CHICAGO (RNS) — The allegations of "sexually inappropriate words and actions" by Bill Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek Community Church, are credible, according to an independent group of Christian leaders advising the church.
Hybels' alleged behavior, directed mostly at women connected to the Chicago-area megachurch, took place at various points during his more than four decades of leadership.
"The credibility of the allegations would have been sufficient for Willow Creek Community Church to initiate disciplinary action if Bill Hybels had continued as pastor of the church," according to the report by the Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group.
The group's report was posted online Thursday (Feb. 28) by Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association.
Hybels stepped down from his roles with both the church and association early last year after allegations of misconduct surfaced against him. He has publicly and privately denied allegations of misconduct, according to the report.
Vonda Dyer, a former employee at Willow Creek who was one of the first women to publicly accuse Hybels of misconduct, called the release of the report "a sobering day for me personally and for the global Willow Creek community."
Dyer said in an email she was grateful for the report's conclusion that she and others who came forward were credible and that it marked the beginning of identifying what happened at Willow Creek and learning from it. She also acknowledged the "painful implications this reality has" for the congregation, staff and elders at Willow Creek Community Church; those connected to Willow Creek Association around the world; and those close to Hybels.
"I will be waiting to see what action the church and (a)ssociation take in response to the report," she said. "This entire saga should be a sobering reminder to all of us who are in ministry and all who are in leadership of any kind that character really matters."
The church and association announced in September the Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group would consider allegations against Hybels in his former roles both as pastor and chair of the association's board of directors, review the organizational culture of the church and the association and make recommendations to both for future action. Its work was funded by an external anonymous donor, according to the church.
Members of that advisory group, who were not paid for their work, included Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita of The Wesleyan Church; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Margaret Diddams, provost of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.; and Gary Walter, past president of the Evangelical Covenant Church.
Their investigation included interviews with Hybels and members of his family, the women who came forward with allegations against Hybels, staff who worked directly with Hybels at both the church and association and others.
Hybels was accused by a number of women connected to the church of sexual harassment and misconduct, spanning decades. These accusations were covered in a series of news reports last year. He and the church initially dismissed the allegations as "lies." They also accused former church staff and pastors of conspiring against Hybels.
After Hybels stepped down, the church's elders admitted that he had sinned and called on him to apologize. All the church's elders and Hybels' successors — Heather Larson and Steve Carter — eventually resigned.
"While we cannot change the events of the past, we grieve what has happened, ask for forgiveness, and commit ourselves to pursuing healing and reconciliation," Willow Creek's newly installed elder board wrote in a statement on the church website.
The Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group's report concluded that Hybels also verbally and emotionally intimidated both male and female employees. Neither the church nor the association did enough to stop him.
"Over multiple decades, the Willow Creek Community Church boards were unable to provide effective oversight of Bill Hybels," according to the report.
The Willow Creek Association should have "taken greater responsibility to understand the nature and the context of the allegations" against him, it said.
Among other findings:
- Female staff members at Willow Creek who accused Hybels of misconduct said that he sought them out for “mentoring relationships that crossed standard boundaries of employment.”
- Male staff members said they were singled out for mentoring, too, and some reported “denigrating verbal abuse." According to the report, "A commonly repeated phrase was that Bill Hybels would ‘power up’ when he disagreed with them.”
- The advisory group heard reports of “inappropriate language, sexual innuendo, and lax use of alcohol among staff including Bill Hybels."
- Willow Creek staff and others who dealt with Hybels “expressed a range of attitudes from admiration to adulation and from fear to friendship.”
- After resigning, Hybels sent a two-page “personal reflection” to church elders that outlined his missteps but did not acknowledge or apologize for alleged sexual misconduct. The church’s elders did not release the letter, saying it was not their responsibility to do so.
According to the Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group's report, any issues with the corporate culture at both the church and association were mostly related to their shared founder and don’t necessarily pose a problem moving forward.
The group's report suggested that the church should provide financial assistance for those harmed by Hybels.
Advisors also said Hybels should seek counseling for the issues that caused the alleged misconduct "at his discretion, at his initiative and at the time he chooses." And he should "review any possible financial resources" — other than retirement and salary — that he received from the church or association after retiring and return any funds.
The church and association are no longer paying Hybels a salary or other payments, according to the report, but a binding retirement agreement is still in place until 2020.
Tom DeVries, president of the Willow Creek Association, says that the group terminated its contract with Hybels in April 2018 and made no payments after that point.
He said that the association — which announced in February that it will change its name to the Global Leadership Network — accepts the report's recommendations and "will try to live into them."
"We receive and accept the conclusions and counsel shared with humility, and with a desire to live into the next steps outlined in the report. We regret the pain that has been caused by past mistakes and believe these directives and information can offer a way forward that allows for acknowledgment, amends and healing," the association said in a statement.
Scot McKnight, an evangelical blogger, author and professor at Northern Seminary outside Chicago, suggested on his popular blog that Willow Creek have a "service of confession and repentance" in response to the report.
"Not a production, not an opportunity for congratulations for doing it right, but a time that is remorseful," wrote McKnight, who attended Willow Creek for years. "(N)o music, no performance, lots of reading of Scripture, offering of prayers of confession, heartfelt prayers of repentance. Then Eucharist. Then leave in silence."
The Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group's report concluded that the church and association are no longer responsible for overseeing Hybels.
"Because Bill Hybels is retired and is no longer a pastor or employee of Willow Creek Community Church, the church no longer has disciplinary jurisdiction or authority," it said.
"The church should not take further action."
(This story has been updated.)