Willow Creek’s interim pastor to step down as church drops top candidates to fill Hybels’ shoes

Steve Gillen is the acting senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church.
Steve Gillen is the acting senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. | Willow Creek Community Church

Elders at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago announced Thursday that Steve Gillen, their interim senior pastor will step down on March 17. Gillen has been serving in the role since the church’s founder, Bill Hybels, resigned amid a sexual misconduct scandal in 2018.

“Before starting the external senior pastor search, we asked Steve to continue in his interim role on contract to provide much needed leadership to the Willow staff and congregation. Given that the search process has taken longer than anticipated, Steve agreed to serve on staff until March 17, 2020. Steve will no longer be interim senior pastor after March 17, but he may stay engaged past that date to support the transition to a new interim senior pastor,” the elder board said. “He determined that now is an appropriate time for him and his family to seek out what God has in store for them in their next chapter.”

The announcement was made in an update from the elder board in which they also revealed that they are no longer considering two leading candidates they had settled on in December to fill the vacancy created by Hybels’ scandal.

“In our December update, we shared that the final two senior pastor candidates were presented to the full Elder Board. While both candidates have strong qualities as pastors, we released both from candidacy,” the elders said.

“Our consensus was that neither candidate is the long-term leader of Willow Creek; therefore, the search process has continued. We have provided updates throughout the process, and one of the consequences is that in our last communication, we set an expectation that we are not able to meet,” they said.

The elder board’s decision came just two days after they publicly apologized for allowing Hybels' mentor, Gilbert Bilezikian, a retired Wheaton College professor, who is also credited with helping Hybels start Willow Creek, to keep teaching at the church despite abuse allegations against him.

Longtime Willow Creek member Ann Lindberg recently disclosed in an extended post on Facebook 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.

She said when she finally found the courage to report Bilezikian to church leaders in 2010, she did not feel like they treated her experience with the seriousness it deserved.

In a statement on Jan. 28, 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 said.

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