I just was sent an article shining a light on the Elder Response Team at Willow Creek Community Church. Though the post brought back memories I rarely let myself bring back up, though it filled me with a righteous anger to hear similar stories of mishandeling of valued church members and volunteers, in a way the post brought a breath of relief.
I encourage you to read the post I am referring to before going on to read mine.
You can find it here.
I have had this story bottled up, reluctant to mention it. Sure I have told the story to those I trust, or those trusted that ask why I left Willow. But the way that I was “handled” by the ERT came with the gift of shame.
This system, this “ministry” team, and it’s process, is the reason that I left the church that I had loved for 23 years.
Someone close to me, someone I trust, was put through this pattern of “dealing with” the church’s perceived “problems”. I want to share a bit of it, but ultimately I can only share my personal experience. The situation that lead to my meetings with the Elder Response Team is not my story to tell, so some things may come off vague, and that is why. I apologize if the lack of specifics or the vagueness makes my story hard to follow or understand. But I say again, the whole story is not mine to tell.
The Elder Response Team has the word “Elder” in their name, which gives the impression that the team is comprised of elders. (FYI: it’s not) The ERT appears to serve as the gatekeepers to the Elders. Whether this is the way the process was designed or not, they seem to decide if something is worth escalating to the Elders. If someone requests to be brought in front of the Elders, the ERT has the power to decide if you would be allowed to or not. The way I have come to view the Elder Response Team is that they are the Fixers of Willow Creek. They are there to make problems go away. To deal with it. Clean it up. Make it disappear. Whatever means necessary.
During this broken process, I scheduled a meeting with the ERT. I knew both parties involved in the situation they were “dealing with”, and thought that my input might be worth hearing out. Scott Vaudrey and one other (that was an advocate for one of the individuals involved) sat down with me in Scott’s office to meet. I had written down all that I had to say to make sure that I didn’t forget anything. They allowed me to say all that I intended to say, then they said a couple polite things before they tore me down.
They told me they were thankful that I came in to try to help bring clarity to the situation, and that this person was very lucky that I cared so much about them to want to advocate for them. But I didn’t know the whole story. There were things I didn’t know. There were pieces I was missing. They told me they couldn’t share any details because that was private/confidential. But if I wanted to know, I should go directly and ask the person, because it was for them to share. In hindsight this is laughable.
Scott Vaudrey’s role, though it seemed to be the role of a counselor or therapist (he was constantly saying things like “I encourage you to go see a therapist/counselor, but if you’re not comfortable with someone else, you are more than welcome to talk to me”) he actually isn’t at all certified/qualified in the mental health field. Because he isn’t a counselor, he doesn’t have the the standards of one. He would say things that would make you feel like he was qualified, or that he in essence had doctor patient privilege, but ultimately he just picked and choosed who he wanted to share information with. The information that was supposed to be confidential absolutely was not made confidential. There were spouses that somehow found out specific information that absolutely should have been kept private (and information that was pure speculation and not at all based on facts) which in the counseling/therapy world is absolutely frowned upon/against doctor patient privilege.
So I sat there, having them tell me that it was nice of me to come in, but in as many words, nothing I said mattered.
They hit hard the “you don’t know the whole story” narrative. Scott’s words were woven to belittle me. I remember the anger building in me. This frustration radiating hot through my body, but knowing full well that my anger would not benefit the situation in any way. I desperately tried to hold it together, I remember trying so very hard not to show them any kind of perceived weakness, because I knew they were looking for that. But ultimately I started crying in anger. I came away feeling small, like a child.
They just listened to me be vulnerable and honest, with years of background and intimate understanding of those involved. Scott smiled and nodded with feigned sympathetic looks, and then he reminded me how small I was. He told me that I didn’t matter, and my stories, my knowledge, my input, did not matter.
I left that room on a mission. They said I didn’t know all the details, and if I wanted to know what I was missing, I should go directly to the source. I did just that. I immediately texted and asked if I could meet with the individual. They allowed me to meet them on their lunch break at work. I sat in front of them and detailed every single aspect of the story that I knew, and then I asked “is there more? Is there something I don’t know about or are missing?” Their response? “No. That’s everything. There isn’t anything else.”
Some may be thinking “But what if they were lying?”, yes, to quote Gregory House (House M.D.) “everybody lies”. But for one, faith and trust in my friend. But to jump ahead, in a later meeting with Scott he didn’t have anything to say for himself when I confronted his idea that I was missing something. Their narrative of “you don’t know the whole story” was one to shut me up. To make me feel like I didn’t know what I was talking about. But in reality I did know the whole story. I don’t know if they weren’t expecting me to actually go and ask the person if I was missing something, or I can’t help but think they were attempting to get me to question my trust in the person.
Ultimately, I know of 5 people that sat in front of the ERT to advocate for the situation. All having similar stories to tell. None of them were made to feel that they mattered.
I met with the ERT one more time, this time with Scott and the other individual I had met with the first time, the individual I was advocating for, two other advocates, and two pastors from a regional. The only productive thing that came from that meeting was one reluctant apology from Scott, if you could call it that. I believe his exact words were “that’s on me, my bad”. Recognition that he had made an absolutely unfounded and incredibly harmful accusation. One that he had sold as fact, but he finally admitted that there wasn’t a foundation for the accusation. An accusation that has serious implications and that can never be taken back. The one I was advocating for was asked not to step foot inside one of Willow’s regionals, and was also asked to not come to the main campus for a period of time, and was told to stay quiet.
I left both meetings without answers, without clarity or any sense of peace. I felt there was no attempt to reconcile on their end. Specifically the second of the two meetings was called in an attempt to understand why things were handled the way they were, so it was confusing and frustrating to walk away without any understanding. There was no explanation for why completely un-Biblical behavior was being allowed, tolerated, and for why it was being swept under the rug. Their attitude was less of “let me help you understand why we are choosing to handle things the way we are” and more of “this is how we’re choosing to do things, and that’s how it is, and we don’t owe you an explanation.”
I am glad that this broken process is finally coming to light. I have heard countless stories of this pattern or “response”, many well before allegations were made against Bill. The amount of dejected former congregation and staff is staggering. People left with a distrust for the Church as a whole, heartbreaking.
I believe that there are more honest and well meaning staff members at Willow than there are corrupt. The good outweighs the bad. But until those honest and well meaning stand up and admit that there is brokenness among them, and make effort to bring it to an end, there can be no restoration.
Throughout this entire chapter I have been so disheartened by the responses of friends and staff members that I’ve seen. They stand to say “but there are so many good people at Willow. Mourn for the good people because this is hurting us too.” but no willingness to acknowledge the brokenness that has existed among them. Not even addressing it. Yes the congregation is hurting, they are watching something they love, something that has grown them as people, be hurt and tarnished. I mourn with you. But the lack of ability to humble oneself and admit that injustice and corruption lived within it’s walls, and admit that that injustice lead to the hurt and pain of countless individuals, and that their pain was ignored, that lack concerns me. The “what about me and my pain” mentality does not give me hope.
I think there is potential for decades of thriving at Willow in it’s future if the staff and congregation bands together to humble themselves, admit their blindspots, admit that there was widespread brokenness, instead of ignoring it or sweeping it under the rug. I hope and pray that that happens.