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” rather than launching an independent investigation.
“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.
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Source: Christianity Today