A popular evangelical Christian author has chimed in to support several women accusing Chicago-area megachurch pastor Bill Hybels of inappropriate sexual advances.
Lee Strobel, a former teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church who went on to become a best-selling writer, said on Twitter that he “never saw any hint of misconduct” by Hybels during his time at the church. However, Strobel said he believes the women who have come forward with accusations against the influential pastor.
“I know these women and they are Godly and credible,” Strobel wrote on Twitter Monday. “I believe them and weep for them.”
Strobel was part of Willow Creek’s staff from 1987 to 2000.
A former atheist and journalist, Strobel’s books about converting to Christianity have become widely read within the genre of Christian apologetics. His best-selling book The Case for Christ was made into a movie last year.
Hybels is known in the evangelical world for his ability to bring skeptics and seekers back to church. Under his guidance, Willow Creek Community Church grew from a small community that worshipped in a rented movie theater to a multicampus megachurch that boasts more than 25,000 attendees.
But his legacy ― and the legacy of the church he founded 42 years ago ― was thrown into question this year after at least 10 women came forward with allegations against the pastor of various forms of sexual harassment.
In March, the Chicago Tribune published accusations from several women who claimed Hybels made unwanted sexual advances toward them during encounters that date back to the 1990s. The behavior allegedly included extended hugs, lewd comments, and in one case an unwanted kiss and an invitation to a private hotel room.
On Sunday, The New York Times published new allegations against Hybels from his former executive assistant, Pat Baranowski. The woman said the pastor sexually abused her while she lived at the Hybels’ family home in the 1980s ― reportedly subjecting her to back rubs, groping and one incident of oral sex.
Hybels has denied Baranowski’s allegations and the accusations of the other women who have spoken out against him. He retired from leadership at Willow Creek in April, six months ahead of schedule. At that point, he acknowledged that he had made people feel “uncomfortable” at times. But he claimed the allegations brought by the women were “misleading” or “entirely false.”
The Rev. Steve Carter, one of two pastors Willow Creek had tapped as Hybels’ successors, resigned from his post on Sunday in protest over how the church has handled the accusations.
Carter, who has been on staff at Willow Creek since 2013, wrote in a blog post that he could not “in good conscience” continue as Willow Creek’s lead teaching pastor “when my soul is so at odds with the institution.”
“Since the first women came forward with their stories, I have been gravely concerned about our church’s official response, and [its] ongoing approach to these painful issues,” Carter wrote.
Church leaders at Willow Creek have known about the allegations against Hybels since at least 2014, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Elders conducted an internal investigation of the reports, which claimed to clear Hybels of the accusations. Another investigation by an outside lawyer, completed last year, also found no wrongdoing on Hybels’ part. The church defended Hybels when the allegations were first published in the press this March. Elders have since apologized for the church’s initial response.
On Monday, Willow Creek announced to its members that a council of outside Christian leaders was going to conduct a new independent investigation into the allegations.
The remaining lead pastor, Heather Larson, said the council will have “full autonomy and authority” to investigate the allegations, the Chicago Tribune reports. The investigation will be funded by an outside donor.
Larson, who has worked at Willow Creek for about 20 years, told The New York Times that it was “heartbreaking” to read about Baranowski’s allegations against Hybels.
“The behavior that she has described is reprehensible,” Larson said.
Victims’ advocates are questioning whether the church’s leadership is able to conduct a truly independent investigation.
Boz Tchividjian, founder of a nonprofit that seeks to raise awareness of sex abuse in church communities, told the Chicago Tribune that the only way a credible independent investigation could occur is if the current leadership steps down.
“They’ve eviscerated any trust that any victim would have with regard to Willow,” Tchividjian said. “For such an investigation to work, to gain the trust of the very people you want to speak with, the leadership should step down and let others who have not been involved step up.”
UPDATE: Aug. 9 — Larson announced late Wednesday that she is stepping down from her role as lead pastor. The nine members of the church’s current board of elders will follow suit by the end of the year.
“Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return quickly,” Larson said during a special congregational meeting at the church’s main campus. “There is urgency to move in a better direction.”
Larson said that Steve Gillen, currently lead pastor of the church’s North Shore campus, will serve as interim lead pastor of the entire congregation. He’ll be tasked with setting up a new pastoral team.
Missy Rasmussen, one of the church’s departing elders, apologized to the women who came forward with allegations against Hybels. She said the elder board had been “blinded” to the pain and suffering of these women and asked for forgiveness.
“We have no reason to not believe any of you. We are sorry that our initial statements were so insensitive, defensive and reflexively protective of Bill,” Rasmussen said. “We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.”