On Saturday November 2nd, I spent the day in Chicago at a one-day conference at Judson University called “Restore Chicago.” Sponsored by the journalism ministry of Julie Roys (www.julieroys.com), the day centered on helping people make sense of the abuse and corruption so prevalent in the Church.
With the demise of two very prominent Chicago pastors in the last 2 years — Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church and James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel — the speakers and discussions throughout the day largely centered on those two mega-churches and the far-reaching, painful fall out from the lack of accountability and abuse of power from both of these well-known pastors.
Over the last year, both churches lost large numbers of regular participants, and lots of revenue. So many people were left confused, disillusioned, disheartened, hurt and just flat out disgusted. Many well-meaning people got crunched by unwittingly getting caught in the middle of this huge mess, something they never, ever anticipated.
Participants were welcomed to the Judson campus by Dr. Gene Crume, President of Judson. Crume gave words of welcome along with a strong endorsement of Julie Roys and her reporting. Judson University is located in Elgin, IL (about 40 miles west of Chicago’s loop). This puts it nearly in the backyards of both Willow Creek (South Barrington) and Harvest Bible Chapel (Rolling Meadows).
I subscribe via email to Roys’ daily reports. It was in fact Julie Roys who helped break the story of the abuse and corruption by pastor James MacDonald. If you are interested in Christian-related news events, and some good investigating reporting that often shows how badly the Church is in need of reform, this is a good source. You can subscribe to her updates just beneath her photo on the right side of the front page on her website. If the Kingdom of Light is going to push back the kingdom of darkness, we have to see what we’re dealing with. Roys’ reporting turns the lights on in dark rooms. Sometimes that causes the rats to flee.
Of the 200 or so attendees on Saturday, many, but certainly not all, were folks who are still part of or have left Willow Creek and Harvest Bible in the last couple of years. People at the conference are looking for answers and for healing. There was a sober tenor to the whole day, which was appropriate, given the topic. From reading comments that have been posted, many of those in attendance did get a lot of solace from being at the event.
The speakers were frank and honest. They named names, yes, but it was not a day to merely throw stones, complain and cast judgments. In fact, throughout the day there were wonderful worship sets and opportunities to both repent for the ways each of us has hurt people in the Church and to forgive those who have hurt us. Everyone agrees there is a big need for both.
From counseling with more than 200 pastors in the last decade and working with many church leadership teams who have found themselves bogged down in some nasty conflicts, I see with ever-increasing clarity that nobody gets out clean from church abuse, corruption and mismanagement. No friends, we all are healed and set free by the grace and mercy of Jesus our Lord or not at all!
Nancy Beach was one of the keynotes. Some years back, Beach was a prominent leader and a teaching pastor at Willow Creek. She’s now part of a different church in Chicago. Beach knows the depths of the abuse of power by former pastor Bill Hybels like few others. She was not only close friends with Hybels in years past, she now is close friends with many of the women Bill Hybels allegedly abused over the years.
Beach is gracious in her speech, but she has not backed off from speaking the truth about what happened, as she sees it. (She, more than most, knows where the bodies are buried.) In her Saturday talk, Beach said she believes healing can come to those within the Church where so much pain has occurred, but not without confession, repentance and forgiveness. And that will take lots of time, humility and a loving community to support us. There cannot be any lone rangers in this mess. There never are lone rangers in God’s community of faith.
On her blog, Beach has written about how the Willow Creek church leadership (the elders) handled the accounts of many women who reported that Bill Hybels used his power and position against them while still at the helm at Willow Creek. Many of these women were not believed. Well, they are now. Good for them. I believe them.
Clearly, Beach is disappointed and puzzled with how the Willow Creek leadership chose not to name the specific abuses Hybels is alleged to have committed many women. One elder wrote that since Bill had resigned from Willow Creek he was no longer under their care or jurisdiction. He said he didn’t think there was much more they could do.
In fact, in early April 2018 Hybels resigned from Willow Creek, saying he took an early retirement. He has not been heard from since, which I find strange, given that for 40 years he had been such a leader and an up front sort of guy, who always encouraged his followers to man-up and own their stuff. But to go completely silent now? Now that’s weird. Maybe his attorney has warned him, “Don’t say a word.” Who knows? And as far as I know, Hybels still denies the allegations numerous women have made against him.
Here’s the bottom line, friends. … These are challenging days for the Bride of Christ. I am glad I spent Saturday November 2nd in Chicago with veteran journalist Julie Roys and about 200 other folks who believe, as I do, that this is not the time for giving up. It’s time for holding on. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)
(And this just in. This afternoon — November 3rd — the day following yesterday’s conference, new information about James MacDonald has emerged from the elders at Harvest Bible Chapel. Julie Roys has posted a letter on her website from the current elders at Harvest Bible Chapel, writing that they find their former and long-time pastor James MacDonald formally disqualified from the ministry. Sad to hear but I can’t say that I am surprised.)