On Sunday night, after an article in the New York Times detailing another women’s story of abuse and mistreatment and sexual misconduct from Bill Hybels came out, I couldn’t sleep. It was for all the reasons you might expect, but also because I had been noticing a trend, and when sleep wasn’t coming I spent a good long time thinking it through.
There are a lot of people I admire and respect who have been noticeably silent on the situation. People who are no strangers to speaking out on issues of abuse in the church, people who are vocal about all sorts of hot topics in culture and religion. These are the people who have been whistleblowers for sexual misconduct in the church, the government and Hollywood. And yet, with this story of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek, there was not a word from them to be said or heard or read.
I could be way off, but I think it’s because this time, the story is personal.
Bill Hybels’ daughter, Shauna Niequist is an author and speaker of her own right—a one time guest on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, a New York Times bestselling author. She’s made a name for herself in Christian circles, and she’s earned it. And the people who have remained quiet about the unfolding of her father’s scandals are her friends.
And, like it should, knowing a person so close the situation unfolding—a bystander— changes things.
When we watch drama happening from a distance it’s so much easier to speak out about, isn’t it? When we personally don’t know anyone involved, there’s just the good guy and the bad guy. When we live a safe distance away from the scene of the accident, our speaking up and speaking out is easy and reactive and we hardly give a second thought to the rippled effect it might create.
But this time it’s different. This time it’s a story about a powerful man in a powerful church who is accused of doing some terrible things, but when considering whether to speak up and speak out, there’s a group of people who haven’t.
Because now the story is more layered than just being about the victim and the accused. Now, the reality of the families involved is personal. Now they are watching up close what the constant telling and retelling means for people closest to the story. Now it’s complicated.
And it should be.
What is said to have happened under Bill Hybels’ leadership at Willow is terrible. If the stories are true, and there’s no reason to believe they’re not, it’s awful. The silence doesn’t mean there aren’t feelings about what has transpired. It doesn’t mean there aren’t clear lines of right and wrong that were crossed. It doesn’t mean it isn’t as reprehensible as we think it is. It means we take into account the humanity of those whose lives are directly connected to and impacted by the people in question. It means you watch your words more carefully.
I’ve written before how growing up in the suburbs of Washington DC taught me this lesson early. That for every story about what appeared to be a remote congressman or a two dimensional public person, I learned early on of the family attached. That it was never just about the man or woman on the screen. It was about the people they went home to. The kids they tucked in to bed. The spouse who kept a plate of dinner warmed up for them. The world saw a man in a suit and tie on the steps of the Capitol. We saw him as a guy at 4th of July picnic with a plate of baked beans in his hand. And that’s when I learned, as much as we would like to think that the stories that capture our attention are only about the principle players in the plot, what the Bill Hybels story has taught us is, it’s always more complicated than that.
Now we know his family. Now we are aware of the ripple effects. And suddenly, though the desire to speak out against such tremendous wrongdoing doesn’t go away, the ramifications about speaking out are more clear.
Maybe it’s strange to say, but I think Shauna has been the grace in this whole situation. Shauna’s life outside the circle of her dad’s but still very much connected to her dad has given a lot of us pause. We have feelings. We have things we want to say. We have soapboxes we are poised and ready to step on to and share our thoughts.
But it’s just not that easy to do this time. And I think that’s a good thing.
Shauna has put in the forefront of a lot of our minds the humanity involved in the periphery of these stories. That what we speak and spout, what we lob and lecture echoes far more than we can imagine and creates wounds and leaves tracks far deeper than we could ever expect.
Which means, maybe, among all the things we can glean from these terrible stories, is the discipline of holding our tongue. That not every story needs our commentary. We may see our words as bringing justice and calling to light deeds far too long left in the dark. And they are that. But I think if we learned to speak more slowly and think through more carefully, we would find our words carefully tempered with intention and not simply hot headed emotion. With compassion for all the parties involved, even the ones who names don’t make the article we are reading, because their lives too are upended and dismantled and reeling.
I couldn’t fall asleep Sunday night because the story in the article I read was terrible. But also because in the silence of some I am beginning to see anew how layered these stories are. How respectful quiet can be on behalf of those who didn’t get a say in how it unfolded. That, as the writer of Ecclesiastes said, there is a time to be silent and a time to speak and it takes wisdom and careful consideration to determine what time it is right now.
We would be wise to pay attention to not just what is being said these days, but also to what is not being said. To who is speaking, but also to who is not speaking. The women sharing their stories show us courage. The people not sharing their two cents, not directly involved in the unfolding are showing us respect, and consideration and compassion for the humanity involved outside of the spotlight.
Maybe, the biggest lesson for those of us part of the public learning of these things as they are reported to us, is that. Learning to discern when we need to use our voice and when we don’t. When honor towards someone isn’t the words we say, but in the words we don’t. Maybe, in a time when our words are easily read by thousands and we can effortlessly join the chorus of justice seekers and whistleblowers, the most important and courageous thing to do is keep quiet out of respect for those whose lives are upended by proximity to the story unfolding.
Maybe our words matter. Maybe our silence matters even more.