When the allegations of sexual misconduct first came out against the senior pastor of my church (Bill Hybles of Willow Creek), I was shocked and confused. How could the man who endured scorn, isolation, and hate for promoting women in leadership positions also be guilty of sexual misconduct? Also, how could the man the who I’ve observed to only hug people under duress, be guilty of hugging women for too long? None of this made any sense to me. I want to be clear, I believe the victims. I just couldn’t make sense of the public version of Bill I was familiar with and this behind the scenes version.
Until I started thinking about it.
The more I thought about it the more stories Bill told came to mind.
What follows is how I personally came to a place of peace with the dichotomy of Bill’s character. I have never had a personal or professional relationship with Bill. I’m pretty sure the only time I’ve ever spoken with him was to briefly say hello when I saw him on campus. I think for those of us who didn’t know Bill personally this season has been especially hard because all we know of him is how he presented himself in public.
I also want to say what follows is not a well researched piece of journalism. This is 100% conjecture. So, if you get to the end you don’t agree, I invite you to reject it. This thought process helped me and my only intent was offer it as help to others.
Here we go:
In the beginning, many of the allegations that came forward were from the early days of the church when Bill was in his late twenties and into his thirties. I started remembering stories of the earlier days of Willow. I bet you can still find Bill telling many of these stories in video clips online.
When Bill would speak about spiritual gifts, he frequently told a story about a time in the church when he felt burnt out, emotionally drained and ready to quit. He would say that he was over using his teaching gift which was draining to him, leaving him little to no time to lean into his evangelism and leadership gifts. Bill also told that story when he spoke about filling your bucket so that you can be at your best. Which means there was a time in Willow’s history where Bill was admittedly burnt out, drained, and ready to quit.
We also know from a book Bill and his wife, Lynn, co-authored that they really struggled in their marriage, especially in the beginning. Bill described being emotionally distant and both of them struggled to reconcile their differences of personality along with the stress and struggle of starting Willow.
Next, Bill frequently spoke about his father. He spoke very highly of his father, and Bill also described his father’s emotional coldness. When Bill exhorted dads in the church to be loving and affectionate with their children he frequently spoke of the impact having a dad who was not physically affectionate and did not tell him he was loved.
Kids need to experience non-sexual, physical touch. I had someone ask me what the point of hug was. “It’s sensory integration,” I said. In other words, a hug helps you integrate all the information you’re processing at any given minute (which can be overwhelming) and then helps you CALM DOWN. Persons with autism who struggle to tolerate physical touch will use squeeze boxes to mimic the feeling of a hug so as to help them calm down. Ranchers use something similar to calm their cattle. Those hugs and snuggles are a necessary part of our development and ability to tolerate and regulate uncomfortable emotions and physical sensations.
Another story Bill told at the leadership summit was his dad’s habit of sending him on international trips, starting at a young age, by himself. Bill said his dad’s message to him was, “Figure it out. Don’t call me.” In one story Bill talked about how his dad sent him on a skiing trip by train. When he arrived at his train stop it was night, he was more than a mile away from where he was staying, and he had no plan for how he was going to get there. And this was long before cell phones and uber. The story was meant to illustrate how people develop resiliency when they are left to solve their problems…which is true. And when a child is left alone to solve big problems they often learn that other people don’t help them and the only person you can go to for help is yourself. Total self reliance is a dangerous, lonely, stressful way to live (which I say a person who struggles with it.).
Bill once told a story about how in the early days of Willow they did not pass something around to collect the offering because there was this feeling that churches were all about money and that would turned off new people. Instead there was a box at the front of the auditorium. The result was that tithing was really low and the church was struggling to stay afloat financially. In the story, Bill said one day he was so frustrated he basically told the congregation something to the effect that the church doesn’t have enough resources to go on and he can’t take it anymore. That he was getting in his car and driving west and wasn’t sure if he was coming back. Bill said he made to Las Vegas before he stopped and turned around. This story, to me, demonstrates a problem with asking for help, inappropriate blaming, and impulsiveness.
When you consider a young man who is struggling with his marriage, his vocation and emotional management is really such a shock that he would turn to such unhealthy means of coping? If a person believes that he the only person he can really rely on is himself and he is emotionally tapped out, is allowing himself to violate boundaries and push limits for instant gratification so far outside of possible?
I want to be 100% clear that I am NOT trying to excuse or justify his behavior. My goal is to add context AND to protect ourselves from falling into the “special/monster” trap. Often when we see a great failing of character, especially from someone we admire, our tendency is to deny the failing or dismiss that person as a monster…or some kind of special bad person. Bill is neither. He is a fallible human who did not seek help in a healthy way when he desperately needed.
We want people who do bad things to be a special kind of bad, different from us some how. It shields all of us from the reality of “But for the grace of God, there go I.” All of us are vulnerable to causing great harm to people if we are not open and accountable to our brokenness. And we are all broken.
I think the other way we harm ourselves by thinking of people who commit sexual misconduct as a special kind of bad is that we are resistant to believing it when someone we know is accused of sexual misconduct. Surely someone we know would never do that. Unfortunately this behavior is much too common.
I hope that people come forward and accuse someone in power of sexual misconduct our instinct is to believe the person who comes forward. It is VERY rare for someone to lie about sexual misconduct. Given the way we treat people who come forward, why would someone choose to submit to that kind of scrutiny and treatment to protect a lie?
I strongly believe that no one is special. No one is invulnerable to moral failing. No person is so connected to God and His will that they do not need the same help, accountability, and discipline the rest of us do. Celebrity and power does not endow a person with an inoculation to sin or temptation. It makes them more vulnerable.
I don’t know what the path forward is here. I think a step in the right direction is to assume that people who come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct are telling the truth. I also think we need a better system for holding church leaders accountable and leaders who resist such accountability should be a major red flag. I am so over the idea of celebrity pastors.
My goal in writing this was to help those of us on the outside to come to terms with the fall of a person we only knew by an outdated reputation. I am so sad for all the women who were harmed by Bill and for all the people who have been hurt by the culture he created. I am so thankful the truth came out and that we are finally talking about it.
I love the church. I hope this serves as a wake up call for Willow about how it treats its leaders, creating change moving forward. I hope we are able to remove the toxic aspects of Willow’s culture so that we can move forward as the hands and feet of Jesus in our community.