I am introspective by nature.
Ask me what I think and I will take a few minutes to answer. Ask me what I feel and I will have to get back to you in a few days.
Turning inward is my “go to” move.
As a pastor of a local church I know that I disappoint, hurt, confuse and frustrate people all the time. John Ortberg said, “Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.” I lean into that.
But the events that have transpired at Willow Creek and the stories of the women who have been used and abused by their former founding pastor are stories of another kind.
I’ve read articles and listened to a podcast and the gist of these has mostly been “pastor, look inward for there but for the grace of God you too will go…” and the more disturbing, “the only person who can sit in judgment of Billy Hybels is someone who has risen to the same level of responsibility and authority…”yada yada.
And while I think we all need to look inward more – well, most of us, some of us probably need to pull up because we spend so much time down that well – this is not a “there but for the grace of God…” situation.
Unless your thing is to be a serial user and abuser. A predator.
I know people who have had a slip. I know people who have become involved with someone who was not their spouse through work proximity or a counseling session that broke boundaries. I know people who have strayed one click too far on the internet. I can relate to all those scenarios. I am capable of all of those scenarios.
But setting women up, over and over and over again, multiple women in various situations, in and out of the local church in order to use them for my own gratification or need to feel powerful? That’s not a slip.
That is called a pathology.
That is a person who is locked into a compulsion that is destined to wreck lives, eventually including their own.
This week a report was released from Pennsylvania that details in over 900 pages the abuse of over 1000 individuals by Roman Catholic priests over a period of 70 years.
In Pennsylvania. Six dioceses in Pennsylvania.
This should not be read as a call to introspection. It should be read as, “If you are abusing women or children, sexually or otherwise, get the hell out of pastoral ministry.” You are caught in a pathology of sin, not a victim of ordinary temptation.
Get out. Confess your sins. Get help. But stop hurting people through your position as a pastor.
Paul warns the leaders at the fledgling church in Ephesus, “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out! Remember the three years I was with you—my constant watch and care over you night and day, and my many tears for you.” (Ac 20:28-31 NLT)
Someone reminded me that this passage is about guarding against false teachers, not serial sexual predators. My thought is that if we don’t think that abusing the sheep teaches them something false about the gospel, and doesn’t do damage to their faith, then we don’t understand teaching or the gospel or both.
As leaders and pastors we’re supposed to protect the sheep, not eat them. Roast lamb is never supposed to be on the menu.
Jesus told his followers, “But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Ma 18:6)
I think we need to take this as seriously as Jesus does. I think that’s what followers of Jesus do and I think it’s what the watching World needs us to do.
The World, I think, can tell the difference between a pastor who makes a bad choice and sinfully wrecks his own marriage and family and a pastor who preys on women and/or children in a series of manipulative and abusive encounters.
Sesame Street taught us that one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong. If we treat serial abuse the same as or equate it with a pastor who has fallen into temptation to embezzle funds, have an affair or get charged with a DUI, we are communicating something to the victims of these serial perpetrators that is not true and will do harm to their souls. We also communicate something false to other pastors that we believe that at any time they themselves will start down this path of serial abuse which will create unintended consequences for those who become consumed with fear.
I have read articles suggesting that accountability partners are the answer. Not lying to people is the answer. A serial abuser will look at you and lie to all your accountability questions because they are lying to themselves and everyone else already.
I have read articles that point to all the good that Bill Hybels has done. “We can’t read all those books and see all those people who have come to Jesus and throw it all out!” This response has made me question who we think is really behind all these good things. Did God build Willow or did Bill? Did God speak truth to us through books written by Bill and his ghostwriters or was it dependent on Bill’s “anointing?”
Bad people can do good things.
Good people can do bad things.
But we cannot respond to serial abusers the same way we respond to people who slip and fall, own their stuff and get back up again.
Finally, please do not say that the only people who can speak to someone who has done the things Bill has unless they have the same life experience that he has. That’s precisely the kind of thinking that perpetuates the environment and culture in which this kind of abuse takes place. I heard the same tripe with Mark Driscoll and it was old then.
Predatory sexual manipulation and abuse is wrong. Period. Full stop.
A six year old has all the authority he needs to tell you or anyone else, king or queen, that one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong.
So, Jesus doesn’t love Bill and God’s grace can’t redeem him? Neither I nor anyone else I know is saying that. But being the object of God’s love and the work of his redemptive love does not give us a free pass to eat other sheep. We should not react to predatory behavior in leaders the same as we do another brother or sister who sins – or another leader who sins.
So what do we do?
We co-create healthy systems with God by his empowering Spirit.
We avoid dysfunctional systems that perpetuate this kind of serial abuse.
Here are some of the rules dysfunctional systems live by – avoid these, run from these, confront these:
· Don’t talk about problems.
· If you must talk about problems, never talk about the real problem.
· Don’t talk about your feelings.
· Never talk to another family member directly. Always go through another person.
· Do as I say, not as I do.
· Don’t rock the boat. Ever.
· Don’t tell people outside our system about our troubles.
· Don’t trust people outside our system.
· Keep our family secrets.
· Resists outsiders from entering the system to observe, interview or critique.
· Unclear personal boundaries.
· False loyalty to the family system.
· Members are never free to leave the system.
To my brothers and sisters in pastoral ministry, things just keep getting harder but don’t let that keep you from caring for the flock of God of which you are a part. We need each other, now more than ever. We need to share our burdens with each other and stop buying the success illusion. Be faithful and don’t give up on your amazing calling to shepherd and protect. May we have the courage to dismantle the unhealthy systems we have created together that have turned the flock of God into ground lamb and may God empower us to say, “No.” to the opportunities to take advantage of our role whenever and wherever they present themselves to us.