Inside a brightly lit conference room overlooking downtown Chicago, Bill Hybels struggled to explain away allegations that he had acted inappropriately with women during decades as leader of one of America’s most influential megachurches.
Then still the pastor of Willow Creek Community Church — and the leader of its Christian empire around the globe — Hybels had managed to avoid any rigorous investigation by the church’s board of elders or an independent third party. But on that day in March, he found himself sitting in the office of a crisis communications firm, attempting to keep control of events that were for the first time slipping away from him.
The women, church employees among them, had said Hybels made suggestive comments. Some said he invited them to hotel rooms while on overseas trips. There was an allegation of an unwanted kiss and stories of intense hugs that lasted too long. There was a claim of a consensual affair, which the woman later retracted.
As the Tribune interview he had reluctantly agreed to came to an end, Hybels made a final plea for the allegations to be discounted and for his work and reputation not to be tarnished.
“Forty-two years of my life,” Hybels said of his career as a church leader. “Forty-two years.”
Now, after five months and four congregational meetings, accusations and apologies from the pulpit, the church’s top leadership has stopped trying to discredit Hybels’ accusers or assure the congregation that the right steps were taken to hold the pastor accountable.
Though he has not admitted guilt, Hybels stepped down in April. Earlier this month, lead teaching pastor Steve Carter departed, saying he was “gravely concerned about our church’s official response.” And then days ago, Willow Creek’s new lead pastor, Heather Larson, resigned her post along with the entire board of elders. One of them, Missy Rasmussen, acknowledged the board had failed to act quickly and had its judgment clouded by a “lens of trust we had in Bill.”
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