Bill Hybels, Willow Creek and Truth

Yesterday, pastor Bill Hybels announced his resignation from Willow Creek, an influential megachurch in the Chicago area. Hybels resignation comes on the heels of several allegations of sexual misconduct that have come to light recently. The allegations have been the focus of reporting in the Chicago Tribune including “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms,” and “also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true.” Hybels vehemently denied all allegations to the Tribune in an interview.

A Mess at Willow Creek

The Tribune story is worth reading as it details several account of women who accuse Hybels of misconduct and it also includes his response to each. It contains the account of former staff members who left the church when they felt that the elders handling of the investigation was inadequate. In the Tribune article, Hybels accused two former staff members of colluding against him. His resignation was offered as “the controversy has distracted his church’s leaders from their mission and has hurt the church’s ministries.” In his resignation he did not admit to any sexual sin.

Betty Schmidt was one of the church lay leaders who had raised concerns about Hybels with other leaders. In the Christianity Today article, she said of his resignation, “I don’t think that was much of an apology. An apology with no contrition is no apology at all.” She also added, “Bill laid out his won restoration path there. He dictated all the terms of what he is going to do. I don’t see that as being biblical.”

Where is the Truth?

Reading through all of this is sad, honestly. On one side you have Willow Creek and Bill Hybels who stand firm on their story along with an attorney they hired who says he is telling the truth. On the other are a group of former leaders who left because they feel that the truth was never told and that Hybels story and pattern of behavior were never checked. There is an underlying  black and white truth here and someone is misrepresenting the facts. The biggest problem is that there will be a lot of church members who will be disillusioned and caught in between the two groups trying to figure out the truth on their own. This is one of the reasons that churches need to have a plan in place to deal with issues like this before they happen.

Did Bill Hybels Fall?

So is Bill Hybels a fallen pastor? In his resignation he said, “I realize now that in certain settings and circumstances in the past I communicated things that were perceived in ways I did not intend, at times making feel uncomfortable,” and “I placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.” His continued presence at the church was apparently interfering with its continued mission and he acknowledged some kind of misstep. However, there was no acknowledgment of moral failure. Willow Creek went as far to hire an independent counsel to clear his name and to release a statement clearing him. Again, the biggest losers are the congregation who are trying to figure out what exactly happened and who they can trust.

What Can We Learn From This?

We can learn several things from the events that have unfolded at Willow Creek. Whether you’re a pastor, church leader or member of a megachurch or country congregation, we can all learn something. The events that unfolded at Willow Creek can prepare us before the first accusation comes rolling in.

External checks are not enough to prevent failure or accusations of failure. Willow Creek had an annual review of their pastor. This is a good plan in place, but external prevention can only go so far. You can keep the door open for counseling or not be alone in a room with a woman, but if your heart isn’t right, you’ll find a way to cheat eventually.

Before the first hint of moral failure arrives, your church must have a plan in place. Willow Creek launched an internal investigation, but there were some who felt that it did not go far enough. Should a church that large have hired an external, independent investigation sooner, especially with legal ramifications at hand? Your church should have a written policy ready to deal with any accusation that will come your way. This policy should include who will deal with accusations of moral failure, how to deal with them and a proper model of due process. Will your church use an outside group to investigate or will it be internal? These are all questions that need to be answered before the crisis arrives in your church.

Take every accusation seriously and create an environment where people who feel threatened are comfortable reporting their issues. When reading through the Chicago Tribune article, some of the people who made accusations seemed like they were uncomfortable speaking out when their alleged issues with Hybels occurred. Hybels denies it ever happened and the person who says it happened did not mention it until years later. In your church, there needs to be the ability for church workers, members or anyone else to be open and honest about any feelings of discomfort around a member of the clergy. Ministers should never be protected simply because of their role or status. Every accusation should be taken seriously and dealt with in a prompt manner. I can’t even begin to relay to you how many emails I get from women in the local church who have been flirted with by their pastor inappropriately but have been dismissed by church leadership who did not believe them. Listen to people in your congregation if they are trying to tell you about clergy misconduct.

Pray for Bill Hybels, Willow Creek, those involved in this story, and the former leaders. I’m sure we will hear more as the days move on.

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Ray Carroll is the author of “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World,” which answers many of the questions I get asked on a weekly basis.

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