Michelle Rhee And The Willow Creek Leadership Summit

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If one were to paint a picture of StudentsFirst founder, Michelle Rhee, based upon her associations, what would emerge wouldn't look much like anyone claiming to be a "liberal," or a Democrat. After all, she's cozied up with Florida governor Rick Scott to help destroy Florida public schools. Then did the same with Tennessee's legislators to wreck theirs. She's also an avowed enemy of organized labor, stepping out with Scott Walker to be honored by Betsy DeVos. Plus, her good buddy Joel Klein is Rupert Murdoch's BFF.

Here's a new contour to flesh out the picture: Rhee is slated to appear at Willow Creek Community Church's Global Leadership Summit this week. And here's something you need to know about Willow Creek Community Church. Willow Creek, while officially non-denominational, has theological roots reaching deeply into the Southern Baptist tradition. Because that might put off someone otherwise interested in attending their church, Willow Creek is not affiliated with the SBC, but they nevertheless form alliances and share fundamental beliefs with them. Those fundamental beliefs have led them to affiliate with organizations like Exodus International, an organization dedicated to "praying away the gay."

Huffington Post:

(RNS) Willow Creek Community Church, a trend-setting megachurch in suburban Chicago, has quietly ended its partnership with Exodus International, an "ex-gay" organization.

Willow Creek decided to sever ties with the Florida-based ministry in 2009, Christianity Today reported, but the decision only became public in June.

Church officials described the move as a shift in approach rather than a change in belief. Susan DeLay, a spokeswoman for Willow Creek, said the church continues to welcome those who are attracted to people of the same sex.

"Willow Creek has a whole host of ministries for people dealing with these issues, and we would never intend for them to feel sidelined," she told Christianity Today.

Yes, yes they do. Pastor Steve Wu, leader of their Chicago church, resigned after he admitted to "sexual impurity." The statement put out by the church is somewhat instructive:

During Sunday services on Jan. 25, one of the church Elders, Greg Haecker, read a brief statement to the Willow Chicago congregation announcing Wu's resignation effective immediately.

The statement said: "He admitted to sexual impurity and has taken full responsibility for his sin. He has expressed a desire to participate in a restoration process."

I have some background in church-speak so let me translate two key terms for you. "Restoration process" means the process of publicly admitting one's sin and agreeing to undergo counseling with a mentor in the church. Ted Haggard underwent a similar process. The term "sexual impurity" sounds as though it could be anything from visiting the wrong websites to premarital sex, but that's not quite true. That term is specifically reserved in churchspeak for homosexuality. It's sort of the nice way to say the dirty word without saying it. Whether it was an act, a relationship, or an advance on Wu's part, it was enough to have him and his ministry summarily erased from Willow Creek's website within 24 hours and any mention of specifics held very close to the vest.

I'm certain Steve Wu's "restoration process" included some serious praying away of the gay, because Willow Creek hasn't turned its back on condemning homosexuality. They've simply decided to do their own praying-away. Here's a blurb from a 2006 Willow Creek message entitled "Is God....Homophobic?":

Even though we don't understand all the complex dynamics that lead to same sex attraction, we have an omniscient God who is smarter than us and who does understand. God's Word teaches he designed sexual expression to be limited and ultimately expressed between a man and a woman in the commitment of marriage. All people are made in God's image, and truth is that God's plan for sexuality makes our lives so much better when we cooperate with it. Homosexual activity is 'a' sin in God's eyes; it's not 'the' sin, and God is in the business of transforming the lives of all morally imperfect people. A Christ-following church needs to be a safe place where not only homosexuals, but all of us moral foul-ups, can find love and support and can grow spiritually as God works in us and as we apply his truth.

Willow Creek has certainly put more effort into bridging the gap between churches and the LGBT community than most. In 2008, Pastor Bill Hybels met with representatives of Soulforce, a group whose stated mission is to meet with church leaders in order to change hearts and minds about anti-homosexuality attitudes in the church. The outcome was mixed, at best. Despite cutting ties with Exodus International, there is no indication that Willow Creek has altered its core view that homosexuality is a sin and celibacy is the only correct response for homosexual church members.

Christianity Today:

Susan DeLay, director of media relations at Willow Creek, said the church’s decision to end its relationship with Exodus doesn’t mean it has become less welcoming to people with same-sex attraction or more averse to big problems. “It’s quite the contrary,” she said. “Willow Creek has a whole host of ministries for people dealing with these issues, and we would never intend for them to feel sidelined. All we’ve changed is how we’ve gone about inviting them into the church, which is the primary issue here.”

The Chicago Tribune has more:

But after careful contemplation, Willow now espouses the belief that "coming to faith in Christ doesn't promise a change in sexual orientation," she said.

While this sounds fine and good and maybe even attractive, it disguises the core doctrinal conflict between evangelical churches and the LGBT community. Churches still believe homosexuality is a sin and should be cause for repentance, not celebration.

In fact, I was unable to find any resources for LGBT members on the Willow Creek site or the Willow Creek Association site. That could possibly be related to the criticism of the church's affiliation with Exodus International or the recent firestorm over Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz' withdrawal from the Global Leadership Summit. While it's unclear whether Schultz' decision was made as a result of pressure brought about by gay activists or not, there is no question that it created some discomfort.

Chicago Tribune:

Already catching heat for how a cafe manager allegedly berated and fired a gay employee, the CEO of Starbucks suddenly canceled an appearance at Willow Creek Community Church this week after an online petition insisted he denounce the mega-church's views on homosexuality.

[...]

Though Starbucks confirmed Schultz no longer planned to be there, the company would not attribute it to a campaign launched last week calling on Schultz to denounce the church's stance before the event.

It is into this environment that Michelle Rhee steps, and it is yet another indication that her primary goal is not StudentsFirst. If students were the goal, she would possibly take kids into consideration who are bullied because they are gay. She might have even made a "It Gets Better" video if students were first. She might even have acknowledged that LGBT students in a hostile learning or social environment are at a clear disadvantage for learning. But she has done nothing of the sort. It's been crickets from Rhee.

Instead, Rhee will deliver her poison pill school privatization message wrapped inside a soft, fluffy wrapper called "StudentsFirst" and leave leaders feeling all inspired to go out and wreck public schools even more. She will do this in the context of a summit sponsored by an organization that is doctrinally opposed to the LGBT lifestyle but still wraps that in a soft, fluffy, welcoming message. Birds of a feather.

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