A day before new misconduct allegations surfaced against founding pastor Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Community Church leaders on Friday issued an apology for “not listening,” and said they would re-examine claims made by the women who have accused him of harassment.
“Over the last several weeks, we have been in a process of deep learning, seeking clarity, and building a path toward reconciliation,” elders of the suburban evangelical megachurch wrote in a statement issued to congregants. “Even though Bill is no longer in his role, our work to resolve any shadow of doubt in the trustworthiness of Willow Creek Community Church and its Elders is not done.
“We will examine allegations against Bill that have not been previously investigated by the Elder Board. We will respectfully reach out to each woman who has made an accusation, even if she has not brought her concerns directly to the Board,” the statement read.
Hybels, 66, abruptly announced his early retirement from Willow Creek earlier this month, denying any wrongdoing but saying the distraction of the claims was “hindering our elders and church staff.
“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,” Hybels said in his April 10 announcement.
Allegations of the pastor’s impropriety date back to the 1990s and came to light in a March investigation in the Chicago Tribune. They include “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.”
Six more women came forward with similar allegations in a Christianity Today report published on Saturday. Hybels and church officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
In their Friday statement to congregants, the church elders said there were “several areas where we could have served you better.
“With the benefit of hindsight, we see several aspects of our past work that we would have handled differently, and we have identified several areas of learning,” the statement read. “Moving forward, we have a renewed commitment to engaging well, listening deeply, and further developing a culture of transparency and accountability.”
The church said it plans to take the next 45 days to “methodically examine our church culture” and enhance policies “that support healthy and valuable working relationships between men and women.”
They also promised to “walk alongside Bill in stewarding his season of reflection well and are committed to working together on appropriate next steps with him.”
Willow Creek, now based in South Barrington, 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.
Here’s the text of the full letter sent to Willow Creek congregants:
Dear Willow Family,
We have been diligently praying and processing how to best respond to recent events. Last night, we had another productive and encouraging Elder Meeting. We are unified and seeking God’s direction on next steps, and we felt it was important to communicate with you.
This has been such a difficult time. Our church has been facing one of the most challenging seasons in our history. In the midst of this time, you have been responding with love, grace, and an openness to engage in dialogue. We are so proud of you. You are living the Gospel. We are also especially proud of the staff. Not only have you gracefully demonstrated strength, you have also joyfully assumed additional responsibilities due to an accelerated transition of leadership.
Over the last several weeks, we have been in a process of deep learning, seeking clarity, and building a path toward reconciliation. Even though Bill is no longer in his role, our work to resolve any shadow of doubt in the trustworthiness of Willow Creek Community Church and its Elders is not done.
With the benefit of hindsight, we see several aspects of our past work that we would have handled differently, and we have identified several areas of learning. Moving forward, we have a renewed commitment to engaging well, listening deeply, and further developing a culture of transparency and accountability.
As a board, we unanimously agree there are several areas where we could have served you better:
We have at times communicated without a posture of deep listening and understanding. We are sorry that at times our process appeared to diminish the deep compassion we have for all those involved in these matters. We will do better in the future.
Bill acknowledged that he placed himself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid. We agree, and now recognize that we didn’t hold him accountable to specific boundaries. We commit to strengthening the relationship of accountability with our church leaders in the future.
In hindsight, we wish we would have worked harder to collaborate with all parties that were impacted to bring clarity and reconciliation when accusations were first made. While attempts were made, we could have done more.
Additionally, we recognize that our board structure sometimes causes us to be slow in decision making. Our mandate as an elder board is to speak with a unified voice. Accordingly, we are not at liberty to release information publicly until we have everyone’s consent. As we continue to navigate this season, we are committed to providing regular updates to you that are transparent and informative.
Our desire is to serve you in the highest degree and humbly ask for your grace, patience, feedback, and prayer.
In the next 45 days we will intentionally pursue the following next steps:
We will fully support the new leadership team. We have great confidence in Heather and Steve and will further develop relationships with both leaders allowing for greater connectivity, transparency, and accountability.
We will examine allegations against Bill that have not been previously investigated by the Elder Board. We will respectfully reach out to each woman who has made an accusation, even if she has not brought her concerns directly to the Board. We commit that each woman willing to speak with us will be heard, and that we will respect her story. We commit that making steps toward understanding and toward restoring relationship will be our primary goals. We will seek wise counsel and work with experts, developing a collaborative process. We are identifying ways to ensure a safe environment for constructive dialogue tailored to each individual.
We will continue to methodically examine our church culture, enhancing policies and informal practices that support healthy and valuable working relationships between men and women. We will also examine our policies about how concerns are raised about senior leaders and make any necessary improvements.
We will review and modify Willow email retention policies to reflect the best practices of organizations that deal with sensitive data.
We will ensure that the Elders will be more available in person to answer questions and we commit to communicate as needed with the church.
We will walk alongside Bill in stewarding his season of reflection well and are committed to working together on appropriate next steps with him.
Finally, we commit to pray fervently for all involved. We humbly ask for your prayer and your grace as we move forward.
With you, we will continue to be focused on the mission of this church. We will continue to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength and mind.
With love and resolve,
The Willow Creek Elders