After the fall: a post-Hybels world

Stu Cameron and Mike Frost offer two different views

It could happen in any denomination: the fall of a respected leader due to moral failure. Bill Hybels, of Willow Creek, an influential mega-church near Chicago, sadly is now a classic case study. Two Australian leaders have responded to it in very different ways.

Stu Cameron of Newlife Church on the Gold Coast supports the Global Leadership Summit movement which Hybels once led. Michael Frost of Morling College gives an outsider’s point of view.

Stu Cameron on stepping up, not back

The Global Leadership Summit (GLS) is a worldwide movement birthed out of the vision of Willow Creek Community Church, located in Chicago, and its founding pastor is Bill Hybels. The GLS is a two-day event, drawing a wide range of people seeking to grow in their leadership. This year, the GLS movement was rocked by serious allegations made against Pastor Hybels.

In March, the Chicago Tribune published details of allegations by several women of sexual misconduct. Since that first article, more allegations from other women have been published.

In the tumultuous season that has followed, Bill Hybels has brought forward his planned retirement from the church, and has ceased all involvement with the GLS. A couple of weeks ago, the Elders of Willow Creek Community Church announced their resignation, acknowledging their mishandling of the allegations and the pain this had caused the women who made them, at the same time offering public apologies.

Heather Larson, the recently appointed Lead Pastor of the church, also resigned. Right now, a new independent investigation into all the allegations, overseen by an independent advisory council, is being established.

Here in Australia, the GLS is overseen by an independent board comprising pastors and leaders from various denominations and states. I chair that board. We have watched on with great pain the events I have described.

We condemn the behaviour Bill Hybels has been accused of as reprehensible and contrary to the standards required of any leader. We are sorry that the mishandling of the allegations has caused more pain for the women who bravely came forward. Our heart aches for them. We are grateful for their courage in pursuing truth and justice. We fully support a truly independent and thorough investigation of all allegations, as announced. Our hope is that the findings of the investigation will lead to truth, repentance, justice, healing and reconciliation.

Our board continues to reflect on how best to lead the GLS movement in Australia during this season. We believe it’s important to address directly the issues underlying the allegations, and some of this year’s speakers do that. We are considering other ways we can do so further.

My heart aches. That’s why I’m stepping up.

We are committed to continuing to host the GLS across Australia, with our 2018 season beginning in October at 27 sites. Leaders including Craig Groeschel, T.D. Jakes, Danielle Strickland, Carla Harris and Simon Sinek will speak with humility, wisdom and insight, ensuring this year’s event will continue to serve the GLS community in Australia and around the world well.

Since 2005, thousands of people have gathered at regional and metropolitan sites across Australia to attend the GLS, joining more than 400,000 attendees across 135 nations. Participants include teachers, health professionals, business people, pastors – people from all walks of life who want to grow their leadership capacity. The GLS is not another “church growth” conference importing the latest fad from North America. It is a global event with an increasingly global faculty drawn from academia, business, the arts, education and the church.

Worldwide, just under 60 per cent of GLS attendees are women, many living in nations where leadership development resources are limited. The GLS is hosted in 23 of the poorest 25 nations of the world. With this in mind we are grateful for the opportunity the GLS community in Australia has to assist the GLS in such nations through the Global Leadership Development Fund.

Now, as ever, the inspiration and equipping of leaders provided through the GLS is greatly needed.

I have attended every GLS in Australia since its inception. For the past ten years, the church I pastor has joined others in hosting the event. The GLS has been a transformative event for me, our church and people in our city who lead and serve where they are. So many GLS speakers and moments have shaped me as a leader and pastor. I well remember Gary Haugen, founder of the International Justice Mission, speaking at the 2008 Summit. He challenged us to step into, not away from, the challenges of leadership, particularly leading for justice. It was the height of the Global Financial Crisis, and I was anxiously wondering what impact the economic downturn would have on our community. Everything in me was screaming to pull back, play safe and protect. But I remember Haugen’s words galvanising me to lead our church into sacrificial service of, and partnership with, our friends in the developing world. It was time to step up, not step back. I and we have never been the same since.

My heart aches. That’s why I’m stepping up.

Stu Cameron is Chairperson of Willow Creek Association Australia

Michael Frost on a better way of pastoring

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.” Henri J.M. Nouwen

I’ve never read a Bill Hybels book or attended the Global Leadership Summit. These days that sounds like a badge of honour. But before it was a virtue, and for the longest time, I felt out of the loop with all my friends in ministry who were deeply informed by the Christian leadership industry of which Hybels and the GLS were central.

… I knew that just trying to be me, only better, wasn’t going to get me closer to being like Jesus.

Part of my disconnect from that world had to do with my sense that it was drawing on my own worst impulses. When I did read any books by Christian leadership gurus, or listen to their talks, I couldn’t get past the fact they were asking me to be me, only better.

You see, I’m already wired to be a performer. I’m already driven to achieve, to win, to succeed, to influence. You might have thought that being told to achieve more, perform more, influence more, would have been music to my ears.

But even I knew that just trying to be me, only better, wasn’t going to get me closer to being like Jesus.

I knew my heart needed some serious renovation if I was to be an authentic leader. So I turned elsewhere to find models of ministry, becoming more shaped by Henri Nouwen, Walter Brueggemann and Parker Palmer, none of whom would ever get a speaking invitation to the GLS.

After two generations of professional leadership theory, what is a pastor to do?

Now that the wheels are falling off the influence of Willow Creek Church, and the GLS struggles to find its place in a post-Hybels world, I wonder if we can all now finally be free of vision statements and strategic plans and KPIs and all the other paraphernalia from 1980s corporate leadership theory?

But what does that leave us with? After two generations of professional leadership theory, what is a pastor to do? Maybe turning back to the Bible might help (insert sarcastic tone here).

You see, while the church has been obsessed with leadership, the subject as we understand it hardly ever comes up in the Scriptures. As New Testament scholar David Starling writes, “When you go looking in the Bible, you realise pretty quickly that leadership can hardly be found there at all. The Bible certainly contains a host of concrete instances of individuals, tasks, offices, and images that you might want to connect in some way with the category of leaders and leadership: mothers, fathers, shepherds, sages, prophets, judges, priests, kings, messiahs, apostles, pastors, elders, overseers … the instances are everywhere. But the abstraction, the umbrella term leadership, hardly rates a mention.”

When you look at the metaphors Paul seems to prefer – mother and father, steward and herald – you see they speak of relationship, intimacy, care, faithfulness, duty and responsibility.

All four of those images speak of the twin emphases of ministry: God’s word and God’s people.

This got me thinking about my own pastor. Her name is Christine Redwood. Our church is her first appointment as lead pastor. How does she navigate this new ministry terrain? First, Christine is an exceptional preacher. Her sermons are cleverly constructed and beautifully written. And she memorises them and delivers them in a style that verges on the dramatic. They’re an unusual combination of self-conscious performance and transparency and authenticity.

I’m begging every pastor to find a better way.

Learning techniques and skills (such as preaching) might make you a decent mechanical leader, pulling the levers of a mechanical organisation. But what I yearn to hear each Sunday is a pastor transparently making her own search for God available to us, inspiring us to pursue God ourselves, and showing us how.

The amount of work Christine puts into her preaching speaks of her love for her congregation. But her practised style never hides the genuineness of her search for God.

Second, Christine is also a scholar, currently undertaking a PhD in theology. And you can tell. Her well-researched, insightful sermons, presented in her unique and winsome manner, have been a joy for my wife and me recently.

Third, Christine is a prayerful pastor. Each week she asks members of the congregation for points to inform her prayers and recently it was my turn. After I had fired off a few bullet points of things I’m dealing with, she replied with a sensitively written prayer she had prayed on my behalf.

But our church isn’t immune from the pervasive nature of contemporary Christian leadership theory. Recently, it was proposed that we create a new church vision statement. I begged Christine not to give into the temptation to comply with that. And I’m begging every pastor to find a better way.

Be our father. Be our mother. Herald the word of God. Steward the riches of the gospel among us. Love us. Eat with us. Listen to our stories.

Michael Frost is head of the missiology department at Morling College. Michael’s part of the article was first published on his blog under the title ‘Pastoring in a post-Hybels world’.

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