Power Corrupts, Even in the Church: Lessons from Willow Creek

The main campus of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. The megachurch has been in turmoil for months since sexual misconduct allegations against its founder, Bill Hybels, have come to light. (Photo courtesy of Willow Creek Community Church)
The main campus of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. The megachurch has been in turmoil for months since sexual misconduct allegations against its founder, Bill Hybels, have come to light. (Photo courtesy of Willow Creek Community Church)

by Katelyn Beaty

Amid new sexual misconduct allegations against founding pastor Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Community Church is facing a reckoning at all levels of leadership. The shameful situation at the iconic church should inspire Christian communities everywhere to take seriously how power corrupts, and guard more vigorously against its abuse.

Leaders have been dropping like flies this week at Willow Creek, a megachurch that draws about 25,000 worshippers to eight Chicago-area sites each weekend.

Lead teaching pastor Steve Carter resigned in protest Sunday (Aug. 5) after The New York Times reported a former executive assistant’s allegations that Hybels, now retired, had engaged her in unwanted fondling, which constitutes a type of sexual assault. Three days later, lead pastor Heather Larson also stepped down, citing a need for a “fresh start” at the church. The entire elder board resigned, too. Outgoing elder Missy Rasmussen apologized that the church had not been more proactive when the allegations against Hybels first came to light in 2014.

“We are sorry that we allowed Bill to operate without the kind of accountability that he should have had,” she said, Christianity Today reported.

This is a crucial moment for Willow Creek — and for myriad churches that follow its lead. It’s no exaggeration to say that Willow Creek sets the course for like-minded churches worldwide. Largely through the Global Leadership Network, which is supported by the Willow Creek Association, the church has modeled seismic growth using cutting-edge technology, the arts and consumer comforts not found in traditional houses of worship. How it responds to the allegations now, with new leadership and an independent council, could change how scores of evangelical churches respond to sexual misconduct in their midst.

I hope they get it right.

But I’m not sure Willow Creek can honestly evaluate itself without having to completely recast the way it operates as a church. The Hybels story is, of course, about sex — how sexual desire, left unchecked, damages relationships, marriages and entire ministries. But it is, at a far deeper level, about power: how individuals wield it and how institutions protect it.

Leaders’ sexual impropriety breeds on a power that whispers in their ears: “You are too big to fail.” What Willow Creek, and all Christian communities, need in our #MeToo/#ChurchToo moment is a sober reckoning with power — what power is, how it works in institutions and how to mitigate its subtle lure in churches led by magnetic men.

If money, sex and power are the unholy trinity of spiritual temptation, arguably most Christians have a relatively paltry understanding of the third. Churches teach regular tithing and Dave Ramsey-style financial management. Scads of books and articles are written every year helping Christians practice sexual purity before marriage and sexual fulfillment within it. By contrast, little is taught and written about power and its corrosive effects.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service

Katelyn Beaty is former managing editor of Christianity Today and the author of “A Woman’s Place.”

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