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Megachurch leadership resigns to protest their church’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations

Months after Bill Hybels stepped down in disgrace from Willow Creek Community Church, his successors have resigned.

Bill Hybels in 2010, when he was senior pastor of the 12,000-plus member Willow Creek Community Church. He stepped down after sexual misconduct allegations in April 2018.
Charles Dharapak/AP

The full leadership team of the Chicago-area megachurch Willow Creek has resigned months after megachurch pastor Bill Hybels stepped down in disgrace due to a series of sexual misconduct allegations. Calling past internal investigations into Hybels’ behavior “flawed,” the committee of church elders said in a Wednesday statement that “Willow needs and deserves a fresh start, and the entire board will step down to create room for a new board.” Heather Larson, one of two co-lead pastors at Willow Creek, also stepped down, saying, “Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return is the job of a leader to put the team and the organization first, and I am committed to doing that.”

Their departure comes days after the resignation of Steve Carter, Larson’s co-lead pastor The church will also launch a new internal investigation into Hybels’s alleged behavior, due to the fallout from news reports. These developments follow the Sunday publication of a New York Times report detailing additional allegations against Hybels.

Carter wrote in his blog that he had been unsatisfied with the response of the leadership committee of church elders to allegations against Hybels when they first broke. Back in 2013 and 2014, church elders had been made aware of separate instances of harassment that had taken place over the prior two decades, including unwanted touching, kissing, and sexual comments made to parishioners and church employees, according to a March story in the Chicago Tribune, which first reported on the allegations.

The initial allegations against Hybels, who stepped down as pastor in April, included a long-term consensual extramarital affair with an anonymous Willow Creek staffer, who had shared her experience with another staffer, Leanne Mellado, who had taken her concerns to the board. That anonymous staffer, according to Christianity Today, later refused to cooperate in any investigation. Hybels was found not guilty of wrongdoing by an internal church investigation in 2014.

In 2015, several church elders, including John and Nancy Ortberg, both former Willow Creek teaching pastors, registered their objections to what they saw as the board’s unwillingness to take the allegations sufficiently seriously, as well as what they saw as flaws in the internal investigative process. In a blog post, Ortberg called the investigation “poorly designed and likely to expose any woman who came forward to grave risks,” and expressed doubt that it was truly designed to be impartial. In 2017, a second internal investigation also found Hybels not guilty of wrongdoing.

The Tribune reported numerous additional allegations of misconduct from women, many of whom were former Willow Creek staffers. Most of the incidents described by accusers took place in the 1990s, often on staff work trips, and included indecent propositions, unwanted touching and kissing, and verbal harassment.

No formal action was taken against Hybels until this spring, when Hybels accelerated his planned retirement shortly after the Tribune story broke. He denied all allegations against him, but admitted only that “I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.” When he announced his retirement, the Times reported, his congregation responded with audible consternation and shouts of “no!”

The more recent Times report centered on the figure of Pat Baranowski, Hybels’s former assistant, who reported numerous incidents of sexual harassment, unwanted touching, and sexual contact over a period of two years during the period of her employment in the late 1980s. Baranowski told the Times that Hybels asked her to watch pornography with him for a research project, that he repeatedly touched her breasts and rubbed against her, and that they engaged in oral sex on one occasion. She said Hybels retaliated against her when she asked him to stop berating her publicly and privately, and stop disparaging her abilities to colleagues.

Carter characterized Baranowski’s story as the final straw in his decision to leave Willow Creek.

”Since the first women came forward with their stories,” Carter wrote. “I have been gravely concerned about our church’s official response, and it’s ongoing approach to these painful issues. After many frank conversations with our elders, it became clear that there is a fundamental difference in judgment between what I believe is necessary for Willow Creek to move in a positive direction, and what they think is best.”

Carter said he had already decided to resign his post, and had held off the announcement out of respect to other Willow Creek elders, who had asked for time to be able to better spin his decision. But, Carter wrote, the severity of Baranowski’s allegations prompted him to make his resignation public earlier than planned. “The new facts and allegations that came to light this morning are horrifying,” he wrote, “and my heart goes out to Ms. Baranowski and her family for the pain they have lived with.”

The allegations at Willow Creek, and the division of church leadership in response to them, reflects wider fractures within the evangelical community, which has seen many of its leaders brought low in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Several evangelical titans have recently been pressured to resign or retire, including Hybels; Tennessee megachurch pastor Andy Savage, accused of sexual misconduct with a minor; and former Southern Baptist Convention president Paige Patterson, accused of making sexist remarks and encouraging women to forgive their abusive husbands. The fractures have prompted wider discussions about evangelical expectations around gender norms, sexuality, and consent.

Willow Creek has struggled to recover from the Hybels allegations

In recent months, Willow Creek has been divided in its response to the allegations against Hybels, a beloved pastor whose personality had become all but synonymous with the church he had founded. Hybels, who founded the nondenominational evangelical church in 1975, pioneered a movement known as the “seeker-sensitive” model for churches.

Focusing on accessible sermons, music that reflected popular tastes, and an informal approach to worship, “seeker-sensitive” churches aimed to meet the needs of parishioners who might feel uncomfortable in a more formal or “traditional” church setting. The model, worked — setting the standard for megachurches across the globe, many of which used the approach to vastly increase their number of parishioners. Today, there are more than 1,300 megachurches in America, nearly all rooted in the “seeker-sensitive” model of teaching. Willow Creek, however, remains particularly successful, boasting about 26,000 parishioners per week.

Because of this approach, Hybels’s charisma and personality became all but synonymous with the Willow Creek “brand,” which many of Hybels’s accusers say made it harder for them to feel they could speak out.

“How could he have done all this good when there were such dark things happening behind the scenes?” another accuser, Nancy Beach, who also worked at Willow Creek, asked the Times.

Since Hybels’s resignation in April, the church’s leadership has publicly apologized for failing to appropriately address the accusations against him. Heather Larson, Carter’s fellow lead teaching pastor, said: “It was stated [after the Chicago Tribune story broke] that the allegations are all lies, and I do not believe that. I should have jumped in and declared that personally right away when that statement was made. I believe the stories that Bill had interactions that were hurtful to these women. That is wrong, and I hope and pray that someday this can be made right. I ask for forgiveness that I did not personally declare that sooner.”

For Carter, however, Willow Creek did not take sufficient accountability for its reticence to act against Hybels.

As more allegations against Hybels become public, more churches are withdrawing from the Willow Creek-affiliated Global Leadership Summit (GLS), a Christian leadership conference normally streamed and simulcast worldwide. Scheduled for August 9-10, the event — which has been hosted by Hybels for 20 years — was originally supposed to be simulcast at almost 700 churches worldwide. Since Hybels’s retirement, however, at least 111 churches have withdrawn from the GLS, with more expected to withdraw following the Times revelations.

Vineyard Cincinnati Church in Ohio, one of the churches to withdraw from the summit, explained its decision in a statement on its website: “God cares deeply how those who possess power use that power. We pray that women everywhere who have suffered would see that God’s people stand with them and love them and care for them.”

Hybels continues to deny the allegations against him. He told the New York Times, “I never had an inappropriate physical or emotional relationship with [Baranowski] before that time, during that time, or after that time.”

Correction: this article previously misstated the name of Hybel’s successor. It is Steve Carter, not Sam Carter.

Update: this article has been updated to reflect the resignation of additional Willow Creek officials