After a tumultuous year for Willow Creek Community Church that included the resignation of founding pastor Bill Hybels, an independent group has wrapped up its investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against him. Calling the allegations “credible,” a 17-page report recommends counseling for Hybels and an examination of several church policies.
On February 28, the church’s new elder board released findings from the Independent Advisory Group (IAG), a four-member panel with no connections to the church based in South Barrington, Illinois. Among the dozen conclusions is a statement that Hybels “verbally and emotionally intimidated both female and male employees.”
The credibility of the allegations, the IAG notes, is based on “the collective testimony and context of the allegations” and “would have been sufficient for Willow Creek Community Church to initiate disciplinary action if Bill Hybels had continued as pastor of the church.” The IAG, which has no legal authority, recommends that Willow Creek take no further action against Hybels because he is retired, giving the church no further “disciplinary jurisdiction or authority.”
Willow Creek’s Leaders Fell Short, Report Concludes
In April 2018, Hybels resigned ahead of schedule from the eight-campus megachurch he founded near Chicago in 1975. He cited “harmful accusations” and denied any wrongdoing. Willow Creek’s leaders initially defended the pastor, and accusers continued stepping forward. That led to the resignations of numerous other church leaders, as well as the elder board.
Willow Creek’s boards “were unable to provide effective oversight” of Hybels “over multiple decades,” according to the report. As the sexual misconduct scandal grew, it says, “church leadership was not prepared to handle the cascading events.”
Board members “expressed difficulty in holding Bill Hybels accountable,” the report states, but the IAG indicates it received reports that the pastor moderated his “abrupt, abrasive and dismissive approach to managing staff.”
The IAG report, funded by an anonymous donor, notes that while Hybels’ “power, influence and management style” led to the ministry’s growth and global impact, it also “caused dysfunction” in the abilities of the church and the Willow Creek Association Board (now the Global Leadership Network) to “consistently implement policies, manage personnel and handle an unexpected crisis.”
The IAG’s four members, who weren’t paid for their time or work, included Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington D.C.; Margaret Diddams, provost of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois; Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita of The Wesleyan Church, Indianapolis; and Gary Walter, past president of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago. They note their report is intended as a “summary of recurring themes,” not as a complete account of the extensive interviews they conducted.
The members indicate that “corporate culture issues were primarily related to the presence and leadership” of Hybels and “are not necessarily pervasive in the future of the church and association.” Although “mistakes and sins should not be denied or forgotten,” says the report, “neither should God’s blessing and the faithfulness of God’s people.”
Recommendations Include Counseling, Victim Hotline
The IAG, which convened last August, recommends that Willow Creek “design and make available a reconciliation process to provide hope and healing for broken relationships.” It also suggests the church “provide financial assistance for counseling” for people who were “directly harmed by their interactions with Bill Hybels.” Another suggestion is a “third-party off-site hotline to report misconduct,” as well as ongoing follow-up by elders into any reports that are made.
The IAG recommends that Hybels “independently seek counsel for addressing the issues raised” in the report. He also should return “any possible financial resources (apart from personal retirement benefits or income)” received after his retirement agreement with the church ends next year.
Willow Creek, the report notes, should continue its efforts to support women in leadership. The church also should establish written guidelines about appropriate conduct, biblical processes for dealing with “perceived and real sins,” and “biblical discipline and restoration of church leaders.”