An independent council released a report yesterday, regarding sexual misconduct allegations made against Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch in suburban Chicago. Hybels stepped down last spring, a few weeks after the sexual misconduct allegations against him were made public.
The committee believes that there is credible evidence supporting the sexual misconduct allegations. From the 17 page report:
The credibility of the allegations is not based on any one accusation or accuser but on the collective testimony and context of the allegations.
Last August, (after Hybels had already stepped down) a report came out in the New York Times, alleging that Hybels had actually engaged in extramarital sexual conduct with a former secretary (something which had not previously been reported). This led to even more fallout in the church. Teaching pastor Steve Carter resigned. Remaining co-pastor Heather Larson resigned two days later, and the entire elder board also said they were going to step down.
Failure of leadership
This was a systematic failure of leadership. Most notably, Hybels failed, but the rest of their leadership also failed in holding him accountable to Biblical standards of pastoral leadership. In not addressing issues, it allowed Hybels to continue this conduct.
There have been numerous examples of megachurch pastors falling. A common theme is that the churches fail to hold them accountable. Megachurches too often allow charismatic and gifted lead pastors to create a structure where those who question behavior or decisions are punished. This perpetuates silence and secrecy. It appears to me that Willow Creek fell into this trap.
When this happens, it fails everyone. It fails the victims, it fails the leader (who’s not loved enough to be held accountable), it fails the people in the congregation who have to deal with the fallout, it fails the church as being a bad witness to the world. The secular society loves to mock a pastor when he fails, and paint all Christians as hypocrites.
The allegations against Hybels became publicly known last year, but they weren’t knew to the leadership of the church. Willow had previously “investigated” Hybels. It’s reasonable to question the effectiveness of that investigation and ask: was it trying to get to the truth or was it trying to exonerate Hybels?
The recent investigation was (like the first one) external, but unlike the previous investigation, was funded by an outside donor.
I want what’s best for Willow Creek. Admitting these failures is a necessary step. Actually learning from these failures is just as essential.
Scot McKnight is a New Testament scholar at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in suburban Chicago. He put it well:
Willow needs to have a service of confession and repentance.
Not a production, not an opportunity for congratulations for doing it right, but a time that is remorseful … no music, no performance, lots of reading of Scripture, offering of prayers of confession, heart-felt prayers of repentance.
As an outside observer, one thing that I believe Willow Creek desperately needs to do is have a wider circle of leadership and accountability. Last summer, when the elder board resigned, Willow had just nine elders. I found that astounding, given that it was a church of 20,000 members.
While different churches and denominations have different beliefs behind eldership – who can be an elder, how many elders are appropriate, etc – nine elders for 20,000 people is a terrible mistake. But Willow’s new elder board….is also nine members.
To help exemplify why this is a problem: the church has eight campuses. And nine elders. Three of their campuses don’t even have an elder attending their campus. This is not a Biblical model. Elders are entrusted with shepherding and caring for the flock. Willow should have dozens of elders.
A final word
I’ve mentioned before that I visited Willow Creek on several occasions when I lived in Chicago. There’s always been a lot that I’ve appreciated about that church. I do hope that the leaders within this church will repent, learn, and grow. I hope that they will be faithful to preaching the gospel and being the Church.
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Josh Benner has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served churches in Minnesota and Illinois. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in St. Louis.