#ChurchToo: Lessons from Willow Creek

Stories of sexual misconduct keep the news cycle spinning faster than ever these days. Such allegations are especially disheartening to Christians when church leaders stand accused.

In early August, the two leading pastors and all the elders of the Willow Creek megachurch in suburban Chicago resigned. In the previous months, allegations of sexual misconduct by Bill Hybels, the church’s founder and leader for more than four decades, had been made and published. After initially defending Hybels—who denied the allegations but retired from the church—the leaders acknowledged they had made mistakes in not properly investigating and resigned.

Should the Willow Creek story be a cautionary tale for Christian Reformed churches? How are Christian Reformed churches working to safeguard their congregations from abuse?

Bonnie Nicholas, director of Safe Church Ministry for the CRC, says the denomination can learn three lessons from Willow Creek.

“The first is the importance of oversight and accountability for our leaders. The fact that the Willow Creek board resigned has something to say to us,” said Nicholas.

“A second lesson we can learn from Willow Creek is that oftentimes church leaders don’t understand how much they are revered by people. We need to guard against this.”

“The third lesson we can learn from Willow Creek is to be willing to hear stories and find out what is true,” Nicholas said.

“Congregations may not see the need to offer and manage supervision or may be fearful in raising critique and concerns,” explained Miriam Spies, a communications and volunteer specialist working for the ministries of Disability Concerns and Safe Church in the CRC. “However, ministers are often in relationship with folks who are in more marginalized or vulnerable positions. . . . To promote safety for both pastor and congregant in community, in relationships of trust, accountability is necessary,” she added.

“People in the pews tend to place ministers on a pedestal,” said Spies. “And so, when stories of abuse arise, fellow ministry staff, lay leaders, and worshipers often want to believe the minister and defend him or her as their initial reaction.”

CRC executive director Steve Timmermans agreed. “We are all sinners. Our church leaders are not exempt from that. Unfortunately, all too often, the global church has failed to respond appropriately when these instances of abuse have occurred. Our tendency is to doubt that it has happened or to try to keep things a secret in order to protect the reputation of our faith. The result has been more pain for victims and more distrust in the public about the Christian church,” Timmermans said.

“It’s fairly easy for many of us to avoid the suffering experienced by survivors,” said Dan Verhulst, of City Reformed Church in Milwaukee, Wisc., a first-time attendee at the CRC’s Safe Church Conference this fall. “We simply turn away and leave them to deal with it on their own. We need to learn to embrace those who are suffering and experience their pain with them.”

At Synod 2018, delegates wrestled with the topic of abuse of power. Delegates heard that only 60 percent of CRC churches have safe church policies and about half of classes (regional groups of churches) have safe church coordinators. “This is despite repeated requests from synod for every church and every classis to make [safe church] a priority,” said Timmermans. “We can—and need to—do better.” In response to the discussion, synod reaffirmed earlier

goals to guide Safe Church Ministry

Synod 2018 reaffirmed goals approved by Synod 2014:

  1. Each church has implemented a written safe church/abuse prevention policy;
  2. Each church includes abuse prevention in its church school and youth education. Programs such as Circle of Grace, which teach positive respect in relationships, are recommended;
  3. Each church has protocols in place for responding to misconduct and is aware of the recommended “Guidelines for Handling Allegations of Abuse against a Church Leader” approved by Synod 2010;
  4. Abuse is acknowledged as an important issue and can be freely discussed;
  5. Leadership at all levels is supportive of Safe Church Ministry, and each church is represented on a Classis Safe Church Team.
and asked the denomination to go a step further and track and publish whether or not CRC churches have safe church policies.

“Its deeply disturbing to hear of any church operating without a safe ministry policy,” said Faye Martin, coordinator of Abuse Prevention and Response for two regional groups of churches in British Columbia. “The CRC is now about 25 years into the process and work required to provide safe ministries. There is absolutely no reason or excuse left to avoid taking responsibility for this.”

Following Synod 2018, several classes have moved to hire safe church coordinators, citing the instructions from synod. Many are using a one time grant of $1,500 from Safe Church Ministry.

“There is always more to do,” said Jane DeGroot, Safe Church Coordinator for Classis Muskegon. “I have recently witnessed more stories coming from the pews from individuals [who’ve] suffered abuse earlier in their lives, most often from a known and trusted adult. . . . Even though it is extremely difficult and painful to unveil the past, telling the story can be a source of healing and strength.”

A list of resources about abuse by clergy or ministry leaders can be found here.

About the Author

Roxanne Van Farowe is a freelance writer.

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Every year, usually around synod time, we review the number of CRC congregations that have reported that they have a safe church/abuse prevention policy. This number has increased over the years, from 52% in 2012 to 74% in 2018. After Synod 2018, new data will be collected from churches regarding additional safe church practices, including education for children, and training for church leadership. We are pleased that the CRC is recognizing the need to pay attention to additional safe church practices beyond policy.

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