The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
It has happened again. Another round of applause for a pastor whose public ministry has ended in turmoil.
Three months ago Andy Savage stood before the congregation of Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and confessed to a “sexual incident” which had occurred two decades earlier. He wasn’t unveiling a secret, as the informed circle of confidants had been diverse and influential. But the incident hadn’t been a matter of public information until that moment. In response to Savage’s story, the congregation rose and delivered a standing ovation of support.
Leadership guru Ed Stetzer wrote that the applause was heard around the world because it was wrong. A snowball was rolling and a month later Savage resigned his position with no new accusations of misconduct and no new details about the old one except for insight about the way it was mishandled, which did not bring healing and closure to the victim.
A cultural tidal wave continues to sweep across the ecclesiastical landscape. Two days ago Bill Hybels stood before Willow Creek Church near Chicago and resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Unlike Andy Savage, Bill Hybels vehemently denied charges of sexual misconduct, labeling some of them false and others misleading. Once again the congregation rose and gave their beleaguered pastor a standing ovation. Probably someone will condemn the standing ovation as wrong. I don’t know if it was wrong. I wasn’t there. But it was another ovation that will be heard around the world.
No doubt Hybels’ accusers are irked. One of them wrote that she wasn’t looking for a resignation. She merely wanted an acknowledgement of the truth and proper accountability. The truth may never become public information. Nearly all concerned parties were part of the inner circle of leadership. Bloggers are taking sides. Detractors are gloating. It looks really ugly.
The accusers’ roles in leadership lend them credibility. They speak about fearing Hybels’ dominant personality. I can hardly imagine the dynamics of leadership at that level. The size of the church I serve is less than one tenth of one percent of Willow Creek. I’ve encountered numerous conflicts where accusations seemed utterly absurd to me. But the people making accusations really believed them. Even in a tiny church, signals can get crossed, motives misinterpreted, and facts distorted.
Many years ago in another place I was accused of being pure evil, thick headed, and a numskull. That was merely the preamble to a list of accusations a church worker presented to me. Her story was so different from mine I could hardly believe we were talking about the same events. Yet there we were. Without a doubt I knew her story was wildly distorted and twisted by rage. But she believed it. So did the board members she told it to. They never consulted me. Fortunately, the accusations were nothing sexual or unlawful. But in the end, I resigned my position. So I speak from a little experience in this kind of “he-said, she-said” conflict. Maybe that’s why all this sad news has hooked my attention. It’s a #MeToo moment.
I know just a little about the deception of power. I can dominate a conversation and sometimes a decision in a small church. A revered founding pastor of a megachurch has exponentially more power. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Bill Hybels was not fully aware or dismissive of the massive force of intimidation his associates endured. It can be knee-knocking when you get cross-ways with the guy who holds your career in his hands. My experience with these kinds of conflicts (on a much smaller scale) is that the truth often is somewhere in the middle.
In my own horror story, I can look back and see how I had made mistakes along the way. I had no idea of the hidden drama or my role in it while it was unfolding. But afterwards the firestorm hit me with a vengeance. Though I was “innocent” of the accusations, I was not guiltless. I had made naive mistakes which allowed accusations to take shape in the mind of another person. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bill Hybels is guilty of much less than his accusers believe, yet much more than he realized or acknowledged. There are other possibilities, too. Our depravity is deep enough that an articulate, conscientious, spiritually-aware man who professes innocence could be covering up subtle sin. The accusers could be completely right. On the other hand, our depravity also is broad enough that the accusers could be confused about what actually took place. The charges may be false or the result of a misunderstanding, exactly as Hybels says. Moral fog is thick in the context of conflict. It’s hard to see what’s really happening.
Mistrust and anger distort truth. Every leader knows his actions and words will be misunderstood and interpreted in the worst possible way by people who are suspicious and mistrusting. Not only does it happen. It’s unavoidable. Jesus is a prime example. He was constantly accused of doing things he didn’t do, such as casting out demons by the power of the devil.
Hybel’s resignation won’t end the conflict. Trust has been broken. The church is likely to go silent and handle the conflict as an internal affair. I hope they sort it all out. But I don’t have to know about it. We don’t need to sling any more mud in public.
One final thought: I have felt intimidation in the presence of my district superintendent, especially when I was a young pastor and new in ministry. I struggled with how to relate to an authority figure. We were both men. How much more complex would it have been if gender had been a factor in the power equation? At Willow Creek, where women are placed in all positions of governance, leaders must deal with the opposite sex in positions of power. Bill Hybels was the ultimate authority figure. Is it possible the unpleasant sexual dynamics at Willow Creek were an unintended consequence of egalitarianism?