The Speed of Scandal

Christian media has been dominated in recent weeks by reports about Willow Creek Community Church founding pastor Bill Hybels. The many allegations of inappropriate conduct towards women are disturbing and must be fully addressed, but the leadership issue is the way the church leadership has responded to them. I don’t know any more than what is public media, so I won’t speculate on how this will all be resolved. But there are some important lessons for leaders, and particularly for governance.

Note: I am refraining from linking to reports on this situation because it is still developing.

Lesson #1: Everyone is vulnerable to failure.

Bill Hybels is a massive figure in evangelical circles globally. His vision, leadership, and teaching have played a huge part in church strategy around the world in the past few decades. His accomplishments are remarkable. He has also been a strong voice for the empowerment of women in leadership and for leaders to carefully watch their integrity.

It is very sad to think that any of the stories being shared are true.

But it should serve as a caution that success and charisma are not absolute. Everyone has temptations to violate their standards. Our first response to any similar scandal should be to take an inventory of our own lives and see where we need to be more diligent.

Lesson #2: Respond quickly and transparently.

Accounts show that concerns had been raised by credible people several times in the past. Some were directly to Hybels, others to members of the staff and board. There was no public response until outside media became involved. Even then, the investigations into the allegations were done only by internal leaders until far too late.

It undermines the credibility of the organization when it appears that there may have been a cover up. When years of complaints come out in just a few weeks it looks like a pattern, whether it is one or not. Err on the side of external trusted people to lead any investigation, and let people know that you are doing so.

Letting people know that you have heard the allegations, that you take them seriously, and that you are taking action to fully understand them as soon as possible should be expected. nothing less is a breeding ground for rumours and gossip. Often what people imagine in the absence of your statements is far worse than reality.

Lesson #3: Expect the waves to grow.

Where there is one accusation of impropriety there are often several. I suspect the leaders at Willow felt they had handled things completely, possibly more than once, before each new story surfaced. It must be a terrible feeling each time another allegation is brought forward. 

Wisdom would remind us that there is usually more beneath the surface than is initially apparent. So anticipate the possibility that things will escalate and/or deteriorate beyond the initial stage of concerns. Our natural desire to conclude the process needs to be tempered by the potential for additional unwanted surprises.

Lesson #4: Don’t rush for resolution.

Leaders tend to be action-oriented. Especially when dealing with controversy we want to bite the bullet, deal with the damage, and get back to work on what we’re really all about. As admirable and understandable as this is, it needs to be resisted.

A thorough outside investigation, time to properly consider what must be done, lots of space for truth-telling, and a determination to do what is right as far as that can be determined, even when it is costly is the required posture. The integrity if the organization requires it. This means slowing down, listening more, reserving judgment longer, and accepting that some people will accuse you of stalling. Better to be a little late on your final response than to have to start all over with egg on your face by hurrying.

Lesson #5: Align your loyalty.

As leaders we want the best for our people and our organization. We want to give the benefit of the doubt to those who have served well. We want to ensure that the mission goes forward. All of those good intentions can trap us into serious mistakes.

Our highest loyalties should be to our values and mission, not to the leaders or even the organization. We must be willing to make hard decisions about beloved founders, long-term staff, and amazing volunteers for the higher purpose of what is right and true. The responsibility to protect the organization cannot be fulfilled if doing so requires us to deny what the organization is really supposed to stand for. 

In painful situations we need to believe that there is something bigger than our own brands and bosses. There will be another leader, and if necessary there will be a new organization to rise up and take our place. There are far too many examples in this time of misplaced loyalty leading to an organization rotting from the inside and losing any meaningful voice or credibility.

Of course, all of this is easy to say from the sidelines. I sincerely hope those at Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association will have the strength and wisdom to find their way through. I don’t envy them the season there are in, or the fact that they are doing it under such scrutiny. We need to support and honour those leaders who can do the incredibly costly work of leading through scandal.

And we need to learn from it so we can lead well if or when our turn comes.

Addendum: A couple readers have pointed out that I omitted something essential. The organization must prioritize caring for those who have been mistreated. Far too often they are excluded, condemned, slandered, and re-victimised by those who owe them the highest duty of care. I will add that I have also seen situations where the person accused was not cared for with tragic results. We must not let self-protection or fear of legal repercussions prevent us from offering support to those who are suffering.