Global Leadership Summit (GLS) 2018 — “Do you see this woman?”

—The Global Leadership Summit (GLS) is an annual conference put on by The Global Leadership Network (GLN), an organization described on their website as “a community of leaders dedicated to growing together and powered by the Willow Creek Association.” CFT member Tara J. Hannah participated in this year’s summit. For some background read Tara’s previous post “Hey Bill Hybels — Where There’s Smoke…” 

GLS Leaders -- Cogs in a bigger machine? -- Image by dawnydawny -- CC0 License -- from Pixelbay

A ViewPoint by Tara J. Hannah

This year’s Global Leadership Summit ended Friday, June 10, 2018. It was the usual crowd, minus Bill Hybels and few thousand other off-site viewers.

In past years I’ve left the summit feeling motivated; this year I left disheartened. The sex scandals hovering over Hybels loomed thick at the summit; the New York Times had published yet another serious accusation just a few days before the Global Leadership Summit began. I can’t believe the timing was accidental. I think the Times was hoping to ensure the woman, Pat Baranowski, was heard. After years of suffering in silence, forced to choose between speaking her truth or preserving the church, she found her voice.

There’s a price for being silent, for not letting victims speak. For the victims, their traumatic silence often leads to deep depression and debilitating anxiety. For the offenders, silence means they remain free to prey on others. For the bystanders, it’s business as usual. Or is it?

During the lunch break on Thursday, I checked my phone and read that the entire Willow Creek Board of Elders and Executive Pastors appointed by Hybels had resigned.

There’s also a price for those whose silence and inaction cause victims to suffer and leave perpetrators with access to more victims. Hybels built his empire around himself—he appointed the speakers and the board of elders who supervised him. His empire has now collapsed because his pedigreed Christian leaders were not strong enough “leaders” to break free from the script he wrote for them. The victims risked everything to speak, while the leaders were silent.  Aren’t we, as Christians, called to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves?

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Proverbs 31:8–9 (NIV)

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”— when you already have it with you.
Proverbs 3:27–28 (NIV)

At the summit, the usual GLS celebrities scrambled to hold their leadership machine together. They found substitutes for the last-minute dropouts and pumped out the inspiration, as usual. To my shock, some even acknowledged the elephant in the room.

Craig Groeschel of Life.Church, gave a nod to victims of sexual assault and even articulated the connection between sexual assault and women’s exploitation in the sex industry. Thanks, Craig. As a child of Bill’s GLS baby, you made some steps toward fixing the problem. But at this point, words of acknowledgement are not enough.

We’re told in Luke 7 of Jesus encountering a situation like many pastors are encountering now. As Jesus “reclined at the table” in the home of a Pharisee, an exploited woman came into the room and wept at Jesus’s feet.  The religious elite in the room were forced not only to acknowledge her presence but also to acknowledge their own exploitation of her. Jesus gave the woman a place to be heard among the leaders. He made them experience her tears and listen to her words.

Jesus didn’t tell this woman’s story for her; he used his position to make sure the people present listened to her. And only then did he scold the leaders for not seeing her with his rhetorical question, “Do you see this woman?” (Read the entire parable here.)

I’m afraid that too many Willow Creek protégés have neglected to use their platforms as Jesus used his. Instead of finding ways to ask their congregants, “Do you see these women?”—which really means, do you feel this woman’s pain?—they worked overtime to keep control of their shiny system. Sackcloth and ashes are too dirty for these clean places.

Leaders, you are missing an opportunity to break from the Hybel’s leadership brand and follow Jesus here.

Further, there is still evidence of latent (and overt) patriarchal privilege in the way women are addressed by men at the Global Leadership Summit.  John Maxwell introduced Angela Ahrendts of Apple as a “lady leader.” Cringe.

Let me explain this very clearly, because there still seems to be a misunderstanding.

Calling someone a lady leader, a black pastor, a gay football player implies that the standard for the job is something other than your qualifier. You are, in fact, exposing your underlying bias that a lady leader is not the same as a leader who is male. A black pastor is different than your norm, a pastor who is white.  A gay football player is different than any other football player.

A leader is a leader. Their gender is not relevant unless the conversation is specifically about gender. Saying, “lady leader” makes it sound like Angela is an ornament to hang on the Global Leadership Summit stage! If male church leaders want and expect women to take their claims of gender equality seriously, it’s important to stop using language that indicates implicit male bias.

Fortunately, Maxwell did much better in the interview than Hybels did when he grilled Melinda Gates about her husband and children instead of focusing on her work promoting the Gate’s Foundation. That still embarrasses me.

As always, it was a joy to hear the words of Danielle Strickland. Her point, that God deemed it was not good for men alone to oversee everything, really was “The Message of the Moment.” Men and women need each other in the performance of effective leadership.

The Global Leadership Summit missed the perfect opportunity for all the speakers to use their platforms to ask church and business leaders “Do you see this woman?” They squandered the chance to start responding appropriately to the #metoo and #churchtoo era. Instead, it was business as usual, keeping the Global Leadership Network cogwheels turning, giving only a nod to the plight of the women further injured in the Hybels cover up.

Sexual exploitation is in every corner of the world. Our leaders have long claimed it’s not happening here, it’s only happening somewhere over there. It’s not our problem. But now, even when it’s proven to be happening here, even when it’s proven to be our problem, we still can’t bear to bring this ugly stuff into the light long enough to really hear the victims. Are we afraid the light will reveal more demons hiding in past relationships and important systems (as it did for Willow Creek)?

All the more reason to do it.

Only after we are sure we have seen every sobbing woman, every exploited person, every abused child can we begin to rebuild on a more secure foundation.

Personally, I’m excited to watch Willow Creek rebuild. I hope they will focus less on maintaining one man’s narrative and, instead, invent ways to make sure everyone is heard and seen at the table, like Jesus did. We must prune to grow, and Willow Creek did their pruning. Congratulations, church!

Perhaps someday I will be able to feel this same excitement for the Global Leadership Network and the Global Leadership Summit. But for now, it’s seems to be business as usual.


GLS missed the perfect opportunity for all the speakers to use their platforms to ask church and business leaders “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44) Share on X


Tara Hannah
Tara J. Hannah is the founder of YOGATHEA® Christian Yoga + Meditation and author of Pink Sunglasses and Yoga Pants: 31 Reflections on Biblical Feminism. She is an occupational therapist in private practice and spends her days rehabilitating women’s health impairments. In the evenings she and her husband, Joe, operate a taxi, dinner, and counseling service for their four children.


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