Evangelical Panel Finds Sexual Misconduct Claims About Megachurch Founder Are Credible

Several women accused Bill Hybels, former pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, of sexually inappropriate behavior.

An independent advisory group of evangelical leaders has found that the sexual misconduct accusations lodged against former Chicago-area megachurch pastor Bill Hybels by several women are credible.

The women’s allegations of “sexually inappropriate words and actions” by Hybels would have been sufficient to prompt disciplinary action against the pastor if he had not already retired from Willow Creek Community Church last year, the group concluded in a 17-page report published Thursday.

“The credibility of the allegations is not based on any one accusation or accuser but on the collective testimony and context of the allegations,” said the report, which was commissioned by the church.

In addition, the advisory group found that Hybels, who started Willow Creek Community Church 43 years ago, had “verbally and emotionally intimidated both male and female employees.”

While Hybels’ “power, influence, and management style” helped his evangelical church expand, the report said they also contributed to “dysfunction” in the church’s ability to “consistently implement policies, manage personnel, and handle an unexpected crisis.”

Willow Creek Community Church, an evangelical megachurch outside Chicago, during a Sunday service in November 2005.
Willow Creek Community Church, an evangelical megachurch outside Chicago, during a Sunday service in November 2005.
John Gress / Reuters

Willow Creek Community Church is one of America’s largest megachurches. The South Barrington, Illinois, church also has global reach through the affiliated Willow Creek Association (renamed the Global Leadership Network last month), a leadership training initiative with ties to more than 11,000 churches worldwide.

Hybels himself was a prominent evangelical leader. During the 1990s, he served as a spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton. He’s also the author of a number of Christian books on leadership.

Last March, the Chicago Tribune published accusations by several women that Hybels had engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior stretching back to the 1990s. The alleged behavior included prolonged hugs, lewd comments, and in one case, an unwanted kiss and invitation to a hotel room.

Hybels’ former executive assistant told The New York Times in August that the pastor had emotionally abused her, groped her and once insisted on oral sex.

Hybels has acknowledged that he too often placed himself in “situations that would have been far wiser to avoid” and that made people feel “uncomfortable.” But he has repeatedly denied any inappropriate sexual behavior.

Still, the sexual misconduct allegations ― and criticism of how church elders handled those claims over the years ― rocked Willow Creek, resulting in Hybels’ early retirement last April and the resignation of its entire board of elders in August. Before they left, the resigning leaders commissioned an independent investigation to study the allegations, examine the culture at Willow Creek and make recommendations for the future.

The Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group was composed of four evangelical leaders: Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita of The Wesleyan Church; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Margaret Diddams, provost of Wheaton College; and Gary Walter, past president of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago.

Bill Hybels, then senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, speaks in Washington in July 2010.
Bill Hybels, then senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, speaks in Washington in July 2010.
Charles Dharapak / ASSOCIATED PRESS

In its report, the advisory group said it was chosen by other evangelical leaders who weren’t part of Willow Creek Community Church or the Willow Creek Association. The church said that none of the group’s members worked for or had formal ties to Willow Creek. It also said that the members were not compensated for their time and that expenses for the investigation were funded by an “external anonymous donor.”

Over a six-month period, the advisory group interviewed Hybels, members of the pastor’s family and staff, the women who had accused the pastor, and others.

The report found that for multiple decades, Willow Creek Community Church’s boards were “unable to provide effective oversight” of Hybels. It also argued that the Willow Creek Association should have taken “greater responsibility” to investigate the allegations against Hybels even though the pastor wasn’t officially its employee.

The advisory group recommended that Hybels independently seek counseling and potentially return any financial resources, apart from retirement benefits, that Willow Creek Community Church provided after his departure. However, since Hybels is no longer a Willow Creek employee, the report concluded that the church has no jurisdiction over him and shouldn’t take further action. A legally binding retirement agreement with the pastor remains in place until 2020.

The report placed blame for Willow Creek’s corporate culture issues on Hybels and said those issues may not persist in the future.

The advisory group recommended that Willow Creek Community Church consider offering financial assistance for counseling to those who were harmed by Hybels. It suggested that Willow Creek create a third-party hotline where people can report misconduct. The report additionally encouraged the church to establish written policies regarding inappropriate language, jokes, relationships and use of alcohol by staff, as well as policies for setting up external investigations and disciplining church leaders.

“Mistakes and sins should not be denied or forgotten but neither should God’s blessings and the faithfulness of God’s people,” the advisory group wrote. “The good accomplished is significant and long-lasting and should not be minimized or discredited by allegations and disruptions.”

On Thursday, Willow Creek’s new elder board, which was formally installed in January, said that it is “prayerfully looking” at the church’s culture, policies and governance model in light of the report.

“While we cannot change the events of the past, we grieve what has happened, ask for forgiveness, and commit ourselves to pursuing healing and reconciliation,” the elders said in a statement.

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