It would be hard to imagine darker days for believers who truly want to see repentance and reform on issues of sexual abuse in religious institutions.
Are you a supporter of traditional forms of church life, in part because you believe that local pastors and churches need supervision and structures of accountability?
Are you a supporter of free-church evangelicalism, because you believe ancient forms of Christian faith are cold and locked into patterns of decline?
Well, that brings us back to the ongoing efforts at Willow Creek Church to learn what did or did not happen behind closed doors during interactions between women and the church's founder and superstar preacher Bill Hybels.
How do the leaders of an independent megachurch investigate the private affairs of the man who created their empire? Who has the authority to discipline a superstar? You can see that struggle at the top of the latest New York Times story about this ongoing drama:
Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago announced ... that it plans to launch a new independent investigation into allegations that the Rev. Bill Hybels, the church’s influential founding pastor, sexually harassed female co-workers and a congregant over many years.
The announcement came one day after The New York Times reported on accusations from Pat Baranowski, Mr. Hybels’s former executive assistant. She said that Mr. Hybels had sexually and emotionally abused her while she worked at the church and lived with him and his family in the 1980s.
Heather Larson, one of two top pastors at Willow Creek, said in a statement: “It was heartbreaking yesterday to read about the new allegation against Bill Hybels in The New York Times. We have deep sadness for Ms. Baranowski. The behavior that she has described is reprehensible.”
The church’s other top pastor, the Rev. Steve Carter, resigned on Sunday. He said he could no longer work at Willow Creek in good conscience.
So, who you gonna call? Who gets to choose the members of this independent panel? What can Willow Creek leaders do to signal their good intentions and, above all, their willingness to repent and change?
This brings me to a passage in the first Times blockbuster that I really wanted to highlight in my first post about coverage of this topic ("She kept stacks of journals: Bill Hybels drama enters a shocking new #MeToo chapter").
It's hard to describe, in secular terms, the authority held by Hybels and other megachurch leaders. It's crucial that they are successful, because Americans love success and impressive statistics. It's important that they are talented speakers who can inspire and entertain the masses.
But there's more to this equation than that. You see, there is truth to the claim that many women don't want to report clergy abuse because they believe that -- in many other ways -- God has worked through these churches to help them and many other people. It isn't just guilt that silences them. They don't want to hurt the churches that helped them.
Thus, dig into this passage -- in the first Baranowski piece -- from Times religion-beat veteran Laurie Goodstein. You may want to read it more than once, because this is precisely the religion angle that is missing from many mainstream media reports on this topic:
In the evangelical world, Mr. Hybels is considered a giant, revered as a leadership guru who discovered the formula for bringing to church people who were skeptical of Christianity. His books and speeches have crossed over into the business world.
Mr. Hybels built a church independent of any denomination. In such churches, there is no larger hierarchy to set policies and keep the pastor accountable. Boards of elders are usually volunteers recommended, and often approved, by the pastor.
But the most significant reason sexual harassment can go unchecked is that victims do not want to hurt the mission of their churches.
“So many victims within the evangelical world stay silent because they feel, if they step forward, they’ll damage this man’s ministry, and God won’t be able to accomplish the things he’s doing through this man,” said Boz Tchividjian, a former sex crimes prosecutor who leads GRACE, an organization that works with victims of abuse in Christian institutions.
“Those leaders feel almost invincible,” said Mr. Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham who has consulted with some former staff members accusing Mr. Hybels of wrongdoing. “They don’t feel like the rules apply to them, because they’re doing great things for Jesus, even though their behavior doesn’t reflect Jesus at all.”
Now, let's jump back to the follow-up reporting, after that first Times piece.
Once again: Who has the authority to investigate a superstar? How do powerful religious leaders demonstrate that they are willing to listen to sincere critics and abuse victims?
In this case, Goodstein's stories have included strong comments from people who have lived, worked and worshipped inside this specific evangelical niche::
Ms. Larson told church members on Monday that the new investigation will be overseen by an advisory council made up of “external Christian leaders from across the United States.” She did not name any members of the council but said they will have “full autonomy.”
She also said the investigation would be funded entirely by an anonymous donor “to ensure there is no undue influence on the process and the conclusions.”
That's interesting. You know journalists are going to want to know more about that anonymous donor. How do church members know that an anonymous donor is not trying to shape the investigation? Continuing:
But Scot McKnight, a prominent Christian author who used to preach at Willow Creek and has called for an investigation, said he doubted this inquiry would be truly independent if the megachurch’s leaders were choosing the council.
“Their track record on investigations and independence contaminates the whole story,” said Mr. McKnight, a New Testament professor at Northern Seminary in Illinois.
Ms. Baranowski said that she would need to know a lot more before she would agree to be interviewed by these investigators. “They might all be friends of Bill’s, as far as we know. So I’m a little skeptical.”
Again: Who you gonna call?
One final note: The Times is not alone, of course, in following this new chapter in the Hybels drama. The latest report from The Chicago Tribune focuses on how these headlines are affecting an upcoming event that, over the years, has symbolized Willow Creek's national and global influence.
The bottom line: Hybels built a brand name. He is part of that progressive evangelical brand name. Now, the brand name has been tarnished.
For 26 years, the Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Community Church has made headlines with celebrity guests like Bono, President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
But this year, the summit will be without its most noteworthy participant: the founding pastor, Bill Hybels. In addition, at least five speakers, including the actor Denzel Washington, have bowed out, and more than 100 churches have called off plans to broadcast the summit to their flocks. ...
Stay tuned, and please let us know of other mainstream news organizations that get involved in this coverage.