Pastor Bill Hybels & Willow Creek Elders Call “Family Meeting”, Tell Church About Investigative Inquiries Into Sexual Misconduct Claims Against Preacher

Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune
Founding and Senior Pastor Bill Hybels preaches during a Christmas service at Willow Creek Community Church on Dec. 23, 2017, in South Barrington. An investigation by the Chicago Tribune examined allegations of inappropriate behavior by Willow Creek Senior Pastor Bill Hybels, documented through interviews with current and former church members, elders and employees, as well as hundreds of emails and internal records.

The congregation of northwestern suburban Willow Creek Community Church gave the Rev. Bill Hybels a standing ovation Friday after he addressed allegations of improper behavior with women reported Thursday in the Chicago Tribune.

During a two-hour gathering that the church called a “family meeting,” Hybels, alongside a current and former elder, walked members through three inquiries overseen by elders over the last four years, all of which cleared Hybels of misconduct.

Hybels rebutted additional allegations reported in the Tribune. Pam Orr, the church’s highest-ranking elder, told the congregation that the elders would decide together how to address those claims.

“The accusations you hear in the Tribune are just flat-out lies,” Hybels told the packed sanctuary. He said he’s not sure he will be able to repair the strained relationships with former leaders who are pushing for more scrutiny.

Hybels, who has said since May 2012 that he would step down in October of this year, said he still intends to stay until his planned exit.

“I was not afraid to come to this meeting tonight,” he said. “I know the heart of this church. I knew that you would give all of us an even hearing. You wouldn’t rush to judgment.

“I will do my level best if you allow me to continue to serve here until October when I will retire,” he said, bringing the audience to its feet with applause. “I’m going to serve my heart out.”

The Chicago Tribune examined the allegations investigated by elders and other claims of inappropriate behavior by Hybels. Its investigation included interviews with current and former church members, elders and employees, as well as a review of hundreds of emails and internal records.

The alleged behavior 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 later said her claim about the affair was not true, the Tribune found.

Elders of the church — appointed members who oversee Willow Creek’s administration and pastor — had overseen the three reviews after claims about Hybels came to their attention more than four years ago.

Pushing for the investigation were two former teaching pastors and the wife of a longtime president of the Willow Creek Association, a nonprofit organization related to the church. Some of those pressing for more scrutiny say the church’s prior investigation had shortcomings in their opinion and at least three leaders of the association’s board resigned over what they believed was an insufficient inquiry.

Compassion International, a humanitarian aid agency, also chose not to renew its sponsorship of the church’s Global Leadership Summit over concerns about the association’s process for reviewing complaints about senior leaders.

Last year, after interviewing three law firms, Willow Creek elders told the congregation they hired outside attorney Jeffrey Fowler to re-examine the case behind the first inquiry, as well as two other allegations that had surfaced.

Orr told the congregation that elders wanted an independent external investigator who had experience in workplace issues and was a “Christ follower.”

“You could tell his heart was turned toward Christ,” Orr said.

In an interview with the Tribune, Fowler said his review of emails and interviews with 29 individuals led to no findings of misconduct, even if the investigation was somewhat hampered by not having the full cooperation of many involved in the matter.

“To the extent any specific incident had been raised with me, I concluded that his actions in those instances were not inappropriate,” Fowler said.

Elders called Fowler back last November to investigate another allegation, which he closed in February, again clearing Hybels.

Hybels’ successors Heather Larson and Steve Carter moderated Friday’s meeting, occasionally interjecting with questions that had been emailed by the audience. Some asked why the church never informed congregants in the last four years that their pastor had faced allegations and had been cleared.

“Wow, a lot of you are sending that in,” Larson said, turning to Orr. “Why didn’t the church know these investigations were going on?”

Orr said that since the inquiries cleared Hybels, it didn’t seem right to share the fact that there had been an investigation.

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SOURCE: Chicago Tribune – Manya Brachear Pashman