Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of the multi-campus Willow Creek Community Church, has denied multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, including a consensual affair with a married woman, who retracted her claims. Investigations commissioned by the church also could not substantiate the allegations.
In an extensive investigation of the allegations published by the Chicago Tribune on Thursday night, former members of the church, including those who resigned from high-level leadership positions, argue that the church's investigations have been deficient. The Tribune report also alleges a pattern of behavior against Hybels that includes suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms.
"This is one of the most heartbreaking and frustrating things I've ever experienced—for me, for my family, for our church family," Hybels said in a statement provided by Willow Creek addressing the alleged consensual affair which was first reported to Willow Creek elders in April 2014.
"I was shocked and saddened when the Elders confronted me with the woman's claim. She had been not only a hard-working staff member, but also a family friend. I categorically denied the allegation. It was not true.
"When the Elders reached out to the woman, she immediately acknowledged that she had lied, and she sent a very thorough written retraction. She also met with my wife, Lynne, personally and apologized earnestly for the pain her lies had caused Lynne."
Hybels, who founded Willow Creek in 1975, announced last October that he will be stepping down from the helm of the storied church in October this year. Heather Larson, the current executive pastor at Willow Creek, will take on the role of lead pastor over all Willow Creek locations while Pastor Steve Carter, who currently serves as teaching pastor, will transition into the role of lead teaching pastor.
Pam Orr, current chair of the Willow Creek Elder board, insisted in a statement published on the church's website, that despite the criticisms of the investigations conducted into the claims made against Hybels, the process was thorough and above board and Hybels would step down in their eyes with his reputation intact as well as their full support.
"I want to be very clear. Our full Elder board, as well as each Elder that has served over the time of this challenging situation, believes that we have functioned according to biblical standards, with utmost integrity and exhaustive diligence in navigating this situation. We are in full support of Bill and are grateful that he will continue in his role as senior pastor until he plans to transition in October 2018," Orr said.
"Despite the fact that the group of former staff members alleged that Bill was controlling and compromising the validity of the investigation, please understand clearly that Bill submitted himself entirely to the authority of the Elders. He was interviewed as part of the investigation, but he did not lead it or influence it in any way," Orr explained.
"When the Elders reached out to the woman, she apologized forthrightly for making a false statement and wrote a full retraction that the Elders have on file. She spoke with an Elder three times and apologized for her lies. She also met with Bill's wife, Lynne, and apologized personally to her. In the woman's retraction, she freely admits to having become 'very angry at Willow,' so much so that she could no longer attend the church. Additionally, in an email to a friend, she said, 'Now I have to tell everyone that I am a liar, which I basically am. I lied to you and I am so sorry. I wanted to tear [Bill] and Willow down and get it out of my system.'"
The Tribune report noted, however, that there was so much acrimony over the investigation of the allegations about Hybels, three leaders on the board of Willow Creek Association, a nonprofit organization related to the church, resigned over what they believed was an insufficient inquiry.
Hybels is insisting that the whisper campaign against him, which resulted in the Tribune investigation, is false.
"This has been a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years. It's time that gets identified," he told the Tribune. "I want to speak to all the people around the country that have been misled ... for the past four years and tell them in my voice, in as strong a voice as you'll allow me to tell it, that the charges against me are false. There still to this day is not evidence of misconduct on my part.
"I have a wife and kids and grandkids," he said. "My family has had enough and they want the record clear. And they feel strongly supportive of me saying what I have to say to protect my family and clear my family's name as well."
In a statement on the church's website, Hybels said he believes that a group of former staff members — identified by the Tribune as Leanne and Jimmy Mellado and John and Nancy Ortberg — who brought the allegations forward are trying "to keep me from ending my tenure here at Willow with my reputation intact."
"Many of these alleged incidents purportedly took place more than twenty years ago. The fact that they have been dredged up now and assembled in a calculated way demonstrates the determination of this group to do as much damage as they possibly can," Hybels maintained.
A number of women, including Vonda Dyer, told the Tribune that they were contacted by investigators commissioned by the church looking into the claims against Hybels. She said she declined to participate, citing concerns about the process.
She told the Tribune that she became a full-time employee at Willow Creek in 1997. She later met and married her husband, Scott, a youth music pastor also at Willow Creek.
They both became part of Hybels' travel team.
She said while on a trip with Hybels and another female colleague at his second home in South Haven, Michigan, he joked that any woman who drops the winch handle on his sailboat had to give the men a "blowjob."
She said she told her husband at the time and he confirmed the incident with the Tribune.
Hybels, however, denied making the joke and called it "disgusting."
Scott Dyer said Hybels repeatedly failed to follow his own advice not to be alone with any woman other than his spouse. He said Hybels met with his wife, Vonda, alone several times and he was not a happy with the arrangement.
"I trusted her character entirely, so I knew nothing would happen," Scott Dyer said. "But I was like, that feels like a violation of what you've told everybody. ... I was uncomfortable with it, and I voiced that to her."
He alleged that on one international trip which he attended with Hybels and his wife, Hybels invited Vonda to his hotel room explicitly instructing her to exclude her husband.
In February 1998 while on a trip to Sweden, Vonda Dyer alleged that Hybels crossed the line. She said Hybels summoned her to his hotel room, poured her wine and invited her to get comfortable on his couch after telling her he had taken a sleep aid popularly known as Ambien.
Soon after that, things took a sharp turn when he started complimenting her looks and criticizing her husband. He then suggested they lead Willow Creek together. He allegedly then put his hands on her waist, caressed her stomach and kissed her.
"He told me what he thought about how I looked, very specifically, what he thought about my leadership gifts, my strengths," she told the Tribune.
Hybels, she said, called her "sexy."
"That was the night that he painted a picture of what great leaders we would be. We could lead Willow together," she said. "It felt like a proposition."
She told him to stop and left the room.
"The Holy Spirit spoke to me: 'Get out of here,'" she recalled. "All I heard the Holy Spirit say to me is, 'If you stay in this room, you will be destroyed.'"
She said she told Hybels the next morning that if he did anything like that again she would report him to the church's elders.
Dyer told the Tribune that even though she was contacted by a church elder this year, she did not share the details of the incident because she was worried her concerns would not be taken seriously.
Hybels admitted he takes Ambien but denied ever touching Dyer.
"I don't even want to dignify ... I have never touched another woman's stomach other than my wife. Why in the world would I touch Vonda Dyer's stomach?" he said.
"This has reached a point that I can't sit silently by and listen to these allegations anymore," he said. "I will dispute what she said to my dying breath. She is telling lies."
Vonda Dyer said that she hoped Hybels would acknowledge his alleged behavior was wrong and look to God for forgiveness.
"I would love for him to experience that kind of redemption," she said.