The senior pastor and founder of one of America’s most prominent evangelical megachurches has stepped down following accusations of sexual misconduct.
Bill Hybels, who founded the Chicago-area Willow Creek Community Church in 1975, announced Tuesday evening that he was leaving his post. A March Chicago Tribune article called attention to Hybels’s alleged history of making unwanted advances to junior church staff members. The article also alleged that members of Willow Creek leadership had been aware of these reports and that members had been divided over the effectiveness of the church’s response.
Hybels’s resignation — one of many recent high-profile resignations over sexual misconduct in the evangelical community — suggests that the #MeToo movement may have, at last, reached the evangelical church.
But his departure points to another problem in the evangelical community: (Usually male) individual megachurch pastors have a large influence over their flock. And that influence makes it more difficult to pursue allegations against those leaders.
As Katelyn Beaty, an editor-at-large at the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, told Vox: “Many evangelical institutions are beholden to the power of celebrity and of charismatic men, and have staked too much of their future on the ‘success’ of those men, regardless of potential wrongdoing. There can be a fear that if ‘bad news’ comes out about those men or the church, it will harm the spread of the gospel.”
Willow Creek pioneered the “seeker-sensitive” model for megachurches
Hybels’s resignation is particularly significant because Willow Creek is a paradigm for evangelical megachurches across the United States. The church, which today boasts about 26,000 attendees every weekend, was an early pioneer of what is known as the “seeker-sensitive” model of churchgoing.
These churches actively sought to appeal to a modern, secular audience. Stressing easily understood sermons, contemporary music, and a charismatic pastor, Willow Creek became a successful, often replicated model. Willow itself diverged from the “seeker-sensitive” model in recent years, embracing a more traditional approach, but Hybels nevertheless was a particularly visible and influential figure in the evangelical community.
As Beaty put it: “You can’t understand the evangelical movement in the United States without understanding the Willow Creek story and its enormous growth over the past 30-plus years.” American author and church development consultant Lyle Schaller once called it “the most influential church in America.”
Rumors about Hybel have been swirling for a while
According to the Tribune, the Willow Creek church elders, an appointed committee of church leaders, had been made aware of Hybels’s alleged misconduct in 2013 and 2014.
This misconduct, according to the Tribune, included “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms,” as well as allegations of a decade-long consensual extramarital affair with a married woman who later retracted her claims.
(During an initial investigation, church officials found a record of more than 1,000 emails sent between Hybels and the woman in question but were unable to read them despite having access to the pastor’s electronic devices. He later said he’d failed to archive messages after his computer had been hacked in an unrelated incident.)
Among those who have come forward with their stories is Willow staff member Vonda Dyer, who recounted incidents of Hybels’s unwanted touching and sexual comments both to the Tribune and on her blog. Dyer recounts that he repeatedly made comments on her sexual desirability, her body, and her clothing. In February 1998, Dyer writes on her blog, Hybels tried to initiate a sexual affair during a Willow business trip to Sweden. She writes:
He told me he had taken Ambien. He then shared unfiltered thoughts about me, describing in great detail specific parts of my body he liked, and said he thought I was effusive, sexy and had great candor, mentioned what a promising leader I was, and he said, “We would be so good together. We could lead Willow together. ... He then put his hands on my waist, moved one hand to caress my stomach and kissed me on the lips
According to the Tribune, a number of other women, many unidentified, had come forward to church elders with similar stories over the past few months and years.
The handling of the accusations has divided church elders. An initial internal investigation was carried out in 2014, and Hybels was exonerated. But several members of church leadership argued that the investigation had been ill-designed and insufficient, relying heavily on the pastor’s own testimony and a cursory perusal of his financial and correspondence records.
Among those pushing for a more extensive investigation were John and Nancy Ortberg, former teaching pastors at Willow Creek; Jon Wallace, president at Azusa Pacific University; and Kara Powell, of Fuller Theological Seminary. In 2015, all three resigned from the board of Willow Creek Association, a nonprofit associated with the church, over frustration with the process.
A second investigation was carried out in 2017 on behalf of the church by Jeffrey Fowler of the law firm Laner Muchin in Chicago. The Ortbergs — as well as Jim and Leanne Mellado, another couple affiliated with Willow leadership who had been made aware of Hybels’s alleged victims — initially accepted the church’s invitation to be involved in the process, although none were directly affiliated with Willow at the time. (The Ortbergs had left direct ministry at Willow Creek for a California church in 2003, while the Mellados moved to Colorado in 2013.)
The Ortbergs and Mellados also retained as their legal adviser Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, grandson of evangelist Billy Graham and founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). The Ortbergs and Mellados ultimately found this second investigation, which also cleared Hybels, to be unsatisfactory.
In a recent post on his blog, John Ortberg decried the investigation process he witnessed as “poorly designed and likely to expose any woman who came forward to grave risks.” He noted that the law firm engaged by the church “exclusively represented” management, and cited concerns that such a firm could function as an impartial investigator in a dispute of this kind.
Formally, Willow Creek Church has steadfastly maintained Hybels’s innocence. Shortly after the Chicago Tribune story broke, Pam Orr, chair of the Willow Creek Elder Board, released a statement accusing “two couples” — they do not reference the Ortbergs and Mellados by name — of having “engaged in a coordinated effort to undermine Bill’s reputation.”
However, this week, Hybels’s early retirement announcement seemed to suggest that Willow Creek has, at last, bowed to critics’ pressure. While Hybels continued to deny the allegations against him, he apologized for his response to them. “I sincerely wish my initial response had been one of listening and humble reflection,” his statement said.
Hybels’s resignation has spurred discussion about how churches handle sexual misconduct in their ranks
Whether or not Hybels is guilty of sexual misconduct, the fact that he seems to have felt pressure to resign is a sign of a change in how the evangelical community deals with issues of sexual misconduct.
As Beaty noted: “Hybels’s early resignation — and especially the admittance that he was thinking through the allegations against him — signals that he understands that Christian leaders can’t continue on leading and serving as if nothing happened after women come forward with allegations of sexual harassment. Even if Hybels still believes he did nothing wrong, he at least understands that continuing on in a position of formal leadership is bad optics, especially in the #MeToo era.”
Tchividjian echoed her comments, telling Vox: “Did the current environment, in which we have seen more and more women in various cultures and environments ... step forward when they would have been silent in years past [inspire these women]? It did empower them to finally step forward to say something about a man that in their world is extremely powerful and influential.”
Tchividjian declined to discuss the specifics of the Hybels case, citing his legal work with the Ortbergs and Mellados. But like Beaty, he highlighted more generally the degree to which the Hybels case spoke to a specific cultural phenomenon in evangelical communities: pastors who are afforded too much power.
When a lead pastor is so closely identified with his church, Tchividjian said, whether in a small country church or a large megachurch, it creates a risky power imbalance between pastor and parishioner.
“In many communities ... a pastor is one of God’s representatives of authority in the church,” Tchividjian said. “And it’s very difficult for anybody in those settings and report and disclose this behavior because what you’re doing is you’re actually indicting God’s representative. And oftentimes ... that particular community doesn’t look too kindly on that.”
But Tchividjian expressed hope that the current cultural moment might provide avenues for parishioners to hold their spiritual authorities accountable.
“As Christians, we have to get back to the realization ... that the church doesn’t belong to a pastor, a person, or even a congregation,” he said. “If we truly believe that, we should embrace transparency and truth.”