There is a full cleaning of house at Willow Creek with the all the elders and lead pastor resigning because of to their lack of appropriate action when multiple women accused Bill Hybels of sexual misconduct. Such sweeping changes are rare, unless there are threats of criminal or civil action, but it is a step in a positive direction for Willow Creek. Whether the church survives this scandal and shaking up or not remains is not certain, but it would have been more likely had an adequate response been in place from the beginning. Unfortunately, when it comes to matters of potentially deep injustice, in whatever forms they take, there is the tendency to “under-respond” to the concern at hand; it is even more painful for me when churches and church leaders, whom should ideally be peaceful places of refuge from the objectification and abuse that the world offers up, are deeply complicit in the problem. The elders treated the accusers with an undeserved skepticism and thus failed to appropriate hold Bill Hybels accountable. Why is this the case for Willow Creek, accusations of sexual misconduct and harassment, and injustice more broadly?
There are at least three inter-related, psychological factors that can readily be contagious across a group of people: 1) a strong positive idealization of a person, organization, institution, brand, etc., 2) motivating an attempt to resolve any dissonance between negative reports of injustice towards the person, organization, institution, brand, etc. with positive idealization by 3) reframing, minimizing, and ignoring the accusations and reports of injustice so that the positive idealization may continue. Put more succinctly, we have difficulty tolerating blemishes on someone or something that is deeply important to us. As a consequence, reports of injustice have a way of either a) being denied outright or b) minimized to an emotionally comfortable level. Therefore, the responses to such reports either keep the same status quo going or put on a
All this leads to a tendency to rush through all the emotionally uncomfortable stuff of dealing with accusations. It is deeply uncomfortable to consider someone or something you love being a source of hurt, harm, or even evil. Accusers and the accused are not properly talked to with the appropriate opportunities for feedback, but they tend to be pigeon-holed into specific boxes that control how those investigating engage with and hear the parties. Their discomfort with the idea makes them poor listeners and causes them to rationalize away why they should not listen in the first place, such as premature explanations that the accusers are lying, mental disorder, etc. based upon no to the slimmest of evidence. Or, in the case where the accusers are highly valued as persons (which almost never happens when the accused is of a high status), the accused is immediately treated as having a deep problem with little opportunity to tell the narrative that is dissonant with the high value placed upon the accuser; this creates the opposite problem of over-correction if the situation is not appropriately understood, which can itself become a source of deep injustice. In short, our emotional idealizations cause us to be resistant to any information that would challenge those positive views, thereby inhibiting listening.
As a result, those charged with investigating complaints are often out of the loop of important and significant events, developing a sense of confidence of the biased information they have; they really do believe they know the truth about the accusations and thus can offer an adequate (non-)response. Rather than recognizing the existence of “known unknowns” that would challenge their confidence, they have a tendency to operate in the ignorance of “unknown unknowns.” Their attachments lead them to not realize how ignorant they are of the damages that have been caused. Thus, they rarely, if ever, adequately address issues of injustice and are often caught surprised later on down the road if the story ever gets out.
But, if I may suggest, this becomes the reality we face when we face situations where people, organizations, institutions, brands, etc. are “too big to fail.” Our attachments are not based simply upon what has happened in the past, but our sense of the future. I can imagine many of the Elders of Willow Creek feeling a bit of anxiety about the future of the church if these accusations against Hybels were true. “What will happen?” The fears in such a mindset activate a sense and need of self-preservation, which can then lead to a distorting one’s beliefs about the circumstances to operate according to your own best desires and interests. When we feel someone or something is “too big to fail,” we unwittingly pull out our rose-colored glasses. The net effect is that listening is rather poor when things are “too big to fail.”
This is the opposite of how Jesus called brothers and sisters to live together. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus says the following:
If another member of the church (literally, “brother” or a gender-neutral “sibling”) sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (NRSV)
Here, Jesus doesn’t put the emphasis on an agreement, although that is probably implied, but on the act of listening. Jesus, who was showed a keen observation of people’s behavior, places the emphasis on how the ‘accused’ response to what the persons
So, in effect, then, the “too big to fail” mentality prominent in mega-churches, denominations, seminaries, etc. creates a potential division within our larger spiritual family. If I may suggest, this “too big to fail” mentality is probably responsible for a lot of abuse that is happening within our Christian family. Look at what has happened within the Roman Catholic church! Us Protestants are only now starting to receive the same judgment the Catholic church has had to face.
Paul addresses a similar mentality in 1 Corinthians, where the church was dividing along lines of associating themselves with particular teachers; social status and hierarchy was ruling the Christian community at Corinth. Then, Paul mentions there were reports of sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2. The response: people responded to it with arrogance, thinking they were invulnerable, rather than responding with mourning at the word of what was happening. In the arrogance, they failed to respond; instead, if Paul’s larger report about the Corinthians practices of “knowledge” and “wisdom” are representative, they may have rationalized the behavior away in a boastful manner. As a consequence, Paul warns them about the contagious nature of this behavior, speaking about it in the metaphor of leaven/yeast in vs. 6-7; the more the yeast remains, the worse it gets.
And this seems to have been the case with Bill Hybels, although I am not familiar with all the timeline and details of Hybels behaviors over the years. As the necessary corrective measures were neither allowed for or taken, the problem got worse and worse to the point that it not only became a deep, pervasive sin for Hybels but it infected the Elders with a wrongful attitude towards their sisters in Christ. The problem only got worse and corrupted Willow Creek to the point that is a real question what its future will be, but perhaps this is for the best for this mega-church?
The solution for the church isn’t simply to develop better procedures. As valuable as these are, when the rules run against the desires and passions of the heart, the heart will win 90% of the time and will apply the rules in selectively self-serving manners. While better procedures are helpful to direct and instruct, moving away from the personal and institutional expansionism that pervades the church and creates a “too big to fail” syndrome will reduce the feelings of cognitive dissonance that inhibits appropriate listening and response. This pulls back to the mentality more authentic to the body of Christ, where people sees themselves as belonging to Christ. Instead of deriving our primary identity from a specific, larger-than-life personality or organization, we derive our identity from a lower-than-life-to-the-point-of-death Savior.