An independent investigation has concluded that the sexual harassment allegations that led to Bill Hybels’s resignation last year are credible, based on a six-month investigation into the claims against the senior pastor and into Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) and the Willow Creek Association (WCA).
The newly released 17-page report places the blame for such incidents on Hybels himself and not the broader culture at either organization, though it concludes that both the church and the association could benefit from more thorough written policies to address inappropriate behavior.
After fielding calls, conducting interviews, and reviewing forensics IT findings, the four-person Independent Advisory Group (IAG) investigating Hybels and Willow Creek found that the “collective testimony” of “allegations of sexually inappropriate words and actions” by the now-retired megachurch pastor proved reliable and would have been sufficient reason for church discipline had Hybels not left the church.
A series of allegations against the 67-year-old evangelical visionary became public in a report by the Chicago Tribune last March, where a group of former Willow Creek pastors and staff accused Hybels of a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct, including suggestive remarks, invitations to his hotel rooms, prolonged hugs, and an unwanted kiss.
Hybels and Willow Creek initially rebutted the claims; eventually, as more women came forward, Hybels resigned, the church launched an investigation, and his successors and church elders stepped down last year as well.
The report into Hybels and the culture at WCCC and WCA was released this week through the church, six months after the team (Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita of The Wesleyan Church; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Margaret Diddams, provost of Wheaton College; and Gary Walter, past president of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago) began their investigation.
“Our desire is to move forward into this new season with transparency, acknowledging that truth coming to light can oftentimes be difficult and painful,” wrote Willow elders, as they presented the report to their church body this week.
According to the findings, Hybels “verbally and emotionally intimidated” both female and male employees, while church board members were “unable to provide effective oversight” to keep him accountable.
The report acknowledges that Hybels’s management style was a “source of growth and global impact” to the church and the association. But investigators concluded “the negative use of power, influence, and management style caused dysfunction in these organizations’ abilities to consistently implement policies, manage personnel, and handle an unexpected crisis.”
The IAG members indicated that the issues at Willow Creek were confined to Hybels’s longtime role—he founded the suburban Chicago church in 1975 and the affiliated association, which runs the Global Leadership Summit, in 1992.
“The corporate culture issues were primarily related to the presence and leadership of their shared founder and are not necessarily pervasive in the future of the church and association,” the report stated.
As a result, the IAG members advised the organizations to:
Proceed with caution in establishing unusual structures and restriction on future church pastors and elders based on experiences with the founder of WCCC and the WCA. Future leaders should not be unnecessarily restricted, disciplined, or mistrusted because of past behaviors or experiences that did not involve them.
The report recommends both WCCC and WCA establish written procedures for dealing with sinful behavior among employees, the discipline and restoration of leaders, external investigations of senior staff, and also “standards of appropriate and inappropriate, language, jokes, relationships, and use of alcohol by staff and volunteers.”
Though Willow no longer has disciplinary authority over Hybels, the IAG members did suggest that he seek counsel on his own. They also suggest that the church offer financial assistance to cover counseling costs for those “directly harmed” by their interactions with him.
Willow’s elder board pledged to review church policies in light of the report, and asked for the congregation’s patience as they process the findings.
“While we cannot change the events of the past, we grieve what has happened, ask for forgiveness, and commit ourselves to pursuing healing and reconciliation,” they wrote.
IAG members have declined to take questions from the press regarding the investigation.
“Biblical faith and Christian values are lived out in difficult circumstances,” they stated. “As faithful followers of Jesus Christ, the challenges at Willow Creek provide an unusual opportunity for each believer to effectively think and behave like Jesus.
“Likewise, the two organizations [WCCC and WCA] may seize current challenges as opportunities to be humble and faithful models of Christian discipleship and stewardship.”
They concluded: “May God’s grace and mercy be experienced by all.”