“I’m not going to church today,” Jimmy told his mother. “And I’ll give you two good reasons. I don’t like them, and they don’t like me.”
“You most certainly will go,” his mother said, “and I’ll give you two good reasons. You are 55 years old and you are the pastor.”
Every pastor and church member I know has felt the sting of that old joke. I felt it myself last Saturday, Nov. 2, when I joined 270 of the faithful for an all-day conference in Chicago called “Restore Chicago.” Sponsored by the ministry of journalist Julie Roys, (www.julieroys.com) and hosted by Judson University in Elgin, the conference called together people who have been confused and hurt at the hands of church leaders.
Two influential, evangelical Chicago churches were Exhibit #A — Willow Creek Community Church and Harvest Bible Chapel. After decades at the helm at these huge churches, both founding pastors are gone. In April 2018, Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, took early retirement and James MacDonald, the founding pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, was fired in February 2019.
The confusion, fallout and pain this has caused is a large part of what precipitated the “Restore Chicago” conference. The speakers, the times of worship and prayer and extended discussions over lunch all centered on how churches can regain their footing after leaders go awry.
From the opening welcome last Saturday, a spirit of humility prevailed. Conference participants came to listen, pray, repent and forgive. In fact, many in attendance were once deeply impacted by the leadership, passion and vision of Bill Hybels and James MacDonald. One guy sitting beside me admitted to now being puzzled and sobered by the dishonesty, lack of accountability and outright denial of wrongdoing by Hybels and MacDonald. “I have plenty of my own sins,” he said. “I’m here to today to listen and ask God what he wants me to do.”
People from these notable churches now increasingly see the abuses perpetrated by Bill Hybels and James MacDonald occurred over many years. That has left thousands of puzzled and wounded parishioners in their wake. With big numbers of the faithful in each church now leaving, lay leaders are left holding the bag and asking for mercy as they try to figure out how to move forward.
One former leader at Harvest Bible Chapel who attended the conference courageously opposed James MacDonald earlier this year. He also publicly repented for the part he played in how people got hurt. Dan George’s public statement of repentance can be read at danielmgeorge.blogspot.com.
The morning keynote speaker was Nancy Beach, once a top leader and the first female teaching pastor at Willow Creek Church back in the 1990s. Beach still lives in Chicago but attends another church. In years past, Beach and Pastor Bill Hybels were close friends. Beach now defends the women who reported that Hybels used his power to intimate them with his words and with his physical affection — long hugs, back and foot rubs and intimate conversations when his wife was not present. Though Hybels denies the charges, the Willow Creek elders came to believe the women.
In her talk, Beach pointed to Proverbs 4:23 as the Bible verse that must take center stage. “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Nothing is more important, she said.
While it might be tempting to quickly move on when people are hurt and disillusioned, Beach cautioned against it. Sadly, that’s often what happens. People leave. They land in another church, or leave the church entirely. A fellow I know who got smashed in a church power struggle, just kept quiet. One day he shrugged and mumbled to me, “I guess I’ll just quietly move on to another church. I’m not happy about it, buts I guess it’s just one of those things.”
Beach doesn’t believe it should just be one of those things. Wouldn’t it be much better, she says, if we could just muster the courage to carefully assess the damage, name the sins, name the people involved and try to bring things to a conclusion. Yes, it’s messy, but it at least gives people the chance to have their say, own their part and move forward. Isn’t that better than riding the escalator of revenge and spending all our energy daydreaming about how those who hurt us finally meet their comeuppance and we become the hero who is vindicated and loved by everyone?
In humility and in the name of peace, we have to own our part, says Beach. What did we contribute? Did we make matters worse? Will we confess our sins of pride and self-righteousness? Will we ask people to forgive us? Will we forgive those who hurt us? Will we let our anger go?
In the book of Revelation, the church triumphs. That’s hard to believe when you look at lots of churches. I just hope the faithful at Willow Creek Community Church and Harvest Bible Chapel will keep forgiving each other, showing love instead of hate and giving the watching world a tiny foretaste of heaven.