INTRODUCTION. It is difficult to implement system-wide repair work in multi-dimensional organizations where infrastructures and everyday processes have been compromised by long-term situations of abuse and enablement. Still, systemic remediation can be done — but it will take intentional, sustained efforts.
The two case studies I chose for this section make for a good set in comparing and contrasting what was done wisely or wickedly. The Mennonite denomination and the Willow Creek/Global Leadership Summit association have enough parallel structure and situation similarities to make a match, despite theological and institutional differences.
Both organizational systems are formal, centralized, and hierarchical (as opposed to informal/associational, decentralized, and distributed power). This means that problems could (and should) have been identified by the board of directors or elders, and solutions imposed on the whole system by them.
Both systemic abuse situations involved reported sexual abuse, harassment, and enablement that went on for decades.
Both of the main reported perpetrators — John Howard Yoder and Bill Hybels — were elevated as celebrities in their own system, and as leaders of note in other organizations and ministries.
Both have a number of substantial “platform” (product) divisions within their overall systems: training events, publishing, church association networks. These production platforms create a significant scale of “Christian industrial complex” that tends to develop into a brand that, over time, inspires “consumer” loyalty.
This is part of what makes it hard to get the truth out and to repair damages: Those in brand partner organizations and loyal individual followers find it almost impossible to believe their Christian celebrity leader would do such things.
Both have a distinctive theological profile that created inherent irony and internal conflict when systemic sexual abuse arose.
- Mennonites have long been known as “the peacemaking denomination.” So, how could they fail for decades to listen to and believe the experiences that women victims tried to tell denominational leaders — and thus they failed as a denomination to make peace with “some of their own”?
- Willow Creek was long known for being egalitarian in their promotion of women in church and ministry leadership. So, how could they allow the misuse of this doctrine to provide a “hunting ground” for women victims who might well be hesitant to report abuse because Willow Creek was one of the few evangelical churches where they could find advanced leadership opportunities?
A potential difficulty of side-by-side case studies lies in finding cases that are parallel enough to amplify the compare-and-contrast process. Perhaps some of these points don’t resonate to you as similarities. Perhaps you’ll find more similarities than I did. Overall, I hope you’ll find the set worth exploring for what we can learn about how to — and how not to — deal with systemic abuse.
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POSITIVE EXAMPLE: Mennonites / John Howard Yoder. I have done some extended research writing about this particular case over the past few years. As of January 2020, the longest version I have posted is on my Futuristguy’s Field Guides site as an organizational case study in repair of systemic abuse, harassment, and cover-up. The title of that version is: The Holistic, Systems Example of the Mennonites Dealing with Sexual Harassment and Abuse by Top Denominational Theologian, John Howard Yoder. The following slide summarizes key features of their three-year process of investigation, lament, and systemic repairs.
NOTE: See the following link for a long-form case study on the Mennonites and the legacy of John Howard Yoder. That post overviews the three sections of the study and links to the page where it can be found.
NEGATIVE EXAMPLE: Willow Creek Community Church and Global Leadership Summit / Bill Hybels. I have already used Willow Creek/Bill Hybels in two other negative case studies. See the following sections and studies above for descriptions and resource links.
Independent Versus Internal Investigations. NEGATIVE CASE STUDY: Willow Creek Community Church and Global Leadership Summit.
Genuine Apologies Versus Deflections. POSITIVE CASE STUDY: First Baptist Church; Athens, Texas. NEGATIVE CASE STUDY: Willow Creek Community Church and Global Leadership Summit.
The following slide shares a key quote from an important article by Scot McKnight where he analyzes key ways that Willow Creek elders failed to address systemic abuse and was using image maintenance methods that protected the institution rather than repaired damages done to the women victims and their support networks. Willow: Why The Women Went Public? (July 9, 2018; Jesus Creed).