by Susan Trollinger
If you follow media reporting on evangelicalism, you’re undoubtedly aware that the last few years have been really tough for Willow Creek Church (or, for those in the know, “Willow”). Most people became aware of Willow’s troubles when the Chicago Tribune (March 2018) and later The New York Times (August 2018) published investigative articles in which victims told their remarkable stories of how Bill Hybels (founder and senior pastor of Willow for more than 4 decades) sexually harassed and/or abused them. The victims recounted encounters in which Hybels said inappropriate things to them, propositioned them, insisted on hugs that lasted way too long, commented on their appearance, invited them into his hotel room, fondled their breasts, and so forth.
Simply stated, these and other stories revealed that Bill Hybels was a longtime sexual predator.
Just a couple of weeks ago (on May 26), the new senior pastor (David Dummitt—he has Hybel’s former job and is in charge of all eight Willow campuses in the Chicago area) and Shawn Williams (the newly hired pastor of the South Barrington campus) hosted a Q&A for about 200 “core members” of the church. That Q&A was recorded and about eight notable minutes of it are available on YouTube.
I came upon this video by way of an excellent article that was published last week in the Roys Report and written by Laura Barringer (a longtime member of Willow and co-author of A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing). Barringer responded critically and powerfully to the video (more about that shortly). To understand Barringer’s response and to situate my own, it’s helpful to have a brief chronology of what unfolded at Willow over the last eight years or so.
- Sometime in 2013-2014: Allegations surface that for decades Bill Hybels had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct including sexual harassment, inappropriate touching, and sexually suggestive comments. Hybels denies all of the allegations at a churchwide meeting and receives a standing ovation. Church leaders call the allegations “lies.” (Pashman, Goodstein)
- 2014: Church elders conduct an investigation and pronounce Hybels innocent. (Pashman)
- 2015: Attendance across the eight Willow campuses reaches 25,000 per weekend.
- 2017: The Church hires a law firm to conduct another investigation and, again, Hybels is found innocent. (Pashman)
- March 2018: The Chicago Tribune publishes an article based on their own investigation that includes Vonda Dyer’s story (she was the former director of the vocal ministry at Willow). Dyer talked about deeply troubling interactions with Hybels, including an evening in 1998 (they often traveled together for Willow work) when Hybels called her to his hotel room “unexpectedly kissed her and suggested they could lead Willow Creek together.” Similar stories from other women appear in the article. (Pashman)
- April 2018: Hybels resigns six months ahead of his planned retirement. (Miller Aug 8 2018)
- August 2018: Pat Baranowski (Hybel’s former executive assistant) goes public in an article published by The New York Times about the years of sexual harassment and abuse she had endured. (Goodstein)
- August 2018: The lead pastor, teaching pastor, and the entire elder board resign largely in response to the new allegations that appear in The New York Times article. (Miller Aug 8 2018)
- February 2019: The Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group (consisting of Christian leaders from around the Chicago area) release their 17-page report in which they conclude that the allegations made against Hybels are credible and, indeed, credible enough for the Church “to initiate disciplinary action.” Of course, the Church didn’t. (Miller)
- July 2019: A new elder board issues a statement saying that they believe the women who had alleged abuse, that those who verbally attacked these women should apologize to them, and that this will be their final public statement on the matter. (Jones)
- 2020: Attendance across Willow’s eight campuses drops to below 18,000—something like a 30% decline from attendance levels in 2015. (Smith)
- January 2020: A woman who was a longtime member of Willow shared on Facebook that Gilbert Bilezikian (one of the founding fathers of Willow and mentor to Hybels) sexually abused her from 1984-1988. Initially, it appeared that the leadership had turned a corner when Steve Gillen (then the acting pastor) alerted the Church to the accusation and said he believed the accuser. Soon after, however, it was revealed that other credible accusations had been levelled against Bilezikian to the leadership a decade earlier and were kept quiet. (Smith, Darnell)
- February 2020: Keri Ladouceur (former senior leader at Willow who also alleged abuse by Hybels) tells the story of a meeting she was called to in 2018 by a member of the elder board and a lawyer in which she was told that “either she was lying or misremembering” what Hybels had done and that “they could make it look like she was pursuing him.” (Roys 2 28 20)
- April 2020: David Dummitt is hired by Willow Creek to serve as Willow’s senior pastor (the position Bill Hybels occupied). (RNS)
- July 2020: Shawn Williams is hired to serve as the pastor for the South Barrington campus.
- In early October 2020, and in response to falling revenues (down 20% churchwide), Dummitt eliminates 92 positions across the eight Willow campuses in the Chicagoland area. At the North Shore Campus (Glenview) the staff serving about 2600 people went from 32 to 5. This dramatic and sudden change shocked members such that some threatened to stop tithing until they got answers. (Darnell, Roys)
- Less than a month before these cost-cutting changes, the very popular lead pastor of the North Shore Campus (Amy Mikal) resigned in response to having been told by the new leadership that in their new vision for Willow she would have a different role, one that would involve less preaching and teaching. She was replaced by Ed Ollie Jr. (Roys 10-31-20, Darnell)
In response to all of this Hybels has consistently denied all wrongdoing, claiming that, for reasons he can’t explain, members and former friends had “colluded” against him. (Pashman)
Like I said, this has been a really rough number of years for Willow. And Laura Barringer knows a lot about it. In her article, Barringer talks about the shock that she and her husband experienced when they read the Chicago Tribune article. Barringer had been baptized by Hybels and was a member for twenty years. She met her husband there. Willow was their church home. How could this be?
The pain that she and her husband experienced at the news of Hybel’s abuse was intense. Never mind the pain of the women who endured his abuse.
But the point of her article is to say that what these two Willow pastors did in their May 26 video was “wrong.” Amidst fist bumping and jokes and laughter from the audience, Dummitt and Williams respond to the question (purportedly raised by someone in the audience via an online chat or something)—”Why is Bill Hybel’s name rarely mentioned?” Barringer compellingly argues that Williams’ response – in which he talks about having encountered various “perspectives” on what transpired at Willow, shares the “profound impact” that Hybels had on his life, and refers to Hybels as “a once-in-a-generation leader” – is deeply troubling. Barringer also highlights a crucial moment in Williams’ response in which he draws on a metaphor that Rick Warren used when he gave his first sermon following his son’s suicide (caused by depression): “In the garden of God’s grace, broken trees bear a lot of fruit.”
(I leave it to the reader to speculate how Williams thought it was appropriate to mine Rick Warren’s response to his son’s suicide in behalf of Bill Hybels the sexual predator.)
In response to all this, Barringer writes:
Should Bill Hybels’ name be mentioned? This is what I think: Yes. Yes, it should be mentioned. But it should not be celebrated, as Williams and Dummitt directly stated and indirectly did with continuous praises and accolades . . . Willow Creek should tell the truth about itself, confess its complicities and sins, and receive God’s forgiveness and healing. But confession means to admit, to name, to describe, and to own what happened. It means to affirm the truth teller(s), name the abuser and his wrongdoings, and confess all complicity. It means to publicly acknowledge the harm done and express a sincere desire to change.
Finding Barringer’s analysis compelling, I decided to watch the video myself and conduct my own analysis. I went at it a bit differently than Barringer. I conducted a rhetorical/content analysis. Having watched the video a number of times, I noticed five different categories of statements that these two pastors made. And I recorded the amount of time and the percentage of time (within the video) that these two pastors spent talking within each category.
- New guy statements: As Williams opens his response to the question he talks at some length about how he is “the new guy” and so is ignorant of much of the dynamics that preceded his tenure. He jokes that while you can’t play the “new guy card” too long, he hopes that he’s still “in the window” of the new guy. He “asks” those gathered to give him “an umbrella of grace” so that he can be “candid.” He admits that he is likely to step on various “landmines” as he is being candid. And, again, he asks for that umbrella of grace.
- 147 seconds, 30% of the time
- Praise: Both pastors praise Hybels: “he was a once-in-a-generation leader” who did beautiful things, they “stand on the shoulders of 46 years of incredible things God has done here” through Hybels, they were drawn to Willow by Hybels’ work and writing, and so forth.
- 74 seconds, 15% of the time
- Blame: Williams acknowledges that there was a “shadow to Bill’s leadership.”
- 19 seconds, 4% of the time
- Excuse structure: Williams introduces the metaphor of “broken trees bearing good fruit” and Dummitt picks up on it, talking about how beautiful it is. I call this an “excuse structure” because it provides the audience with an excuse for forgetting what Hybels did to his victims (“he was just a broken tree, after all [aren’t we all broken?], and he bore great fruit!”), so they can focus instead on what a great leader he was for Willow and all the amazing things that he did.
- 113 seconds, 23% of the time
- Development of excuse structure into preparation for church-wide recoding of Hybels’ sexual abuse: After Dummitt tells Williams that the “broken tree” metaphor is “beautiful,” they have a fist bump and the audience applauds. Dummitt then encourages Williams to preach this word of Hybels as a “broken tree” “some weekend.” (Side note: Any chance they talked about this metaphor and the idea of Williams preaching this before the Q&A? Willow doesn’t leave much up to chance, and planning is everything so as to keep the audience engaged.) Dummitt goes on to talk about the importance of talking about “the history.” He says “we need to celebrate the history.” Williams talks about not being “bashful” about the great things that Willow (thanks to Hybels) has done. Dummitt instructs those gathered that “wounds got to scar over at some point. And we gotta move. Let’s go. Let’s take the hill.”
- 145 seconds, 29% of the time
A quick rundown:
- 4% of the time on blame (with no mention of the victims)
- 15% of the time on explicit praise
- 30% of the time on “the new guy” request for an “umbrella of grace” so that he can “be candid”
- And, if you put the excuse structure (broken trees) together with preparation vis-à-vis the excuse structure to recode Hybels (and the Willow brand) as having “bore great fruit”—52% of the time
Barringer is, of course, right that what Dummitt and Williams did was wrong. And there is more. This is a rhetoric of preparation. The inner circle is being prepared for a shift in the very recently repentant rhetoric of Willow. Years of coverup. Years of attacking victims who were telling the truth. Years of enabling Hybel’s abuse. And then a little window in which a new elder board said, yes, it’s true. And we’re sorry.
But enough of that! The new leaders have a vision! Enough of shame and lament and pain and confession and repentance. It’s time to get the Willow brand on the move again! All that confession and repentance is not uplifting. It does not fill the seats or the coffers. Instead: it’s time to “take the hill!”
Lord have mercy.