The first time I went to Willow Creek Community Church, circa 1994, I didn’t want to be there. My new pastor and boss was a fan of Pastor Bill Hybels, and our church staff flew to Chicago to attend a conference together. I feared that any church that large must be suspect. Still, as I listened to Bill talk about a shepherd named Jesus who leaves the ninety-nine to search for the one lost sheep (codenamed “Seeker”), I was sincerely moved. Here was a pastor who was so personally invested in building a church that actively welcomes rather than avoids or scorns unchurched people. It took only an hour or two for my heart toward Willow to change.

Soon, I was reading Willow books, listening to Willow sermons, and eventually leading the church I pastored a few years later to join what was then called the Willow Creek Association. I bought into Bill’s passion for mining the world of mainstream leadership resources for Christian application. I marveled at the way Bill could interview secular experts and treat them with such gentleness and deep respect. And while I occasionally felt anxious about how the ‘seeker model’ seemed to be selling off too many essential parts of our liturgy, or how secular leadership models could overwhelm classic pastoral wisdom, I loved the way Willow was inspiring ordinary people to pursue the lost and make a profound difference in their community and world.

Looking back, so much of my vocational identity as a pastor was impacted by Bill’s story. He once explained it this way. Every Christian leader must go through several “second conversions.” Bill transparently shared so many of his: a conversion on the leader’s need for Sabbath rest, or the mandate for Christian leaders to pursue racial reconciliation, or the power of elevating the speaking and leadership gifts of women, or the ability for ordinary churches to make outsized contributions in the arena of global poverty. I saw Bill and Bono, of all people (!), team up to inspire ordinary churches to pursue practical solutions for global problems.

Unfortunately, though, behind the scenes, in crucial areas of leadership integrity, Bill apparently was decidedly unconverted. Beginning roughly one year ago, the Chicago Tribune and other secular and Christian entities began to publish accounts of Bill’s sexual sins against women on staff, in the church, and in the broader evangelical world. In addition, women and men who worked with Bill cited an angry and at times abusive leadership style. For several years, some victims had privately shared their stories, but for a host of reasons, those allegations never gained traction. To make matters worse, when this news broke last spring, Bill publicly and angrily rebutted these claims, and key staff and church leaders rallied behind him. Bill ultimately conceded very little, retired early, and has been relatively quiet on the allegations that have continued to snowball. Willow pastors and elders soon came to realize that, in their support of Bill, they had lost their leadership mantle and resigned.

One year later, as Willow Creek Community Church continues to share the results of their lengthy investigations, I’m still sorting through the mess and feeling conflicted about my long support of the movement. I’m still grappling with questions about the inherent strengths and weaknesses of large, powerful, and technologically-sophisticated Christian institutions, and whether the advantages can ever outweigh the disadvantages. I’m still struggling with how far churches can lean in the direction of being “relevant to seekers” while retaining our core identity as a “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9, KJV). And I’m still praying for the victims and for churches struggling to heal. While I am grateful for some positive steps of accountability along the way, one of the biggest things I have prayed for has not happened: that is, for Bill Hybels to walk humbly through a public ‘second conversion’ on the issue of his treatment of women specifically and colleagues generally. I want, like any good Damascus road experience, for eyes to be opened and sins to be confessed openly and brave victims to be validated and grace to be administered freely. In the absence of that, what follows are my own prayers, for myself and all involved:

– I pray that Christians recognize that no pastor, no matter how influential, is too big to fail. “In Christ alone, my hope is found…”

– I pray that women who have been both sinned against and silenced will be heartened that, in some sense, justice is beginning at least to trickle, if not ‘roll down like waters.’

– I pray that the appropriate backlash (in my mind, at least) against the theology and consumeristic excesses of the seeker church movement won’t blunt the enthusiasm of every church to move with deep hospitality toward those who do not know Christ.

Ultimately, I pray my own version of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the humbling lessons of my former Willow enthusiasms, the courage to cling still to noble truths worth preserving, and the wisdom to know the difference.”