What "Caring For the Women" Would Look Like

On Wednesday, May 23, I was out of town coaching church leaders. I checked voicemails late afternoon, and listened to a message from one of the church elders who said she was with another elder. They said they wanted to start to rebuild trust, knowing they have made some missteps. She offered me the opportunity to have conversations with a third party, and gave me the phone number of a mediation group. This is the first time any of the church elders have reached out to me since I met with them in August of 2016 and told them my story.

The elders have said publicly that they are trying to reach out and “care for the women” involved.  But what would true caring look like?  In my view, this is not the time to enter into any kind of reconciliation process. That is grossly premature. As I have said in prior statements, truth finding must precede reconciliation.  The narrative they are putting forward is that this is all about a “dispute” between the Willow leaders and former members that needs to be resolved. Fundamentally, that is not what this is about. It’s about an abusive pastor and church leadership who have not adequately investigated his behavior, have not named it as sin, and have failed to confront and address it, calling for consequences for Bill Hybels. If the elders want to truly care for the women, they would take steps such as these:

  • Publicly retract all statements that any of the women are liars – and do so by name.
  • Publicly retract that any of us (Ortbergs, Mellados, myself and others) were colluding to bring down the church and the WCA.
  • Apologize for how this has been handled from the beginning.
  • Do a true, thorough, third-party investigation into ALL of the allegations.
  • Don’t just “walk with Bill Hybels and his family” – Call him to repentance.

I want to be clear that I do hope for reconciliation someday. But so much harder, deeper work must come first.

My Response to the “Apology”

I am still sorting through my response to the update statement given by the Willow Creek elders on Wednesday evening.  Some have asked me if I am encouraged by the step toward an apology. I wish I could say that I am. But instead, I find myself deeply disturbed, disappointed, and, frankly, angry. As I’ve tried to think through and pray through my response, this is the big idea that keeps coming back to me:

            The weight of an apology needs to match the weight of the transgressions.

     When my daughters were young and one of them had said something mean to the other, l would demand she make an apology. All too often, the tone of the way she said “Sorry” made it sound like anything but. It did not ring true. It was not genuine. That is how I felt on Wednesday evening. In just 5 or 6 minutes, the elders addressed their actions. This is in contrast to two lengthy family meetings in the church complete with timelines and bold statements calling us liars and colluders by name in very specific ways. The apology was broad and vague and, in the words of my husband, “incremental.” Even worse for me was the tone of the statement. I know this is subjective, but for me it sounded subdued and clinical. We were told that not all the stories women told were lies, which begs the question which ones were lying. We were told that not all the people were colluding, which means some of us were. Bill’s actions were described as “inappropriate.”  That’s such a weak term for what took place over decades. The right word is sin. And the true extent of Bill’s sin needs to come into the light. It is far more than “misconduct.”

     The elders also said their “top priority has been reaching out to the women who have made allegations against Bill.”  Who were they? I know of only two women who have been contacted. I first went to the elders in August of 2016. I told them (5 of them were in the meeting) with a very shaky voice about my experience with Bill. I had not intended to share it that night, but then thought maybe I could help them see there might be a pattern to his behavior. At no time after that meeting have any of that group of elders contacted me to follow up. I live less than 15 minutes from the church, but no one asked to meet me for coffee, to hear from my perspective. Instead, Bill was allowed to speculate on why I may have told this story. He suggested that maybe I just wanted to teach more. This had nothing to do with my leaving the church. He also said he wished I could have just talked to him about how I felt uncomfortable. He failed to mention, as did the elders, that a few days after my experience in Spain, Bill asked me to stay after a meeting. He then said, “We don’t need to tell anyone about what happened in Spain, right?” I assumed he meant the elders, and I assured him I wouldn’t say anything. That is an abuse of power. He was my boss, indirectly, and should not have ever put me in that situation. At the time, like all the women I have since heard about, I thought I was the only one. I had no idea that other women would one day say “Me Too” about Bill.

     As recently as October 4, 2017 Leanne Mellado made one more attempt to contact the elders. In a letter, she told them we had heard a few more stories from women coming forward. The elders went silent and never responded to her. After 4 years of keeping this under the radar, a group of us made the excruciating decision to go public. Then we were severely maligned by the elders.

     My sense is that the current leaders of Willow, understandably, want to move forward into the future and put this behind them. All of us long for the day when we will be unified once again, loving one another in the way Jesus called us to love. But the path to that day is a long and arduous one that will require a lot of work, humility, pain, repentance, and truth telling.

     I’ve learned a great deal about forgiveness. I believe God is calling me, always, to forgive my brothers and sisters. I am a sinner saved by grace, and I need forgiveness as well. So my job is most definitely to do the work of forgiving Bill, Heather, and the elders. Forgiveness can happen, with God’s help, no matter what the other person does or doesn’t do, no matter what they say or do not say. It is an internal process of releasing that bitterness so that we can be free and not burdened. I commit to doing that work and already am. I pray regularly for Bill, his family, and the elders.

     But there is a huge difference between forgiveness and reconciliation and reunion. Please allow me to illustrate.  Back in 1990, when the struggle for freedom in South Africa was reaching its climax, a group of black and white spiritual leaders from many churches gathered in a hotel. The question at this gathering was: Could the blacks ever forgive? And secondly, could blacks and whites ever be truly united as brothers and sisters?

     Bishop Desmond Tutu gave his response in a speech titled We Forgive You.  “Forgive, yes,” said Tutu. But could there ever be a coming together? “Ah, that is another question,” he said. “Those who have wronged us must be ready to make what amends they can…If I have stolen your pen, I can’t really be contrite when I say, ‘Please forgive me’ if at the same time I still keep your pen. If I am truly repentant, then I will demonstrate this genuine repentance by returning your pen. Then reunion, which is always costly, will happen….It can’t happen just by saying, ‘Let bygones be bygones.”

    Bottom line is I feel like the elders haven’t returned my pen. The path to healing requires a sequence:

            Truth leads to Repentance which can then maybe lead to Reconciliation.

Why do I say “maybe?” about Reconciliation?  Because it does not always happen and in some cases may be harmful and not advisable. In situations of abuse, reunion is not usually the result. However, there can still be forgiveness so that we can be free of the bitterness poison.

     My fervent hope and prayer is that truth will be told that leads to repentance and healing. We have a long, long way to go.


Why We Can't Move On

This morning, following the announcement of Pastor Bill Hybels last night, I suspect most of us just want to take a deep breath, exhale, and move on. This entire situation has been heartbreaking, divisive, and, frankly exhausting. All of us have jobs to do and families to lead.

In our culture we live with a rapid news cycle and a tiny attention span. We want the big picture, the bottom line, the headlines. This story, for most people, surfaced less than three weeks ago. But we all want it to be done. We want healing and reconciliation and a new day for the church, Willow and beyond.

So why can’t we just MOVE ON?  Here’s why:

  • The Womens’ Stories Are Not Yet Fully Told -  There can be no healing until the truth is all brought into the light. I know you don’t want to hear this…..but there’s more to come. And we must not ignore the voices of these women or they will be abused all over again. Bill Hybels is not the victim here!
  • There Can Be No Healing Without Repentance – Last night I heard no confession of deceit or admission of guilt for sexual misconduct. For the church and its leaders to move on there must be full ownership of what was sinful and flawed in the process.  Only then can we hope for healing and restoration, for light to come from the darkness. 

The goal for me was never connected to Bill resigning. The goal is to usher in the truth, to reveal an abuse of power that spans over 30 years, with women who are scarred and in some cases, terrified to come forward.

So here’s what I call all of us to do:

  1. Keep Leaning In -Take only one brief exhale and then buck up and prepare to head into the fray once again. This is a very complicated story. I have been wrestling with it for over three years. I call all of us to be thoughtful, to dig deep, to ask questions, to read fully. Resist the temptation to ignore the story or sum it all up in a quick sound bite. 
  2. Keep Praying – ask God for wisdom to discern the truth and then for guidance for next steps.
  3. Be Slow to Speak and Quick to Listen – All of us need to slow down our responses, especially on social media, and be much more careful with our words. Let’s speak with civility.

God wants to bring healing and wholeness to Willow Creek and to all local churches. But that will not happen if we think last night was the final chapter. Eventually, if we seek the truth and respond with humility and repentance, there can be a New Day. But Not now. Not yet.

What Olympic Relays Teach Us About Succession

I confess I’m going through withdrawal now that the Rio Olympics are over.  For two weeks, like countless viewers, I was captivated by the inspiring stories and spectacular accomplishments of world class athletes. Just two years to wait for the Winter Olympics!

What I did not expect was an object lesson from the track and field relay teams for our work in Succession Planning.  The women’s 4 x 100 team featuring Alison Felix failed in the trial race to pass the baton and were initially disqualified.  Later the judges determined that Alison was bumped by another runner and the Americans were allowed to compete in the final - from the least desirable lane on the outside. In spite of these obstacles, they raced for the Gold Medal!  Sadly, our men’s 4 x 100 team experienced a different outcome. After celebrating a victory lap for the bronze medal with the American flag draped over their shoulders, the team discovered they had been disqualified because the baton was passed outside the official zone. This baton passing is a tricky business!  And the consequences for getting it wrong are heartbreaking.  So what can we learn for churches facing the crucial process of passing the baton from one Senior Pastor to another?  Here are some lessons I gleaned from Rio:

  1. Process Matters -  No matter how skilled the runners are, the process of passing the baton is a huge factor in the result of the race.  Many churches facing Succession might assume that the major challenge is finding the right next person.  But Succession is about so much more than Search. Of course, the right candidate is essential for the future ministry of the church. But if the transfer of the leadership baton from the current leader to the next leader is unhealthy, moving forward to the next season can be stalled and impaired. The congregation and staff all need the process to be one of openness, appropriate honoring and grieving, celebration, and authentic support for the new leader. And as we saw with the men’s team, Timing is Everything. You can pass a baton too early and also too late!
  2. Practice Matters – No doubt the Olympic runners practice baton passing over and over and over.  They likely studied films and learned from other teams about the best approach and potential errors to avoid.  In the same way church teams facing succession should prepare well in advance,  learning from other churches who can share lessons of what worked well and what surprises they faced along the way.  
  3. Coaching Matters I was moved by stories in Rio of coaches who have worked for years with athletes, offering perspective, training plans, discipline, encouragement, and support.  One triathlete could not stop hugging her coach after winning the gold medal, acknowledging that they shared the journey and the final victory.  A coach brings a steady, wise, consistent voice to the person who is on the field.  And when it comes to Succession – the enormously vital movement of a church from one leader to the next – a coach is essential.  At Slingshot we believe a coach should ideally begin working with a church team as soon as the “s” word of Succession is first uttered.  The passing of the leadership baton does not have to be fraught with misunderstandings, serious identity issues, poor communication, and a lack of trust.  With a skilled coach to guide all along the way, the Succession process can honor God and be filled with integrity, truthful and timely communication, closure for the congregation and staff, hope and excitement for the departing pastor’s next season, and a wonderful launch for the critical first 100 days of the new pastor.

The winning of a gold medal is exciting and meaningful.  Yet in terms of eternity and the fruit of the kingdom, the win of a healthy Succession process is far more significant.  Let’s not drop batons and damage communities of faith.  May God be honored by church teams who intentionally walk into the season of leadership transition with a determination to run this crucial part of the race with grace, skill, integrity, and love.