It’s always the same story; pastor engages in inappropriate sexual behavior, women report it to the church, the church doesn’t believe the women, and the women are further traumatized. More women come forward and church leaders think there may be something to it. They hire a lawyer to investigate; the lawyer pronounces there is no problem. The pastor may or may not resign and it is business as usual. More women come forward and the church realizes they have a problem. The staff and board resign. Problem solved.
Willow Creek Church, the fifth largest megachurch in the United States witnessed the resignation of their pastoral staff and board in the aftermath of allegations against former pastor Bill Hybels (who resigned a few months ago).
It proves what those of us who have worked in this field have known for the last 25 years; churches cannot investigate their own complaints, the women are rarely believed and lawyers are the worst people to conduct an investigation because their job is to keep the church from being sued.
However, the damage is far more pernicious than a fleeting public scandal. Abuse by pastors inflicts lasting pain and trauma on both the survivors and the congregation. Betrayal by a trusted religious leader is a betrayal by one who represents God and speaks of love and grace. But when someone comes forward with an abuse allegation they are the last ones to receive love and grace. They are initially not believed and once they are believed they are blamed equally (if not more) for the “affair” and sent on their way. They are alienated from their communities and left on their own to carry the pain and blame for what is not their fault.
It is important to name the behavior accurately; it is not an affair. It is a serious misuse of the authority of the pastoral office and a misuse of power in a pastoral relationship. An affair is what happens between two people of equal power who both choose to enter into a sexual relationship. A larger than life figure like Bill Hybels has far more power than the women he chased or the women who may have come on to him. It doesn’t matter who came on to whom. The one with the most power, the pastor, is responsible for setting and maintaining an appropriate boundary for the relationship. Any pastor who invites a woman to his hotel room for a drink is heading into ethical quicksand.
The staff and board resigning does not solve the problem, though it helps. They need a specially trained interim to come and help them heal, teach them a language that accurately names what happened and hire a consultant whose specialty is misconduct and abuse.
Most importantly, they need a pastoral advocate to set up shop in the church and hear the witness of others who have not yet come forward. This behavior does not happen in a vacuum. There are others. There is evidence that Hybels’ behavior goes back more than twenty-five years.
This week Willow Creek Church hosts the Global Leadership Conference. It is a gathering of evangelical leaders looking for ways to revitalize the church and spread the good news of the gospel. They have an opportunity to address the crisis of leadership in their own community and stand in solidarity with women who have the courage to come forward to speak their truth. They need to listen to the women.
However, chances are good they will go about business as usual, minimize the problem, blame the women and miss an important opportunity to demonstrate the healing power of the gospel and restorative justice.
This is the beginning and not the end of their process. It’s never too late to do the right thing. Let’s hope they start now.
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