Re-birthing the Global Leadership Summit as Sexual Crisis Rages

Lori and I attended the Global Leadership Summit (GLS) last week. It was the fourth year in a row for me. A friend introduced me to the two-day summit in 2015. It has been a must-attend every since. I look forward to learning from world class leaders and authors who have diverse backgrounds in areas like ministry, technology, science, hospitality and so on.

The GLS makes a concerted effort to be attractive to secular audiences, while remaining transparent about its faith roots. During the first three summits I attended, summit creator Bill Hybels acknowledged attendees who do not typically attend church or hold to a faith, asking for respect between all attendees regardless of perspectives. Past summit speakers have included secular celebrity influencers like U2 front man Bono, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandburg and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. The fact is that we can all learn from people who come from different backgrounds and belief systems than ours. The annual GLS capitalizes on it.

I knew this year would be very different. It had to be. A chain of events led the Willow Creek Association (WCA), which produces the GLS, into a full-blown #MeToo crisis. Allegations surfaced earlier this year accusing WCA and Willow Creek Church founder Bill Hybels of sexual misconduct. Leaders at the Willow Creek Church, a separate entity from the WCA, defended Hybels for months. Though Hybels resigned from both organizations months ago, the cloud over the GLS darkened even further in the final hours leading to the conference opening. Another story broke last week accusing him of even more serious predatory behavior. If the summit failed to address this crisis, it would lose moral authority.

Crisis scenarios are hard. They also provide a chance for re-birth. How an organization comes out of crisis is a factor of organization type, brand loyalty, economics and leadership. Some organizations are immune to long-term crisis effects. Airlines are a good example. In spite of bad customer service, the mainline carriers remain profitable because most fliers are more concerned with ticket price than service. United Airlines went on to even greater profitability after the Dr. Dao situation last year. Churches often have a much harder time recovering in the public eye when bad things happen. Jim Baker’s Heritage USA and PTL ministry folded after news broke of his affairs in the 1980s. Yet New Life Church in Colorado Springs survived after the Ted Haggard scandal in 2006.

The GLS is in the early stages of what professional communicators consider a “blindsided” crisis. Most sexual-behavior crisis situations fit into the blindsided model. Stakeholders express a high state of outrage in the short term. However, if properly managed, the immediate risk can be managed quickly, leading to a long-term recovery.

The WCA is feeling the effects of outrage in reaction to Hybels’ behavior and the institutions’ initial responses. Some speakers pulled out of the 2018 conference. The GLS appeared in national media reflections for undesired reasons. Many churches, some of which claimed concern about their brand, reportedly disconnected from the GLS this year. It was an unfortunate lack of the same grace their leaders preach of, and a loss of leader development to their communities.

The Willow Creek Association is now in the middle of the larger #MeToo movement that has taken down many powerful men across both sides of the political and faith divides. Leadership actions in the short-term will set the conditions for whether the annual Global Leadership Summit continues. It is an opportunity to reflect on the lessons the summit has facilitated over the last two decades. This moment in GLS history demands that the GLS leadership reflect on summit values as a Christ-focused event that invests in leaders of all background and perspective.

The controversy may shake off branches of GLS that sought increasing secular popularity in previous years. GLS 2018 opened with WCA President Tom De Vries directly acknowledging the accusations and admitting that they were not handled well. He showed empathy with the accusers and committed that the organization will do better. Craig Groeschell took the sexual misconduct issue on directly as the first presenter. Throughout the summit, Christian presenters were much more open about their faith. There seemed to be more prayer. The summit was the most up-front about its faith roots that it has been in my four years attending. As Groeschell said in his final presentation, the world is looking for substance, not more style.

A song performance preceded the final presentation by Life Church senior pastor Craig Groeschel. The chorus proclaimed that Jesus is restoring us, leading into Groeschel sharing the gospel story. It was an admission that we all need Christ, even more powerful in the context that the GLS needs help from a higher power than its world-class faculty of international leaders.

This was a hard year for the GLS, probably the hardest in its history. The irony is obvious, that an event meant to inspire leaders to care for their people is now itself caught up in the wreckage of an alleged predator. How the current WCA leadership takes their own medicine will determine what the future looks like.

From what I saw at the summit, the damage done by Hybels does not signal the GLS’s end. It should instead facilitate a rebirth that leads to even higher purpose of global leader development.


Copyright 2018 Chase Spears All Rights Reserved

My opinions are my own and do not reflect any official policy of the Department of the Army Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.

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