CHICAGO (RNS) — Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita of The Wesleyan Church, and Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, will lead a new investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against Bill Hybels, the retired founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church.
Lyon and Anderson will co-chair the four-person Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group, according to an announcement Tuesday (Sept. 18) from Willow Creek and the Willow Creek Association. The association, a worldwide network of churches, runs the annual Global Leadership Summit hosted by Willow Creek Community Church.
The group will consider allegations against Hybels in his former roles both as pastor of the nondenominational evangelical Christian megachurch and chair of the board of directors of the association, according to the announcement. It also will review the organizational culture of the church and the association and make recommendations to both for future action.
Margaret Diddams, provost of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., and Gary Walter, past president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, also will serve in the advisory group. They were nominated by evangelical Christian leaders outside of the church and association, according to the announcement.
The group will work independently of Willow Creek. Its members hope to complete their investigation by early 2019, according to the announcement.
A "process update" email from the church sent just after 1 p.m. local time Tuesday requested prayer for the Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group "as individuals and as a group, and pray for wisdom as they navigate the months ahead."
Scot McKnight, who holds the Julius R. Mantey Chair of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Ill., told Religion News Service he sees an independent advisory board that operates outside of Willow Creek's control as a step in the right direction for all involved.
McKnight attended the suburban Chicago church for about a decade and has been a strong supporter of Willow Creek for years, but he has written critically on his popular blog about its handling of the allegations against Hybels and treatment of the women who came forward. Many, like him, have called out Willow Creek and said the allegations needed to be handed over to an independent council, and the move seems like "a sign they are listening to people who care,” he said.
"I think Willow has taken a good step forward, but they must interview carefully, with safety, all the women who have accusations and all the employees who have very serious questions about how they were handled,” McKnight said.
But others don't think the Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group goes far enough. Boz Tchividjian — head of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), which has not been consulted by Willow Creek — said he was "troubled" the advisory group's charges don't include an investigation into church and association leaders' handling of the allegations brought to them years ago.
"In my opinion, Willow Creek will never be able to move forward until it uncovers, understands, and (fully) addresses (its) past," Tchividjian said in a written statement.
Willow Creek has been under fire since a March investigation by the Chicago Tribune and further reporting by Christianity Today and The New York Times documented at least nine women’s claims that Hybels had invited them to hotel rooms, commented on their appearances, kissed one co-worker and engaged in oral sex with another. The Tribune also reported that allegations previously had been investigated by Willow Creek’s elders and an outside law firm and that Hybels was cleared of wrongdoing.
The elder board since has apologized, calling its previous investigation “flawed” and urging Hybels to “acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.” Along with plans for an advisory group, lead pastor Heather Larson and the entire elder board announced plans last month to resign in order to give the church a “fresh start.” Lead teaching pastor Steve Carter also stepped down this summer.
Hybels has denied all allegations against him. He resigned in early April as pastor of Willow Creek Community Church and chair of the board of directors of the Willow Creek Association.