The implosion of the Willow Creek Community Church started earlier this year as celebrity pastor Bill Hybels stepped down in disgrace, followed by the entire board of elders. The megachurch, located just outside of Chicago, had been rocked by a scandal akin to those uncovered in the #MeToo movement.
Since about four years ago, more than nine women have come forward accusing Hybels of sexual harassment or abuse. He has denied these allegations, saying that they are misleading or flat-out lies.
On August 6, it was reported that the church would launch two investigations into the matter. One would be conducted by the board of elders, and the other would be through an independent attorney. Neither investigation found any wrongdoing by Hybels. In response, the women went to the press in an effort to force the board and Hybels to deal with the situation.
Willow Creek is the country’s fifth-largest megachurch. It has more than 25,000 members. Hybels’s ideas for drawing secular people into the church were considered innovative, and have been adopted by churches across the country.
Needless to say, the church had quite the reputation and the damage of such a scandal could be devastating. Many of the Willow Creek members believed that the elders were covering up wrongdoing by sacrificing the reputation of the accusers in favor of protecting their own.
The board of elders gave off signals that they clearly didn’t believe the women who were accusing Hybels. Although they never outright said anything of the sort, their attitude made it clear that the women were threatening their leader.
Can a Church Board Successfully Hold Leaders Accountable?
The New York Times reported:
“The scandal at Willow Creek is likely to bring greater scrutiny to matters of church governance and the role of boards of elders, said Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary and director of the Hartford Institute.
‘It challenges the idea that a group of elders internal to the congregation can truly be a healthy check and balance on leadership and direction and accountability,’ he said.”
Thumma has spent over twenty years studying megachurches and authored two books about the phenomenon. “Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches” was published in 2007, while “The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church’s Spectators into Active Participants” came along four years later.
We don’t have many of the details of what occurred within Willow Creek. We can, however, peer through the windows and discuss what we do see and how it might have been handled differently. We can use the experience of Willow Creek to be better.
Is the Pastor Replaceable?
Before the scandal ever erupted, Bill Hybels announced that he was retiring. It was announced that “no one person can replace” him. The megachurch announced that two individuals would step into the lead pastor role. The transition was expected to take a few years, because they were moving from a one-man leadership role to a team approach. When Hybels resigned, he was at the end of the period, so the transition wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.
Could the church have become too reliant on one person? The truth is that everyone is replaceable and none of us is perfect. There might be struggles, but the whole mission of the church is to focus on Jesus, not to idolize men and women.
Leaders need to be developed. The best leaders are produced internally. They know the organization from the bottom up, because they grew up and were nurtured by other leaders. It’s worth noting that the organization, which hosts an annual Global Leadership Summit, could not find a clear successor to its senior pastor. Perhaps their leadership model is flawed in the regard.
Pastors Are Held to High Standards
We’ve seen many famous preachers fall from grace. Of course, there are many other who haven’t. But the larger the ministry, the more scrutiny the church faces. Pastors are generally held to a higher standard than other people. Hybels may not be accused of major offenses like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, but his association to the religious community and prominence in evangelical circles makes the accusations much more damning.
The Willow Creek scandal can be a lesson to all churches. What can your church learn?