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These are hard days for members of Willow Creek Community Church. The Chicago-area megachurch is grappling with reports that its decadeslong pastor, Bill Hybels, made inappropriate advances toward several women.
Hybels denied the allegations, but told his congregation, “I placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.” He had planned to retire in October after 40 years of ministry, but stepped down from his post in early April.
The Willow Creek elders said they would launch a new inquiry into accusations against Hybels. They didn’t address the pastor’s guilt or innocence about new allegations, but acknowledged “we didn’t hold him accountable to specific boundaries.” Several of the accusations involve occasions when women say they were alone with Hybels at his request.
It’s a dramatic fall for the leader of a church that pioneered the seeker-sensitive movement of the 1990s. By 2008, Willow Creek released a study examining whether the methods it practiced and taught to other churches were effective.
Thousands attended Willow Creek, but how were they doing?
The seekers were doing fine, according to the study results. New Christians were satisfied too. But 25 percent of those who described themselves as more mature believers said they were “stalled” in their faith or dissatisfied with the church.
The study concluded stronger believers had higher expectations for “what the church can and should deliver.” At the time, Willow Creek leaders responded by saying they realized they should teach people they need to “look beyond the church to grow.”
It’s true that Christians need to pursue personal disciplines of Christian growth, but the local church is the institution God has given for that growth to flourish in connection with other believers. To use the Bible’s analogy: Individual body parts are healthiest when the whole body they’re connected to is well.
Sadly, it appears Hybels allowed himself to become isolated, at least in some sense, even among the thousands of believers he led. His elders acknowledged they didn’t insist on the kind of boundaries they should have established.
Churches can do better on the front end of potential disasters if they help pastors stay grounded in ordinary life, and rooted in accountability.
In nearly 14 years at WORLD, I’ve seen plenty of Christian leaders stumble. Some circumstances are more egregious than others. But one of the common threads I’ve observed: Sometimes popular leaders become insulated from the accountability they need from the people around them. Often, no one wants to challenge a charismatic leader.
That doesn’t mean pastors aren’t responsible for their own actions or the suffering they sometimes inflict on others. But the churches they lead are responsible to watch for pitfalls too. It’s part of protecting the members. Churches can do better on the front end of potential disasters if they help pastors stay grounded in ordinary life, and rooted in accountability.
Of course, any person can get around any system of accountability, because sin comes from the heart. But sin has outward expressions we need to help each other see. I say “we” because we’re all susceptible to the same dangers, whether famous or not.
This can happen whether a church has 200 members or 2,000.
Indeed, as I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed my own reaction has shifted. Instead of thinking, “Here we go again,” I’m more apt to think, “Lord, have mercy. … Keep me from falling too.” It’s what the disciples thought when Jesus told them one of them would betray Him. They knew their own hearts and so asked: “Lord, is it I?”
During my time profiling Joni Eareckson Tada, I was struck when she mentioned that she and her husband, Ken, often pray, “Lord, keep us from doing something stupid.” I fleetingly thought: “What? No, … you’re Joni. You’ve persevered at this for 50 years.” But she’s wiser than that. She knows she has to finish. She knows to ask: “Lord, is it I?”
That’s important because it’s not just affairs or other indiscretions that threaten us. Patterns of sin like pride or complacency can shipwreck a faith in quieter but equally damaging ways. I’m not sure the devil cares how he brings us down, though he also knows the grace of God can still bring us up.
So what do we do?
We begin by acknowledging our weakness. We ask for God’s mercy. And we resist considering ourselves strong on our own—whether we’re famous or unknown. One well-known theologian, J.I. Packer, summed up his counsel for Christian growth in the title of his 2013 book: Weakness Is the Way.
Packer, now 91 years old, took his meditations from the Apostle Paul’s teaching: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.
In 2016, Packer announced macular degeneration had robbed much of his eyesight. He’d likely never read or write again. The Gospel Coalition asked him about this difficult development, and Packer responded: “God knows what He’s up to. … Something good, something for His glory is going to come out of it.”
When the interviewer asked about lessons for the next generation of Christians, Packer talked about the importance of the church: “Individualism, no. Churchliness, yes.”
And when asked about the key to living a faithful Christian life for so long, he replied: “I’m not a spectacular person as far as I understand it. And I don’t think my experience of the Lord’s grace has been spectacular. I’ll say it’s been steady and I thank God for that.”