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Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels denies claims of inappropriate behavior

The Rev. Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., speaks on Jan. 26, 2012. Photo by Marc Gilgen/Creative Commons

(RNS) — The senior pastor of one of the nation’s largest megachurches has been the subject of inquiries into allegations of inappropriate behavior with women in his congregation and on its staff.

Those inquiries cleared Bill Hybels, the co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago and one of the most prominent evangelical Christians in the country. On Thursday (March 22), Hybels and the church posted statements denying the allegations on the Willow Creek website after the Chicago Tribune broke the news.

The Tribune investigation examined the allegations in those inquiries and other claims of inappropriate behavior by Hybels; among them:

  • Vonda Dyer, a former director of vocal ministry at Willow Creek, told the Tribune that Hybels called her to his hotel suite on a trip to Sweden in 1998, where he made comments about her appearance, kissed her and suggested they could lead Willow Creek together.
  • Nancy Beach, the church’s first female teaching pastor, told the the newspaper Hybels asked her to extend a European trip in 1999 to coach a church on the coast of Spain. While there, he invited her to long dinners; commented on her arms, which he called her most attractive body part; confided he was unhappy in his marriage; and invited her to his hotel room for a glass of wine and an uncomfortably long hug.
  • Leanne Mellado told the Tribune she alerted church elders and former teaching pastors John and Nancy Ortberg when a friend told her in 2013 she had had a consensual affair with Hybels, including intimate email and oral sex. The unnamed woman later denied it when contacted by an elder.

Unsatisfied with elders’ investigation into the allegations shared with Mellado, Nancy Ortberg, who was a member of the Willow Creek Association board, and other board members pushed for an independent investigation, according to the Tribune. When that didn’t happen, Ortberg and two others resigned from the board. Mellado’s husband, Jimmy, the president and CEO of Compassion International, did not renew its sponsorship of the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit.

Last year, Willow Creek elders hired Jeffrey Fowler of Laner Muchin in Chicago to renew an investigation, according to the Tribune. Fowler, a lawyer specializing in workplace issues, closed the investigation last April, clearing Hybels of any misconduct, although he told the newspaper the investigation did not have the full cooperation of many involved.

“We have full confidence in Bill’s character, and we look forward to him continuing in his role as Senior Pastor until he transitions as planned in October of this year,” Willow Creek Elder Board chair Pam Orr said in a written statement.

Hybels announced last year he would step down this October as senior pastor of the church he co-founded. In his written statement, he said the allegations coming out now are an effort “to try to keep me from ending my tenure here at Willow with my reputation intact.”

“Let me be clear: none of these allegations are true,” he said.

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