The entire board of elders at Willow Creek Community Church will step down to allow the church to make a “fresh start” after allegations of sexual harassment against founding pastor Bill Hybels were mishandled, church officials announced Wednesday.
Elder Missy Rasmussen made the announcement at the South Barrington megachurch.
“The Elder Board wants to express our deepest sadness around the events that have occurred over the past few months at our church,” Rasmussen said. “But to limit our sadness around these past few months is to not recognize the obviously painful events that have occurred over the past 40 years of our existence.”
Hybels abruptly announced his early retirement in April following allegations of impropriety dating back to the 1990s that were detailed in a Chicago Tribune investigation. 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.”
Six more women came forward with similar allegations in a Christianity Today report published on April 21, and a former assistant to Hybels accused him of harassment in a New York Times report published last weekend. That prompted Pastor Steve Carter — who had replaced Hybels at the helm of the church — to step down himself.
“We believe that his sins were beyond what he previously admitted on stage, and certainly we believe that his actions with these women were sinful,” Rasmussen said Wednesday. “We believe he did not receive feedback as well as he gave it, and he resisted the accountability structures we all need.”
In May, elders issued an apology to women who had come forward with allegations and acknowledged they placed “too much emphasis on defending Bill.”
“We, as a board, know Willow needs and deserves a fresh start, and the entire board will step down to create room for a new board,” the elders said Wednesday.
Hybels has denied any wrongdoing, but 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.”
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.
Read Missy Rasmussen’s full statement below:
Hello Willow Creek Family,
Thank you for coming tonight. My name is Missy Rasmussen. I have served for a total of seven years as an Elder.
Today I stand before you broken. The Elder Board wants to express our deepest sadness around the events that have occurred over the past few months at our church. But to limit our sadness around these past few months is to not recognize the obviously painful events that have occurred over the past 40 years of our existence.
We are also deeply grieved about the new accusations that came to light this past weekend, and our collective hearts break for the pain that Ms. Baranowski has carried these many years.
These painful and troubling events have scarred these women, their families, and tarnished our church. On Sunday, our church was further shocked to learn about Steve Carter leaving. We are sad to see Steve leave our church after years of teaching and shepherding our congregation and will certainly miss the way he used his gifts to bless us. Steve advocated for a number of action steps with respect to investigation and transparency, several of which were already in process when he made the request. We invited Steve to participate in setting up an outside, impartial investigation council, and we reached alignment with Steve in many areas. There were also other requests Steve made that we were not able to accommodate, and in the end, he felt he needed to leave Willow. We wish Steve and his family all the best in the next chapter of their lives.
We are grateful to serve a God of truth, justice, grace, and mercy in equal measure. God uses broken people to do His work and forgives freely all who come to Him with a repentant heart. To that end, our entire Elder Board has had to come to grips with the areas of our hearts, minds, and souls that blinded us to the pain and suffering of the women and their advocates. We ask forgiveness from God, our congregation, the women, their advocates, and those who have been calling us to repent.
While Bill Hybels was our founder and pastor, he was human, broken, and self-admittedly sinful. We believe that his sins were beyond what he previously admitted on stage, and certainly we believe that his actions with these women were sinful. We believe he did not receive feedback as well as he gave it, and he resisted the accountability structures we all need.
We did take our spiritual oversight responsibility seriously and at times counseled and challenged Bill on his actions and behaviors. But we were not aware of many choices he made in private and therefore did not hold him accountable in meaningful ways.
When those of us who were on the board in 2014 first heard the allegations of an affair, we were shocked. We thought we knew what Bill’s weaknesses were, but his interactions with women were not something our board thought we had any reason to be concerned about. The allegations seemed out of character, but they were so serious we knew we had to investigate.
We can now see this investigation was flawed. It focused on whether there was definitive evidence of an affair rather than whether Bill’s actions were above reproach. We viewed the allegations through the lens of trust we had in Bill, and this clouded our judgement, which resulted in us not acting quickly enough to secure and examine his devices and in us allowing him to have counseling conversations with the woman who was the subject of the first investigation. Heather, Steve, the executive team, and lead pastors trusted our process and publicly stood behind the work we had done. This caused people to question their integrity, and for putting them in this position, we are so sorry.
When new allegations were made in the Tribune article, we did not initially handle those allegations with the care, humility, and repentant posture we should have. We realized this error and have worked hard to repair some trust and create an investigation that the women who made allegations would be willing to participate in. We have consulted experts, had conversations, offered different options to the women who made allegations as to a structure of investigation, but we have been unsuccessful in securing their participation. We realize this has taken too long and left you, our congregation, wondering why we didn’t respond. We are truly repentant.
We have some other apologies we need to make in addition to those we’ve made before, and we may repeat some of those previous ones for good measure.
To the people of Willow Creek Community Church, on behalf of the Elders, we are sorry that we allowed Bill to operate without the kind of accountability he should have had. Our desire going forward is to retain what is good and pure about Willow Creek but drive out the parts that are unhealthy. We commit to building a community that is known for its humility, honesty, and transparency.
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. That was not our intention, and we regret that it has taken us this long to acknowledge that. While we will probably never know with certainty everything that’s true about each of your stories, we have no reason not to believe you. We are sorry that our initial statements were so insensitive, defensive, and reflexively protective of Bill. We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.
To Nancy Ortberg, we are sorry about the way your allegations were handled and the time it took us to truly understand your experience.
To Nancy Beach, we are sorry we let Bill call your motives into question and didn’t correct that until now.
To Vonda Dyer, we are sorry we allowed Bill’s statement calling you a liar to stand. Based on conversations we have had with various parties, we believe that Bill kissed you in that hotel room in Sweden.
To the staff member who came forward recently to share about her experiences working for Bill, we are sorry for how we have communicated about you. We allowed Bill to give his account of those experiences without you having an opportunity to do the same. We specifically regret reading your emails at our family meetings and any impressions that may have created. We are grateful for your courage to come forward to share with leadership about your concerns. We know you care deeply about our church, and we will continue to engage with you in our steps toward repentance, ownership, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
As we’ve been taught, repentance means to turn away from sin and toward God. In the areas in which we’ve been wrong, we are here today to acknowledge our missteps and turn toward God and the different and better future He so badly wants for us. What does that look like specifically?
Our board never acted out of malice, and we tried to serve the church we love faithfully, but the reality is we feel that the failure of the board to move our church through this in the way we should have calls for action to be taken. We have engaged an outside, independent governance expert to conduct a robust governance review. He will report his findings to a task force made up of a majority of non-Elders. Suggestions for best practices and model improvement will be considered and enacted, setting our future leadership up for success.
We are also convening a group of respected, independent Christian leaders to spearhead an investigation to look into the reprehensible actions Ms. Baranowski has reported and all other allegations and areas they determine need to be investigated. Regardless of what an investigation may find, we know enough to know that if Bill had not already stepped down, he would have disqualified himself from pastoral leadership here.
We, as a board, know Willow needs and deserves a fresh start, and the entire board will step down to create room for a new board. This board replacement process will start promptly and proceed in waves to ensure an orderly transition, with all current Elders leaving by the end of the year. The first wave of Elders will leave by August 15. The members of the current board will not control the implementation of the findings of the governance review and investigations we are announcing tonight.
We want to be the kind of church God is calling us to be. A church that learns lessons and grows through painful situations. A church that is filled with hope for healing and that demonstrates the love of Christ. A church that reflects the heart of God and is about lives changing, hope, and through Him, making the impossible possible. We believe that God is still building His church!