Bill Hybels, who has been at the center of a sexual harassment scandal that’s led to him resigning as the top pastor at the nationally known Willow Creek Community Church and has sparked the resignation of the entire board of church elders, was once a sought after “superstar” in the evangelical Christian community.
His rise in the community once allowed him access to a president and other high ranking officials and celebrities. Hybels’ fall, prompted by allegations that surfaced in March, has diminished his circle and his reach.
Here’s some background about his rise and fall:
“A new and different way to do church”
Hybels was born in Kalamazoo, MI and started Willow Creek in 1975. In an interview with the Sun-Times in 2005, Hybels said that he barely survived the church he grew up in because of the structure of the church and the way services were conducted.
With the help of some friends, Hybels said they brainstormed “What could church look like if we tried to make it relevant to our day?”
“We really didn’t have a plan beyond trying to do relevant services,” Hybels said in 2005. “And then, once people responded to those services, then we really had to say, ‘Well, what are we going to do with an internal structure? How are we going to develop people?’ And we’ve spent 30 years working on that.”
He started doing services in a movie theater before moving into a 350,000-square-foot space in the northwest suburbs — the first home of Willow Creek.
Willow Creek has grown to eight Chicago-area locations and is one of the largest evangelical churches in the country. Leaders say it draws 25,000 attendees each week at its locations in Chicago, Glenview, South Barrington, Crystal Lake, Huntley, Lincolnshire and Wheaton.
The rise of Willow Creek meant the rise of Hybels, too.
In 1996, Hybels had the ear of then President Bill Clinton. He’d travel once a month to Willow Creek Community Church announces new leadership
Washington, D.C. and spend about an hour in the Oval Office, discussing a “wide-ranging agenda” with Clinton, the Sun-Times reported at the time.
Between visits they’d talk on the phone — Clinton even provided a taped message of congratulations to Willow Creek on its 20th anniversary.
Their relationship may be why Clinton was a guest speaker at the church’s Global Leadership Summit in 2000.
The summit brings “a community of like-minded Christians from more than 135 countries” together to hone and improve their leadership skills.
Past summits have featured well known guests, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Willow Creek’s stature in the Christian community may have also helped Lynne Hybels, Bill’s wife. Lynne was picked for a spot on President Barack Obama’s President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in February 2011.
In light of the sexual misconduct allegations, Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington and two other speakers withdrew from this year’s summit.
Allegations of impropriety date back to the 1990s, a Chicago Tribune investigation found.
Several women described “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms,” as well as “an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true.”
Willow Creek’s Elder Board conducted its own investigation into the allegations. Elder Missy Rasmussen, who announced the resignation of the elders on Wednesday, apologized for that “flawed” investigation.
“To all of the women who have come forward, the church should always follow in Jesus’ footsteps to help the wounded find healing, and we are sorry we added to your pain,” Rasmussen said. “We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.”
Hybels has denied the allegations, but abruptly announced his early retirement in April. While stepping down 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 people feel uncomfortable.”