When the #MeToo movement arose this past fall, Willow Creek Community Church sprang into action.
“If you’ve been sexually harassed or harmed, your pain matters—to us and to God,” the suburban Chicago megachurch posted on its Facebook page, along with details about how to get help.
A handful of Willow Creek’s female leaders, including cofounder Lynne Hybels, also joined the Silence Is Not Spiritual campaign, calling on evangelical churches to stand up for women who had experienced sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Now the megachurch may have a #ChurchToo problem, one that pits cofounder Bill Hybels against some of his longtime friends.
A group of former pastors and staff members has accused Hybels of a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct, the Chicago Tribune reported tonight.
The group includes John and Nancy Ortberg, well-known pastors and authors who are both former teaching pastors at Willow Creek and longtime friends of Bill and Lynne Hybels. It also includes Leanne Mellado, a former Willow staff member who is married to Santiago “Jim” Mellado, the former longtime head of the Willow Creek Association (WCA) and current president and CEO of Compassion International.
At issue are allegations of pastoral misconduct by Bill Hybels, a bestselling author and founding pastor of one of America’s largest churches.
“The alleged behavior included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms,” according to the Tribune. “It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true.”
Bill Hybels has denied the allegations and says his former friends are colluding against him.
“This has been a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years. It’s time that gets identified,” he told the Tribune. “I want to speak to all the people around the country that have been misled … for the past four years and tell them in my voice, in as strong a voice as you’ll allow me to tell it, that the charges against me are false. There still to this day is not evidence of misconduct on my part.”
“The lies you read about in the Tribune article are the tools this group is using to try to keep me from ending my tenure here at Willow with my reputation intact,” Hybels told his congregation in a statement Thursday evening. “Many of these alleged incidents purportedly took place more than  years ago. The fact that they have been dredged up now and assembled in a calculated way demonstrates the determination of this group to do as much damage as they possibly can.”
Willow Creek’s elder board said it conducted a “thorough and independent investigation” into Hybels’s conduct and cleared him, as had its outside counsel [full statement below]. It accused Hybels’s critics of making a “coordinated effort to undermine Bill’s reputation.”
Some of the alleged misconduct dates to the late 1990s.
Nancy Beach, a former teaching pastor, told the Tribune that she traveled to Europe with Hybels in 1999 and that he asked her to stay a few extra days. She declined. But during the trip, he allegedly said his marriage was unhappy. Instead of work, Hybels wanted to have long dinners and walks on the beach.
One night, he allegedly asked her to his room for a glass of wine, then gave her a long, lingering hug.
“He would always say, ‘You don’t know how to hug,’” she told the Tribune. “‘That’s not a real hug.’ So it was like a lingering hug that made me feel uncomfortable. But again, I’m trying to prove that I’m this open person.”
Hybels also allegedly asked Beach to hang out at his house after midweek services, when his wife was not at home. She did at first and then stopped.
Vonda Dyer, a former Willow Creek employee, told the Tribune that Hybels told a joke about oral sex while they were out on his boat with another staff woman—a claim Hybels denies. She also says he repeatedly asked her to come to his hotel room.
One occasion he allegedly started caressing and kissing her.
And while Hybels coached men to abide by the so-called “Billy Graham rule”—never being alone with a women he was not married to—he often broke that rule, according to the Tribune.
“He told me what he thought about how I looked, very specifically, what he thought about my leadership gifts, my strengths,” she told the Tribune. Hybels allegedly told her she was sexy. “That was the night that he painted a picture of what great leaders we would be. We could lead Willow together,” she said.
Hybels again denied the allegation.
“This has reached a point that I can’t sit silently by and listen to these allegations anymore,” he told the Tribune. “I will dispute what she said to my dying breath. She is telling lies.”
Earlier this week, before the allegations became public, Lynne Hybels announced on her blog that she was taking a “radical sabbatical,” backing off her social media and her public presence.
Like many #MeToo cases, the allegations against Hybels have been brewing for some time. And the allegations are not simple. Nor are they clear.
Concerns about Bill Hybels’s conduct first surfaced about five years ago.
At the time, Jim Mellado, who helped launch Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit, had just taken the job as president of Compassion, and he and his wife were about to move to Colorado. At a goodbye party, a friend and former Willow Creek staffer told Leanne Mellado that she had had a long-term romantic relationship with Bill Hybels.
Mellado learned the alleged relationship had lasted more than a decade. At first, she supported this friend and talked through what had happened. Then Leanne Mellado felt she needed to tell the elders at Willow Creek what she had learned.
Her friend balked—afraid that the revelations might harm the church—and said she’d deny having a relationship with Bill Hybels if the elders asked.
“I hope you understand. But if it comes to forcing me, I will be silent,” the woman wrote in an email reviewed by the Tribune. “I feel I should not have trusted you.” The woman did not respond to Tribune requests for comment. She later told Mellado there was flirting and insinuations but no relationship.
Willow Creek says when elders interviewed the woman, she “apologized forthrightly for making a false statement and wrote a full retraction,” noting that she was “very angry at Willow” at the time. Willow also said the woman apologized personally to Lynne Hybels for lying.
Willow’s highest ranking elder allegedly found more than 1,100 emails between Bill Hybels and the woman he allegedly had a relationship with, but was not able to read them, according to the Tribune.
The WCA board also learned of the allegations. Among the leaders on the WCA board at the time were Nancy Ortberg; Kara Powell, a professor at Fuller Seminary; Jon Wallace, president of Azusa Pacific University; and former Amway president Dick DeVos, who is married to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The WCA board voted against calling for an investigation, in a split decision. Not long after the vote, Ortberg, Powell, and Wallace resigned.
“It is our firm belief that leaders should be open to examination of and accountability for our actions,” Wallace and Powell told the Tribune in a joint statement.
Compassion later canceled a contract to be a sponsor of Willow Creek’s leadership summit.
Since that time, Nancy Ortberg and others have continued to work behind the scenes to address the matter.
The Ortbergs and Mellados were once close enough to Bill and Lynne Hybels that the three couples were part of a home Bible study. Now they are estranged.
The former staff members say they still believe in the ministry of Willow Creek, but they fear the church has lost sight of its ideals. They say Bill Hybels often taught that churches are only as healthy as their leaders—and now they fear the church they loved has become ill.
The entire process has been painful, John Ortberg told the Tribune. He said that Hybels has accused him and other of plotting his downfall.
“It’s absolutely not the case,” John Ortberg told the Tribune. “This information came to us in a way that was unlooked for, unwanted, and it put us in a terrible situation. To say I was motivated to find a problem couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Willow Creek eventually hired Jeffrey Fowler of Laner Muchin in Chicago, to investigate Hybels. The Mellados and Ortbergs brought along Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), as an adviser. Some of the alleged victims of harassment did not participate.
The investigation cleared Hybels. The report has not been released.
“After looking at thousands of documents, after interviewing 29 people, and doing as much as I possibly could, I concluded that there was no basis for believing that Pastor Hybels had engaged in a pattern and practice of misconduct, and to the extent any specific incident had been raised with me, I concluded that his actions in those instances were not inappropriate,” Fowler told the Tribune.
The Ortbergs and Leanne Mellado say the allegations against Bill Hybels are serious enough to require a third-party investigation, They say the church has consistently avoided taking action to hold its founding pastor accountable.
That flies in the face of everything Bill Hybels taught as a pastor, say the former staffers. They say he always taught them to do the right thing—even when it was hard.
Hybels made the same claims in public.
“Every time you compromise character, you compromise leadership,” he warned pastors in a 2001 Leadership Journal article.
“Your culture will only ever be as healthy as the senior leader wants it to be,” he told attendees at Willow Creek’s 2014 leadership summit.
Past summits have featured powerhouse speakers such as former President Bill Clinton, Bono, Colin Powell, Jack Welch, and Carly Fiorina. Actor Denzel Washington headlines the 2018 summit this August.
The church, founded in the Willow Creek Theater in Barrington, Illinois, also remains an evangelical powerhouse—and a model for churches around the country. It boasts a worship attendance of more than 25,000, making it the sixth-largest church in Outreach Magazine’s list of America’s 100 largest churches.
The allegations will have ripples far beyond the church.
For decades, Willow Creek has been touted as a model organization by pastors and business leaders alike, says Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion and a megachurch researcher at Hartford Seminary.
Willow Creek been studied by researchers from Harvard Business School; Jim Mellado even cowrote a famed case story while at Harvard in the 1990s. And its leadership summit gives the church a worldwide reach.
“Whether it was their approach to the unchurched, to church leadership education, or to member spiritual development, Willow and Hybels were the model to imitate,” Thumma told CT.
Which makes the allegations against Bill Hybels all the more concerning. The fallout from them could be significant, Thumma said.
“This situation certainly spells another serious blow to the image of Christianity in American culture, especially to younger generations who already perceive religious leaders as suspect,” said Thumma. “Hybels has, in many writings and speeches, made clear what the standard for clergy conduct should be. If these allegations are true, he would be guilty of not just betraying his family and congregation, but the larger Christian world to whom he preached these standards.”
Megachurch pastors are no more flawed that pastors of small churches, said Thumma. But they fall harder, and with more consequences, because of their outsized influence both in the church and the broader culture.
Yet they are often seen as untouchable.
“The mega platform of these churches, with their thousands of followers, millions of dollars, and outsized social influence demand structures of accountability beyond the individual clergy’s conscience and godly morality,” said Thumma. “Yet even the sincerest board or well-meaning council of elders find it difficult to stand up to the founder of such a seemingly ‘mighty work of God.’”
Still he says, Willow Creek should be able to survive, even if the allegations against Bill Hybels are true.
“Willow Creek is known for its health and vitality as a faith community,” he said. “Its viability doesn’t rest only on the shoulders of Bill Hybels.”
The allegations come as plans were already underway for a leadership transition at Willow Creek.
The church has named two staffers—executive pastor Heather Larson and teaching pastor Steve Carter—to succeed Hybels in October 2018.
Bill Hybels has been known for having a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual misconduct. Several pastors and staff members have been fired during his tenure for violating the church’s conduct policy; most notably, the former pastor of its downtown Chicago campus.
His critics believe the church’s culture has become unhealthy at its core—with no one who can hold the founding pastor accountable.
That’s something Bill Hybels warned against from Willow Creek’s earliest days.
“I don’t want this place ever to be known as Bill Hybels’s church,” he told the late Bob McClory, a Northwestern University journalism professor who profiled the church for the Chicago Reader in the early 1990s. “I don’t want any kind of personality cult here. Our sole purpose is to turn irreligious people into followers of Jesus Christ.”
“I hate that the leaders of our church have had to spend so much time and energy on these matters,” Hybels told the Willow congregation Thursday. “I’m heartbroken that my family—my children and grandchildren—have had to endure this. I hate the way these lies have affected the wider church community. I can’t tell you the frustration this has caused me, but I have to leave it in God’s hands. It’s the only thing I can do.”
Beach said that she felt conflicted about coming forward. But she wants the truth to be known.
“He changed my life. I wouldn’t have the opportunities I’ve had,” Beach told the Tribune. “I know that. I’m very clear on that. I credit him for that. But then there’s this other side.”
After the Tribune story broke, Willow Creek issued a statement in support of Hybels and explained how it had already investigated the allegations both internally and externally.
Willow stated that two unnamed couples have “engaged in a coordinated effort to undermine Bill’s reputation” and have made unfair demands:
The two couples made specific demands outlining how they wanted the investigation to unfold and the control that they wanted to have—demands that our Elders deemed unreasonable and unbiblical. These demands included the following:
These couples (non-Willow members) would approve the choice of the investigator.
The investigation would run the full course of Bill’s adulthood (from 18 years old and ongoing).
These couples would be able to choose the witnesses who were interviewed, and all people interviewed would have full indemnification.
The investigation reports would all be public regardless of the outcome.
These couples would insist that there be a public admission of anything that they (not the investigator or the Elders) deemed inappropriate.
“Despite the fact that this group previously agreed to leave the investigation in the hands of the Elders, they continued to be unsatisfied,” stated the church. “They also continued to contact pastors and key influencers across the country to share misleading and damaging information about a process that they refused to be involved in and knew nothing about.”
Willow Creek stated that the charges against Hybels are unfounded and that Hybels will remain in his role until he retires.
“We have full confidence in Bill’s character,” stated Pam Orr, chair of Willow’s elder board. “And we look forward to him continuing in his role as senior pastor until he transitions as planned in October of this year.”
This small group of former staff members has articulated outright to several people that they believe Bill does not deserve to finish his ministry tenure at Willow well, despite the thorough and conscientious investigative process that has cleared his name. It has become clear to us that they have decided to spread this sentiment through rumors and now through the media. They aggressively shopped the story to multiple media outlets. These actions fail to live up to biblical standards, and they have caused much pain for many people. We have deep sadness over the broken relationships with people we have respected and people we love. We are grieved for Bill and his family. After 42 years of faithfully pastoring you and me, our congregation, and after his family giving sacrificially, this has been painful beyond words for them.
Willow Creek also sent an email to its massive congregation about the Tribune story, and plans a meeting Friday to address the accusations. The letter also states that former church members “want to damage the reputation of our church and our senior pastor.”
The full text of the letter reads:
Dear Church Family,
We want to share something with you of serious concern. The Chicago Tribune just published an article that is extremely negative toward Willow Creek. It is based on false allegations resulting from a campaign by a group of former church members who want to damage the reputation of our church and our senior pastor. They have mounted a campaign to accuse Bill of inappropriate behavior.
In the spirit of honesty and transparency, we have cooperated fully with that local media outlet because we have nothing to hide. The story does not represent the hard work of our Elders or the thorough investigations.
Click here to listen to statements from our Elder Board Chair, Pam Orr, and from Bill, which tell the true story about the allegations and about the rigorous investigations that cleared our pastor of wrongdoing.
We will have a church family meeting on Friday at 7 p.m. at our South Barrington campus. Bill and the Elders will directly address the accusations in the story.
We deeply appreciate you, and humbly ask for your prayers.
The Willow Creek Elders