As a lawyer who’s represented some of Bill Hybels’ victims, Mitch Little has seen a side of Willow Creek that few others have. Why did so many look the other way for so long? What eventually broke the culture of secrecy and protection? And what lessons can we learn from Willow Creek’s mistakes?
On this episode of The Roys Report, Julie explores these important questions with Mitch Little, who’s not just an attorney for victims. He’s also the chairman of the elder board at a multisite megachurch in Dallas, Texas.
Mitch has seen church governance from both the inside and the outside. And he offers keen insights that are desperately needed as many churches today struggle to be healthy and to avoid the mistakes other megachurches have made.
JULIE ROYS, ATTY MITCH LITTLE
JULIE ROYS 00:04
As a lawyer who’s represented some of Bill Hybels victims Mitch Little has seen a side of Willow Creek that few others have. Why did so many look the other way for so long? What eventually broke the culture of secrecy and protection? And what lessons can we learn from Willow Creek’s mistakes? Welcome to the Roys report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And today I’m excited to be speaking with Mitch Little. Mitch is an attorney, a church elder and an advocate for abuse victims. He represented two women involved in the sex abuse scandal involving Bill Hybels. One of those women is Vonda Dyer. Vonda was at one time the director of Willow Creek’s vocal ministry, and she was one of the first women to come forward and speak publicly about Bill Hybels’ alleged sexual misconduct. The other woman that Mitch represented will remain confidential but both these cases enabled Mitch to peek behind the curtain at Willow Creek and view upclose some of the dysfunctions that led to that scandal. Yet Mitch isn’t just the lawyer who’s seen megachurches as an outsider bringing accountability. He’s also the chairman of the elder board and his own church, Bent Tree Fellowship. Bent Tree is a multi site mega church in the Dallas Fort Worth area that’s had its own share of crises over the past several years. So Mitch has a very unique perspective. And in the few times I’ve spoken with him, I found his insights to be profound. So I’m very much looking forward to our time together today. But before we begin, I just want to take a minute to thank the sponsors of this podcast, Judson University, and Marquardt of Barrington. If you’re looking for a car I encourage you to visit my friends at Marquardt of Barrington. My husband and I actually bought our last car from our court and we had a great experience. I know the owners Dan and Kurt Marquart personally, and I can say without reservation that they truly run their business with honesty, integrity and transparency. To view their entire showroom online. Just go to BuyACar123.com. Also I want to let you know that Judson University is planning to resume in person classes this fall for traditional transfer and adult students and it’s still not too late to apply. You can choose from more than 60 majors and learn in a Christian environment known for its spiritual values, leadership opportunities, and strong financial aid. Judson is located just 36 miles outside Chicago on a beautiful 90 acre campus. For more information just go to JudsonU.edu. Well, again, Joining me today is Mitch Little a partner with Scheef & Stone in Frisco, Texas. He’s also a strong believer and advocate for abuse victims. And someone I’m extremely glad is serving in church leadership. So Mitch, thank you so much for taking the time to join me today.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 02:53
Julie, it is great to be with you again. How are you?
JULIE ROYS 02:55
I’m doing well but probably not as well as you because you’re on vacation in Florida. So, thanks for taking the time and you know, anybody who’s willing to take a few minutes out of their vacation for a podcast, I just really appreciate it. So thank you.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 03:10
I am thrilled to be here. Thank you so much. It’s good to be visiting with you again.
JULIE ROYS 03:13
So, Mitch, how is it that a lawyer from Texas ended up representing victims of sexual harassment at a mega church in Chicago? How did that all happen?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 03:23
Great question. I will let you know as soon as I figure it all out. I’m good friends with Vonda Dyer, who worked at Willow and was one of the women who bravely came forward with her story about her interactions with Bill Hybels. And I’m good friends with her husband Scott Dyer as well. Scott Dyer was the worship pastor at Bent Tree Bible fellowship. And I was sitting in my office one day and Vonda picked up the phone and gave me a call and kind of told me what was coming down the pike in terms of the Chicago Tribune article that basically lit the fuse on that entire situation at Willow. I was kind of thrust into the middle of it out of love for wanting to help my friends and man, that thing escalated pretty quickly. And it turns out there were a lot more women who had been affected by Bill Hybels. Many more than even Vonda Dyer knew.
JULIE ROYS 04:08
Hmm. Well, and that is one aspect of the story that I wanted to explore together because I know that what happened at Willow from my understanding of speaking with Vonda and several victims is that it was far worse, the abuse there and far more pervasive than most people know, and that’s one of the frustrations I know of a lot of the victims is that Willow hasn’t publicly acknowledged that or publicly said how bad it was. So since you’ve seen a lot of this kind of up close and personal through talking to witnesses and elders and staff people, how bad was the abuse at Willow Creek?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 04:49
Well, to answer your question, very bad. It took a variety of forms. I think one of the ways that Willow tried to reckon with the situation was to permit Bill Hybels to retire from his role at the church. And then everyone could say, “Oh, how sad that that one person did that one thing. And now let’s put that in the past.” Willow did not want to reckon with the deformed culture that had manifested underneath Bill’s leadership. I know from hearing from men, that that Bill abused men emotionally, spiritually while they were working there. In fact, I know some of them. This was something that was very deeply ingrained in their culture. Just what I call a deformed leadership culture at the church where certain things became acceptable that shouldn’t
JULIE ROYS 05:40
And some of it also involved a culture that was willing to cover for wrongdoing. Right? I mean, there were some things that you learned specifically, that were done to potentially cover wrongdoing by Bill Hybels. Correct?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 05:55
Yes, in the course of representing these women, it became obvious that this was not what I’ll call an echelon or tier leadership problem, just at Bill Hybels’ level. The cover up of his behavior manifested at the elder board level. It manifested at the Human Resources level. It manifested even at the IT level at the church. It’s “How do we protect the entity and the entity as expressed through the person of Bill Hybels?” Once you make that decision that you’re willing to protect the entity or the person in charge of the entity to the detriment of members of the body or members of the staff, you’ve made some poor choices that are going to have consequences.
JULIE ROYS 06:37
When you say the IT department, it’s my understanding you came into some information about emails getting destroyed. Is that correct?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 06:45
Yes, probably a number of your listeners are aware of the situation where the Ortbergs and Mellado’s had tried to report to the board an alleged long term affair that Bill Hybels was engaged in and the church hired an “outside investigator” to investigate the situation. The outside investigation report said something along the lines of, “Bill Hybels’ hundreds or thousands of emails with this woman were, “not available.” Well, as it turns out my understanding from talking to witnesses, those emails were actually destroyed.
JULIE ROYS 07:20
And destroyed by a staff person.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 07:22
Destroyed by a staff person is my understanding. So when you have a culture that’s willing to, you know, exfoliate spoiliate, destroy documents in order to preserve a narrative, there’s really very little that the culture will not accomplish at the cost of innocent people.
JULIE ROYS 07:38
And this is what’s so difficult. I think, as believers, we should be standing for truth, we should not look the other way. And yet here we see a church that’s ostensibly about serving God, and it’s about proclaiming the gospel and yet this is happening within the church. So many people are looking the other way. And I saw this at Harvest Bible chapel when I was doing reporting there. What is it that causes so many people who know better, to look the other way and allow evil to prosper?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 08:17
As I was working through the Willow Creek representation with these women, the thing that kept cropping up to me was the Milgram experiment. Maybe some of your listeners are familiar with that you can go on YouTube and and see what that’s all about. It’s M-I-L-G-R-A-M the Milgram experiment, but basically American researchers were trying to figure out after World War II, why so many in German society were willing to go along with the Nazis or go along with their leadership, do incalculably horrible things to people. In this Milgram experiment, they found that people are willing to do things under collar of authority and that they would not probably otherwise do. So when you have someone who is trusted, who’s supposed to be an expert, you know, like a pastor, like a longtime senior pastor who’s supposed to be a theological expert, and someone who’s in authority like a senior pastor, people are willing to do things to satisfy that person that they would not otherwise do, even if those things seem harmful to another person. Really what it is, Julie, if we want to get down to it and go to spiritual or biblical terms, these are these are works of the flesh when we’re not led by the Spirit. This is what manifests.
JULIE ROYS 09:27
It is what manifests. And I realized that as we were discussing this, that there might be some people who have heard about what happened at Willow Creek, but somewhat superficially, through the headlines and don’t really know beneath the surface. So there were more than 10 women that came forward and said that there was sexual misconduct by Bill Hybels. But then it’s my understanding too, that when these women met with the elders, the level of bullying and abuse that they were subjected to, was such that I know Vonda told me there were elders in tears at the end of this, of how pervasive the abuse was, I don’t know how specific you can be but can you give people an idea of, of what actually happened to these women that were abused?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 10:17
Let me give you some examples. It was everything from Vonda Dyer’s situation of being asked to come up to Bill’s room and talk leadership and a forced kiss, you know, a grab around the waist. And the Nancy Ortberg situation, a hug that lasted too long. And another woman’s situation, they’re in an elder board meeting, and Bill Hybels, you know, has his hand on a woman’s leg, and no one else can see. Telling another woman, how she looks in a dress and how it accentuates her body, everything up to an alleged affair, to Pat Baronowski, Bill Hybels’ longtime assistant, stating in the New York Times said Bill Hybels made her obtain pornography and they watched it together. And he committed sex acts with her. This is the kind of thing that you would expect from someone who’s cruel and not in relationship with Jesus. The thing that is so terrifying is that someone who has been a senior pastor in an organization like that is not beyond it. A person who’s not walking in the Spirit is susceptible to that type of behavior, even a senior pastor.
JULIE ROYS 11:18
Well Mitch, one of the things I’ve never discussed is that we used to attend Willow Creek. In fact, back in the late 80s, early 90s, we went to Willow Creek and we had a wonderful experience. I mean, it was a great time.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 11:29
JULIE ROYS 11:29
I came out of Wheaton College, as I know a lot of kids do when you’re in a Christian environment and maybe see some disillusioning things and I just, it was really a hard spiritual time for me. So I was really struggling with my faith. And really, I came back to the Lord at Willow and He used that church to help me reestablish my relationship with Him and with His church. And I had a wonderful experience. But the thing that was so shocking to me, is that Bill Hy Hybels was the first pastor I had ever seen be so vulnerable from the pulpit.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 12:06
JULIE ROYS 12:07
That’s one of the things that attracted me to it is that he would admit something that he had failed, like, I remember one Wednesday night at a midweek service, and he got up and he said how that day he had seen somebody who was, you know, he could tell that they were upset and in need, and he just walked right by the person and totally blew them off. And he realized that he had missed an opportunity to share Christ’s love with this person, and he didn’t even feel worthy to give this message tonight, you know, and he got teared up and, and I’m watching this, you know, as a 20, early 20 something right? And I’m like, I’ve never seen a spiritual leader ever, ever have that sort of self disclosure in front of the church before he preaches.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 12:54
Julie, that’s what’s so interesting about this story to me as I got deeper into it, I started to understand That, you know, when you go to the movies, and you see a story, you expect, “okay, that guy’s the villain. Those are the good guys.” And the people in this story are complex characters. Literally thousands of people have come to know Jesus under Bill Hybels teaching and yet, he was morally bankrupt at the same time. And so I hope your listeners understand what I mean, when I say this, “that’s how good God is that he can use people who are even morally bankrupt, to bring people to himself.” And the thing that is astonishing to me, you used the issue of emotional vulnerability is that, you know, a lot of times our strengths are our weaknesses. And so when you know from the pulpit, that might be a strength. In another area, it might be used to groom someone and use vulnerability as a mechanism to draw people into something that is corrupt. If you go back and you look at Bill Hybels books in retrospect, I’m amazed at some of the things that are contained in his books that people became okay with. Like if you go back and you actually read his books line-on-line, there are some things in there in those books where you go, “For a pastor, that should be unacceptable.” But he was attenuating his church culture and culture at large to him in his behavior. I mean, I can’t tell you how many stories I heard just like the one that you told the people who said, “Well, I was at a conference with Bill Hybels, and he was awful to me.” It should be something that he learned from, right?
JULIE ROYS 14:24
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 14:24
He’s a complex character. Powerful ministry at some points. Also, major problems. Think about the psychology of someone who could be doing what was alleged by Pat Baranowski to have been done to her. At the same time, he’s writing a book and writing articles for Christianity Today about marriage purity.
JULIE ROYS 14:46
It involves a level of compartmentalization that is truly stunning.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 14:50
How many people on earth can do that?
JULIE ROYS 14:52
Very few. And that’s one of the things that I just come back to is that the word hypocrisy in the Greek the word that comes from that means actor. And these men are good actors. They have to be they’re incredibly convincing. And a lot of us who sat in the congregation and received from them were, you know, duped and we bought it. We bought the routine and it’s shocking. But as you say it’s God’s grace that despite all that he’s used these men to bless many, despite everything.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 15:26
Yeah, we’re all saints who sometimes sin. So to some extent, we all have a measure of hypocrisy. I mean, it’s an accurate criticism of people within the church. However, there should be a bubble level of character in Christ that we return to.
JULIE ROYS 15:40
Oh, for sure.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 15:41
I think that he lost that. I think he lost it.
JULIE ROYS 15:43
Yeah, totally agree. Well, let’s talk a little bit about the leadership that protected him because I think that is the question that I keep hearing over and over from folks is, “How do we prevent this from happening? How does our elder board navigate things differently with that Pastor?” And you mentioned to me that there were some stop signs along the way. There were some areas or some some critical times when things could have gone differently, but the elders caved in essence to Bill Hybels. And that set the course for some of these more severe things to continue happening, and then to even get more and more severe.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 16:23
Yeah, my understanding of that of the history has come from interviewing witnesses, talking to people who have served in those roles and hearing their stories at Willow. I think there were a few major events. Hybels at one point had a major conflict with a woman who was serving on the elder board, who was trying to hold him accountable and essentially used a “reconciliation process” involving some other big names in evangelicalism to essentially run her off, put her under an NDA. And I still haven’t been able to get her to visit with me. I wasn’t throughout the representation. There’s another circumstance that I became aware of where The board had a 360 Review done on Hybels and his leadership and some problems they were experiencing with his management style from, you know, bullying, abusive style. And presented them with the information, he essentially tossed it to the side and said, “So what?”
JULIE ROYS 17:17
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 17:18
No consequences. And basically, my understanding is his cavalier attitude was, “Well, I’ll just pick up and I’ll open a new church down the street [if] you don’t you don’t like me the way I am.”
JULIE ROYS 17:27
And wasn’t there something with Bill Clinton coming to the church and speaking?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 17:32
It’s my understanding that was a watershed moment. Bill Hybels and Bill Clinton, you know, developed a friendship over the years that at least what I’ve discovered in my research, there was an invitation for Clinton to come and speak at the Global Leadership Summit, and a confrontation with the elder board about that because Clinton was on the heels of an adultery scandal. And my understanding was the elder board set some boundaries for Clinton to be able to come and speak. which Hybels assented to including you know, repenting for his behavior and not talking about politics and some other things as well. And Hybels said, essentially, “Yeah, well, we’ll do it that way.” And Clinton showed up and then didn’t comply with anything that the board had said. So, you know, Julie, it’s really it’s death by 1000 cuts. And that was how Bill deformed his accountability structure. And I have other thoughts about that and how that all worked out. At one point, the elder board at Willow became what people call a policy governance board. And when I came into the representation, that was a new term to me, I’d never heard anything like it. But essentially, it was the board being asked to deal with matters of policy and then all matters of implementation really get left to the vocational staff in the church. My personal belief, not speaking on behalf of anyone else, my personal belief is that that structure is designed to fail, because elders can’t elder in that structure.
JULIE ROYS 19:01
There’s a lot of church boards that operate that way.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 19:04
I think that’s dangerous. I think it’s incredibly dangerous. I understand that the desire to have elders dealing with what I’ll call Echelon or tier level, theological topics: “What does the church think about, you know, for example, racial reconciliation? Or what is the church think about Calvinism?” something along those lines. But what happens when there is a sheep within the flock who needs to be defended? That is not a matter of policy. When you have a woman who says I was molested by a staff member, or you have a staff member who says, “Bill Hybels just threw a punch at me,” or dog cuts me up and down the hallway, those aren’t matters of policy, Julie. So who’s supposed to hold who’s supposed to hold the leaders accountable in that structure? That’s a rhetorical question.
JULIE ROYS 19:53
You feel that they have to have more of a governance more of a hands on role than a lot of them do.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 19:58
When I came onto our board, the terms that Pete Briscoe used were, “guide, govern and guard.” And I think policy governance has the governing part. They’ve got a little bit of the guide part. But you lose the guarding mechanism, which I think in today’s in today’s cultural moment, it’s probably the most important aspect of eldering.
JULIE ROYS 20:18
And something else that you mentioned about the board, which I found fascinating was that the Willow Creek board had an awful lot of lawyers on it. Now you’re a lawyer. So, and you’re the chairman of your board. So I’m guessing you’re not against lawyers being on board.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 20:34
I’m against too many lawyers, and I think I’m in a position to critique this. Lawyers are, by definition, advocates, right? Because we represent their interests. And I think that Bill Hybels created an advocacy structure around him by having that many lawyers on the board. Pete Briscoes’ father, Stuart Briscoe, who I loved dearly, he’s not in good health, I wish he was, I wish he could hear this and I’d wish him well. He said, “Pete, you should have one lawyer on your board but not more than one.” And I believe that there is some really sound wisdom in that. There’s, there’s an advocacy piece to lawyering that needs to be there a little bit, but it doesn’t need to be pervasive. Senior pastors don’t need advocates. They need accountability. Churches sometimes need advocates outside their system. Inside their system, they need to be guarded, governed, guided.
JULIE ROYS 21:31
Well, and it troubles me too, that so many of our Christian organizations seem to be more beholden to lawyers’ advice and counsel than they do the Word of God. You know, when you have somebody like Bryan Loritts, who when he’s talking about why when he was at a former church, he didn’t disclose to the church that they had a sexual predator among them for six months. He’s like, “I wasn’t trying to protect the man,” who by chance was his brother in law. “I was just following following lawyers’ advice.” So it’s okay. Because it was lawyers advice, you know, and it’s like, where does the word of God play into our decision making? And where does what’s legally expedient for our organization?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 22:13
It’s not okay. And so, you know, as a lawyer on the board, you’re not absolved from the obligation of complying with the mandates of Scripture. So, while I have strong feelings about this, as you can imagine being a lawyer, but at all points, legal advice has to be subservient to Scripture.
JULIE ROYS 22:31
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 22:32
And not elevated above it. You know, I think, Julie, the other thing that was really whacked out about Willow’s elder board, and I didn’t find this out until very late in the representation was they operated by design out of unanimity. Okay. So I want you to think about this while you know Bill Hybels is being accused of doing awful things by a dozen women. If you have six members of the Board of eight, let’s just say it’s eight or 10. Let’s say you have you have six or eight members who are saying, “Guys, we need to fire this person. And we need to apologize. And we need to start on the work of reconciliation and repentance now.” And you have two or three board members who go, “I don’t think so,” they did nothing. Because they were required to move by unanimity. I think one of the things that happens in churches, from a deformed leadership standpoint, is requiring boards to operate in unanimity or using unity as a cudgel against people who have firm convictions about things. Do you understand what I’m saying?
JULIE ROYS 23:38
I do. And Harvest was the same thing. Their board operated by unanimity as well. And I think it wasn’t a problem, Mitch, because everybody always agreed with whatever the senior pastor wanted.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 23:52
That’s a bad default state. That’s a bad default state.
JULIE ROYS 23:55
Absolutely horrible. They’re not holding anybody accountable then. Basically, they’re a rubber stamp.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 24:01
Yeah, that is super dangerous. I followed the Harvest situation, which I think is its own it, you know, separate facts. But it’s an analog. It’s a serious analog for what happened at Willow.
JULIE ROYS 24:15
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 24:15
I just, I’m amazed that they were in such geographic proximity to one another dealing with almost the exact same problem.
JULIE ROYS 24:21
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 24:23
It is uncanny..
JULIE ROYS 24:23
What is it was Chicago? I don’t know. I don’t know.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 24:27
You know, I believe in spiritual strongholds and things like that. And I think there was, but I think that there’s a spiritual stronghold around celebrity culture within evangelicalism writ large.
JULIE ROYS 24:39
Yes, I totally agree. And I do think there’s a spiritual stronghold, I hope and pray that it will be broken in our area. I would love to see Chicago experience revival. But so far, I haven’t seen that. I haven’t seen a lot of true owning, true repenting, true confessing. Although there’s been some. But it just has not really looked like true repentance in so many ways. The other thing I wanted to talk to you about in you mentioned this in earlier discussion we had about the identity of elders and how so often, and I don’t think it’s just elders, I think it’s a lot of the senior pastor leadership and staff that their identity tends to become enmeshed with the success or failure of the organization they’re a part of. Talk to me about how you saw this playing out at Willow Creek.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 25:31
Nobody who is an elder at a church should have any aspect of their identity wrapped up in either the role of being an elder or in the success or failure of the organization. What I’ve told people is, “If you are not ready to blow yourself or the organization up in five seconds flat, you need to find a different hobby.”
JULIE ROYS 25:53
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 25:53
This is a calling. It’s a calling of God. It’s scripturally rooted. Serving in the role of elder is a huge responsibility. What I saw happen at Willow is, the board as a unit was willing to dissemble in the amount necessary to preserve the organization. So if you think of Willow as being a living thing, we are willing to put other things to death on the altar of preserving that organism. That to me, is a corruption of the role. And if you are not willing to as an organism, or as an organization say, “We messed up. This person or these people were hurt as a result,” you have a pride problem. Yep, that’s rooted in pride. Put a skin tag on it or a flesh tag. It’s really pride. You have your identity rooted in something other than Christ, the centrality of Christ.
JULIE ROYS 26:24
And it’s idolatry.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 26:51
It is. Yeah. You’ve you’ve created a fiction when you organize church, what is a church organization but a legal fiction, right? You formed a nonprofit corporation. And that’s what, that’s what you end up protecting right? That nonprofit corporation and its bank accounts, that’s not what the biblical church is.
JULIE ROYS 27:12
Amen. Amen. And it’s so important, I think, for any of us who are doing any kind of ministry at all, if we get our identity wrapped up in what we’re doing, then what we’re doing is no longer ministry, it’s no longer service to the Lord. It is simply to feed ourselves. And that’s not what this is about. It’s about serving God.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 27:30
The church is literally a collection of people. It is not a building. It is not a program is not a set of services. It is a collection of people. And if you think it’s not, you know, go and look in your church building right now, if you’re quarantined under COVID, or you’re not gathering. It is a collection of people that we are to care for.
JULIE ROYS 27:51
Amen. We were talking a little bit about the elder board. Okay, how it didn’t bring accountability. But there’s a sense that the Church of Jesus Christ Universal is represented all throughout not just the United States but the world. And there’s an element to which a church like Willow Creek was a global church, right? They had these Global Leadership Summits. They had so many churches, thousands of churches coming on board and being a part of those. It was a huge fixture in evangelicalism. And yet, when these issues started being raised about Bill Hybels, the larger church, other than you know, a few people you mentioned the Ortbergs, for example, they came forward and spoke. John and Nancy Ortberg had been at Willow Creek as pastors. They’re involved in their own issue right now. But they spoke. But other than that, you know, there just weren’t a lot of people in the larger church speaking and there had to have been a lot of church leaders who knew about what was going on and knew that there were problems with Bill Hybels. Why is it that nobody outside a very small group of women who had no power, really no position, why didn’t others come to their rescue? Why didn’t others support them?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 29:14
I think these women would still like to know the answer to that. There was a period of time, I’ll call, “The Great Loneliness” after that Chicago Tribune article came out, where they were radioactive. Pete Briscoe, our pastor at our church came out in support of the Dyers, which was bold, and it was brave. Here’s my belief, Julie, I think the church at large, the big leaders in evangelicalism, we can name names if we want to, and I’m sure that people have names on their mind when they’re hearing this, “Why were they silent?” I think that they were scared of what I’ll call the Christian Industrial Complex that had risen up around Bill, the economic consequences of speaking out on a topic of high consequence.
JULIE ROYS 29:57
And you you actually refer to it as multi-level marketing. And I think you hit the nail on the head. Explain that.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 30:03
If you go back through Willow Creek’s archives, you can see all the, you know, the authors of books who came in and were platformed at Willow Creek. They show up, they sell books. You know, Willow creeks pastor’s family members benefit from the Penumbra of Willow Creek and it’s just sheer size within evangelicalism. You know, Hybels daughter had her own book on Oprah’s book club. Can you imagine how many books that sold her? They made a lot of friends. They made a lot of friends a lot of money over the years selling books, promoting programs, platforming them at conferences, platforming them at the Global Leadership Summit. Can you imagine what that does for book sales to be on stage at the Global Leadership Summit among people all over the world and touted as an expert in something?
JULIE ROYS 30:48
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 30:49
When you think about the economic reach of an organization that was that size within evangelicalism, my goodness, even Christianity Today was scared to run articles about it.
JULIE ROYS 31:00
Yeah, they eventually did. But you’re right. And they were no friends of ours during the Harvest investigation either.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 31:07
Huh. You don’t say!
JULIE ROYS 31:09
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 31:09
I wonder, I wonder what effect that might have had on them. The fact that, I don’t know. James MacDonald was friends with Ed Stetzer.
JULIE ROYS 31:17
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 31:18
Friends of the publication?
JULIE ROYS 31:20
Yeah, right. I’m still waiting for the apology for the public apology for giving
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 31:24
Yeah, I think you’re gonna be waiting a while.
JULIE ROYS 31:25
Yeah, apparently it’s not going to happen. And which really makes me sad because they’ve had a change in leadership. And I really was hopeful that there was going to be a public apology, and yet, None. None at all. And I can only imagine what the economic forces are behind the scenes for that, but it really disappoints me, that that hasn’t happened. But let’s talk about since we’re talking about the media, Willow Creek had unbelievable resources at its disposal, right. And it had all of these allies not just in the media, but among the angelical industrial complex, other megachurch pastors, everything. And yet, they lost the PR battle, which is unbelievable. I think that was a move of God, a move of the Holy Spirit. But when we look at it from some practical ways that God used people to undo this, explain what you see as being the key forces.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 32:22
To me, this was one of the beautiful God moves about the entire situation. We were fighting asymmetric warfare, right? Because they, I mean, they had a massive PR machine they had, they hired Mark DeMoss, his firm to come in and try to resolve things from a PR standpoint. We needed to go to the hills and fight as guerillas, you know, what is guerrilla warfare? It’s designed to be fought asymmetrically. And it’s designed to be acretive, right that they gain strength over time. It grows over time. Well, early on in the process after the Tribune article, we had to make a decision, “How are we going to fight a machine of this size that is basically promulgating lies about these women and their families and their supporters?” And I reached out to people that I already knew within, you know, the watch blogging community. You know, people like Dee Parsons, Julie Anne Smith, Julia Dahl, and people who I knew would not stop talking about it and would not stop talking about it for months. And Willow lost the battle of PR on social media. It was like trying to fit a battleship through a set of French doors. They didn’t have the ability to move quickly. They didn’t have the ability to respond to new issues as they arose. It’s one of the beauties and the deformities of social media is social media is agile.
JULIE ROYS 33:50
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 33:50
And it’s pervasive, and people are, they’re using it. And it’s not something you can control like traditional mainstream media. And Willow just, they got killed because they wouldn’t respond and say the truth. These little bitty people, from Willow’s perspective, who helped win the PR back, it’s a miracle. It’s biblical. God uses the weak things of this world to confound the strong, right?
JULIE ROYS 34:15
Yeah. And this is one of the I think exciting things
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 34:20
You lived it. You lived it.
JULIE ROYS 34:21
I did live it. Not so much at Willow ’till after, because I was so wrapped up in the Harvest stuff at that time and the Moody stuff that I didn’t really have the capability or the bandwidth to do much reporting about Willow. So grateful for those who did and Scot McKnight who came out with a just a powerful, I remember when his blog hit and he said, “Every elder has to resign.” And within what, wasn’t it a week, all of them resigned. It was stunning to me. But this is the beauty of I think what’s arisen is an independent media. What I do, you know, and what Ministry Watch is doing and what all these independent bloggers are doing, that it’s bringing accountability. And I think there is a healthy fear. I mean, I Timothy 5:20 says that we should publicly expose elders who are sinning so that others may take warning. And so I do think it’s a healthy thing when you’re afraid of doing wrong, because it will be brought up and you will be held accountable. And I think there’s a kind of an old guard of megachurch pastors and leaders that think that they’re above accountability and they’re beginning to realize they’re not.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 35:29
I think you’re absolutely right about that. Can I talk about Scot McKnight for a second?
JULIE ROYS 35:33
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 35:33
So Scot, it’s like the scene in The Avengers when Iron Man just kind of drops out of the sky. That’s what he was. He was like one of these, I think until Scot decided to speak up, it was, Willow had credulity to say, “These are people outside our tribe who are criticizing us. This is Chicago Tribune.” “This is people who are dissillusioned, who wanted big jobs at Willow and didn’t get them.” But when Scot, the the intra tribal dissenter steps up and says, “This is wrong,” things shifted. I don’t think that he caused the elder board to resign. I think it’s Pat Baranowski’s story that ran in the New York Times that actually caused that. But here’s what happened when Scot criticized them publicly. I know for a fact that his article was circulated among the staff at Willow, and they crossed the Rubicon of credulity. And it’s like, now someone inside the tribe has said, “Something is wrong here and it must be dealt with.” And it took someone of Scot McKnight’s gravitas to be able to shift the discussion at Willow.
JULIE ROYS 36:54
Well, and I hope there are Christian leaders listening to this who take note because is the time of just being silent and thinking that because you’re silent, nothing will come back on you, that’s past. And I think Christian leaders need to start stepping up. They have a responsibility to the larger church to speak. And so when these things happen, they can’t just stay silent. And sadly, I think they have still.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 37:21
The priests who cross the street, right? When the when the man’s lying on the side of the road, naked and bleeding, they’re the priests who cross the street.
JULIE ROYS 37:29
Well, I want to turn our discussion to what you’ve experienced at your own church, which is a multi-site mega church there in the Dallas Fort Worth area, because those are things where you’ve been able to apply some of these lessons that you’ve learned from watching the negative example maybe of Willow Creek, you’ve learned an awful lot from going through crisis at your own church. One of those is that you had your senior pastor resign kind of suddenly. And you’re in the process right now of looking for a senior pastor. Is that right?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 38:04
Yeah, that’s right. We have an open listing for a lead teaching pastor in a what I believe is a healthy church environment.
JULIE ROYS 38:11
And I’ve been a critic of megachurch multi-site model. But you have seen the the worst of it. And yet you’re still in a megachurch, multi-site church. What makes you stick with that model and believe it can still be used despite how badly that model has been abused?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 38:31
That is a very fair question. I think ultimately, we are still kind of under the inertia of a culture that was fomented by Pete Briscoe, which was a culture of goodness, a culture of grace and it’s still carrying forward under that momentum. But it really had the tone has to be set by leadership for a culture of goodness. I don’t think that there’s anything at a mega church that innoculates it from being good.
JULIE ROYS 38:59
And how do you do that?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 39:00
You have to have a strong culture of accountability. You have to have a lead pastor who creates a strong culture of accountability. You have to have unity among your vocational staff at the church about, you know, key issues like how do we treat other people? How do we deal with claims of sexual abuse? What’s our theology? Do we have a theology of goodness at our church?
JULIE ROYS 39:22
So your pastor, he chose himself to step down, correct?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 39:27
JULIE ROYS 39:28
Okay. But it was after a period of I don’t know the details, and I don’t know how much you’re at liberty to say them, but it’s my understanding he went away for a period of time to kind of reflect and assess how he was doing and how he was handling things. And he came back and said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 39:45
I think it took courage. I think it took courage and boldness on his part to be able to do that. Because I often wonder what would have happened if he had come back and you know, not been well are not been really able to do his job but said, “You know what, I’ve got to do this.” This is the you know, erither, “I need the job,” or, “This ministry completes me.” or whatever, whatever the excuse is. But he had the emotional and spiritual fortitude to say, “You know what? I can’t do this authentically anymore.” And as hard as the last year and a half has been, I applaud him for that.
JULIE ROYS 40:06
But I guess this is the question so many are asking is, “Can anybody be in those kind of jobs with the kind of responsibility that is put on one human, one person to lead thousands of people?” And so many looking to him for vision for leadership for everything. And there’s a lot of people asking, “Is that just too great a burden to ever put on one person?” How do you respond to that?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 40:44
I’ve asked that question many times. I think the load needs to be shared. People can do the job of preaching and leading a church for, you know, 40 plus weeks in the pulpit at a church of this size. I think they can do it effectively. Think about the people who’ve done it historically, you know, the Chuck Swindolls that I mean, we can we can run off a list of names, we can also run off a list of failures. I think the larger the platform, the more rigorous the accountability needs to be. And so I thought it was so funny that James MacDonald had his house in the name of an entity called Vanilla Bean LLC. And I could explain why I think that’s funny, but you have to have extreme accountability, the larger your platform gets.
JULIE ROYS 41:26
Well, since you brought it up, you’re gonna you’re gonna have to address the Vanilla Bean.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 41:29
Yeah, I just saw you ran a story on MacDonald’s massive mansion in Illinois being held in the name of Vanilla Bean LLC. And I thought, I think I knew what he was doing when he named it that, but here’s why I think it’s so ironic. The vanilla bean is incredibly hard to harvest. It grows on the vanilla orchid, and it only grows in really exotic places like Tahiti, and there are some places in Mexico it grows too, but what is unique about the vanilla orchid is when it blooms, it’s got to be pollinated within one day. Vanilla orchids are actually pollinated by hand in most places. And unless they’re pollinated by hand, on the one day that the bloom opens, they won’t make anything. They won’t produce any vanilla beans. And so when I looked at that in the context of James MacDonald going, you know what, that’s the type of accountability that man needed and was denied. And you have to, there must be assiduous accountability going on in the life of someone who has the big radio show has the big platform, his platform at conferences and large organizations, because the temptations are greater. It’s the biblical admonition, you know, to hold a knife to your throat lest you desire the King’s delicacies.
JULIE ROYS 42:45
I hear you say that and I believe in accountability really strongly. At the same time. I know that the original elders of Harvest thought they could keep James accountable despite the knowledge that he had glaring character flaws from the beginning. And I remember you saying
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 43:00
. . . struggle
JULIE ROYS 43:01
it is. And I remember you saying once that you had gotten a manual, I think it was from the ECFA, and boy, we could talk about them. But we don’t have time on this podcast.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 43:10
JULIE ROYS 43:10
But you had said you had gotten this manual and it was about, you know, basically how to be an elder and how to lead. And you made the statement that if you have the character to lead, you don’t need a manual. And if you don’t have a character to lead, no manual is going to help you. And I feel that way with these pastors. If they have the character to lead the accountability will help keep them you know, keep them honest, so to speak, you know, it’s kind of like when you put a bike lock on your bike that
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 43:41
JULIE ROYS 43:41
that keeps the honest person honest. The thief knows how to how to get through that lock, right?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 43:47
Yeah, that’s a good word.
JULIE ROYS 43:48
and so I almost feel like the elder boards are there to keep the honest person honest. But if you have a pastor with a glaring character flaw you’re fooling yourself if you think you’re gonna keep that character flaw in line with a pastor who doesn’t put Jesus Christ first in his life, am I right?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 44:06
Yeah, yeah, I think I think that’s a good word to Julie. I mean, you don’t need to be trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, because it is gonna manifest itself in bad ways. You’re it’s just not it’s not a matter of if it’s a matter of when.
JULIE ROYS 44:19
Well, one thing I did want to cover, and our time is getting to an end, but I know that you have dealt with having a sexual predator within your church. And that that was something that taught you an awful lot about how elder board should deal with sexual impropriety or sexual abuse within their own walls. And this is a huge problem in the Evangelical Church in the southern baptist church, I mean, just absolutely massive problem where so often the predators covered up instead of brought to justice. Tell us what you learned through you know, bringing this person to light, confronting him and dealing with the entire situation that we can learn from as a church.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 45:05
Yeah, without using any names. I just want to say this was not someone who acted on any behavior at our church, but had someone who was in the process of grooming someone else. So a young person in our high school ministry,
JULIE ROYS 45:18
So you caught them before that anything actually happened?
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 45:21
Absolutely. And here’s what we have to do as people leading churches, okay, you have to understand what the signs of grooming are so one of the things that I did that really helps me, my good friend, Boz Tchividjian, put out a book through his organization G.R.A.C.E. and I’m going to butcher the title. It’s something like Child Protection Policies. If you want to know what grooming looks like in the context of church, every elder at a church of any size should read this book. So you can go to Amazon and enter in Boz Tchividjian and his book will pop up but you need to know what you’re looking for because people who are sexual predators, they have an acuity for blending into society in ways that they don’t stand out like this is not like, you know, the sexual predator in your church is not some, you know, grease ball sitting outside your kid’s ministry just kind of looking for a way to get at, like, that’s our common image of what a sexual predator is. These are people that are in your country club. These are people that may be in the cubicle next to you at work, who have an acuity for blending in to normal life. And so when you see behaviors that look like grooming, you know, John Calvin, I’m not a Calvinist. I don’t agree with a lot of his views, but he said something and it is true, we need to have, you know, church leader needs to have two voices, one for gathering the sheep and one for scaring away wolves. And that needs to be an elder in the church really any size, you need to say, “Look, I see what you’re doing this is wrong.” And when the person makes excuses or says, “You know, this is a misunderstanding, I didn’t mean to, you know, message that kid inappropriately online,” or “I didn’t mean to Invite them to go do something by ourselves out of, you know, trying to do something bad. I was just trying to build a relationship,” or whatever you just go, “But I see you for what you are and you’re gonna have to go.”
JULIE ROYS 47:13
Boy, and if more churches did that, how much pain and heartache among the sheep would have been spared? Right. I mean, that is just huge.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 47:23
You’re absolutely right. And the thing about predators, Bill Hybels included, okay, is they start to do more things in public to condition you to behavior that is inappropriate, and they test their boundaries, to see what they can get away with. And they’re born knowing how to do that. Like they didn’t read a book, figuring out how to do it, but there are warning signs that people need to be aware of. This is a person who is pushing a boundary because they want to do something bad.
JULIE ROYS 47:56
Well, Mitch, this has been read. Thank you so much. I appreciate your taking time again away from your vacation to spend time with us. So appreciate
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 48:04
Oh, it’s a blessing to me, Julie.
JULIE ROYS 48:06
Oh Well, and I appreciate your service to the church. I’m so glad that they’re godly men like you serving. So thanks again.
ATTY MITCH LITTLE 48:13
I appreciate you so much and look forward to visiting with you again soon.
JULIE ROYS 48:15
Likewise. Well, and thanks so much for listening to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And if you’d like to find me online, just go to JulieRoys.com. Also, make sure you subscribe to The Roys Report on Apple podcasts or Google podcasts. That way, you’ll never miss an episode. And while you’re at it, we’d really appreciate it if you help us spread the word about the podcast by leaving a review and then please share the podcast on social media so more people can hear about this great content. Again, thanks so much for joining me today. I hope you have a great day and God bless.