Creek’s Reconciliation Service Brings Closure to Some, But Alleged Victim Says “Hope Evaporated”

By Julie Roys
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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.”

The meeting last night was held in the Lakeside auditorium at Willow Creek’s South Barrington campus. The main floor of the auditorium was packed, but the bleachers were blocked off and only a handful of people sat in the balcony.

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 were taking the advice of the Independent Advisory Group (IAG), which in February reported that the allegations against Hybels were credible. Boldt said the IAG had instructed the elders to follow a process outlined in a book by Tutu called, Book of Forgiving. This, she said, involved four steps: telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness, and renewing or releasing the relationship.

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. 

 

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26 thoughts on “Willow Creek’s Reconciliation Service Brings Closure to Some, But Alleged Victim Says “Hope Evaporated””

  1. Missy Sherman

    I was at Willow’s meeting last night. I thought it was very impactful. The elders demonstrated their dependence on Jesus and God’s Word for guidance and reconciliation. They asked us each to repent for the negative thoughts and discussions we may have participated in individually. This is what I was looking for from our leadership.
    The women have succeeded in telling their stories and their experiences thru the media. The Board of Elders and staff that was seated during their complaints have apologized profusely publicly and privately and made amends by leaving their positions. Bill Hybels left his position, but hasnt apologized. No one has control over him. At this point it’s time for the church to move forward and get on with the business of rebuilding. The women should too.

    1. Missy, only Missy Rasmussen and Steve Carter have really apologized, Its telling and poetic that not one Elder joined Missy on the stage. If you can share a link to any signed statement, pls do so… but you won’t find any. Moving forward requires the hard work of truth, and most of the past elders and none of the current have exonerated Bill’s victims from the lies that the sexual abuse was consensual. No one biblicaly can move forward until that truth is told to correct the previous lies… so Willow is stuck not because of the victims, because of the boards unwillingness to take biblical responsibility. See 1 Tim 5:20 for just one example of what biblicaly must be done before people can move on.

  2. Missy, the Elder Statements of Willow Creek Community Church taken from the website, clearly spell out the scriptural mandates which must be taken when there is moral failure or sin in a leader or teacher from the church. The guidelines they have written are specific and biblical. I suggest every member of Willow go to their website and take a look at these elder statements, specifically pages 8 and 9. The former elders and current elders have failed to take heed of the church’s own discipline policy. The statement says “God says that sin should be acknowledged, confessed, and brought under the light of truth (Ephesian 5:11, Psalms 51).” It goes on to say “The biblical process for resolving issues of sin in the life of a leader or teacher includes appropriately specific public acknowledgement of the sin to defined circles of people who were directly impacted by the leadership or teaching of that leader.” The elders promise to “tell the whole truth to whom the whole truth is due”. So far the truth has yet to be told and these steps have yet to be taken.

    The family meetings in March of 2018 offered misinformation and falsehoods to the entire congregation and all who watched globally. Not only that, the elders email invitation to those meetings inaccurately called the advocates colluders who were out to damage the church and pastor. The advocates simply wanted the abuse investigated, That very email was also sent by the WCA to all GLS sites. These advocates were globally slandered. That email has yet to be retracted and apologized for by the elders or the WCA board. The church leadership called the victims liars and shared falsities to the Bride of Christ! We see in Acts Chapter 5 the seriousness of lying before the church. (Ananias and Sapphira) Each false statement must be corrected because our God is a God of truth. As more stories surfaced, Willow slowly admitted that some of the women weren’t lying and then finally they admitted the women were telling the truth. Shouldn’t the specific lies told to the congregation be corrected? Shouldn’t the women be offered a platform to share their stories, if they so desire? Shouldn’t Willow offer a service of repentance and lament for all involved? Should we not pay attention to what God requires in a situation such as this? In order for reconciliation, truth and repentance must take place. The abuse stories are horrendous and the effect of the abuse and then the treatment by the church is more than heartbreaking.

    Only one elder apologized publicly. It was sincere and from the heart but was quite incomplete. Steve Carter offered each women of specific, heartfelt and personal apology and then apologize via his blog and it was complete.

    I attended last night and I was just looking for TRUTH. So far it has not been told.

  3. Former Creeker

    Desmond Tutu? Following his steps of forgiveness and reconciliation, over God’s word??? I can’t even begin…..That will get them nowhere without consulting the Lord Jesus Christ’s Holy Spirit and God’s Word. 1 Timothy 5:20-21.

  4. Julie, et al,

    I agree 100% with your concerns. Among other things, as a former Willow Creek staffer (who personally witnessed Bill’s intimidation and bullying tactics (while greatly admiring his many strengths)), I RESPECT THE HECK OUT OF NANCY BEACH.

    If Nancy was stunned, then I am stunned…and grieving still :(.

    Finally, may I address the comment by the “Former Creeker” who questioned learning from and following advice of Bishop and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu. ARE U FRICKIN’ KIDDING ME? U think that learning from him is “over God’s Word” and “Without Consulting”…(Jesus, HS, Word).

    How ARROGANT of you to assume that learning from a brother in Christ such as Tutu, who was hugely instrumental in avoiding the bloodshed of MILLIONS in South Africa, is somehow NOT “consulting God’s Word”).

    Anyone who prayerfully considers our brother Tutu’s advice IS consulting God’s Word -through what Tutu (and others) have learned from it as THEY have gone through extremely painful peacemaking and reconciliation.

    We don’t/shouldn’t just “consult God’s Word” in a vacuum…in a hermetically sealed room alone. That can be part of it, but also part is LEARNING from others who’ve gone before us…one prominent one of which is Tutu.

    Enough said…I’m disgusted that you can’t see that, and am tempted to ask where Tutu’s race is an underlying reason for which you feel that learning from him is somehow NOT “consulting Jesus…”). Is that the problem? That he’s…Blaaaaaaack?

    1. Jessica Hockett

      Hi Dave. For the record, Willow’s mention of Desmond Tutu’s “The Book of Forgivness” gave me pause as well. I’m sure we’d agree that the Word of God is the ultimate and best authority on the confession, repentance, & forgiveness of sin. I’m eager to read Tutu’s work and understand it better so that I can make an informed judgment about how his framework compares to Scripture.

      Over time and across cultures & places, plenty of Christian men & women who “consult” God’s Word draw conclusions and make recommendations that are not in harmony with Scripture, or are incomplete. No Christian with a brain should ever assume that anyone’s writings on forgiveness are necessarily good or useful, simply by virtue of that person’s achievements, position, or Christian beliefs.

      Ironically, in your passionate defense of using Tutu’s book, you have been very quick to characterize someone else as arrogant, ignorant, and racist. Not only does your reaction seem antithetical to Tutu’s work, it’s uncharitable and unfair. You have no basis for suggesting that valid questions about the use of Tutu’s book in a church crisis have anything to do with Tutu’s race.

      No doubt this Willow mess is emotional and personal for you, as a former employee. I’m so sorry that all of this has happened, and is continuing to happen. Unfortunately, your personal attack on “Former Creeker” undermines the credibility of your comments.

      I have ordered “The Book of Forgiving” from Amazon and look forward to reading it.

    2. Charles Despeville

      Dave ,

      Neither you nor most people realize that Desmond Tutu was a heretic. Therefore using his writings was and is adding insult to injury.

    3. Man, it’s obvious why you recognized bullying when you saw it. How else to describe your vindictive attack on someone who made a fairly innocuous statement about using Tutu as a reference point. Not only were you abrasive you also managed to pull a charge of racism out of thin air. That, sir, is the heights of bullying. I’d say whether or not Tutu’s advice should be heeded, you’ve established that none of yours should be. “Are U frickin’ kidding me?”

  5. The situation at both Harvest and Willow Creek both remind me of a terrific quote from House Of Cards.

    “Everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.”

    All the chatter here isn’t so much about sex, in my humble opinion, because that is just one element of the bigger issue: The power dynamic with many Christian leaders.

    It sounds to me the victims at WC are effectively saying “Hey you don’t fully understand how I’ve been impacted and your response marginalizes my situation.”

    Ask a home buyer with mold in the hose they are about to purchase, and you can be damn sure they have taken every opportunity to address the root cause problem that caused the mold. The sentiment I’m hearing is many are unsatisfied that Christian leaders are not applying g that same level of rigor to address problems with the power dynamics in their church.

    To bring closure, I think the victims need the reassurance that both the offenders and the current leadership names the specific offenses and linger a bit in the awkwardness and pain that comes with that conversation. It doesn’t sound like they are there yet.

    With or without the desired contrition from church leaders, I certainly hope the victims of abuse find closure and a sense of safety and comfort.

  6. Is anyone really surprised at this though? Willow is a false church. They have never had a Lampstand and they certainly don’t have one now.

    1. What does a “good” church look like?

      Are there ANY attributes and successes that came from Willow Creek that you can classify as good, or do you see it as a false church all along? Either view is ok.

      None of the good can displace harm and hurt caused by any means. I’m just curious what “good” looks like as many are inclined to generalize organizations as all good or all bad without much qualification of what good actually looks like.

      I see we live in a gray world where we all have both virtuous and sinful qualities at the same time, and that’s not easy to put into neat little categories.

      Before one gets into terms like “holiness” and “anointed”, the transparency of an organization is a good measuring stick to start with.

  7. I am not a WCer. Following the WC case to see how WC leadership handles the situation.

    To me there is a consistent theme how org like WC, SBC, Harvest, etc leveages personal guilt to deflect the truth and consequences.

    Turning elders’ and Bill’s wrong doing(sin) into your sin. Manipulated you through guilt by pointing out that you sin too and offer a communion to a selected group of people. Makes you feel previlige and special to be there and be thankful for such excellent leadership just as MISSY SHERMAN enthusiastically wrote:

    “They asked us each to repent for the negative thoughts and discussions we may have participated in individually. This is what I was looking for from our leadership”

    This is a clear sign that the leadership is abusive. In my eyese, the leaders defiled the communion.

  8. “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?” Jim Bedell 30 year WC attender and professional therapist

    Good question. Reconciliation needs to take place between Bill and the people he hurt. Between elders and the people they defamed.

    However if WC leaders really want to lead church members in repentance they could call for individual and corporate repentance for having equated the kingdom of God with money/fame/size of church/power. Jesus had some pointed words about this :

    The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight. Luke 16:14-15

    Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” John 17:20-21

    People value money, large buildings, famous pastors, polished preaching, professional musicians leading worship and prestige. However these have never been God’s metrics of success. The Almighty owns the cattle on every hill plus all the hills too. What does He care if some small group of 10,000 people erect a multimillion dollar building? Or if some man sells a million copies of his latest book? The only thing which really matters is God’s growing and invisible Kingdom in our midst evidenced by individuals who repent and follow Jesus daily.

    My question to the current leaders of WC… what are you trying to grasp and hold onto that you need to ask people who have done nothing wrong to reconcile?

    1. The congregation completely abandoned Hybels’ victims, shaming them, doubting them, staying utterly silent on their behalf, while giving standing ovations and constant social media praise in support of a sexual predator. Oh… there is some deeply-needed repentance there.

    2. Fisher…AMEN!
      Your paragraph which starts…
      People value money,
      Is SADLY, EXACTLY right on!!
      It’s all about book sales and worldly accolades!
      Totally unlike Jesus who was Grace & Truth and ALWAYS seeking out the one the world wrote off as nothing.

    3. Fisher,
      In your paragraph that begins…
      “People value money…”
      You are SADLY, EXACTLY right!!

  9. Susan Vonder Heide

    I am not a Willow Creek member and have no inside knowledge of this particular situation but, just speaking generally, I think that it can sometimes be tempting to paper over problems rather than to seriously deal with them. If that happens, people may put on fake smiles and pretend that everything is OK but that doesn’t make everything OK. Sure, forgiveness is a Christian value but so is speaking the truth in love.

  10. I am not a WCer and objective as the church deals with these issues of gross sins. After viewing all four video, alot of words spoken but nothing of substance dealing with reconciliation to those who where hurt, defame and needs healing. They should have been given the option, opportunity and freedom to speak on what Bill did to them and how they are feeling. Besides loss wages which WCCC should compensate, they should reimburse each victim for 3rd party Christian counseling if they deem to use. The protection of the WCCC image and Bill from further embarrassment seems the highest priority. Sweep everything under the rug, state that all Is OK, put your head in the sand and spin the truth by talking about the future. Very inappropriate to use Scripture and Communion as a smoke screen to promote a hidden agenda.

  11. What do you want? The entire Elder board resigned. Hybels resigned. Carter resigned. Larson resigned. I seem to recall the former Elder leader apologized. Carter apologized. Larson apologized. Basically you had an out of control Senior Pastor bully with a sin problem, usually sex or money or both. And an Elder board that provided no oversight. They are all gone. Hopefully new guard rails are in place. Will you ever be satisfied?

    1. ??? How spiritually deaf and willfully blind can you be? Read Nancy beach’s blog from beginning to end and come back here and try again.

  12. To the suffering,

    Forgive my boldness to think I can in any way address this pain and suffering, but I’ve had some knowledge of suffering in my life from the hands of bullies, at my own hands, and at the hands of unknowing Christians at Willow in this past year.

    In the trek to uncover truth in this recent suffering, some things have come to light bringing me freedom from the torment. I hope this can encourage you.

    I’ve read over Isaiah 45 and 60 these last months. Isaiah 45:7, “[I, the LORD] create disaster,” was of particular concern for me. It seems to affirm God’s sovereignty over all of us. Despite how unloving the pain and suffering feels from His hand, His purposes remain loving, always.

    Recently, I heard a teacher (Lutzer) subtly say, “The key to suffering is thanksgiving (a principle found in Phil 4:6).” I went home, sat on my couch, and tried-on “thanksgiving” for the rotten wicked things people have done and said to me over my lifetime. The result was miraculous for me. My pain evaporated in Faith.

    Before now, there’ve been only 3 things which have remained: evil footholds, torment, and self-loathing. But the Bible says faith, hope, and love is all that lasts into heaven. This is where faith shines: in thanksgiving to God for rotten, sinful, self-idolizing acts of abuse from ourselves and others. It is a freedom exchange.

    I know now that the implications of thanksgiving are huge, unexplainable, and perhaps only experienced by those who practice it. It can cause a person to dance before the LORD unashamedly, like David. He certainly experienced his fair share of endless torment, to his dying day. He certainly practiced thanksgiving (Psalms). Some of us know his personal torment.

    I am thankful for all the things God has done to conform this situation at Willow to His will. He’s allowing us to engage in His gift of working these things out for good and teaching me (maybe us) to let others off the hook because He made them differently (in His image) from me. That now their life stories (God’s gig) have shaped them more and more into His Perfect People, despite what they’ve done to me.

    All people are worth loving (the Gospel). Some of us need more time … perhaps to my dying day. I hope on that day I can look back and be thankful: for God’s revealed truth in His word, that He allowed me to see and hear that truth, and for His grace–bringing a heartfelt response to trust His love ultimately, above all else. Know you are loved.

    With vulnerability from my suffering,
    1 Thes 5:16-18, Gal 5

  13. “Boldt said the elders were taking the advice of the Independent Advisory Group (IAG),”
    Hiring a consultant for advice is businesslike, but it is not churchlike. It’s really not complicated, if your goal is to do what’s right instead of minimize reputation loss (which is a much harder problem). The right thing to do is to say precisely what your organization did wrong, to ask the forgiveness of those wronged, to say what compensation you are making (which may or may not include money), to ask the victims if they think enough has been done (and let them answer), and to say what the organization is doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

    That’s what the church should do. In addition, the individual elders and pastors who sinned or made mistakes should do the same thing with regard to their own actions (though they don’t have to say how they will make sure it doesn’t happen again).

    It’s inconceivable that the church could pretend to be interested in reconciliation when, it seems, neither the victims nor the perpetrators are on the stage. I know Pastor Hybels wouldn’t appear. If so, the elders should have administered public church discipline, excommunicating him for contumacy (unless he’s already excommunicated and publicly rebuked).

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