Is Bill Hybels Different from Harvey Weinstein?

Is Bill Hybels different from Harvey Weinstein?

Oh, but of course he is—a thorough-going Christian vs. a matter-of-fact Jew—but differences soon fade. Both are highly-successful, widely-admired, eagerly-followed, masterful producers, and fallen giants of large corporations. Both have been super newsworthy and subjects of countless interminable threads of on-line analysis and speculation.

I’ve been especially intrigued by threads carried on at length by ministers of my own church, the Evangelical Covenant Church. Some comment seems satisfied to cast Hybels, like Weinstein, as cad, scoundrel, and evildoer—sinner—implying that the scandal he’s triggered by his abuse of women is his fault alone, but others have been more perceptive, seeing his actions within the larger context of systems. It appears that of the latter, the winners for amount of words cast him as another actor in a system of male privilege and power—Harvey Weinstein, et al—with the attendant component of female subjection, distinctly demonstrated not only by now-disclosed abuse by Hybels but also by the insensitivity with which reports of abused Willow Creek women were ignored, covered up, or belittled by staff and lay leaders and those women slandered and humiliated.

The presence and power of systems larger and more powerful than one person was the basic theme of Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s imaginative approach to institutional management and change, and most uniquely, of his application of those principles to religious organizations. Those who are able to see a crisis such as that in which Willow Creek Church is embroiled as systemic are, according to Friedman and much common sense, pointing toward change more comprehensive than merely removing and replacing an easily-identified culprit. The issue, then, is seeing the interlocking systems of a large institution through a wide-angle lens in order to make change most effective. (See Generation to Generation, Guilford Press, 1985, and the few succeeding materials written by Rabbi Friedman before his premature death in 1996. I had the remarkable privilege of attending training sessions and having some individual time with Ed Friedman in the late 1980s.)

Participating crucially in the Willow Creek systems were nine elected lay leaders who—along with the senior pastor—comprise the board of elders. The official website page introduces the current board (all of whom now are reportedly in process of resigning), chosen “according to the role of an Elder laid out in Scripture.” (It must be noted that today, August 22, only six are shown on the website to be WCC elders, all men.) Those biographical sketches each include a list of spiritual gifts; either “wisdom” or “discernment” appears in all of those lists. Again, from the WCC website we learn that this system provides “a healthy checks-and-balances of leadership direction . . . and ensure[s] that a healthy, God-honoring implementation of leadership and pastoral care is carried out. Willow has been blessed by more than four decades of impeccable, godly leadership from an Elder board whose heart beats for the kingdom of God. . .”

We must then ask how it is possible that these assuredly godly and powerful persons within the hierarchy of Willow Creek Church could have got it so wrong? It is hardly likely that all functioned as knee-jerk males; in fact, two are women, evidence of Willow’s perennial egalitarian stance, and—the website again—“[e]ach member of the Elder board has equal voice to the system of consensual agreement on the team.” We’ll never hear recordings of elders’ conversations during the crisis months, but it baffles imagination to believe that there was complete consensus on the issues of bias toward women and the coordinate male privilege. There’s much more to be found here.

We expand the limits of the system somewhat when we notice that the men on the elder board are executives in secular corporations, most in some form of finance, others in real estate and law. The two women are both in serving professions, one a teacher, the other a leader of a non-profit organization providing services to vulnerable people. Can we assume that these wise, discerning people are equally or even more influenced by the daily tasks they do and the mindsets that must be employed in their offices? But of course that excludes the women, whose role becomes increasingly ambiguous.

Yet, the picture becomes more clear, doesn’t it? Now we are seeing that a corporate system must be at play here. That the well-being and reputation of their beloved and trusted CEO were at stake must have been a strong centrifugal force in that consensus, but as much or more, the church, this magnificent corporation with it’s masterful programs and unquestionable influence, earned respect, and world-wide following, its huge numbers, its pristine reputation, aura, mystique, its brand, must be preserved. A powerful corporate system has created sufficient strength to counteract the force of wise, spiritual discernment—or as likely, to skew understanding of the content of that spiritual discernment, so much so that the consensus of the elders to keep this magnificent ship afloat could be identified with the will of God.

Ed Friedman talked often about the enormous power of such systems wherever they are in place and the unique, scarce abilities required to withstand their force. Is it possible that among those nine elder board members, there was no open protest, no resignations, during long months of crisis? Indeed, yes, and not peculiar that it should be so. The resistance to dissent within a powerful system, to standing up and out, is all-consuming.

But there is more. Last April Ed Stetzer wrote an encomium, approaching a nomination for sainthood, for a Texas multi-millionaire named Bob Buford who had just died. Buford accumulated his fortune in cable television and was an associate and friend of the management guru, Peter Drucker. Stetzer informs us that by the late 1970s the church growth movement, spearheaded by Donald McGavran in the 1950s, had stalled, and Bob Buford’s vision led to the onset of the next great expansion of the American church: the megachurch era. His method would be to identify young ministers with exceptional promise who, with training to enhance natural abilities, could be extraordinary leaders and then be amply financed to assure flourishing churches that would be replicable models. Buford was eventually joined by an even more wealthy Colorado financier to establish the Burning Bush Fund that provided a flush source of support for expertly-led megachurch ventures. Among the earliest recipients of this opulent imprimatur, cited in Stetzer’s article along with Rick Warren and Robert Lewis, was Bill Hybels.

My first impression upon reading the Stetzer paean was a sense of betrayal. I recall in broad outlines but little detail an occasion when at a Midwinter Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church, sometime during the 1980s, the entire constituency of that gathering—or at least as many as wished to go and get a free meal—rode buses from the O’Hare area of Chicago to South Barrington, urged on by Covenant leaders who eagerly imparted their blessing. We arrived wide-eyed and awe-struck at the Willow Creek complex (long before the mammoth 2004 worship center was built and property expanded to 155 acres) and the legendary parking lots, then were enchanted by technological marvels and music, wondrous in that bygone era, and a scintillating talk about possibilities and visions for a seeker church by none other than Bill Hybels, followed by that free meal in a deluxe dining room. Surely we dreamed dreams, prompted by Hybels’s optimism and authorization, and the intoxicating acquiescence of our church leaders. But, though my memories are insecure, not once was there mention of the now-known but obvious then, fact that we, who would return to churches where the next insurance bill would strain the budget and the Covenant’s annual allotment would hardly be met, would need gigantic sums of money, a tight connection to the spigot of a venture fund, to make it all happen—and besides, we’d need to be members of a chosen few who would receive the requisite imprimatur. The glowing hope of most of us was destined to be shattered or at least diminished beyond recognition as a Willow Creek derivative. (Later on the Evangelical Covenant Church would establish a venture fund called National Covenant Properties that channeled the funds of many investors to thriving or potentially-thriving churches).

Into this mix of systems governing the WCC response to the crisis had come the out-sized influence of of money, a controlling system in itself that will influence decisions and govern actions with $s vying for attention along with traditional symbols of church life. One could discourse on the corrupting influence of wealth ala the Bible, perhaps, but there are more practical concerns. How much of elders’ reticence to take seriously the accusations that began to appear months, even years, ago, and Bill Hybels’s denials, emerged simply from the desire to protect sources of income to sustain the enormous cost of the WCC operation? And even painstaking selection of elders, most of whom daily deftly handled hefty bankrolls? What will happen if some bighearted donor, or several of them, or hundreds, maybe thousands, of tithers, desert WCC? Disaster, no less, to be fended off as dexterously as possible.

It boggles one’s mind, I suppose, that in this numbers- and dollars-studded story Bob Buford and the recipients of his largess so nimbly tiptoed past the story of Jesus encountering the rich, young ruler— whom Jesus perhaps ought to have certified as loaded with potential and deserving of his greatest gifts?—and his counter-intuitive requirement of the young man to rid himself of wealth and donate the proceeds to people who needed it to survive and then join the Jesus movement with its dusty sandals and uncertain lodging and undependable meals and the dark shadow of a cross looming over it all. Of course, with not too grueling searching, scripture—for example, the parable of the talents, so often carelessly used and twisted out of the gospel—can be extrapolated to justify financial prowess and success as evidence of God’s approval and blessing.

So far we have concentrated on leadership systems, ignoring the most encompassing system of all, that vast throng of persons who, Sunday after Sunday, drive remarkable distances to fill parking lots, ride shuttle buses, occupy auditorium seats, sing out joyfully, give faithful tithes, and be enthralled by spoken words, usually from the leader who most compelled them, Bill Hybels. Most had driven past neighborhood churches for the delights of South Barrington, surely most with genuine desire for spiritual growth, for their children’s prima church experiences, for strength to live Christian lives at home and in daily environments, yet at the same time, hugely implicated in the status quo of the systems that make up Willow Creek Church. To be sure, church systems don’t require large numbers of people to resist change; indeed, the smallest of churches may be so locked into perennial systems that outsiders simply cannot break into. The size of Willow Creek Church surely must create a welcoming environment, or at least, not an immune environment ready to ward off invaders. But each is a system, or complex of systems, adamantly resistant to change.

Is it possible that at least some of those commuters will rethink what motivated their long-distance travel to be enthralled Sunday after Sunday and maybe stop at a nearby church, perhaps the one they left years ago to enjoy the delights of South Barrington, and in the mundane community that gathers at that church find a home—which would be a change in their own family system of massive proportions but, could just possibly be essential to rediscovering what matters most. On the other hand, they may be disappointed when they encounter that small church’s well-fixed systems, so comfortable they have become high-functioning immune systems ready and willing to repel any invader. The insidious presence of negative systems may give us an inkling of what the apostle, Paul, meant when he wrote of the destructive potential of principalities and powers at work to thwart well-intended goals of Kingdom service. Or perhaps it’s that well-learned but little-loved Romans 3 statement that applies: “. . .all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. . . .

There is yet another influential system, this one seemingly outside the Willow Creek complex of systems but not so. In the early 1950s a group of prominent, young clerics—Billy Graham, Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, and more—rooted in fundamentalism, colluded to retrieve the conservative Christian gospel from the sheltered milieu of churches, Bible schools, and other reclusive enclaves, to set that gospel free in a much broader world, and they chose the name “evangelical” for their movement. Thirty years later a curious press baptized a surprisingly-strong movement called Moral Majority with that name and has held on to it to describe current Trumpian, far right-wing, Christians. More polished churches and institutions—colleges, seminaries, publishers, mission boards, social service institutions, an influential magazine—remained largely outside that 81% political corral in their own social, intellectual, theological circle. Willow Creek Church and its leader, Bill Hybels, were clearly prominent and influential in that circle—that system. The website, for example, is replete with favorite language of the system. Surely his ills, and the turmoil of such a prestigious church, would be destabilizing of that system. Leaders of WCC must have been aware of the power of this system in which their church was esteemed, aware, for example, of the response to the misstep of World Vision International in temporarily allowing gay staff members to be in uncloseted relationships, only within a week to annul that decision, bowing not only to wealthy donors and a large bloc of small-amount donors but also the evangelical system seeking to keep one of its flagship components well within the rubrics of the system. (Ed Friedman would have named that process “sabotage” of systemic change that was not resisted.) Now that the WCC crisis has exploded onto the national stage, WCC’s status among evangelicals is forced to be a prominent concern and motivation for action.

Is Bill Hybels like Harvey Weinstein? If one buys into this Friedmanesque analysis of systems, the similarities must be evident, and the vast extent of necessary change must be obvious. The core and major purpose of Ed Friedman’s teaching, after the nature of systems had been explored, was to equip leaders with the shrewdness and self-understanding required genuinely to change such deeply-embedded, tenacious systems. He warned against quick-fix mentality: just replacing a noxious pastor, a few new rules for behavior, inauguration of the Graham/Pence rules about open doors, perhaps—mere symptom-relievers. Wise leaders willing to take up this challenge have wide-open eyes to the complexity of the task and the inevitable resistance. The word “sabotage” shows up often in Friedman’s writing. “Watch your back,” he’d say. “You can be sure someone is aiming at you.” Those skilled and visionary leaders, he said, stay the course amid such predictable attempts to restabilize a once-comfortable system.

But let us not overlook an infinite difference between Willow Creek Church and The Weinstein Company. Most assuredly there is resident in, around, above, and under the flawed systems at WCC, the simple reality of the Kingdom of God, painted over, too often obscured, by much that is superficial and therefore expendable, but for certain there. Perhaps the greatest challenge to new leaders is to be paint-removers committed to spending all the time, energy, skill, wisdom, determination, sweat, tears, and prayers necessary to lay open the core gospel of the Kingdom, that pearl of great price, treasure in the field, hidden, then found in surprise and great joy. So may it be.

Postscript: Were Ed Friedman to critique this analysis, he would surely find more than one assumption to criticize, but one comment he would make is certain: “Why have you omitted two of the most important systems?” I admit that omission, largely because there is no information available to me but more so because those systems are intensely personal and should be alone in the domain of key persons. Friedman would notice immediately the absence of any reference to the generational system that is intimately the pastor’s own. The second is his nuclear family system. Ed Friedman repeatedly emphasized how essential it is that we as pastors realize the influence of our personal generational systems on churches we lead. It was probably the most difficult of all the rubrics he taught.

3 thoughts on “Is Bill Hybels Different from Harvey Weinstein?

  1. Jim, excellent work! Makes me homesick for our sessions of ruminating on such matters. I miss Ed Friedman also. He was so helpful to me and my ministry and I continue to refer to his writings in dealing with church and families. I don’t know how you do all you do and still remain so contemporary and practical.


  2. Thank you, Jim

    Vulnerability and Vanity. I fear that homo sapiens is not so sapiens as we would wish, particularly in this post-modern age.


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