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Willow Creek and Harvest Struggle to Move On

It’s been 22 months since Bill Hybels resigned from Willow Creek Community Church, and the Chicago-area megachurch—one of the biggest in the country—is still without a senior pastor.

The multisite congregation, once celebrated as a model and training ground for Christian leaders, has struggled to transition to steady leadership in the aftermath—leaving the well-being of its eight locations and thousands of congregants at stake as attendance and tithes dip.

In the fallout of Hybels’s departure over sexual misconduct allegations, the esteemed megachurch lost other top leaders: The church’s elders, as well as Steve Carter and Heather Larson, who were slated to be Hybels’s heirs, resigned the same year. Steve Gillen, who has served as interim senior pastor since then, recently announced his plans to step down next month.

And there’s no successor in sight. The new elders said in late January that after narrowing a months-long search down to two senior pastor candidates, they decided to release both and start over. (The announcement came with another blow as elders confirmed claims of inappropriate behavior by Hybels’s mentor, Gilbert Bilezikian, and the church allowed “Dr. B” to continue serving and teaching despite knowing the reports against him.)

The elder board has passed its goal of naming a senior pastor by the end of 2019 but hasn’t announced a public timeline for the continued search, only stating that “filling this pastoral role is the top priority.”

The current tumult at Willow Creek and at its greater Chicago neighbor, Harvest Bible Chapel, showcase how long lasting the effects of a fallen pastor can be.

“Dear Bill Hybels,” tweeted Sarah Carter, whose husband Steve was appointed preaching pastor after Hybels before also resigning when further allegations against his predecessor emerged. “Thank you for the gift of tucking my kids in as they weep & cry over friendships they can longer have, the home they had to leave, & the faith they’ve watched crumble. I give you & your assembly of lead staff & elders full credit for this current experience.”

Carter, who declined to comment for this article, has implored the current Willow Creek elders to “seek truth” and “repent.” She called the church’s mishandling of Bilezikian’s alleged abuse “the great & final breakup” with her former church home.

Initially, attendance was down 9 percent across all locations in the months after Hybels left in 2018. The church reported 21,000 attendees each weekend when it listed the senior pastor job last fall. But internal reports from October and February showed attendance totals around 18,000. (Five years ago, according to Outreach 100, Willow Creek was the fifth-largest church in the country, with a weekly attendance of over 25,000.)

The church’s revenue dropped by a third the year of Hybels’s resignation, from $89 million to $60 million, but its 2019 financial statement has not yet been posted by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).

Projected revenue targets at the main South Barrington campus have slipped year over year, from $685,000 a week in 2018 to $550,000 in 2019 to $535,000 this year. Six Sundays into 2020, the campus (one of seven) is 26 percent behind budget, bringing in just $2.37 million of a projected $3.21 million in weekly offerings.

The church’s spokeswoman declined to comment on attendance or giving trends.

“It appears the only time the leadership and elders are transparent is when they are forced to be,” wrote Rob Speight, a longtime member of Willow Creek, on February 3. “They get caught in a leadership blunder and they are compelled to make some form of admission.”

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Outside of sparse, careful public statements, the Willow Creek leadership has encouraged the congregation to leave the past in the past, with recent sermons emphasizing the need for moving forward.

“Just this weekend’s teaching we were told to ‘let go,’ ‘move on,’ ‘forget the past & move into the unknown,’” tweeted Ann Lindberg on January 5, just two weeks before she wrote a long post on Facebook claiming abuse by Bilezikian, which she had reported to Willow Creek leadership. “How about if we handle the ‘known’ first?”

“Willow has been under a purifying fire, and God is at work,” Lindberg told Christianity Today. “The problem is so many people only see the flames and want the fire to go out as soon as possible, by any means necessary. My heart’s desire for the people of Willow is that they would not allow this purging to result in just dead ashes, but to see this as an opportunity for God to make real beauty, to make his love and purity shine.”

Lindberg urges Willow Creek leadership to practice greater transparency by inviting victims and former leaders like Steve Carter, who left Willow Creek without a non-disclosure agreement or a severance package, to address the congregation. She worries that the church has held back out of fear that more transparency would threaten them financially.

But for her family, “if Willow Creek gave full disclosure, took responsibility, and perhaps got sued, we would be so much more willing to tithe, because that’s a church with integrity,” she said.

Just 7.5 miles down the road from the Willow Creek South Barrington campus stands the Rolling Meadows campus of Harvest Bible Chapel, where another group of churchgoers is waiting for more details from their leadership. A year ago, founding pastor James MacDonald was fired and declared disqualified from ministry by HBC after elders found him to have “a substantial pattern of sinful behavior.” By May 1 of last year, the elder board at HBC had been replaced in its entirety. This year, it will begin the process of hiring MacDonald’s successor.

Last year, under the leadership of Rick Korte, a team called Harvest 2020 began revising the operational structure at HBC with an executive team rather than a single pastor. Initially, the Harvest 2020 team was tasked with managing a reconciliation process with “those who have been grieved by our church,” involving an outside reconciliation firm, according to remarks made last February. By the following month, the church’s lead ministry pastor, Greg Bradshaw, and the Harvest staff had taken over that role.

In late November, the legal firm of Wagenmaker & Oberly released a scathing legal evaluation that cited MacDonald’s “powerful and subversive leadership style,” “development of an inner-circle leadership group through which he could control” the church, “marginalization of broader leadership, particularly the former elders,” and “other aggressive tactics that thwarted healthy nonprofit governance.”

MacDonald disputes the findings—which include an exorbitant salary and excessive spending on big-game hunting, home security, and clothing—on a page titled “Controversy” on his new ministry’s website. He recently announced he has launched a network for Christians who want to skip the “drama” of big churches.

At Harvest, the new elders have implemented accountability measures “to ensure that prior problems never occur again,” according to the report.

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Not everyone is sticking around to find out. MacDonald once claimed 12,000 weekly attendees across seven locations. A church spokeswoman told the Chicago Tribune this month that membership is around 6,000 across six locations. (One site, in Niles, is becoming an independent church.)

Former Harvest Bible Chapel member and staffer Lina Abujamra left long before MacDonald did, after questioning the firing of three former elders (which MacDonald later admitted was unbiblical in its approach). When she finally spoke to one of the men who had been forced out, she recognized a pattern of a lack of transparency and dialogue from her church.

“It’s been six years,” she said, reading a “Letter of Forgiveness Over Church Hurt” at the Restore Chicago Conference in November. “Six years since I first walked out of a church I loved. Six years since I was finally able to admit that something was terribly wrong at that church. Six years since the pastor, my hero at the time, stopped being my hero, and my world turned upside down. Six years since I last trusted a church leader. Six years since I’ve been able to shake that feeling of guardedness that now surfaces every time I step into a church. Six years since I’ve been able to tithe without wondering exactly how my hard-earned money would be spent. Six years since I felt safe among God’s people. Six years since I’ve wondered whether God loves them more than he loves me.”

Abujamra told Christianity Today that she gives credit to the people who are trying to rebuild Harvest. But there’s such a fallout, she said, that she’s not sure they even know where to start.

Laurie Newman, a Harvest member, told Christianity Today that she believes the church’s current leaders, like Bradshaw, are “good people who want to lead the church the way God wants it to go.” She said some members at Harvest, herself included, feel discouraged by people who are still “drudging stuff up.”

“We just want to get back to doing church and not fighting people who are tearing things down,” Newman said. “But obviously, if there are still things wrong that aren’t being told to us, it’s not like ‘Oh, we want to move on and don’t want to know.’”

Harvest Bible Chapel did not respond to requests for comments on attendance data, institutional changes in response to the Wagenmaker & Oberly report, HBC’s current financial position, or how HBC has engaged in reconciliation with those who still feel hurt by the church, but referred to updates posted on its website.

After MacDonald was fired, the church adjusted its 2019 budget from $24 million to $16.8 million, and Harvest has mostly followed its new projections. In December—historically its biggest month for tithes—monthly giving was down from $4 million in 2018 to $3 million in 2019.

While the Willow Creeks and Harvest Bible Chapels of the world make the news when their leaders fall, megachurches are far from the only congregations in which abuses of power occur. Across denominations and church sizes, members have gone through the dilemma of whether to stay and push for accountability and change or to leave and try to find a healthier church.

Abuse advocate Ryan Ashton has seen the pattern of pastor misconduct or coverups at multiple churches and is frustrated that more churches don’t look into the factors that can lead to such abuse: lack of accountability, lack of discipleship, or unhealthy church culture. “There has never been an examination into the culture that allowed [the pastor] to behave that way for so long,” he said of one former congregation. “To this day there are people who trickle out of that church who tell me, ‘You were right, Ryan. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen.’”

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But prominent churches also have the opportunity to model reconciliation and accountability done well. Willow Creek and Hybels were seen as models for the seeker-sensitive movement, offering production elements and activities to draw in curious unbelievers. One Sunday in the early 2000s, the church had a large bridge stretching across the stage, and during the sermon, Hybels encouraged people who needed to pursue reconciliation to walk across the bridge together. At the time, church member Speight challenged the interactive metaphor since there were no plans for follow-up discipleship, the kind of restoration necessary for reconciliation to take place.

These days, Willow Creek and Harvest are trying to build a bridge of reconciliation with their own members. Willow Creek’s “reconciliation service” in July was heavily focused on moving on—and Hybels has not returned to participate or offer repentance. Harvest Bible Chapel is currently in arbitration with James MacDonald.

How, then, will members of these churches—who are full of questions, hurt, and distrust—feel at home again in the churches they love?

Lindberg at Willow Creek said that she and others are asking: How do you know when a church is safe? What about its staff? How long does it take? How do you know for sure? What should its governance look like?

“If [the leaders of Willow Creek] are not willing to sort of go to their knees and humble themselves and do what God calls them to do,” said James Bedell, who has attended Willow Creek for 30 years. “It’s like that verse. ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land’ (2 Chron. 7:14). I don’t think Willow will heal until they do that.”

Lindberg similarly sees this chapter in Willow Creek’s story as a pivotal one and invites her fellow members to keep praying. “Trust that the truth will set Willow free,” she said in an interview with CT. “There is a season for mourning and a season for rejoicing. The season for rejoicing could occur with the mourning if we enter into wholehearted integrity. The best days would still be ahead. May the Lord bless us and cover us. May he be a shield and a comfort. Rak Chazak (be strong and courageous!).”

Abby Perry is a freelance writer whose Prophetic Survivors series at Fathom Magazine featured profiles of survivors of #ChurchToo sexual abuse. You can also find her work at, among other publications, Sojourners, Texas Monthly, and Nations Media.

Richard

You are most welcome to my blog platform. I am blessed with the passion to serve God through teaching and evangelistic online and offline ministry to my generation. The website is targeted at teaching the FINISHED WORK OF CHRIST through the eye of NEW CREATION REALITIES and to update you with the current Christians news around the world.

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