The Willow Creek Crisis – Time of Reckoning for All Leaders

The ever-widening scandal of Pastor Bill Hybels’ behavior with women over many years is only the outermost edge of the shockwave. Equally as devastating has been the woeful response of Willow Creek’s leaders. The resignation of Hybel’s successor, Steve Carter, with a stinging rebuke of Willow Creek’s leaders’ response, all before the convening of the Global Leadership Summit, ought to put hundreds of thousands of Christian leaders around the world on notice: This is a time of reckoning. And an opportunity to correct.

This teachable moment will not last long before we all move on with the busyness of our work. If this crisis is only seen as one man’s transgressions with women, the bigger picture will be missed. Whenever there is a decades-long ethical and moral failure there is a spiritual reason the sickness of the situation can go on. Institutions are powerful. We need institutions for sustained and long-term influence. But leaders of institutions often try to protect their institutions at the cost of integrity.

Every virtue has a corresponding vice. For leaders, the virtues of conviction and strength are only a short step away from pride and arrogance. Pride comes before the fall. This time is an opportunity for all Christian leaders to ask God’s help in cleansing from arrogance.

Arrogance also blinds us. We don’t see clearly. Some principles are embraced and repeated with little awareness that they are just wrong enough to steer us toward a cliff. Here are seven untruths that are widely passed on in Christian leadership circles.

Untruth #1: Crises need to be “handled.”

When a church is in a true crisis, its leaders should not go running to a PR firm, its lawyers, and its communications experts to figure out a path forward. When you’re in the middle of an earthquake, you do not “handle” the situation, it is handling you. In the Willow Creek crisis, people sniffed out the spin. The highly crafted statements inched forward. Church leaders need to know this: people don’t want to be “handled.” That is fundamentally disrespectful. People know that true crises must be faced with courage and wisdom, truth and grace. Not “handled.”

Untruth #2: The only way God works is through leaders.

This oft-repeated mantra has often been fueled by arrogance. Bad behavior is excused because a “strong leader” gets impressive things done. The ends justify the means. Why have pastors not emphasized their roles as servants of God, as ministers of the gospel, as proclaimers of God’s truth, and instead focussed on being really “successful” leaders? The answer is not far away. It is more satisfying to be viewed as successful than faithful.

Untruth #3: People are a means to an end.

Nobody says this out loud. But leaders treat their followers as a means to accomplish their “vision” all the time. In Christian ministry people are not a means to an end, they are the end. This is fundamental to the idea of human dignity. People on the staff of a church should feel as though, at the end of the week, something was added to their humanity, not taken away. Churches should live way above corporate values when it comes to hiring and firing people. We have the biblical principle of “calling” which should make our hiring very serious and firing infrequent. 

Untruth #4: Vision is the highest form of leadership.

Divine calling is more important than personal vision. It’s wonderful when leaders can see new, good possibilities, but vision should be about spiritual advances, not just about building bigger, doing more, piling up numbers. The best scenario for a church is when its leaders (not just one leader) perceive how God is moving a whole body of people toward particular purposes, always defined within the overall mission of the Church of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “make disciples.” He defines the mission, not us. At the end of our work and our lives we will have had more joy in being part of accomplishing God’s mission than pursuing our own ambitions.

Untruth #5: Image is everything.

Churches that obsess about the personal physical appearance of people in the spotlight, essentially saying only “beautiful” people need apply, are projecting corrupt values. Perfectionism that makes things appear better than what they are sets congregations up for disillusionment when they see the reality. Sooner or later someone always pulls the curtain on the wizard of Oz.

Untruth #6: Leaders are above the rules.

People would be shocked how many Christian leaders preach about humility, kindness, and respect, and behind the scenes mistreat, abuse, and shame ordinary people. Worse, such leaders really enjoy manipulating others. It makes them feel powerful and important. The only thing worse than worshiping an idol is to act like an idol.

Untruth #7: The local church is the hope of the world.

Only Jesus Christ is the hope of the world (Col. 1:27, 1 Pet. 1:3-6, etc.). Always, only, ever. Jesus Christ. Get that wrong, and we are perpetually at risk of the chaos of presumption. We should be excited that the local church can proclaim the hope, embody the hope, live the hope. But if we say the local church is the hope of the world, what happens when a church’s leaders fail miserably?

The Global Leadership Summit will begin in a few days, just at a time when the credibility of Christian leaders in and around Willow Creek is badly damaged.

Leaders and consultants are surely hard at work crafting the best possible words to “handle” the situation. What would be helpful to hear is: This is a time for reckoning for us all. We ask God to humble us. We repent of leadership arrogance. We need fresh starts.

We all do.


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Mel Lawrenz is Minister at Large of Elmbrook Church and the author of Spiritual Leadership Today (Zondervan) and Whole Church: Leading from Fragmentation to Engagement (Leadership Network/Jossey-Bass).

56 thoughts on “The Willow Creek Crisis – Time of Reckoning for All Leaders”

  1. Thanks, Mel, for this word in season and for all seasons of ministry! Thank you for declaring truth in a “post-truth” world, and on occasions, to a “less-than-truth” church! May we all take this opportunity to return to and reaffirm Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life…as individual Christ-followers, as church leaders, and as local churches! His Truth is still marching on…may we have the courage to follow!

    1. Yes, a fresh start! An endless supply of fresh starts if need be. I don’t even know the number of fresh starts I have needed, but I’m so glad they are an option. I’m so glad that Jesus isn’t giving up on me.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful reflections and willingness to address difficult matters in a straightforward way. Humility is imperative yet hard to find sometimes. Thankfully, Jesus has demonstrated humility for us. May the Lord grant us the faith and will to say with John the Baptist that Jesus must increase and “I” must decrease.

  3. Only one who has navigated the whitewater could have written such an insightful essay. Than you! What you have said is true and should be reflected upon with sobered hearts.

  4. Thanks, Mel, for the courage to speak truth into a difficult situation. You are correct; spin and carefully crafted words are easily deciphered for what they are — the shaky foundation of a hoped-for, as-painless-as-possible, path to reclamation. We see that frequently, sadly, in the secular culture. Thanks for calling out the church to the higher standard of “courage, wisdom, truth and grace.”

  5. Mel, I had no idea about the issue or any issue with Willow Creek. With everything that has happened at Christ the Rock and my incredible friend Bill Lenz taking his life the upset has been extremely difficult to grasp and to get a hold of. I know that I love bill with all my heart, but I never worshipped him, he was my equal he was my friend he was someone that I left with and yet I saw so much of the pain and hurt that he would go through as the leader. That, in itself, is reason why I would never want to be a pastor at a church. You all, you all have my deepest respect and I pray for the purity of heart from the men of God that are called according to his purposes and that we could be able to hold on to all of the and the Simplicity in what God is asking from us he’s not asking us to be something he wants us to “be”

  6. Thank you Mel for addressing difficult topics. I appreciate your insight. Power does corrupt and mega churches should distribute power rather than give a majority to one person. When church becomes a social group instead of a ministry it is a warning. Bring back feet washing and always remember Satan roams seeking to take down our leaders. So sorry when leaders make mistakes, but they are our brothers in Christ & our love & prayers should continue for them and hope they will rise back up as many biblical heros did. Our goal should be to restore not oust and forget about them.

  7. Thanks, Mel….. I seldom hear the news…..especially this stuff, but it Does get to me with someone else’s spin.You have that capacity to declare the truth with no spin., keeping every thought companioned to Jesus …..yes all captive !
    Amen and forgive us, Lord. ( often wondering what Win would think ,say, pray.)

  8. Dr. Lawrenz,

    Only an opinion,

    I worked for America’s oldest institution for many years as I ended my career as an advisor to them of sorts.

    Federal employees enjoy generous retirement benefits as many social security recipients are on every block and in every neighborhood as many say its a Ponzi scheme.

    Well many Evangelicals seek power.

    Power comes from the spirit.

    A full 82 percent of white evangelical Christians support Trump who is far left of any Elmbrook Standard as they support him anyway.

    Said this as my kingdom not of this world

    did we forget

    I have upped my giving to Elmbrook Church as you shall survive

    a member of the Couchman’s forever family

    it comes to this as what is a church?

    led by his spirit till he returns

    many of my dear friends concentrate on his eminent return

    Elmbrook should concentrate on how to live the spirit led life today

    in the now as that is the only thing one can control

    just an opinion from someone who got old

    refuse to throw in the towel


  9. Dr, Lawrenz,

    All politics is local as that great Democratic politician once pontificated.

    Politics comes from truth.

    Truth is upon the ground in a local population of people

    love is truth

    love is the spirit

    he said that as he left this earth

    love is demonstrated

    you will know me by there love

    simple really



  10. That is a powerful statement of the truths of scripture. Good leaders point to Christ 24 hours a day, as we all should. Thanks for speaking truth and warning to us all. May God use this time to show himself to his people and the world.

  11. Excellent article underscoring the importance of whom we hire and elect as our church leaders. The inference would be that the church body itself needs to be more aware of the spiritual health of their leadership.

  12. I agree with all of your points but I wish you would’ve added this untruth: The Church is immune to the spiritual disease of lust. As a spouse of a recovering sex addict who was in a ministerial position, I am certain that lust, just as much as pride, kept Mr. Hybels trapped in an addictive cycle. None of us are immune who live in our sex saturated and entitled culture. A great many Christians need to remind ourselves that we are not entitled to our secret sins just because most of the time we are “doing good.”

  13. Thank you for your wisdom and truth! We visited Willow a couple weeks ago to show support for the changes to come there….it is a humbling experience to see your leader fall. This happens at other churches too, mega and small….satan is looking for the smallest weakness to exploit and destroy. Keeping all leaders in prayer as they reflect on this situation and the truth you have outlined! Thank you for your article, it helps us as we pray for our leaders!

  14. Thank you! Perhaps my favorite sentence“ Sooner or later someone always pulls the curtain on the wizard of Oz.” It’s the mercy of God to expose things… with a purpose- so that we have the opportunity to respond to our healer and restorer and the only one who will forgive and can make us whole. He is that good, and kind and loving.

  15. Mel, wise words. Prophetic message for the Church.
    Somewhere along the way, we have lost sight of being SHEPHERDS and embracing the humility that is required. If we put as much attention on being shepherds as we often do on other things such as pithy self-help sermon series, measurable outcomes, branding, customer-oriented programs, church planting, multi-sights, and whatever else the evangelical consultants are pushing, the Kingdom would be more clearly seen and the Gospel would be what it is–the only hope for the world.

  16. So very well said, Mel. Thank you for speaking the truth into this situation and challenging all in spiritual leadership to follow the truth not read their own press. If church leaders would pursue holiness rather than fame the cause of Christ would move forward not backward, as is too often the case today.

  17. Excellent article.

    The sooner we focus on putting God first, others second and ourselves last the sooner out lives will get straightened out.

    Mega churches are not the answer and neither are pastors who do not want to do as Jesus said in Matthew 22:34-46. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

  18. Thanks! Loved the line “the only thing worse than worshiping an idol is to act like one!” So quickly we all can fall into some form of idolatry. Thanks for being pointed, honest and real.

  19. Bravo Mel, a powerful word and lesson for us today. This is needed not only in the secular world but the spiritual as well. Thanks for your insight.

  20. Nancy Klintworth

    Thank you, Mel. Good word. All Hybels has to do is confess and repent in order for healing to take place.

  21. Excellent Mel.
    Perhaps one of the reasons for the reticence of that churches earlier response is how hard it was to believe that accusations about The Bill Hybels’ could actually be true (and you don’t want it to be)? We use his spot on books for training disciples in our program. But it’s easy to forget about King David…Thanks for being willing to call each and everyone of us out…
    “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God” 1 Peter 4:17

  22. This is one of the best things I’ve read on the Willow situation for the church at large. Thanks, Mel, for sharing the sufficiency of Christ and warning against typical leader attempts to grab the reigns of the kingdom. The seven are spot on and very close to being the exact reasons for my resignation from Willow over eight years ago.

  23. As is so frequently true, Mel, you speak words of wisdom, desperately needed, too often ignored, born out of a suffering and patience we all need but don’t want to seek. Bless you for this deep pastoral word for the whole church, not just pastors!

  24. Much of your content is accurate, sobering and challenging.
    Thanks for your candor.
    An “opportunity to correct” is a humble perspective (Isaiah 66:2).
    However, #7 was originally stated fully in this way:
    “The local Church is the hope of the world when it is functioning properly.” This presumes John 15:5 as proper functionality. This means the finished work of Jesus Christ alone, and His ongoing work in and through us, is the only hope of the world (Ephesians 2:8-10). As you said “Only Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.” Yes. Done…always has been that way. When properly understood the Body of Christ is the hope of the world because and only because of Jesus.

  25. Dr. Lawrenze – It is refreshing to see your “myths” stated and debunked. It appears to me that this country is sinking as our political, cultural, and (unfortunately) religious leaders practice the activities in the myths for their own purposes. Thank you for expressing Christian clarity in reference to these practices. I especially appreciate your statement that people know they are being handled (though I sometimes wonder if they do know.)

    Please continue to speak out –

  26. donna shellnutt

    Thank you Mel for keeping us grounded. Your warnings are well founded and full of grace. We are in need of your counsel. God’s Blessings!

  27. Dr. Lawrenz,

    We are witnessing the discipline of his spirit

    I take no joy in this

    When we prey we seek his power

    Said this as you will see me where love is as I sent my spirit

    This is a statement of his power

    A demonstration of power

    Said this as I have not given a spirit of fear but love and power to love

    Leadership beware as the power of his spirit shall judge you

    Are you willing

    Then changed in an instant

    Willing then filled as power in his name

    Gospel I see


  28. Thank you Mel. Dignity, respect, integrity. We lose sight of these because we too often get in our own way. Reading you as you speak truth boldly with wisdom and grace is like a long drink of cold water. Thank you.

  29. Thanks Mel. A constant mantra in my shop is that we love big egos but don’t tolerate arrogance. Ego = confidence with humility.
    If the Church is God’s then transparency is the only way to go and God will manage His Church and the fallout. Thanks again for your wise words.

  30. What a powerful and accurate statement. You accurately described the core of the top 20 largest churches in America as well as the aspirations of all 600+ ARC wannabes. Unfortunately, many of these leaders will believe they are clever enough to allude God’s judgment and merciful correction as they surrender biblical principles for a shot at temporal fame, glory, power and ecessive wealth.

    Outreach Magazine should publish your post every single year as an attachment to their Outreach 100 list to remind up and coming churches what unbridled ambition can lead to. They won’t, since they are the ones giving the awards for the most aggressive “metrics”. But if they truly cared about the Kingdom and the souls of the pastors pursuing these accolades, they would.

    Thank you for analyzing the soul of the wretched church metrics industry, and putting up warning signs that hopefully some may heed. If not the pastors, then hopefully the sheep will learn from your post that what they are seeing in their megas could lead to disaster.

    1. What would be truly lovely is if Outreach and others would cease creating those lists. What is the point to them other than to make it seem as though churches are and should be in some sort of competition with one another?
      And that focus takes our focus away from the call of Christ. And then we get lost.
      In my humble opinion, pastors should not be expected to be the equivalent of the CEO. First, churches are one of the things that are not meant to be run as a business. The values of making profit are not compatible with the values of making disciples.
      Second, that expectation leads to the ‘big cheese’ who is in charge and has the final say on everything. That is neither healthy nor biblical. Putting someone in that position leads to the ‘acting like an idol’ behavior to which the author refers.
      Third, it short circuits the ability of others to use their God given gifts and talents in service to the church. Part of the reason so many people sit passively in their churches is because it’s been made clear to them in ways overt and subtle that their gifts are not needed because ‘the pastor does that’. Or they’ve tried to assist in things like Finance committees and other places where one would expect experience and talent might be appreciated only to have their expertise ignored or denigrated by a ‘leader’ who is sure s/he knows everything already.
      Hopefully the author is correct and this earthquake at Willow will cause many to rethink and reimagine what leadership in our churches should be like and how it should function in order to point people to Christ, and him crucified. That is, after all, the determination that allowed a small group to change the face of the world.

  31. Elizabeth J. Holt

    What this man says is true, and should be proclaimed with the precincts of churches and Christian organisations. However, I feel that making this scandalous behaviour known worldwide might also serve to turn people away from Christ because of the imperfections of those who claim to be His servants.

  32. Untruth #8-
    The phrase in Psalm 105:15, “touch not my anointed ones…” Is often quoted and used by senior pastors.

  33. thomas keppeler

    Well said Mel. You have put your finger on much that has gone awry in the broader evangelical movement. . . especially among those who have succumbed to the idolatry that it’s “all about leadership”.

  34. Thanks for taking the “risk” to write this needed piece. It’s important every leader looks in the mirror. Hopefully your words will spare some of us from making similar mistakes. Praying and doing a heart check as we speak. Awesome work Mel.

  35. Mel, spot on ! we reside in brokenness all around us including and within our churches. Unfortunately, when our leaders in the churches are caught up in the conforming to the world and watering down of the gospel it affects thousands in their own walk and relationship with Christ. God help us!

  36. Thank you, Mel for what you have written. I hope and pray that the brothers and sisters in leadership at Elmbrook will take this to heart and see themselves and their actions perhaps in a new way.
    I appreciate you and your strength and godly courage. Thank you!

  37. Is there a place in this scenario for the corporate church/congregations to do soul-searching as well as the senior pastoral team? Is there a church culture that puts pressure on its leaders to be “shakers and movers” and to be among the more well-known mega-churches? My experience with fallen ministers, which is very limited, indicates to me they were not alone in their fall. There appears to be a self-serving success motivation in the ecclesiastical world that is less than Christ-centered and Christ-exalting and feeds the problem of displacing Jesus with self. Perhaps the era of the mega-church needs to close. The problem won’t go away with spiritual/sexual/manipulative abuses but the impact upon society’s view of the institutional church and the speed by which interventions are put into play may be affected.

    Thank you for your call to reckon with ourselves. “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts…lead me…”

  38. I really appreciate Pr. Lawrenz’ article. It contains several wise ideas. However, being myself a Global Leadership Summit participant for the last eleven years, I think it’d been very wise for him to know what the GLS leaders had to say during the Partners Meeting before the Summit, or for him to personally talk to them so that the article could’ve been more precise in some points concerning the church’s latest response to the crisis. God is answering tons of PRAYERS. Some comments about the church might be unfair, and they are hurting deeply. They need lots of encouragement. Blessings.
    Fernando Lay (Ecuador)

    1. Dear Fernando – I am very glad you wrote with your comments. I will seek updates from people I know who lead the GLS. My probing comments in my post are in no way meant to discredit the Global Leadership Summit, but to challenge some of our weak points in the American church. I myself have attended GLS many times, including this year at our church’s satellite location. Additionally, I had the pleasure of the being the live speaker at the GLS session in Cairo, Egypt two years ago. I saw the value of the GLS from a whole new angle there.
      Whatever your role is, as a “partner,” I want to encourage you. If the leaders are turning toward God in prayer at this critical time, nothing could be better. That is exactly why I wanted to make the appeal that I did.
      If you wish to make a further comment on all this, letting others know about the good work of the GLS, I would invite you to make another comment.
      Blessings to you,
      Mel Lawrenz

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