Six months after closing the chapter on their embattled founder Bill Hybels with a call for him to “repent” as needed for his role in a sexual misconduct scandal, Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago is now apologizing for allowing Hybels' mentor, Gilbert Bilezikian, to keep teaching at the church despite abuse allegations against him.
“Over the weekend, a longtime Willow Creek congregant made her personal story of abuse public. This story involves Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian (widely known as ‘Dr. B’), a mentor to Bill Hybels. We are heartbroken for what this congregant experienced and are deeply sorry for the pain this has caused her and her family,” Willow Creek elders began in an update Tuesday.
In addition to being Hybels’ mentor, Bilezikian, who is a retired Wheaton College professor, is also credited with helping him start Willow Creek.
The church’s statement on Tuesday came after longtime Willow Creek member Ann Lindberg disclosed in an extended post on Facebook Saturday how Bilezikian victimized her for years and suggested he would have had sex with her had she allowed it during a relationship that lasted from October 1984 to 1988.
“It began with subtle flirtations after weekend services, and grew to include hand holding, emotional sharing and intimacy, kissing and fondling, and pressure to have sex. Dr. Bilezikian confided about his unhappy marriage, his lack of joy, and desire for a better partnership. He told me I was the type of woman he wished he had married instead of his wife Maria. I was young in my faith, new to church, and hungry for someone to invest spiritually in me. He made me feel special, and he was a spiritual authority in a large church, and I did not feel like I could say no to him, even when my gut was telling me this was not appropriate,” Lindberg wrote.
“I was too naïve to figure out there was no way God wanted that for me, no way to maintain the ‘friendship’ in a godly way, and that that had never been Dr. Bilezikian’s intent. I believe we would have had sex if I had allowed it, but I think he was very good at reading people and knew just how far he could push me before I would stop having anything to do with him,” she recalled.
“One night, as we were walking to my car, he turned around in a hallway, pushed me hard against a wall, grabbed a breast and stuck his tongue down my throat. I pushed back, in complete disbelief, but he began skipping down the stairs like a child. Other times, we would meet during the day time and take walks down the Wheaton prairie paths or around Wheaton’s small downtown streets. He would warn me that no one could see us together, that it would ruin his reputation, yet in the next moment, he would shove me into the doorway of a storefront or behind a truck and begin wildly kissing me. I would push him away. When we walked down the prairie paths, he would reach for my hand, my waist, and other places,” she said.
Lindberg said Bilezikian told her how much their relation gave him “energy and hope” as he walked through a depression he said only she could help him through.
She said he rejected the idea of marital counseling, joining a men’s group or even sharing his struggles with Hybels.
“I would ask him to attend marital counseling, he would tell me it was too late; he was trapped and would never be able to divorce Maria and still preach. I would ask him to get into a men’s group. He said he didn’t like men. I would suggest he get individual counseling. He would refuse; it was too late; he was too old. I would ask him to talk with Bill Hybels. He said Bill would never understand. He told me I was the only one in the world he could really talk to, that everyone else had an agenda. He knew how to manipulate my weaknesses, and I honestly believed that I was the only one who could help him,” she said.
Lindberg got married in 2006, but said she did not feel "strong enough" to tell her story until 2010 when she was ready to "confront the spiritual abuse." She also expressed concern that other women might have been harmed. After reporting her story to Willow Creek, however, she did not feel it was treated seriously.
“This is a story I take no pleasure in telling. I have waited a very long time and been in numerous private meetings with Willow leadership and others since 2010 and accomplished very little to date. It is my hope it is not too late for Willow, that the die is not yet cast with no hope for rebirth. So many truths are still concealed. My goal is for Willow leadership to finally be ready to repent, apologize specifically to the survivors from the Willow stage, and to make sweeping structural change within to prevent this from ever happening again,” Lindberg added in her Facebook post.
In their statement on Tuesday, Willow Creek apologized for how Lindberg was treated without naming her.
“While Dr. Bilezikian has never been an employee of Willow Creek, he has been active in the life of the church for decades. At the time, the church’s Elder Response Team (ERT) met at length with the woman and with Dr. Bilezikian. The team believed the woman’s claim that Dr. Bilezikian engaged in inappropriate behavior dating back to the mid-eighties, including but not limited to hand holding, hugs, kissing, inappropriate touching, and sending overly personal communication,” the statement from the elders said.
“The ERT did restrict him from serving, but the restriction was not adequately communicated, resulting in Dr. Bilezikian serving and teaching in various capacities over the years. This was wrong, and we are sorry,” they continued.
“Over the past years, behavior has been brought to light that is both harmful and unacceptable for a Christ follower. This sinful behavior that we believe was demonstrated by Dr. Bilezikian and Bill Hybels was wrong, and we hold any person entrusted with leading at Willow Creek Community Church to a higher standard. Leaders carry a mandate to shepherd the body of Christ and guard against sinful behavior (1 Peter 5:2–4),” the elders added.
They then requested prayer for all involved in the situation and urged any past or present victim abuse from Willow Creek leadership to call 630-682-9797, ext. 1291.