Today, The Wartburg Watch (TWW) published a post about the ongoing Willow Creek/Bill Hybels situation: Nancy Ortberg Claims She Endured an Unwanted Physical Encounter with Bill Hybels and Raises Some Serious Questions About His Behavior.
This is Dee Parsons’ seventh post on related topics. (See Resource Bibliography on Willow Creek Church Situation and Bill Hybels’ Reported Misconduct, which includes her prior posts and other key statements and analysis.) Near the conclusion of the article, she notes:
I am going to ask a hard question. Is it possible that Bill Hybels encouraged the leadership of women in order to increase his own access to women who admired him within the confines of church business, giving him plausible deniability? I do not know the answer to this question but red flags are waving up, down and all around this situation. (emphasis added)
I think this is a crucial question, and I appreciate that Dee has put it forward for consideration in abuse survivor communities. I’ve been thinking along similar lines for a few days, and had thought about writing an extended article, but I don’t have time available to develop it right now, due to other project deadlines. So, I decided to post this short form version with two key thoughts.
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1. “Anxious Egalitarianism”
First, I want to raise some related issues that I’ve seen in the last week or so on Twitter. They involve the theological side of egalitarianism. I’d reformulate the key question this way:
The accounts shared by these women are credible and they show similar behavior patterns by Bill Hybels. Let’s assume for the moment their allegations are true. So, how could this happen in an evangelical church that has pioneered in women having significant roles of leadership as elders/board members and as staff?
Dan Brennan is one who has been raising this very issue on Twitter, posting about what he’s termed “anxious egalitarianism.” In a tweet on April 12, he notes: “[I]n this new era part of the way forward is to see holiness thru the lens of attunement. In anxious egalitarianism holiness was seen through the lens of rules, male detachment, male separation, benevolent sexism, etc.”
I think we’d do well to watch how this develops. On survivor blogs, we often take on the connections between complementarian practices on gender roles and abuse issues such as the oppression of women, the emphasis on purity culture in patriarchy, and links to other aspects of authoritarianism (as in Bill Gothard’s “umbrella of protection”). We need to critically examine versions of egalitarianism to see where theological elements in it — or how they may be twisted by apparent practitioners — could potentially lead to situations like we’re seeing at Willow Creek.
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2. Patterns in #ChurchToo Mirror Those in #MeToo
Second, in connecting #ChurchToo with the broader #MeToo movement, we’ve already had some stark examples of men who present themselves as anti-sexism, pro-feminist, proto-egalitarian — and yet end up with credible accusations of their serial sexual abuse and/or harassment of women. Here are two examples that became notorious in their communities, the first from the entertainment field — Joss Whedon, the second from the skeptics/scientists author-lecture circuit — Lawrence Krauss.
I won’t develop these in depth. The articles are extensive enough that important patterns are evident, hopefully, and the excerpts share the set-ups for key issues I believe we need to consider in the Christian community.
Joss Whedon Is a ‘Hypocrite Preaching Feminist Ideals,’ Ex-Wife Kai Cole Says (Guest Blog), by Kai Cole, November 22, 2017, in The Wrap.
Joss admitted that for the next decade and a half, he hid multiple affairs and a number of inappropriate emotional ones that he had with his actresses, co-workers, fans and friends, while he stayed married to me.
Despite understanding, on some level, that what he was doing was wrong, he never conceded the hypocrisy of being out in the world preaching feminist ideals, while at the same time, taking away my right to make choices for my life and my body based on the truth. He deceived me for 15 years, so he could have everything he wanted. I believed, everyone believed, that he was one of the good guys, committed to fighting for women’s rights, committed to our marriage, and to the women he worked with. But I now see how he used his relationship with me as a shield, both during and after our marriage, so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinize his writing as anything other than feminist. (emphasis added)
The Unbeliever. He Became A Celebrity For Putting Science Before God. Now Lawrence Krauss Faces Allegations Of Sexual Misconduct, by Peter Aldhous, February 22, 2018, on BuzzFeed.
Lawrence Krauss is a famous atheist and liberal crusader — and, in certain whisper networks, a well-known problem. With women coming forward alleging sexual harassment, will his “skeptic” fanbase believe the evidence?
He is politically liberal, decrying sexism, racism, and “the fear of people who are different,” and is a vocal critic of Donald Trump. …
And in his private life, according to a number of women in his orbit, Krauss exhibits some of the sexist behavior that he denounces in public. Now that these accusations are coming out in the open, some women have doubts that the skeptics will acknowledge the body of evidence about his behavior, and confront their own preconceived beliefs. (emphasis added)
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Some Miscellaneous Thoughts and Food for Thought …
Assuming you’ve spent some time in background reading about Bill Hybels and the evidence from the women who came forward with accusations, what do you see as possible points and patterns with that case study, compared with those of Joss Whedon and Lawrence Krauss?
1. My working hypothesis is that any man intent on seduction of women through grooming them for emotional intimacy and/or sexual involvement will sow in whatever field he’s in — and will also create or develop the platform that makes it possible to keep the flow of victims going. (For food for thought on why I used the term seduction, see this post on Issues of Language: Removing Neutrality Toward Abusers and Negativity Toward Survivors, especially its section on “Language of Seduction that Seeks to Neutralize the Perpetrator’s Responsibility.”)
2. Some of the responses within the wider community parallel responses we’ve seen in ours own: Those who feel connected with someone who has a platform find it difficult to believe that this person they admire could ever be “one of the bad guys,” because that’s not their experience.
3. People who back the celebrity chide reported victims, even when their accounts of misconduct are clear, detailed, and fit with patterns observable in the set of testimonies. They also chide those who find the survivors’ narratives and accusations credible.
4. They may accuse both victims and their advocates of negativity — “You only seem to see the worst in people.” — when the reverse may well be true, that protectors of the celebrity suffer from confirmation bias because they don’t understand power dynamics in abuse.
5. A significant article that provides food for thought on how outside-insiders tend to respond when “their guy” gets challenged, see: 9 Responses to the Willow Creek Accusations That Reveal Everything Wrong with Evangelicalism, by Carly Gelsinger. She includes screenshots of social media responses to the accusations about Bill Hybels behavior, along with analysis on how these kinds of silencing responses perpetuate secrecy systems.
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My Twitter Thread Following Bill Hybels’ Resignation
For additional perspective, here is a compilation of my Twitter thread on April 10th, about the Willow Creek family meeting, resignation of Bill Hybels, and other statements made.
Willow Creek Church has posted the statement from Bill Hybels regarding his resignation, remarks by Pam Orr on behalf of their elder board, and statement from executive pastor Heather Larson.
1/ Regarding Willow Creek and Bill Hybel’s resignation: The detailed accounts posted of late by Vonda Dyer and Betty Schmidt, along with details from other reported victims, came across to me as credible and presenting coherent problem patterns.
2/ It also appears related concerns about Mr Hybels and leadership systems have been shared over the years, but these went unheard til recently – and then seemingly only in the wider community rather than at the source organizations of Willow Creek Church and Association.
3/ So, I was saddened during Mr Hybels’ resignation statement and his responses to those specific allegations and to declarations of the harm done. They came across to me as self-protective and blaming others for misinterpreting his actions and intents.
4/ While Mr Hybels may have taken responsibility for his angry responses of a few weeks ago, in his statements this evening I did not sense any substantive movement or accountability underneath his surface apologies for unwisely misinterpretable words and situations.
5/ Also, from presentations by both Willow Creek elder Pam Orr and executive pastor Heather Larson, there did not seem to be a deep understanding of the organizational dynamics of social control and abuse. So, how can they be on a trajectory to restore relationships?
6/ Many survivor community members know that some people in an organization can have a perfectly positive and normal-seeming experience, while others do not. Just because abuse was not *your* experience does not mean that those who report problems are lying.
7/ I find it difficult to accept what Ms Larson stated – “I want to assure you we can at the same time respect someone’s story and stand up for our own.” – when it appears some women who reported victimization were openly disrespected, their accounts disbelieved and deflected.
8/ I wish Willow Creek Church and Association well; I have benefited from their ministry before. But I sense leadership are over-eager to move forward with reconciliation and rebuilding, when they seem not yet to have deconstructed and dismantled apparent problem patterns.
9/ If my conclusion is anywhere near accurate, it means patterns will repeat – and deepen by reinforcement – because the mechanisms for missing toxic indicators would still be in place. And that kind of entrenchment creates a dangerous situation for all.
10/ Perhaps I’m wrong about all of this. It’s just that I have personally seen enough situations in churches, ministries, and Christian non-profits where unhealthy, self-protective/self-preserving strategies infuse into organizational structures and turn them toxic in long-term.
11/ Kyrie eleison …