CHICAGO (RNS) — The lead pastor and entire elder board of Willow Creek Community Church have announced they will resign to give the church a “fresh start” following new allegations of sexual harassment against founder and former pastor Bill Hybels.
That announcement came late Wednesday (Aug. 8) at a “family meeting” of the congregation at the church’s main campus in South Barrington, Ill., the night before the start of Willow Creek Association’s popular annual Global Leadership Summit at the church.
“This is really important. Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return quickly,” Willow Creek lead pastor Heather Larson said. “There is urgency to move us in a better direction.”
The news follows the resignation over the weekend of lead teaching pastor Steve Carter, who cited differences with the church over how it handled allegations against Hybels and a “horrifying” report in the Sunday New York Times that detailed new allegations by Hybels’ former executive assistant.
Pat Baranowski, who worked for Willow Creek in the 1980s, alleged in that report that Hybels had fondled her breasts, rubbed against her and once engaged her in oral sex.
A March investigation by the Chicago Tribune and further reporting by Christianity Today documented more women’s claims that Hybels had invited them to hotel rooms, commented on their appearances and, in one case, given a former co-worker an unwanted kiss. The Tribune also reported that allegations previously had been investigated by Willow Creek’s elders and an outside law firm but that Hybels was cleared of wrongdoing.
Hybels — who resigned from the church in April, months ahead of his planned retirement — has denied all allegations.
Missy Rasmussen, who has been an elder at Willow Creek for seven years, said the board now could see that investigation was “flawed.” She apologized for its handling of allegations to all the women who have come forward, including former Willow Creek staff members Nancy Beach and Vonda Dyer.
“While we will probably never know with certainty everything that’s true about each of your stories, we have no reason to not believe any of you. We are sorry that our initial statement was so insensitive, defensive and reflexively protective of Bill (Hybels),” Rasmussen said.
“We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.”
Rasmussen announced to applause that the entire elder board will step down by the end of the year to create room for a new board. A first wave of elders will leave by Aug. 15, she said.
Larson said she will step down, too, noting that since she and Carter replaced Hybels in April she has not been able to get “the momentum that we need to address the issues that we need to address and to bring about the fresh start.”
Moving forward, an independent expert will conduct a governance review of the church, and a group of Christian leaders from across the country will oversee a new investigation of allegations against Hybels. Steve Gillen, who pastors the church’s North Shore campus in Glenview, Ill., will step in as interim lead pastor of Willow Creek.