Willow Creek Elders Step Down, Apologize for Mishandling Sexual Misconduct Allegations Against Former Pastor Bill Hybels

Lead pastor Heather Larson leaves the stage after resigning during a family service at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington on Aug. 8, 2018.
Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune

Answering critics’ calls to let new leaders shepherd northwest suburban Willow Creek Community Church, lead pastor Heather Larson and other church elders resigned Wednesday and apologized for mishandling allegations that church founder Bill Hybels engaged in improper behavior with women.

Larson and the elders announced their resignations Wednesday evening during a packed congregational meeting at the church’s South Barrington campus. Audience members applauded the elders’ decision. But some people audibly groaned over Larson’s announcement, and one even approached the stage in protest.

“It has become clear to me that this church needs a fresh start,” Larson said.

“This is really important,” she said. “Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return quickly. There is urgency to move us in a better direction.”

Hybels stepped down from the helm of the megachurch in April following a Tribune investigation that revealed allegations of misconduct with women — including church employees — that spanned decades. Women have continued to come forward with allegations, among them Hybels’ former executive assistant, who told The New York Times that she was sexually harassed and fondled by the pastor for over two years in the 1980s. Hybels denied those allegations.

The alleged behavior detailed by the Tribune included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms. It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who reversed herself and said her claim about the affair was not true when confronted by an elder in 2014. Hybels has denied the allegations against him but apologized to the congregation for taking a defensive stance “instead of one that invited conversation and learning.”

On Wednesday, church elder Missy Rasmussen told the congregation that elders believe Hybels’ sins go “beyond what he previously admitted on stage.

“We were not aware of many of the choices he made in private and therefore did not hold him accountable in meaningful ways,” said Rasmussen, who has served on the elder board for seven years.

Hybels was the subject of a series of inquiries overseen by Willow Creek’s elders, including one conducted by an outside law firm. He was cleared of any wrongdoing in those inquires. With the elders’ knowledge, he continued to counsel the woman who alleged, then retracted, her story of having a 14-year affair with Hybels. When members of the Willow Creek Association board questioned that conflict of interest, elders said he was fulfilling his pastoral duty because the woman was suicidal and had kept them informed every time the woman reached out to him.

On Wednesday, elders conceded that letting Hybels counsel the woman was wrong. They expressed regret for conducting their inquiries with the goal of finding definitive evidence of an affair, not with a goal of ensuring the pastor’s behavior was “above reproach.”

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SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, Manya Brachear Pashman