Dear WCCC Elders, WCA Board, Selected Ministry Leaders, and Bill Hybels:
It is with heartache that I send you this letter. I was completely stunned when I read the recent article in the Chicago Tribune. I had no idea before then of any such allegations against Bill.
The reason I’m writing you is because I am the president of Right On Mission, an entity/seminary that is a member of the WCA. I was also a young woman who attended Willow Creek back in the 1990’s when I was earning a doctorate in Systematic Theology at nearby Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This whole #MeToo saga at Willow runs deep for me personally because it has been so validating, even explanatory, of my own experience at Willow, as I will soon explain.
Since most of you do not know me, please allow me to introduce myself further before I share my testimony. My name is Sarah Sumner; I attended Willow Creek from 1989-1997. In 1996, my husband Jim and I hosted our wedding rehearsal dinner in what used to be called “Room 100.” For five years prior to that, I volunteered 35 hrs/wk, then ended up on staff as a Division Leader in the Evangelism Department (as Sarah Chambers).
An important part of my history is that I used to go down to the bullpen and thank Bill after his sermons. I also tried to encourage him through postal letters in the aftermath of him being targeted unfairly. Bill once told me in the early 90’s that I was in the top three encouragers of his life. Sometimes I’d spend twenty hours crafting one same letter, painstakingly trying to choose the most powerful words I could find to bolster him as a pastor under fire. I remember how over-the-top it was when he was falsely accused of being “the anti-Christ,” an absurdity that was silly though also hurtful. Other times people hurled ridiculous accusations about Willow Creek not sharing the gospel. Whoever said that had no idea of Willow’s real problems–we could have been nailed on other accounts, but that particular, fiery arrow was aimed at one of Willow’s greatest strengths.
Twice in the course of nine years, I attempted to provide constructive feedback. Once was when, for a short season, Bill was issuing a crystal statue award to whatever ministry he deemed had “the Holy Spirit hovering over it.” As a staff member, I had concerns about that, so I wrote Bill a letter. After Bill received it, he phoned me in anger and defensiveness. When my brother who was with me asked me what that call from Bill was about, I said, “Oh, he’s mad because he feels embarrassed and convicted. You watch: he’s going to fix this.” And sure enough, he did. Next thing you know, no more crystal statues.
The other time pertained to when Bill led two thousand Willow leaders in communion, asking us to take an extra “chunk” of bread and give a small piece of it to others while saying these words to them: “Thank you for giving me life.” I understood that Bill was speaking from his emotions as a partially empty-nest father because he prefaced his remarks by saying how much he missed his daughter, Shauna, (who had grown up and moved out) and by saying how she had brought such “life” into their home. Yet I was still concerned given that most people there were not well-discipled or differentiated enough to see how off-base this communion practice was.
So I zipped to the back of the very long line of untrained Willow Creekers who were each giving Bill a small piece of bread (that was supposed to be about Christ’s broken body) and who each were thanking Bill for giving them life. About thirty minutes later, when it was my turn and time had nearly run out, I quickly said to Bill (who was probably expecting to hear my normal, gushing remarks), “Bill! The Bible says the life is in the blood! Can you make this more Christ-centered?”
To my shock, Bill physically pushed me on the front side near my shoulder–not injuriously, but furiously–and said, “That’s coming, my daughter!” Then he got himself back on stage and in a very heated tone that probably came across as Elijah-like zeal to all those unaware, said, “And we REMEMBER Christ! We REMEMBER Christ!” Then he sought me out again on site right after the conference ended and chewed me out relentlessly, saying that I needed to go home and “think for three months” about what I had done. He ended with the outburst, “Otherwise, you can just pack your bags and leave!” That is how Bill treated a 31 year old volunteer who honestly (and naively) expected him to realize she was only trying to help him to recover.
Bewildered by Bill’s ultrasensitivity, I set off on a journey that has continued to this day. For over twenty years now, I have been paying attention to the image management problem that plagues most evangelicals. Why are we so slow to admit our sins specifically, even if our sin is that of extramarital “flirting” and sexual “insinuations”? Why are we not known for our remorse (Luke 7:36-50)?
I have tried to listen carefully to all that has been said in Willow’s defense. And yet I am still unclear as to why Willow elders and WCA board members have stood with Bill’s accusation of the Ortbergs and Mellados of “colluding” when all the paper says is that they are asking for an independent investigation. Isn’t it wise to corroborate facts before asking for an official investigation?
For sure I’m grateful for all the explaining that the Willow team has offered, but very basic questions still come to mind: Why hire a lawyer to conduct the investigation? Since Willow paid the attorney, doesn’t that make Willow the lawyer’s client/customer? To me, it seems like anyone Willow pays is no longer a true “outside” person who has nothing to lose. Was the lawyer paid by Willow to look into the matter only at a legal level? I find myself wondering: Who investigated the matter from an ethical point of view given that the aim was to look for “sexual sin”? Lawyers are not experts in assessing what is sinful, are they? Who evaluated events from a biblical point of view with regard to godly use of church authority?
I also wonder why Willow almost boasts of its practice of operating by consensus as its church elders do, yet the WCA board operates by majority vote. Why did the WCA board prefer to lose three prominent board members instead of acting together prayerfully as a unit? Is it because Bill chairs the WCA board? If so, isn’t that a conflict of interests?
As to whether or not Bill had an affair with a family friend is not to be speculated. The newspaper says the grievance is about a lack of proper process that former WCA board members were displeased with.
Due process is important. Due process is the mechanism for truth to come out, and truth provides light, and light provides healing. I think it is evident to many at this point–both Christians and non-Christians alike–that we, as believers, are in great, great need of truth–and light–and healing.
It is reported that Bill claimed that “lies” have been told that are attached to a motive of trying to discredit his ministry. But the newspaper says that Vonda expressed a heart for Bill to experience “redemption” in this and that Nancy Beach expressed her gratitude for Bill as part of her #MeToo report.
No one in the newspaper said a thing about Bill’s motives. As I recall, the only person who mentioned Bill Hybels’ ministry being “discredited” was Bill himself.
I also noticed that Bill contradicted himself by assigning motives to the whistleblowers at first, but soon after that, by telling the Willow congregation in person that he was “not going to commit the sin” of guessing their motives in light of I Corinthians 4:5 (which drew an applause from the live Willow crowd). To me, that kind of tacit switcheroo presented on stage strongly comes across as image management.
I am speaking out because whatever we accept becomes acceptable . As a large group of believers–as fellow Christians in Willow’s network–it is our responsibility to decide what we are going to accept.
As a bystander, I cannot accept this massive, public rift of relationships without signaling that it is time for all of us, including myself, to repent from passivity and self-preservation. Moreover, I feel prompted to announce in clear terms that to follow the advice of “not having to take sides” is to agree to not having due process.
Something isn’t right at Willow Creek. Hundreds of thousands of us have benefited greatly from Willow. Now Willow is in crisis, and I don’t think it’s right for us to watch the fallout without seriously contemplating how each of us has played into the problem.
Apparently Bill felt threatened many years ago by benevolent correctives from an unpaid volunteer. Why, I ask, would that be? My observation in the two vivid situations that I encountered myself firsthand is that when Bill appeared to feel both embarrassed and convicted, he steeled himself with anger and sprayed it on the bearer of hard truth.
I found out the hard way that Bill Hybels didn’t trust me. Though he counted me, he said, in “the top three encouragers of his life,” he did not believe that I had his best interests
in mind as well as Willow’s.
How many Christian leaders in the WCA network are plagued with an inability to trust? How many are relationally isolated and secretly doing porn or engaging in a shameful, hidden habit? How many are so revered that they really don’t have much space for being known–really known–as normal sinners?
In evangelical culture, we are not set up to be the self-cleaning oven that we are designed to be as a Church. No wonder we are failing to salt the culture.
Unfortunately, there was never any do-over or reteaching with regard to the people who had been misled theologically in the two instances that I myself flagged to Bill. Nor was there any ownership of Bill’s flare-ups.
Back in the 90’s when I told the chair of the elder board about the communion incident, she refused to believe me and firmly defended Bill. Therefore I was left without a referee. Willow did have a Matthew 18:15-17 culture, but only if the grievance was against someone other than Bill. Granted, other colleagues, including Don Cousins (who no longer worked at Willow by that time), validated and consoled me. In fact, that was when I first heard that other casualties from Bill were left unchecked.
The issue in the newspaper is about checking into the casualties, isn’t it? Rest assured, I believe the Willow elders’ testimony that 29 people were interviewed in the type of investigation that was conducted. But who, exactly, was interviewed? If all the appropriate parties were thoroughly listened to, then why not publish a list of those 29 people? If that simple gesture could help foster unity between the Hybels, Mellados, and Ortbergs–and all of us who are left with trying to figure out who to believe–why not make the details of the investigative process accessible to us all?
Obviously, none of us bystanders have any firsthand perspective of what happened in Sweden or Spain. But I can confess that in my context at Willow Creek I was true to Bill consistently on a theological level and a prayer level (I have prayed for Bill for 28 years), but on a relational level, I held back. Despite my extroverted, straight-shooting personality, I am another person who had proximity to Bill, yet I did not level with Bill.
I caved to his power like everyone else did. I got hooked on account of my own selfish ambition because in my late twenties and early thirties, my heart’s desire was to become a teaching pastor at Willow Creek. I apologize now (sadly for the first time) for contributing unhelpfully to the culture of enablement at Willow.
So many of us have sinned by talking behind Bill’s back instead of insisting on a process of restoration, not only for Bill relationally, but also for us, too, as his enablers.
I Corinthians 14:1-3 says, “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly . . . that you may prophesy,” i.e. “speak for edification, exhortation, and consolation.” Enablement is the opposite of prophecy.
As for the woman who confided in Leanne Mellado, my understanding is that she, too, worked on staff for a time at Willow under Bill’s overall supervision. The email of her saying she would “be silent” if this ever went to the elders is the most troubling piece of evidence of all. Why was there no mention of that outstanding email in Willow’s five-person presentation of what was called Willow’s “side”?
Again, the point is to call for due process for the sake of the integrity of all involved.
Note: Had there been a satisfactory investigation in-house, due process could have run its course already, and we, by now, might know who is telling the truth–and who is not. Final story: On my very first day of work in 1995 when I became part of the church staff, I arrived that morning at 6:00 am, and so did Bill, and we were the only two there. He was one flight ahead of me on the stairwell, and when he heard my footsteps, he waited to walk down the hall with me on 3rd floor. At the time I thought the conversation we had was rather funny, but the part that isn’t funny is that as we walked down the corridor alone, Bill slipped his hand under my long thick hair and held me by the back of my neck.
No doubt, I was taken aback when Bill broke that physical boundary, but I didn’t take it as sexual. I viewed it as a sheer power play.
Given Jesus’ attention to the downtrodden, it would seem in this #MeToo moment that our hearts would collectively go out to Vonda Dyer and Nancy Beach who, from my perspective, seem to be trying to say that they believe their boss misused his power, and that at times it turned more sexual with them.
Willow Creek already did “Reveal.” The time appears to be ripe for Willow to “Reveal Yet More.”
Who better than Willow Creek is poised to go first in sparking a revival for true confessions?
Psalm 130:3-4 speaks to the situation: “If Thou, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee that Thou mayest be feared.”
The Word of the Lord, through the prophet, Jeremiah, says, “You have done evil things, and you have had your way” (Jeremiah 3:5).
Our society, I’m sure, especially the millennials, would like to see us all repent together. There is so much blatant sin in professing Christian homes and organizations–that is being covered up and denied rather than dealt with–that I do not think people will throw stones (in Willow’s network) at whoever ends up pleading guilty.
It is far better to come clean than to live in deceitfulness or prop oneself up in feigned innocence (I John 1:5-10). The gospel of grace has nothing to do with pretending to be someone that you’re not (Isaiah 2:22, Galatians 1:10). God told Jeremiah to proclaim these words:
“‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will not look upon you in anger, for I am gracious,’ declares the Lord; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against the Lord Your God and have scattered your favors to the strangers under every green tree, and you have not obeyed My Voice,’ declares the Lord. ‘Return, O faithless sons,’ declares the Lord; for I am a Master to you’” (Jeremiah 3:12-14).
Everybody needs accountability (Exodus 20:16; 23:1, II Samuel 11-12; Galatians 2:1-21, 6:1, Ephesians 4:25).
That is why due process is so vital.
Lord, for revival we pray . . .
Earnestly and respectfully,
Sarah Sumner, Ph.D., MBA