In the face of tragic stories and historic collapses of institutions and powerful leaders, the first impulse we have is to look outward to locate blame and offer judgment. I recognize this impulse in me, especially after the great fall of Bill Hybels.
Like many, I learned a good deal from Hybels. I read all of his books on leadership, attended the Global Leadership Summit over the past decade, and was deeply encouraged by his commitment to empower women in ministry leadership. The shocking revelations of his life behind the scenes continues to impact me. In the days and weeks following the news of his abuse of power, I would consistently ruminate about what made this possible. Any serious exploration of this catastrophe must take into consideration the state of his own soul, the compromised systems that refused to hold him accountable, and the surrounding culture of celebrity pastor power that has wrecked many churches around the country. We need to have these conversations.
But my task, first and foremost, is to locate myself in all of this.
In a sermon Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached in 1934 after Hitler had his SS troops kill over 200 people who were rivals of the Nazi party, Bonhoeffer got up to preach and surprised his congregation, urging them “not to judge but to repent,” referencing Jesus’ words in Luke 13:1-5. In a letter he wrote to his friend Erwin Sutz, he said, “We are the ones to be converted, not Hitler.” (My intent, of course, in using this illustration is not to compare Hybels to Hitler, but to name what is to be our first response).
The Willow Creek fiasco should cause us to reflect on a number of pastoral, discipleship, and leadership questions. We need to repent for the ways our souls are not tended and nurtured in truth. We need to repent for the ways we have established church cultures that don’t practice mutual submission and healthy authority. We need to repent for the pervasive and dysfunctional celebrity pastor culture that dominates much of the Evangelical-Pentecostal-Charismatic world.
We need to repent.
In my own reflections, I have returned to questions that have reminded me of my own dark side and my need for grace. As we venture to explore all of the layers to this Willow Creek story, we must humbly start with ourselves.
Here are a few questions I’ve been wrestling through. As we venture to explore all of the layers to this Willow Creek story, we must humbly start with ourselves. Here are 7 questions to begin with. Click To Tweet
1. As a pastor, am I living in the truth? Are there any areas in my life where I’m not living with integrity?
Integrity is not about living something perfectly, but wrestling with something faithfully. As pastors and leaders, there is no substitute for honestly confronting the lies and illusions that distort our lives. Do I truly have a life with God in prayer? Am I rooting myself in practices that ground me in God’s love? Is my life with God one of confession and repentance? As Ron Rolheiser has said:
We are never more healthy than when we are confessing our sins.
2. Do I have friendships that help me face my dark side?
Related to #1, the Willow Creek debacle is an invitation to have friends on the journey with whom we can be honest—and who can be honest with us. Do we have friends who speak the truth in love to us? Do we make the time for soul care relationships that provide a context for repentance?
In late 2017, I realized that the pull of leadership towards isolation was growing in me. I have many friendships, but I knew I needed intentional space to wrestle with the challenges and temptations of power. I meet once per month with a few friends (who are also pastors) via video call. I need all the help I can get. The Willow Creek debacle is an invitation to have friends on the journey with whom we can be honest—and who can be honest with us. Click To Tweet
3. Am I submitting myself to authority willingly, joyfully, and transparently?
I would be lying if I told you I do this joyfully. I don’t like being told what to do. I want to call the shots. I want to inform people, not ask for permission. Yet this has been one of the most important safeguards for my leadership and pastoral life. I’m grateful to report to an Elder Board that asks hard questions monthly. I’m grateful that they are not “impressed” with me. In the past year, I’ve had to grow significantly in my relationship to the board, and the Willow Creek situation reminds me that I too have blind spots. To this day, submitting to healthy authority is a struggle for me. My false self is exposed. My perfectionism is clearly seen. Yet deep down inside, I know God is protecting me.
4. What are the limits (time, energy, power, money) I’m currently violating?
Our souls are in danger when we go beyond our limits. One could argue that this is the essence of sin, as seen in the Garden of Eden. God set a limit, and humanity willfully crossed it. Whenever we go beyond our limits, we are entering into Satan’s territory. What are the limits we are violating? Are we working non-stop? Are we mismanaging money? Are we abusing power? Are we playing the role of God? Are we taking Sabbath? Are we playing with our children? Do we have a life outside of “church work”? It is no secret that the Willow culture was one that didn’t integrate healthy rhythms. It’s no secret that most churches are the same.
5. As a pastor, where do I feel entitled?
When I became a pastor at New Life Fellowship, my predecessor Pete Scazzero told me, “Congratulations, you can’t park in the parking lot anymore!” This shocked me. Shouldn’t pastors have parking spaces!? In our context in Queens, NYC, we have a very small parking lot (although it’s massive by NYC standards), but the cultural point was clearly seen. As a pastor, I’m not entitled to special treatment. I’m called to lead my congregation in serving. Now certainly this can be taken to another extreme where pastors are not sufficiently cared for, encouraged, and supported, but at the core of this question is entitlement.
6. Do I have seasons of therapy to grow in self-awareness?
Therapy is a gift. I’ve seen this in my 10 years being a pastor at New Life. When I came on staff, I had a psychological assessment done, which revealed a lack of empathy that needed significant work. As part of my pastoral rule of life, I was required to grow in self-awareness, benefiting from the professional expertise of wise therapists. I’m convinced that every pastor needs seasons of therapy. The level of projection we receive, power at our disposal, and stress we regularly carry require rhythms for growth in self-awareness, lest we misuse our power.
7. If married, does my spouse have space to share with the leadership of our church how things truly are at home?
As married pastors and leaders, we are called to lead from our marriages. Moreover, as Christian married leaders, the goal of a good marriage is not about maintaining a basis for ministry. Marriage is to be the basis for a life rooted in deep, intimate, covenantal love, from which we are formed by God, out of which we lead others.
One of the ways to locate areas of growth and healing is to invite our spouses—those who know us best—to honestly give feedback on how things are going at home. We are not CEOs. Our home life can’t be divorced from our “church life.” One of the ways to move towards wholeness is to create space for these kinds of conversations.
Certainly, many other questions need to be wrestled through, but in the words of Bonhoeffer, we are the ones who need to be converted.
For more conversation like this, join us November 10 for Church Together, a SheLeads Summit by Missio Alliance.