THE lead pastors and entire elder board of Willow Creek Church in Chicago, one of the United State’s largest megachurches, have resigned, after allegations were reported about the behaviour of its founder, Bill Hybels.
Mr Hybels left the church in April, six months before he was due to retire, after being accused of sexual harassment and misconduct by nine female former colleagues.
When the allegations first came to light, Mr Hybels denied them strenuously, saying that his former colleagues were seeking to damage his reputation. Willow Creek’s elders and Mr Hybels’s joint heirs as lead pastors — Steve Carter and Heather Larson — appeared to believe him: they convened a series of church meetings at which they sought to reassure church members that the allegations had been investigated and no evidence of misconduct found.
When it announced his early departure, however, the church said: “Bill acknowledged that he placed himself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.”
On Wednesday of last week, new allegations emerged. The New York Times reported that, during a two-year period in the 1980s, Mr Hybels had repeatedly groped his personal assistant, Pat Baranowski. “I really did not want to hurt the church,” Ms Baranowski told the paper. “I felt like if this was exposed, this fantastic place would blow up, and I loved the church.”
Mr Hybels told the newspaper: “I never had an inappropriate physical or emotional relationship with her before that time, during that time or after that time.”
On the day that the New York Times story was published, Mr Carter, announced his resignation on his blog. “The new facts and allegations that came to light this morning are horrifying,” he wrote.
He continued: “Since the first women came forward with their stories, I have been gravely concerned about our church’s official response, and its ongoing approach to these painful issues. After many frank conversations with our elders, it became clear that there is a fundamental difference in judgment between what I believe is necessary for Willow Creek to move in a positive direction, and what they think is best.”
Last Saturday, the elders of Willow Creek published a statement on the church’s website admitting that its initial investigations of allegations were flawed. Mr Hybels’s “sins were beyond what he previously admitted” and “he resisted the accountability structures we all need”.
It continued: “We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.”
The statement went on to say that the church had “engaged an outside, independent governance expert to conduct a robust governance review”.
It concluded: “We, as a board, know Willow needs and deserves a fresh start, and the entire board will step down to create room for a new board.”
Ms Larson also said that she would be standing down, since “the church needs a fresh start.”
Mr Hybels has been a huge influence on Evangelicals in the United States and the UK during the past 25 years. Many have attended his conferences on leadership and church growth, which proposed a “seeker-friendly” model of church. He has spoken at churches in the UK including Holy Trinity, Brompton, in London, and at that church’s Leadership Conference.
Mr Hybels’s best-selling books include Too Busy Not to Pray, and Who You Are When No One’s Looking.