Character assassination can be damaging, but character fascination can destroy people and kill organizations.
Today, our church is hosting Global Leadership Summit 2018, a satellite-fed leadership event that reaches hundreds of thousands of participants around the world each year. The founder of this conference, Bill Hybels, is the subject of a raft of allegations by women expressing they were victims of sexual misconduct by a powerful man at the height of his influence. He was forced to retire early from the church and remove himself from the Summit. The allegations are strong and we struggled with whether or not to withdraw our participation as a host site. In the end, our church hosted the event out of a desire to honor the commitment made to our participants and allow the Willow Creek Association leadership the opportunity to pull a beautiful ministry through the morass created by one man's sinfulness. But our disappointment with Bill, the church board (Willow Creek Community Church) and the Willow Creek Association itself is intense; we are a church committed to honoring women and defending the defenseless.
The women involved were dismissed and sullied as they attempted to find help from the very boards called to hold their leader to accountability. Eventually, two world-caliber leaders who worked with Willow for years (Jimmy Mellado and John Ortberg) were forced to make the problem public after many efforts to convince these boards to act responsibly. It is obvious that both the church board and the association were blinded by the light of Bill's success. The gleam of successful leadership was so bright, they could not see the possibility of wrongdoing in their leader.
This is the character fascination that destroys people and kills organizations.
Every church and every leader must diligently guard against character fascination. No one is served when a leader is elevated beyond accountability and left to his or her own devices. How do we avoid it?
Be Humble. Humility submits the self to the authority of others. Humility seeks to serve, not be served. Humility seeks help when hurting. Pride goes before a fall.
Be Grateful. Sin often takes over when we allow a sense of entitlement to grow within us. Leaders, your position is one entrusted to you by God who alone has all authority, power, influence and glory. Do not take your position for granted. Practice daily gratitude for the influence God has granted you for a season. Sin thrives in the soil of entitlement.
Be Accountable. Our church tradition benefits from hundreds of years of strong accountability structures, created from the very beginning to be a system of leadership with no single point of failure. We start from the conviction that no individual is free from the tendency to sin, even the senior leader. True accountability can slow the pace of leadership, no question about it. But the devastating effects of single-leader failure can be avoided with open and true accountability. (PS - if your board is a small group of friends who helped you found the church, you do not have accountability in your system!)
Be Distributive. Stop delegating and start deferring. When you delegate you give someone the opportunity to obey and please you. When you defer you give them the opportunity to use their own gifts to create something. Get smart and talented people around you and defer to them. Tasks create followers but responsibilities create leaders.
It is painful and sad to see what has happened to one of the world's most influential churches and most effective movements. Never underestimate the damage of sin--even the sin within a single person's heart.
But let our final and strongest word be for those maligned and abused. Any woman or any person who is the victim of an abuse of power must be heard. Leaders, we must run toward the helpless and powerless as quickly as we can. Even friendships and reputations of great leaders must be risked when credible or even plausible allegations are made. Set up systems of accountability ready to responsibly hear and defend the searing pain and shame of victims. Never allow character fascination to leave a hurting voice behind.