Thursday, August 09, 2018

The Tragedy of Willow Creek Community Church

File photo of Steve Carter, Heather Larson, and Bill Hybels
As Christian brothers and sisters, we need to pray for Willow Creek Community Church. On the eve of the Global Leadership Summit, a worldwide conference sponsored by the church in cooperation with the Willow Creek Association, church leadership imploded as a result of further allegations against former pastor Bill Hybels.

Last year, Hybels introduced the team who would assume church leadership upon his retirement--lead pastor Heather Larson and teaching pastor Steve Carter.  Although the founding pastor planned to stay on to assist in a time of transition, reports of sexual impropriety involving Hybels surfaced early this year.  He accelerated his departure from the church and left the board of the Willow Creek Association.

When other charges emerged last week, teaching pastor Carter resigned. On Wednesday evening, Larson and the entire elder board--lay leaders who provide accountability on behalf of the congregation--resigned and “apologized for mishandling allegations” against Hybels.

Without addressing the validity of the claims or the actions of the church elders, we must recognize this as a tragedy not only for this church but for the work of Christians everywhere.  Although you may not be a fan of the megachurch, this affects how people see the church.

Whenever any part of the Body of Christ stumbles, every member of the Body is hurt by the fall. This is not a time to point fingers but to recognize the imperfection and fallibility of those who lead, show compassion for those who have come forward with charges, and encourage accountability.

There are some lessons here for all of us.

First, there is danger in putting too much trust in any one individual. Whether the person is the pastor of a church, an elected official, the leader of an educational institution, or the CEO of a business, too much power placed in the hands of one individual hurts the people involved, tempts the leader to excess, and can lead to organizational chaos.

Second, given the congregational polity of those of us in the free church tradition, we should recognize that this could happen in any Baptist church in the South.  Church leaders are too quick to ignore bad behavior by leaders and sweep problems “under the rug.”  

Third, leadership is a lonely place and every leader must guard against the abuse of his or her role. Every spiritual leader needs mentors, coaches, and friends who will challenge him or her and be ready to provide accountability and confront aberrant behavior. 

Willow Creek Community Church can survive this, but only with much prayer and soul-searching.  Let’s pray for them.

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