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On Thursday, Willow Creek released a statement from the board of elders with new developments in the case of senior pastor Bill Hybels.

Hybels was accused of misconduct earlier this year by several women who attended the megachurch. The statement says the Willow Creek elders “do not believe the stories were all lies or that people were colluding against [Bill].” They also say that moving forward, the church plans to implement systemic changes they hope will minimize the chances that such stories that have recently come to light will happen again.

Hybels has emphatically denied the allegations. He initially told The Chicago Tribune:

This has been a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years. It’s time that gets identified. 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.

The recent statement from the Willow Creek board admits that their initial priority was to protect their pastor’s reputation, for which they are now apologetic:

Initially, it was stated that the stories were all lies and the individuals involved were colluding against Bill. We apologize for those sweeping statements. We do not believe the stories were all lies or that all the people were colluding against him. It takes courage for a woman to step forward and share her story, and we are doing everything we can to listen respectfully.

Based on the conversations we have had to date, we believe at least some of Bill’s choices were inappropriate. We are grieved that this situation is difficult for so many people. On behalf of the Elders, both past and present, we now see that while we have many policies in place, they did not prevent the situation we are now in.

We regret that, and we are looking into what additional safeguards could be implemented in the future.

The statement goes on to say that the board plans to update the congregation on the status of the proposed systemic changes in 45 days.

Such changes will include “continu[ing] to humbly extend apologies and accept ownership where appropriate, both privately and publicly. We will continue to take steps toward understanding and toward restoring relationships. We will also continue to walk alongside Bill pastorally, and we will work closely with the WCA board to take appropriate next steps with him.”

They continued: “We know we need outside expertise to help, and we have already consulted with several outside experts who are guiding us with next steps. We are working on reviewing our policies and guidelines as well. Specifically, we are looking at ways we can improve our guidelines for how men and women work together, our email retention policy, and our policy on how someone can raise a concern about senior leaders.”

As we previously reported, a lengthy investigation was conducted into the accusations against Hybels by The Chicago Tribute. In the report, several women said that Hybels engaged in “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms.” Another woman accused him of an affair, though she later recanted the accusation.

Another woman, Nancy Beach, a former Willow Creek teaching pastor at the church said that in 1999, “a team traveled overseas to host conferences [and] coach church leaders.” He asked her stay an extra two days to work with a church in Spain.

From the Tribune:

But during their two days there, work took a backseat to leisurely walks, long dinners and probing personal conversations, she said … He asked her what her most attractive body part was, then told her it was her arms, she said. It also wasn’t the first time he talked about how unhappy he was in his marriage, she recalled. …

After dinner, Beach said Hybels invited her to his hotel room for a glass of wine. Before she left, she recalls him giving her an awkwardly long embrace.

“He would always say, ‘You don’t know how to hug. That’s not a real hug.’ So it was like a lingering hug that made me feel uncomfortable. But again, I’m trying to prove that I’m this open person.” The next day, Beach recalled, Hybels didn’t seem happy. They didn’t have any more long conversations and flew separate flights home.

The church says that a long investigation into the accusations found no wrongdoing. However, one of the former leaders said the investigation was “poorly designed.”

The latest church statement says: “The tone of our first response had too much emphasis on defending Bill and cast some of the women in an unfair and negative light. We are sorry.”