Willow Creek’s Journey From Defending Pastor To Accepting Accusations Unfolds Slowly, Ends In Mass Resignations

Inside a brightly lit conference room overlooking downtown Chicago, Bill Hybels struggled to explain away allegations that he had acted inappropriately with women during decades as leader of one of America’s most influential megachurches.

Then still the pastor of Willow Creek Community Church — and the leader of its Christian empire around the globe — Hybels had managed to avoid any rigorous investigation by the church’s board of elders or an independent third party. But on that day in March, he found himself sitting in the office of a crisis communications firm, attempting to keep control of events that were for the first time slipping away from him.

“I don’t know who’s colluding with who, who promised who what, what was the reward — a promise to someone for going public with these absolute lies,” Hybels said with anger in his voice. “There had to be some kind of inducement, but I don’t know what it is.”

The women, church employees among them, had said Hybels made suggestive comments. Some said he invited them to hotel rooms while on overseas trips. There was an allegation of an unwanted kiss and stories of intense hugs that lasted too long. There was a claim of a consensual affair, which the woman later retracted.

As the Tribune interview he had reluctantly agreed to came to an end, Hybels made a final plea for the allegations to be discounted and for his work and reputation not to be tarnished.

“Forty-two years of my life,” Hybels said of his career as a church leader. “Forty-two years.”

Now, after five months and four congregational meetings, accusations and apologies from the pulpit, the church’s top leadership has stopped trying to discredit Hybels’ accusers or assure the congregation that the right steps were taken to hold the pastor accountable.
Willow Creek’s Journey From Defending Pastor To Accepting Accusations Unfolds Slowly, Ends In Mass Resignations
Though he has not admitted guilt, Hybels stepped down in April. Earlier this month, lead teaching pastor Steve Carter departed, saying he was “gravely concerned about our church’s official response.” And then days ago, Willow Creek’s new lead pastor, Heather Larson, resigned her post along with the entire board of elders. One of them, Missy Rasmussen, acknowledged the board had failed to act quickly and had its judgment clouded by a “lens of trust we had in Bill.”

What happens next to the influential church and the impact of such a sweeping change in leadership on its tens of thousands of followers are unclear.

Hybels frequently said that Willow Creek was not just about him, despite his massive popularity. It was Hybels who grew the church from a humble start in a Palatine movie theater into a behemoth that welcomes 25,000 congregants at its South Barrington campus and its seven satellite locations weekly, as well as exporting its brand of worship through its association to 11,000 churches around the world.

But in the end, personal loyalty to Hybels got in the way of the rest of the church leadership’s ability to stand on their own, according to many close to the situation.

“We have tragically witnessed the profound wounds inflicted upon victims when an abusive leader surrounds himself with those who are supposed to hold him accountable, but instead find themselves protecting and defending him, while at the same time ignoring and vilifying those he has wounded,” said Boz Tchividjian, who represented a group of former congregants who made some of the allegations. He is a founder of a nonprofit group that helps victims of sexual abuse and abuse of power by clergy members. “I celebrate those who stepped forward and through their choir of voices boldly brought much needed light and truth to a dark place. They are the heroes.”

Slow-motion fallout

The turnover in leadership at Willow Creek has proceeded slowly since the allegations against Hybels first were aired this spring in an investigative report in the Tribune, culminating with the resignations in recent days as the church’s association hosted its annual Global Leadership Summit.

Church leaders initially publicly supported Hybels, who in his interview with the Tribune had reacted strongly to a group of accusers he said was campaigning against him.

“This has been a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years. It’s time that gets identified,” Hybels said. “I want to speak to all the people around the country that have been misled ... for the past four years and tell them in my voice, in as strong a voice as you’ll allow me to tell it, that the charges against me are false. There still to this day is not evidence of misconduct on my part.”

It was a stance Hybels maintained after the allegations became public, and he received a standing ovation at his church during his first public appearance there after the report.

But Hybels would resign April 10, saying he did not want to be a distraction and apologizing for reacting defensively. He did not admit wrongdoing, but told his congregation, “I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.”

There were other repercussions as well, as two publishers suspended publication of books by Hybels.

Later in April, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today publicized the account of another woman who came forward with allegations. Maureen Girkins, the former head of Zondervan, a Christian publishing house, told the magazine Hybels pressured her to spend time with him alone and made inappropriate comments.

That revelation spurred the Willow Creek elder board to change its stance and declare it was renewing a review of Hybels’ actions.

“We will respectfully reach out to each woman who has made an accusation, even if she has not brought her concerns directly to the Board,” the elders announced. In May, the board said it was sorry for initially dismissing the women’s claims.

Behind the scenes, teaching pastor Carter reached out to the women and privately apologized. He made his apology public on his personal blog at the beginning of July, but, at the elders’ request, did not publicize that he also had tendered his resignation.

Larson delivered her own apology from the pulpit.

“I want to personally acknowledge to you the mistakes that I have made,” she said. “I need to speak these words for my own integrity and for our church.”

Then a week ago, The New York Times published yet another account of a woman who accused Hybels of inappropriate behavior. The pastor’s former executive assistant, Pat Baranowski, told the newspaper she had been repeatedly groped and harassed in the 1980s.

Hybels again denied the conduct, but it became too much for Carter, who announced his resignation immediately and again took to his blog to explain. He and the elders had diverged over how to move the church forward, he wrote.

“The new facts and allegations that came to light this morning are horrifying, and my heart goes out to Ms. Baranowski and her family for the pain they have lived with,” Carter wrote. “These most recent revelations have also compelled me to make public my decision to leave, as much as it grieves me to go.”

The church association’s Global Leadership Summit, a two-day conference broadcast to 70,000 spectators around the world, was held last week as planned. But the event was buffeted by the Hybels allegations, with high-profile speakers withdrawing and more than 100 churches scrapping plans to broadcast the event to their congregations.

On the eve of the conference kicking off, Larson — the head pastor who had made prior public comments promising to stay to shepherd the church through the turbulence — and the entire elder board resigned.

“We are sorry that we allowed Bill to operate without the kind of accountability he should have had,” Rasmussen said. “Our desire going forward is to retain what is good and pure about Willow Creek but drive out the parts that are unhealthy. We commit to building a community that is known for its humility, honesty, and transparency.”
A brand scarred

David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta and president of the American Academy of Religion, said it might be too late to fully restore the church’s reputation.

When he was a young pastor in Tennessee years ago, his church was one of thousands affiliated with the Willow Creek Association. Everyone looked to Hybels as the example of how to lead a congregation in the late 20th century. Willow Creek has led the way in ministry trends, including equality for women.
Now new lessons can be drawn from Willow Creek, Gushee said, albeit at the expense of the South Barrington church. It has demonstrated that democratic accountability and oversight are essential, he said. It also has demonstrated that one church and one pastor don’t always have all the right answers.

“Where you have a person of charisma who has the ability to create and build something massive, it becomes very difficult to develop a structure in which people with clear eyes are able to hold them accountable,” he said. “A lot of times they’re the ones who name the leaders and have almost unquestioned power.”

Tod Bolsinger, vice president and chief of leadership formation at Fuller Theological Seminary, said Willow Creek has not only been a model of innovative ministry — it has also been a leader in developing leaders.

“The crisis today is really a moment for all of us to take a deep breath, to say it’s really important when we’re trying to be those who raise up leaders to take very seriously the responsibility of always keeping before us that we cannot lose the trust of the people that are in our congregation and who are looking to us,” Bolsinger said.

But now, with Hybels gone and the character of his leadership in question, Gushee predicts Willow Creek and its network of churches will shrink significantly. While the numbers of people attending mainline Protestant churches continue to decline and churches with personalities in their pulpits continue to fill their pews, Gushee points out that some megachurches have not been built to last.

“In our particular moment, those humble local congregations that are not really about personalities don’t seem to have the drawing power of the personality driven megachurches, but they may have the staying power,” he said.

Larson hopes that’s not the case. She told the congregation last week that she was not giving up on the future of Willow Creek.

“Most importantly, God is not giving up on this church,” Larson said. “He created it. He has always been faithful to it. So, I ask you not to give up on it either. The Chicagoland area needs Jesus, and our world needs Jesus. They desperately need people who will live and act like the Jesus we have taught about for the past 43 years. May it be true of us a hundred years from now too.”

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