An independent group convened to investigate sexual misconduct allegations against Bill Hybels, founder of the Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, called them “credible” and recommended counseling for him as well as a raft of changes to improve the organizational culture at the church and Willow Creek Association, rebranded as the Global Leadership Network.
The recommendations were among 15 suggestions as well as a list of conclusive points made by the Independent Advisory Group in a 17-page report released by the church’s new elder board on Thursday.
“Our desire is to move forward into this new season with transparency, acknowledging that truth coming to light can oftentimes be difficult and painful,” the board said in a statement released with the report.
The report, which paints Hybels as a flawed, hard to contain, charismatic leader, comes 10 months after his premature resignation from the multicampus megachurch on April 10, 2018.
“Bill Hybels verbally and emotionally intimidated both male and female employees. Over multiple decades, the Willow Creek Community Church boards were unable to provide effective oversight of Bill Hybels,” the four-member IAG concluded on Feb. 26, six months after the group first convened last August.
Hybels was forced to resign as lead pastor at Willow Creek Community Church after an extensive investigation published by the Chicago Tribune in March 2018 detailed a pattern of sexual misconduct allegations. Hybels denied a number of the allegations, including a consensual affair with a married woman who retracted her claims. The Tribune report also alleged a pattern of behavior against Hybels that includes suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to some female staffers to hotel rooms. Initial investigations commissioned by the church could not substantiate the allegations and the church's leadership staunchly defended Hybels.
In an about-face after the scandal snowballed into a national story, Pam Orr, former chair of the church's elder board, apologized to Hybels' accusers and said after listening to some of them, "we do not believe the stories were all lies."
The group of investigators that conducted extensive interviews included: Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita of The Wesleyan Church, Indianapolis, Indiana; Margaret Diddams, provost of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois; Gary Walter, past president of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago; and Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington D.C.
The group concluded that the collective testimony of Hybels’ victims is credible.
“The credibility of the allegations is not based on any one accusation or accuser but on the collective testimony and context of the allegations. The credibility of the allegations would have been sufficient for Willow Creek Community Church to initiate disciplinary action if Bill Hybels had continued as pastor of the church,” they said.
In reviewing the allegations against Hybels, the IAG suggested that the church “should not take further action” against him since he is “retired and is no longer a pastor or employee of Willow Creek Community Church” and “the church no longer has disciplinary jurisdiction or authority.”
The investigators also noted that even though Hybels’ leadership flaws negatively affected his ministry at Willow Creek and the WCA, his work also resulted in blessings.
“While there may be negative residual effects in the corporate culture of WCCC and the WCA, the corporate culture issues were primarily related to the presence and leadership of their shared founder and are not necessarily pervasive in the future of the church and association,” the IAG noted while laying the dysfunction in the two ministries on Hybels’ shoulders.
“Some may choose to discount or discredit the past blessings of God on Willow Creek Community Church, the Willow Creek Association, pastoral leadership, past elders and Bill Hybels because of specific words and actions in 2018 and before. Mistakes and sins should not be denied or forgotten but neither should God’s blessings and the faithfulness of God’s people,” the group urged.
Hybels benefits from a legally binding retirement agreement initiated in 2012 with the Willow Creek Community Church that will conclude in 2020, the report revealed.
The IAG recommended that he return “any possible financial resources” that were provided to him by the church or the WCA to support his ministry after his retirement agreement has ended.
He was also urged to seek independent counsel at his discretion to address his failings highlighted in the report.
“The counsel sought should be outside of WCCC and the WCA. This should be at his discretion, with his initiative and at the time he chooses,” the IAG said.
The group further suggested that Willow Creek design and make available a reconciliation process to provide hope and healing for broken relationships. The church was also encouraged to create criteria to provide financial assistance for counseling or other resources for women and men who were directly harmed by their interactions with Hybels.
It was also suggested that Willow Creek should maintain a third-party off-site hotline to report misconduct with reports going to the elders or a designated committee of the elders and to a staff department designated by the elders, among other things.
In their statement on the report Thursday, Willow Creek’s elder board noted that every effort was made to ensure that the investigation was truly independent.
“None of the four members of the IAG worked for or had formal ties to Willow Creek Community Church or the WCA. The IAG did not seek direction or opinions from Willow Creek Community Church or the WCA in this process. The expenses for the work of the IAG were funded by an external anonymous donor, and IAG members were not compensated for their time. Their work was truly independent,” the elders said.
“As a new Elder Board, we ask for your prayers and patience as we process this report and prepare appropriate responses and actions. We commit to honor and respect the work of the IAG and the entirety of their report,” the elders continued. “While we cannot change the events of the past, we grieve what has happened, ask for forgiveness, and commit ourselves to pursuing healing and reconciliation.”
Responding to the release of the report Thursday, the WCA also noted in a statement that they were grateful for the work of the IAG and would be reviewing the recommendations over the next few days.
“We receive and accept the conclusions and counsel shared with humility, and with a desire to live into the next steps outlined in the report. We regret the pain that has been caused by past mistakes and believe these directives and information can offer a way forward that allows for acknowledgement, amends and healing,” the organization said.
“Our plan is to spend the next few days in reflection, processing and prayer on the recommendations included in the report in order to determine appropriate next steps and direction that we will communicate to our staff, partners and broader community,” the statement added.