The Train Wreck
Bill discovered that a staff member had been involved in a pattern of behavior that threatened the stability of the staff member's personal life and the integrity of the rest of the staff. Months earlier Bill had become concerned about behavioral trends in this person's life and had confronted him but was angrily accused of being overly suspicious, judgmental, and prone to the legalistic excesses that we were all trying to escape. Wanting to believer the best, Bill backed off, but his suspicions had in fact been correct.
I'll never forget Bill's agony as he walked into the darkness of our cabin and described to me what he had just learned. In the shock of the moment, he could see nothing but absolute disaster. "The dream is over," he said.
Immediately upon returning home, Bill called a meeting with the elder board and disclosed the tragic truth. Personal feelings of intense sadness were forcibly pushed aside as these elders faced an immediate problem: what do we do now?
It was a destructive, ongoing pattern of behavior; it could not be ignored. But the person involved was a dear friend, a member of the team that shared a common dream, a devoted servant who had sacrificed for the ministry. Yes, the behavior had to be dealt with. But neither Bill nor the other elders could conceive of a ministry future without the entire team intact. True, the community spirit that had united us years earlier had begun to weaken, but beneath the surface tension, there still lingered the sense that we were in this together. Sure, there were ripples of frustration, even hostility. But we could work through that. In the end, we would all ride off into the sunset together, as we had always planned. Any thought to the contrary was unimaginable.
To protect the privacy of the person involved, the elders decided against a public disclosure; neither staff nor lay leaders were informed of the problem. The individual was allowed to continue in ministry, with the understanding that he would seek professional counseling and submit to the accountability and monitoring of the elders.
This is bad, thought Bill, but it'll all work out eventually. It'll blow over. We'll be back on track before we know it.
. . . But it wasn't long before I wished I were in Michigan again -- not to get away from Bill but to escape the growing tension at church. The staff situation came to a head in early September when the elders confronted the erring staff member with his ongoing pattern of behavior and his apparently unrepentant spirit. Rather than discuss the situation, he opted to resign. The elders accepted his resignation.
The following morning an elder announced the staff member's resignation, citing "differing philosophies of ministry," and wished him well in his new endeavors. The elders assumed the congregation would accept the partial explanation given, but they clearly misjudged. By the end of the service, the core members of the church were in an uproar. "Give us the truth! Tell us what's really going on!"
The elders tried to explain in positive terms the philosophical and personality issues that necessitated a "parting of the ways." But in order to protect the privacy of the resigned staff member, they hid the real issue behind an opaque screen of secrecy. When people questioned the former staff member, he too avoided a straight answer . . .
While many people trusted the elders' decision and chose not to demand further explanations, others filled in the information vacuum with an explanation of their own: Bill was after power. The elders were accused of being naive accomplices.
. . . Overnight we became embroiled in a nightmarish round of accusations and mistrust, of betrayal and hostility. Years later it is undoubtedly hard for an outsider to understand why the elders continued to hide the real issue, given the intensity of misunderstanding that existed . . . At night our phone rang with people informing me of the selfish and evil actions of my power-mongering husband. The elders met night after night to try and save what appeared to be a dying dream.
That is an excerpt from Lynne Hybels' story of the formative years of Willow Creek Community Church in Rediscovering Church. If you don't know about Willow Creek, it was really the first effective, and therefore the prototype, "seeker church." I know lots of folks think the idea for our sort of church began with David Foster, but what we do at BCC was actually trailblazed by Willow Creek nearly 20 years earlier.
It really does sound eerily similar, doesn't it? It struck me that way as I re-read it again this week. There's a lot more parallels too, including how crucial the elders were in getting the church back into shape. This portion is from a chapter in the book titled "The Train Wreck." It documents the disastrous events in the church in 1979. This church really did "go off the rails.
A few years later Willow Creek was on its way to becoming one of the largest attended churches in North America.