Willow Creek's Entire Elder Board, Pastor Heather Larson Resign Over Bill Hybels Scandal, Failings

(Photo: Willow Creek Association)

The entire elder board of Willow Creek Community Church, including executive pastor Heather Larson, have announced that they are resigning over the Bill Hybels sex abuse scandal.

"While Bill Hybels was our founder and pastor, he was human, broken, and self-admittedly sinful. We believe that his sins were beyond what he previously admitted on stage, and certainly we believe that his actions with these women were sinful. We believe he did not receive feedback as well as he gave it, and he resisted the accountability structures we all need," declared Missy Rasmussen, one of Willow Creek's elders, in a statement Wednesday.

"We, as a board, know Willow needs and deserves a fresh start, and the entire board will step down to create room for a new board. This board replacement process will start promptly and proceed in waves to ensure an orderly transition, with all current Elders leaving by the end of the year," she announced.

"The first wave of Elders will leave by August 15. The members of the current board will not control the implementation of the findings of the governance review and investigations we are announcing tonight."

As Rasmussen explained, the resignations follow new accusations against Hybels, made by Pat Baranowski, who says she served as Hybels' gatekeeper in the 1980s.

Baranowski told The New York Times on Sunday that while living and working with the Hybels family, she was repeatedly undressed, groped, and had oral sex performed on her by the married pastor.

Hybels insisted he did no such things, stating, "I never had an inappropriate physical or emotional relationship with her before that time, during that time or after that time."

The former senior pastor, who founded Willow Creek in 1975, has maintained his innocence in the face of multiple accusations by several women earlier this year, and decided to retire prematurely in April.

Willow Creek's leadership has been strongly criticized by New Testament scholar and author Scot McKnight, a church member for 10 years, and many others, for initially deciding to back Hybels and not believe the women's stories.

Willow Creek's Lead Teaching Pastor Steve Carter, who was named as one of Hybels' successors last year, announced his resignation on Sunday.

Carter said that in light of of the "horrifying" new allegations by Baranowski, he decided to make his decision public, admitting he can no longer serve at Willow Creek due to the "fundamental difference in judgment" between himself and the elders.

Rasmussen offered an apology on behalf of the Elder board to all the women Willow Creek initially did not believe, and also addressed Carter's resignation.

"Steve advocated for a number of action steps with respect to investigation and transparency, several of which were already in process when he made the request. We invited Steve to participate in setting up an outside, impartial investigation council, and we reached alignment with Steve in many areas," she stated.

"There were also other requests Steve made that we were not able to accommodate, and in the end, he felt he needed to leave Willow. We wish Steve and his family all the best in the next chapter of their lives." 

Rasmussen insists that the board was shocked when the first allegations against Hybels were made known back in 2014, namely that he had cheated on his wife. An internal investigation did not find wrongdoing, however, which the elder now admits "was flawed."

"It focused on whether there was definitive evidence of an affair rather than whether Bill's actions were above reproach. We viewed the allegations through the lens of trust we had in Bill, and this clouded our judgement, which resulted in us not acting quickly enough to secure and examine his devices and in us allowing him to have counseling conversations with the woman who was the subject of the first investigation," she explained.

Rasmussen went on to apologize for subsequent flawed investigations that looked into sexual misconduct allegations against Hybels this year, and also apologized to all the people of the evangelical megachurch.

"To all of the women who have come forward, the church should always follow in Jesus' footsteps to help the wounded find healing, and we are sorry we added to your pain. That was not our intention, and we regret that it has taken us this long to acknowledge that," she added.

"While we will probably never know with certainty everything that's true about each of your stories, we have no reason not to believe you. We are sorry that our initial statements were so insensitive, defensive, and reflexively protective of Bill. We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize."

In her own statement, Larson said that the "circumstances have been heartbreaking and devastating on many levels."

"In recent days and weeks, it has become clear to me that this church needs a fresh start. The staff, this staff that I dearly love, they also need a clean running lane to heal, to build, to dream," the executive pastor explained.

"As hard as I have tried, I simply have not been able to get the momentum that we need to address the issues that need to be addressed and to bring about the fresh start," she added.

"Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn't return quickly. There is urgency to move in a better direction. It is the job of a leader to define reality, and it is the job of a leader to put the team and the organization first, and I am committed to doing that."

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