Last night, Willow Creek Community Church made a promise to its members following the early departure of its founder and senior pastor, Bill Hybels.
“Even though Bill is no longer in his role, our work to resolve any shadow of doubt in the trustworthiness of [Willow] is not done,” the church’s board of elders told members in a Friday evening letter. “With the benefit of hindsight, we see several aspects of our past work that we would have handled differently, and we have identified several areas of learning.”
Last week, Hybels retired six months early after 40 years as leader of Willow Creek, calling recent allegations against him a distraction for the megachurch and its ministries. Hybels denied any wrongdoing. He did admit regretting that he first responded to the allegations with anger.
Yesterday, the elders similarly expressed regret in the way the church handled the allegations.
“We have at times communicated without a posture of deep listening and understanding,” they wrote. “We are sorry that at times our process appeared to diminish the deep compassion we have for all those involved in these matters.”
Likewise, the elders said they would work on “strengthening the relationship of accountability with our church leaders.”
“Bill acknowledged that he placed himself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid,” the elders wrote. “We agree, and now recognize that we didn’t hold him accountable to specific boundaries.”
The elders also said they wished they had worked harder “to collaborate with all parties,” and promised to “methodically examine our church culture, enhancing policies and informal practices that support healthy and valuable working relationships between men and women.”
Within the next 45 days, the elders will be examining reports that Hybels made unwanted sexual comments and advances to several women, including “allegations that have not been previously investigated by the Elder Board.” The elders said they would “seek wise counsel and work with experts, developing a collaborative process.”
“We commit that each woman willing to speak with us will be heard, and that we will respect her story,” they wrote.
The elders also said they would “walk alongside Bill in stewarding his season of reflection well and [we] are committed to working together on appropriate next steps with him.”
The allegations the elder board refers to include new allegations that Christianity Today has tried to ask Willow leaders and Hybels about since before his resignation.
Christianity Today talked with six women who have made allegations against Hybels and reviewed emails and documents about the allegations.
CT also spoke with two former staff members and a longtime Willow Creek elder, all of whom have pushed for an independent investigation of Hybels’s conduct.
On three occasions, Hybels offered to do interviews with CT about the allegations. All three times he backed out.
Lack of boundaries
So far, at least seven women have accused Hybels of improper conduct and abuse of power. They include the first woman teaching pastor at Willow Creek, a former worship leader, several former staffers, two church members, and the former head of a prominent evangelical publisher. One other woman accused him of an affair—then recanted that claim.
Their accounts follow similar patterns: that Hybels pressured women into spending time alone with him.
During the April 10 meeting when he announced his resignation, Hybels apologized for his habit of meeting alone with women in private settings, including in hotel rooms and at his home.
“I placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid,” he said. “I was naïve about the dynamics those situations created. I’m sorry for the lack of wisdom on my part. I commit to never putting myself in similar situations again.”
Several women who have accused him of misconduct believe Hybels has mischaracterized these incidents, leading some to believe that he was talking about women who were pursuing him.
“People weren’t coming on to him,” said one to CT. “He was coming on to them.”
Maureen “Moe” Girkins, former president of Zondervan, a major evangelical publisher, told CT that Hybels made no overt sexual advances towards her, but spoke in sexually inappropriate ways and pressured her to meet him alone outside their professional relationship.
For example, she said, in 2008, “Bill indicated that if I wanted [to publish] his book, I needed to work on the terms with him personally on the way home in his private jet,” she told CT. “I asked if my husband could join us. [Bill] said, no, he needed to find another way home.”
Girkins left her husband, who had been hospitalized with heart trouble while at the conference, to find his own way home and flew with Hybels to close the deal.
Once the deal was done, Girkins says Hybels insisted on meeting with her personally throughout the publishing process, rather than working with her staff.
That meant a number of one-on-one meetings: often at his beach home in Michigan, on his yacht, on his jet, or at restaurants near Hybels’s summer home. During those meetings, the conversations often got personal, she said. And at times inappropriate.
“A good example would be the first time he saw me dressed casually,” she said. “He made a big deal of how I looked in jeans and said I needed to dress sexy more often.”
Girkins said no other Christian leader she has worked with has asked her to meet one-on-one in a secluded place or private setting.
Their last one-on-one meeting happened in 2011, not long after she had left Zondervan.
According to Girkins, Hybels suggested they get together and talk. He docked his boat at a slip near her home in Michigan and asked her to pick up a bottle of wine and some dinner. He also asked her to keep the meeting secret.
“Then he asked me not to pick him up at the dock, but a couple blocks down the street,” she said. “When he explained that he didn’t want to be seen with me at the dock, I got this sick feeling in my gut.”
The two no longer were working together, she explained. So they couldn’t call it a work meeting. And hanging out at her house alone seemed completely inappropriate. That feeling was confirmed, Girkins said, after Hybels began to tell her about how she’d be more successful if she tried to be sexier.
While the two remained friends, they never met in a private setting again.
Concerns about Hybels go back decades.
Julia Williams first met him on the running track at the YMCA in Palatine, Illinois, in the mid-1980s. At first, she had no idea Hybels was a pastor. He was just one of a group of guys who ran at the track in the afternoons. Before long, the two struck up a friendship and would talk as they ran.
“He began becoming more flirtatious,” she told CT. “He starting discussing his family life—and how unhappy his marriage was. Just really ugly stuff.”
She said Hybels often would give her lingering hugs, especially if he’d missed seeing her. If she didn't come to the gym, Williams said, he called her at home.
“He began to pursue me,” she told CT.
Then one day, she mentioned that she and her husband were looking for a church. Hybels told them about Willow and that he was the pastor. That came as a bit of a shock. But Williams and her husband decided to give the church a chance.
It changed their lives, Williams says. She’d never been in a Bible study group before, and met a group of new friends there. There was an excitement at the church, with new people showing up all the time and great ministry being done.
“It was such a fantastic place,” she said.
Williams felt torn. She loved the church. And she knew something was wrong with the way Hybels interacted with her.
“I remember feeling that God was saying, ‘This is not OK,’ ” she said.
The worst moment came when she was on a leg extension weight machine at the Y and Hybels surprised her by walking up to her.
“He put his two hands on my thighs—started at my knees and rubbed up and down a couple of times,” she told CT. “I remember jumping off and we just started running. It was extremely uncomfortable. And obviously very inappropriate.”
She eventually confided in Betty Schmidt, her Bible study leader and one of the first elders at Willow Creek. Williams swore Schmidt to secrecy—a decision she now regrets.
Williams also said she decided to cut off contact with Hybels. She stopped going to the gym and avoided him while at church.
She said she eventually went to Hybels’s office and said she could no longer be friends with him. The flirting and other behavior was wrong, she told him. And she told him to stop calling her.
“He didn’t own up to anything,” she said. “There was nothing from him that said, ‘I am really sorry that I came across like that.’”
Thirty years later, Williams said she still finds it hard to talk about her experience with Hybels. The church has done such a great work and changed people’s lives all over the world. She says Willow changed her life and she is grateful for her time there.
Which makes it painful to question Hybels’s conduct.
Still, she said, she feels compelled to come forward—especially after hearing the stories of other women who accused Hybels of inappropriate conduct.
For at least one woman, her encounter with Hybels is still embarrassing, more than 30 years later.
“It sounds so weird to say I spent the night in Bill Hybels’s hotel room?” she said. “This is so embarrassing to say out loud.”
The woman—who requested anonymity due to her employment situation—said she met Hybels at a conference for youth pastors in the mid-1980s near Mount Shasta in California.
It was a relatively small event, with only about 80 people. She was one of the few women.
Hybels came up to the pool and began talking to her. He was charming and funny, she said. They eventually went on a run together to a nearby dam.
After the run, he asked her up to his room to watch a movie. She says that his attention was flattering. Even then, Hybels was a big deal. And she thought he was trustworthy.
“I thought it was okay at the time,” she told CT.
Before long, she said, they were sitting on his bed, having a long conversation as the movie played. Hybels allegedly talked about all the pressure he was under while building the church and raising a family.
She remembers him saying that her boyfriend was not good for her and that she had great leadership potential.
“He told me he could get me a job at Willow Creek,” she said.
At some point, he started rubbing her feet.
There was no sexual activity, she told CT. Once she left, she never heard from him again. For years, she kept the encounter a secret—even from her boyfriend, who later became her husband.
“It was just so weird,” she said.
Ross Peterson, a counselor and consultant who has spent years working with troubled pastors, said it’s rare for pastors to meet one-on-one with a church member at the pastor’s home or in a hotel room. That would be unusual even in a secular work setting. And the relationship between a pastor and his or her congregation is more intense than a boss-employee relationship.
“When a pastor approaches somebody for affection or emotional connection, it really throws a wrench into the pastoral relationship,” he said.
Pastors—whether at megachurches or small-town congregations—often feel cut off and isolated, said Peterson. There are few people they can confide in, and few places where they can be themselves. And pastors often run on empty—giving everything to the church and becoming overextended.
When that happens, they can act in inappropriate ways, he said. “That part of us that says, ‘I’ve sacrificed so much, I deserve a little something for me.’”
Willow Creek told CT that the church was aware that Bill Hybels and his wife Lynne held one-on-one meetings at their home. The church did not have a policy banning or approving of such meetings. They called such meetings “rare.”
The church also allowed Hybels to book suites while traveling, so that he could hold private meetings with staff. He admitted in a church meeting that he’d often have staff members stay behind to talk. Leaders at Willow Creek declined a request for an interview about the stories of the women above.
“Willow Creek Community Church is committed to listening to and addressing all accusations against a pastor or leader brought to our attention,” the church told CT in a statement prior to Friday’s congregational letter. “We believe it is appropriate to address these matters directly with those voicing the concerns, rather than doing so in the media or other public forums.”
The church also said it has investigated all past claims it has received—and will try to meet with those who have made allegations.
“In recent weeks, many of us have persistently requested meetings with people mentioned or quoted in media accounts, but our efforts have been unsuccessful,” the church told CT in its earlier statement.
“The church will listen,” said Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for Willow. “All I can say is, try us and see.”