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.