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Posts Tagged ‘Pat Baranowski’

“If it wasn’t for Jesus, I don’t think I’d have anything to do with the church.”

That was the first phrase uttered by a longtime friend of mine when we met for lunch several weeks ago … and my friend is a successful pastor.

Our meeting preceded another bombshell originating out of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago last week when the two new co-pastors … and the elders … all announced their resignations.

These resignations followed the publishing of an interview by the New York Times with Pat Baranowski, a former personal assistant to Pastor Bill Hybels at Willow.  Baranowski claimed that in the late 1980s, Hybels groped her on several occasions and that they once engaged in oral sex.

My wife and I have had some very animated discussions about these events – as I’m sure my readers have had with others – and we’ve been trying to figure out how these things can happen in one of America’s most prominent and influential churches.

Even though Hybels, his chosen successors, and the governing board have all resigned due to this scandal, there are still many things that I wonder about.

For instance:

First, I wonder if Hybels will ever face his accusers.

From what I understand, ten women have now come forward and claimed that Hybels did or said something to them that either made them feel uncomfortable or violated them deeply.

Assuming these claims are true, I abhor this kind of behavior from anyone … especially from a Christian leader.

But it bothers me that Hybels has yet to face his accusers.

Pat Baranowski made her claims against Hybels in an interview with the New York Times.  Hybels then vehemently denied the charges, again in the Times.

This is the way our culture handles such matters … people at odds talk at each other through the media.  But isn’t the healthier and more biblical way for two parties to speak with each other face-to-face?

(As I recall, in Hybels’ first book, Christians Under Construction, his first chapter was an exposition of Matthew 18:15-17 … focusing on how believers should resolve the conflicts between themselves.)

The only way to avoid a “he said, she said” situation is for both Hybels and Baranowski to speak with each other under controlled conditions … and yet that’s probably an unrealistic proposition due to the pain and fear it would cause Hybels’ former PA.

Hybels has lost his case in the court of public opinion, among Christian leaders in general, and among much of the constituency of his former congregation … and I wonder if he’s aware of that.

But the only way to find out the truth is to get Hybels in a room alone with each one of his accusers … along with others who would monitor and guide the session.

At least three women said they tried confronting Hybels in the past about what he did, but they didn’t get anywhere.

Would they today?

Second, I wonder if Hybels will ever admit any specific wrongdoing.

When King David slept with Bathsheba, and then arranged for the murder of her husband Uriah, it took David a long time to admit his guilt.  Some scholars believe it took at least one year.

Many of us might ask ourselves, “If Hybels is such a spiritual guy, shouldn’t he have admitted his sin by now?”

There are many sins that a pastor can readily admit to, and people will forgive them instantly … sins like anger, envy, and pride.

But most Christians feel very differently about sexual sin … especially when it involves their pastor … and Hybels, of all people, certainly knows this.

There was a prominent evangelical Christian leader/author in the late 1980s who engaged in a nearly year-long affair.  (No, it wasn’t Bakker or Swaggert.)  This leader admitted his wrongdoing and then wrote a book about his “broken world.”  The evangelical community forgave him and after a few years, he was restored and served again as a pastor.

Even though Hybels is now officially “retired” from church ministry, he could have experienced the same kind of restoration had he admitted his guilt immediately.

But the longer he waits to come clean, the more people he’s going to alienate … and the more people may leave Willow.

At this point, Hybels may have concluded, “I’m dead in the water anyway.  Even if I admit what I did, I’ll still be toast in the Christian community.”

And he may well be right.

But I’ll tell you something.  Many Christians … including me … have about had it with megachurch pastors and their power trips.

I read a letter from a former executive pastor at Willow on Nancy Beach’s blog dated August 8, 2018.  He claimed that Hybels and his crew used to refer to “breaking people’s legs” when people saw what was going on at the church.  This former staffer stated that much more is going to come out about the culture at Willow under Hybels.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t take much more of this stuff.

In their resignation letter, the elders at Willow referred to “scarred women” and a “tarnished church.”

And unfortunately, when a megachurch like Willow is tarnished … it can rub off on all the churches that are associated with it.

Third, I wonder about the mentality of some Christian leaders concerning sexual sin.

What I’m going to describe below probably represents a minority position, but it still bothers me greatly.

Many years ago, I became familiar with a pastor in my denominational district who had committed adultery.  The former chairman of his board was a member in one of my churches and told me what happened.

This pastor played tennis every Sunday morning and was not at church when the service started.  The board chairman would pick up the pastor after he played tennis and whisk the pastor to the service so he could quickly clean up and enter the pulpit in time to preach.

The pastor ended up having an affair with a flight attendant which ended his tenure at that church.  My district minister at the time told me that this man “would never pastor again” in our district.

But a friend of mine – a well-connected ex-pastor – told me that even though the sinning pastor had never clearly repented, he should be asked to pastor again because “he is an able man.”

I disagreed with my friend, but he felt that the denomination was short on talented leaders and pastors.

There are some Christian leaders who know that their pastor/leader is engaged in sexual misconduct but choose to maintain silence because they don’t want to stop “God’s blessing” … or their own income.

I also knew about another prominent pastor from my former denomination (I’ll call him Sam) who engaged in sexual sin in one church … was permitted after that to pastor the largest church in our denomination, where it happened again … and then ended up at headquarters, where it happened again.

Back in 1986, I attended our denomination’s annual meetings on the east coast.  On Sunday morning, everyone was asked to break into prayer groups, and I ended up in a group with Sam (who had advised me as a member of my ordination committee) and the top leader of our denomination.  Evidently they were very good friends.

Not long after that prayer time, the news came out that our top leader had also had an affair while in office.  My guess is that he protected Sam because he was a “good old boy” … and that Sam in turn protected him.

Willow’s two co-pastors and elders have resigned because they protected their shepherd even though he had harmed some sheep.  We should give them credit for eventually getting things right.

But I still wonder about the wider Christian community because we still tolerate sexual, financial, and criminal misconduct in a leader if we think that God is blessing that individual and their organization with results.

Fourth, I wonder how God could bless Willow while its pastor was mistreating women.

Back in the early 1990s, Willow Creek was the largest Protestant church in America.  Now it’s the fifth largest.

If their pastor was mistreating women behind the scenes, how could God bless the church while there was “sin in the camp?”

Or as Hybels’ former colleague Nancy Beach recently asked: “How could he [Hybels] have done all this good when there were such dark things happening behind the scenes?”

The assumption I’m making is that the evidences of God’s blessing include increasing attendance, generous giving, spacious buildings, and global influence.

Pat Baranowski stated that her encounters with Hybels took place from 1986-1988.  Hybels just resigned a few months ago.  So for at least thirty years, Willow prospered, even though its pastor had engaged in sexual misconduct with one of his employees.

Why does God allow that?

I do not know.

It may be that God blesses His Word as His servants preach it … or that the gospel transforms people even if the pastor isn’t right with God … or that God rewards churches by His grace, even when they don’t deserve any blessing.

I used to think that large churches were the result of God’s abundant favor, but I don’t think that way anymore.

The single worst thing I’ve ever heard that a pastor did occurred twelve years ago.  A megachurch pastor (let’s call him John) left his position and became the pastor of another church.  A new pastor (let’s call him Kevin) succeeded this pastor.  Kevin’s ministry went very well.  By some accounts, John’s did not.

So John left his new church .. returned to his old church … pushed Kevin out of office … and received the approval of some major Christian leaders in the process.

What John did was not just wrong … it was evil … and yet many Christian leaders chose to look the other way because John was a man of influence whom God seemed to be blessing.

One believer wrote about this situation, “Bodies, bodies everywhere.  [John] does what he wants, when he wants, and credits God for the action.”

That’s the problem, isn’t it?  The leader of the large organization becomes so powerful that most people equate His words and actions with those of God … even if he’s operating out of the flesh.

Finally, I wonder if there are any Christian heroes around anymore.

I have very few Christian heroes left.  It’s easier for me to have secular heroes like Winston Churchill.  Since his life is over … frozen in time … I can admire his accomplishments from afar without being disappointed by his weaknesses … and like all “great” men, he had many.

One of my heroes was a pastor and seminary professor who finally admitted that he had a long-term affair with his secretary.

Another hero was a pastor and author known for his transparency.  He had an affair … became divorced … and remarried his wife.

I loved their books. I may still have them, but I haven’t looked at them since their moral failures became known.

Bill Hybels was a man I admired.  He spoke more boldly on tough topics than any pastor I’ve ever heard.  He used memorable language to describe theological concepts.  I once heard him say we’re all “a colossal collection of moral foul-ups.” That phrase has stuck with me over the years.

He had a passion for lost people, encapsulated in the phrase, “People matter to God.”  I loved hearing him teach on the lost sheep, coin, and son from Luke 15.

I resonated with his preaching more than anyone else in the Christian world.  I stopped listening to him years ago, but never forgot the times I did hear him speak.

My wife and I attended a Leadership Conference at Willow in October 1990.  Hybels gave a message that night called, “The Other ‘S’ Word.”  That word wasn’t “sin” … it was “substitution.”

Hybels told a story about a man who sexually abused a little girl, and then he said something like, “For a crime so vile, someone has to pay.”

Then he went through the entire Bible and showed that God had arranged for a lamb … or a goat … and finally a Savior to pay for our sins because we could not pay ourselves.

That message isn’t just for unbelievers.  It’s for believers, too.

 

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