Willow Creek church was formerly the third largest church in America. A trailblazing church over the past 40 years under the visionary leadership of Bill Hybels. Hybles planned to retire later this year but this past spring, the Chicago Tribune reported about accusations of sexual misconduct. In the fallout, Hybels retried shortly after. The reigns left to Willow pastors Heather Larson and Steve Carter.
This past week, a new story of multiple instance of groping a former secretary, and one sexual act between Hybels and the sectary were reported in the New York Times. On Sunday, Carter resigned.
Last night, at a special meeting, Larson resigned and the elder board of Willow has also announced their resignation.
Mega churches can have a tendency to be a mile wide but only an inch deep. That’s not to say that there aren’t highly committed people who are dedicated to Willow Creek. There absolutely are. But mega churches are cool. That’s part of their draw. And Willow is no longer cool. Dark clouds loom over.
I don’t take joy in this church going through these struggles. When I lived in suburban Chicago, I visited on numerous times and always had good experiences.
But this is a mess.
One of the really important ministries for pastors is “church revitalization.” Similarly to turnaround artists in the corporate world, there are people who have the skills to help an aging or struggling church turn things around. Although it’s generally never done at this scale. And when it is done, it’s typically not a situation where you’ve lost all of the staff and elders.
Where do you go to pick up the pieces?
A flawed system
Reading articles last night, I clicked on a link to Willow’s elders page. I was shocked that they only had nine.
Nine elders. In a church of 20,000?!
Honestly I think that was part of the problem. A church that big could have 100 elders. But nine? That’s way too small of an inner circle. In the Bible, elders are entrusted with shepherding the people of God, caring for the flock, administering church discipline, and teaching.
There’s no way nine people could do that for 20,000. Those functions largely went to professional staff.
When the allegations came out four years ago, Willow did an internal investigation. Part of the danger (and this isn’t unique to a huge church), is that churches have a vested interest in finding nothing. The inappropriate response four years ago seems to be part of the reason why there was no choice but for Heather Larson and the elders to step down.
Willow Creek is renowned for its leadership. Ironically, their annual leadership summit began today. I think Willow still has some good things to say on the subject.
The consequences of sin
The ramifications of sin aren’t always immediately felt. For years, these sins were largely unknown. The treatment of women, the disbelief, the failure of the leadership to have this properly investigated.
It caught up. It came to light.
The effect of sin
Certainly I feel bad for the women who weren’t believed. That’s very unfortunate that someone in a position of power acted inappropriately.
But if Willow sees a plummet in membership, they have a number of great ministries which blessed people in the community. They have counseling services, a car repair ministry, and a massive food pantry. If Willow were to collapse, I feel bad for the void that would be created.
The judgment of sin
God judges sin. And he judges those who hurt the people of God.
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. 2 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord.
But we do have a good shepherd. Jesus tends to the flock. He’s lays down his life for his sheep. He leads his sheep to greener pastures.
I pray for Willow Creek’s leaders who have stepped down. We live in a sinful world. And they’ve made serious mistakes. The good news is that God is a forgiving God and there is hope in the gospel.
Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.