More lessons learned from Willow Creek

8 mins

It’s an awful thing when a woman, let alone multiple women, are hurt by a male leader.

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It is equally egregious when an organization doesn’t appear to leap to a woman’s defense regardless of the consequences. As a leader of a large church, I’ve been sitting back and watching, praying, and processing. I’ve been hesitant to add another voice to the conversation, but as leaders I want us to wrestle with some of the angles that give us a black eye that aren’t getting much airtime.

No one has been more influential on the American Church in the modern era than Bill Hybels and Willow Creek, the church he started and led. In the 80s and 90s thousands upon thousands of church leaders made a pilgrimage to the Barrington, Illinois campus to learn how to grow a large, healthy church. It was about embracing the scriptures and holding fast to the mandate to reach people with the liberating truth of who Jesus is. To do so would result in a “Prevailing Church.”

In 2000 I was in a roundtable discussion with Bill and 10 other senior pastors for two days in San Francisco. Bill asked our opinion on what to do with a weird situation regarding his stock broker friend. Bill had given him permission to use old Willow Creek weekend VHS video tapes and dozens and dozens of people were cramming into the stock broker’s house for church services. Bill was curious as to whether we thought this was healthy or unhealthy. Unbeknownst to Bill, he was at the beginning of the innovation of using video teaching to start another campus, which is now known as multi-site. Hundreds of churches across the country, including Crossroads, have followed suit.

In the wake of that movement, we have seen innovation after innovation that have impacted how Christianity is expressed in America. This includes the arts being unleashed in worship services. Churches using a team of teachers to give their people a balanced diet of preaching. Pastors taking extended vacations or study breaks which keep us fresh for the long haul. Embracing and developing the spiritual gift of leadership. And fighting for the truth that women have the gift of leadership and should have authority inside of the church.

The Church has been changed. I say for the better. I’m thankful for the influence Bill has had on my life and that Willow has had on Crossroads. But these are times to continue to learn lessons from Bill and Willow. Bill and Willow have been embroiled in a scandal of biblical proportions for the past several months, which has been reported by Christianity Today, The Chicago Tribune and the NY Times. He has retired early and the leaders and elders around him have made and admitted to mistakes in dealing with sexual accusations against their founder. Bill and the leadership structure he created and oversaw both hold responsibility and blame for what has been happening for quite some time. We can still glean learnings from these entities, albeit outside a conference setting.

As a senior pastor of a large church, here are some things I’m learning and doubling down on.

The leader and the organization need a healthy level of separation.
It is hard to know what responsibility lies with Bill and what lies with Willow. That is because the identity of both entities were inseparable. “Billow” became too man-centric. When the succession plan was announced, the congregation was told, “no one person can replace Bill.” Therefore, co-pastors were named. While I have doubts about the wisdom of co-pastors, co-presidents, or co-fathers, one thing I know for sure: Everyone is replaceable. I could smash into an Elk on my motorcycle next week and Crossroads would go on. Hopefully be better because of a fresh perspective and fresh energy. Eventually I will be forgotten and irrelevant while Jesus increases in fame. At least that is my goal and it should be for every leader.

Women need to be cherished.
You can’t value women while you objectify women. The objectification wasn’t just with Bill toward the numerous women who have come forward. It was also with the Elders (which included women) who objectified the whistleblowers as threats to the church. To ignore the blue chip female leaders of Willow’s past who came forward with information was not just ignorant and insensitive, but also a sign of how women are viewed at Willow when the key male is threatened. I’m committed to cherishing and protecting women in anything I lead to the same degree that I protect my daughters.

Men need to be grown.
Boys are predators and men are protectors. Men and women alike deserve to be protected. I’ve known 15-year-old men and 45-year-old boys. Every male needs to walk away from boyish ways into manhood. Doing this is difficult and requires spiritual growth. Several years ago I had to march into a workout facility to call a trainer out into the parking lot, while he was with a client, because he had been hitting on my wife. Why did no man do this with Bill? It is apparent that Bill was boyish and so were others. Where were the protectors around the objectified women? Where were the husbands after their wives tearfully recounted their story? Where were the male colleagues who knew that Bill had a track record for having a “flavor of the month.” In Hollywood, all the males around Harvey Weinstein said, “I never saw or heard of any of that behavior. “ Really?! Many of you did and you are weenie boys for not saying something. I say the same thing to the males around Bill who knew. Why was he not confronted and/or punched? Why were you not a man?

Leaders need to be reproduced.
Healthy organizations reproduce the majority of their leaders internally. It is ironic that the world’s most heavily attended leadership conference with hundreds of thousands of participants is hosted by a church which now has no clear senior teacher/pastor successor. I stopped attending the Global Leadership Summit a long time ago. For the most part, the teaching pastors and senior leaders at Willow Creek were recruited from outside and not developed. We must work hard to reproduce our own leaders and then give them ample mountains to climb and conquer. I’m committed to trusting leaders underneath me and giving them significant challenges that keep them up at night, along with the exhilaration that comes from accomplishment.

Organizations need to carry a cross.
When Jesus says we should “pick up our cross and follow him daily,” he’s saying that we should cling loosely to our lives and be prepared to be executed at a moment’s notice in the cause of honoring the ways of Christ. Carrying a cross is the ultimate fear killer. It keeps us from trying to control things to an unhealthy extent. If Willow weren’t so concerned about controlling their ability to prevail, maybe women would have been heard and hard calls made. If I am to live and embrace my pending death, so should the organization I am a part of. To do so means making bold decisions that could result in us “going out of business,” but could also result in becoming a beacon in our nation—which is currently one of fear and afraid to make hard decisions. In the process we will actually be more respected and more potent.

Just as leaders and organizations learned from Bill and Willow during their meteoric rise, let’s continue to learn from them during this difficult season. Let’s lead with high moral integrity. Let’s lead with strong and hard decisions while we protect those under our care. And, let’s lead our churches and organizations to be strong with us or without us. In doing so, the way of Jesus will prevail.

Written by Brian Tome on Aug 8, 2018

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