A long investigative story from the Chicago Tribune reports on several allegations of moral filings from Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek, a suburban Chicago church which is one of the largest churches in America.
The article says:
The alleged behavior included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms. It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true, the Tribune found.
I visited Willow a few times when I was in seminary. I like the church. I truly hope that these allegations are not true. But the most important thing is the truth. Unfortunately, it seems that these types of sins are often swept under the rug. Some of these allegations go as far back as the 90s. Willow Creek did an internal investigation through an outside party who cleared Hybels of any wrongdoing after conducting 29 interviews and reading through hundreds of emails.
I hope it’s not true.
But where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. The Tribune article includes on the record statements of several people who allegedly misconduct. The group also included former pastors and staffers at the church, notably former Willow Creek teaching pastor John Ortberg who’s now pastoring a church in the Bay Area.
I’m sometimes skeptical of church internal investigations. In megachurches, a founding pastor, especially one as dynamic as Hybels, is crucial to the health of the organization. It can be crippling to the entire congregation’s longterm viability to lose the pastor, especially amid scandal.
I guess I don’t understand why other respected leaders would say that there’s truth to these allegations if they didn’t think that. I don’t think there’s a massive conspiracy from within the Christian community against Bill Hybels or Willow Creek for no reason.
In society, it’s become something of a punchline: well known Christian leaders having and/or pursuing affairs. It’s tragic. Just a couple days ago, a megachurch pastor in Tennessee (rightfully) stepped down/was pushed out after revealing a sexual assault perpetrated by him in 1998.
Stories like these should be a reminder to all church leaders (and to all Christians) to continue to walk in integrity daily, to live out what we believe, and to fight temptation and compromise. The truth matters. Victims of assault deserve the truth to be brought to light.
I pray for the people of Willow Creek, and for the victims.
Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.