Willow Creek Elders: Hybels ‘has chosen not to engage in dialogue’

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In what it says will be its “last public statement” about the “traumatic experience” involving church founder Bill Hybels, Willow Creek’s Elder Board said last Friday it believes the women who accused the pastor of sexual harassment. The statement, titled “Elder Update: Reconciliation,” also indicates Hybels “has chosen not to engage in dialogue” with the elders, who “welcome the opportunity to meet with him to aid in healing and reconciliation.”

Hybels, who launched the Chicago-area Willow Creek Community Church in 1975, resigned in April 2018 after the Chicago Tribune published allegations by several women of inappropriate comments and behavior. Hybels denied the claims, and the elders at the time initially supported him. A few months later, those elders apologized and resigned; several other leaders also left the eight-site megachurch.

New Elders Specify “harms” That Occurred at Willow Creek

Saying the allegations and their aftermath caused a “fracture…marked by disbelief, confusion, fear, and hurt,” the new Willow Creek elders have been “undertaking a systematic approach to actively listen, learn, and apologize.” After meeting with Hybels’ accusers and various church leaders, the elders say they “recognize that there are some specific harms that must be named.”

First, the nine elders apologized to “the women and their advocates,” who experienced “verbal and written attacks” as a result of Willow Creek’s initial response to the allegations. The board affirms unequivocal support for the March 2019 findings of an Independent Advisory Group, telling the women, “We believe your allegations against Bill.” The elders ask anyone who attacked Hybels’ accusers, referring to them as “liars and colluders,” to “prayerfully examine their actions, apologize for wrongdoing, and seek to mend the relationship.” The elders urge similar action for people who threatened leaders of Compassion International and Menlo Church for speaking up for Hybels’ accusers.

Next, the board extends “God’s grace” to the 2018 Elder Board, saying “there was an unfair assumption that you acted with malice.” According to the statement: “We believe that Bill’s denials and failure to acknowledge sinful, intimidating, and overly controlling behavior led leaders to make statements that were misinformed and incomplete.”

Finally, the statement addresses Willow Creek church staff and congregants, recognizing the harm suffered “in broken relationships, trust, and sense of community.” Citing Scripture, the elders say “the God who heals will help restore us all.” 

Elders Urge Hybels to Repent, Reconcile

The Willow Creek elders acknowledge Hybels’ 40+ years of service but add that “unchecked sin and intimidating behavior” caused continued damage. Following Jesus’ example of forgiveness, the board appeals to Hybels “to reflect on his years in ministry, repent where necessary, and seek to live out the ministry of reconciliation.”

Although they’ll no longer publicly address the matter, the elders say they remain committed to “work privately with individuals seeking renewed relationships and reconciliation.” They also announced that a special reconciliation-focused worship service will take place at Willow Creek on Tuesday evening. The Elder-led service will address “our vision for the future and the gospel-centered hope that anchors our church,” according to the board’s statement.

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Stephanie Martin
Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 26 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.