August 14, 2011
Stay Classy, Willow Creek
Bill Hybels’ response to gay activists and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz.
Last week was the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit. The annual conference is a convergence of business, government, social, and church leaders curated by the WCA and headlined by Bill Hybels. Past Summits have featured speakers like Bill Clinton, Jack Welch, and Bono. But the buzz surrounding this year’s lineup (or “faculty” as the WCA likes to call them) was focused on who would not be there.
Days before the event Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz withdrew because of an online petition launched by Change.org. The gay-advocacy group accused Willow Creek of being anti-gay and threatened to boycott Starbucks if Schultz spoke at the Leadership Summit. The controversy was widely reported in the press, and as 165,000 people gathered at 450 locations around the world for the WCA conference, many wondered how Willow would respond.
The answer? With class.
Bill Hybels’ spoke to the Leadership Summit audience about Schultz’s decision to withdraw on the first day of the conference. The video is below, and the full transcript of his remarks can be read at Christianity Today. Why do I call Willow’s response “classy”? For a few reasons.
First, Willow was merciful. The WCA chose not to hold Howard Schultz to his speaking contract. Speakers at most conferences sign contracts that include a penalty for failing to show-up or canceling at the last minute. Of course exceptions are made for “acts of God” like weather or illness, but not online petitions by political groups. Schultz and/or Starbucks could have easily paid whatever fine may have been levied by breaking the contract, but Willow chose not to accept it. In addition, Willow did not pull Schultz’s book from the conference store--a response many would have deemed justifiable.
Second, Willow was reflective. Leaders didn’t just point their fingers at Schultz or Change.org for causing this problem. They also reflected on what responsibility Willow must take. In more than one setting during the Summit, Hybels admitted that they had not done a clear or comprehensive enough job communicating Willow’s position on homosexuality and that this failure of communication led to the “anti-gay” accusation. (For example, Willow Creek discontinued its relationship with Exodus, a controversial ministry that seeks to make gay folks straight, back in 2009, but the church did not publicize this fact.) At the same time, Hybels took this opportunity to clearly state what the church does believe.
Third, Willow was peacemaking. When news first reached Hybels about Schultz’s withdrawal he and Jim Mellado, president of the Willow Creek Association, got on a call with the folks at Starbucks. They sought to understand the situation and talk it through. They read the vitriolic emails sent to Howard, and in the end Hybels said that while he did not agree with their decision he did understand it. Likewise, Hybels and Mellado have reached out to the folks at Change.org to communicate more clearly and directly about Willow’s welcoming stance toward the LGTB community.
Fourth, Willow was gracious. Hybels went beyond what was required or expected in his remarks when he encouraged everyone at the Summit to buy Schultz’s book, send him an encouraging email, and “buy a Starbucks coffee in the next couple days and just show some Christian goodwill.”
For a sense of how the news media is reporting Willow’s response to Schutz, Starbucks, and Change.org, check out this video:
In an age when Christians are often (and sometimes accurately) labeled belligerent, arrogant, and defensive, the leaders at Willow Creek showed us a more Christ-like approach--one that I hope many others will emulate. Stay classy, Willow Creek.