Sad as it is to read about, leaders in the Christian community need to be aware of what happened at Willow Creek Community Church.

What can we learn from this mess? Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Anyone who has been an adult a few years or has read news for more than , oh a few weeks, knows there is massive ugliness in the world.

Anyone who has been in leadership of a church or ministry for more than a few months knows the ugliness we see in the world is also present in the community of believers.

Why read about and then study messiness?

There are several disasters in the Christian community at the moment which leaders should pay attention to.


So we can learn. By observing we can be better prepared for dealing with horrible things if (or rather when) they appear in our area of responsibility.

In my professional role as auditor over the last few decades I have observed moral failure of leaders, embezzlement, fraudulent financial misstatements, tax fraud, and sundry other unpleasantness. (Okay, okay, sin is the correct description of those things.)

Because of confidentiality requirements, I cannot discuss anything about any of those issues.

Current, public issues are a different story. Having no connection to those incidents frees me to discuss them.

Willow Creek Community Church

A major scandal has been in the news at Willow Creek for over a year. Here is a tour of some articles which can fill you in.

What can you learn as a leader from this fiasco?

3/22/18 – Christianity Today – Bill Hybels Accused of Sexual Misconduct by Former Willow Creek Leaders. Article summarizes a range of allegations that had surfaced over the previous five years, including stories of decades old misbehaviors.

A few ideas from the article:

A number of leaders in the Christian community, including John and Nancy Ortberg, publicized the allegations. They and others added their stories. In an extended denial, then-pastor Hybels denied everything and in a protracted statement asserted his accusers were in collusion, trying to bring him down.

The Willow Creek Association voted to not investigate the allegations.

The article has a comment which illustrates why it is worthwhile to pay attention to this story:

Megachurch pastors are no more flawed that pastors of small churches… But they fall harder, and with more consequences, because of their outsized influence both in the church and the broader culture.

Yet they are often seen as untouchable.

Untouchable. Ponder that idea.

8/8/18 – New York Times – Willow Creek Church’s Top Leadership Resigns Over Allegations Against Bill Hybels.  The full elder board and the sole remaining lead pastor resigned after acknowledging they were wrong to defend the departed senior pastor. One of the elders apologized for insensitively defending the pastor.

Article provides good background for events leading to the massive resignations.

Four years earlier (2014), one woman told the elders of a long-running affair she had with Pr. Hybels, who denied the allegations.

Several more women came forward with their stories of improper sexual treatment. Two investigations cleared the then-senior pastor.

Several stories appeared in March 2018 (see above article from CT.) Pr. Hybels labeled the stories as lies with the two lead pastors and the entire elder board defending him.

He resigned in April 2018.

The Sunday before this article, A former executive assistant went public with her story of ongoing abuse way back in the 1980s.  She has struggled with depression and homelessness since then.

The day after that article, the remaining lead pastor said another investigation would be conducted. Two days later she resigned, along with all the elders.

8/8/18 – Christianity Today – Willow Creek Elders and Pastor Heather Larson Resign over Bill Hybels. More details on the apologies from elders. More comments of support for the accusers from named leaders in the Christian community.

8/10/18 – Religion News Service – As Willow Creek reels, churches must reckon with how power corrupts. Article suggests that all churches, especially large ones, need to deal with the corruptible strength of power.

Labeling money, sex, and power as the unholy trinity of temptations, author suggests we don’t know how to put accountability around the power part of those temptations.

Article raises superb questions and offers some possible steps to take.

2/28/19 – Christianity Today – Willow Creek Investigation:  Allegations Against Bill Hybels Are Credible. Independent investigation found the series of accusations are credible. If Mr. Hybels was still under authority of Willow Creek, the report says there is sufficient evidence to discipline him.

The full report is available online. It is well worth reading and studying even though it is painful to do so.

Report concludes allegations of multiple sexual improprieties and a pattern of abuse of power are credible. The issues cover a long time frame and a variety of circumstances.

Report says men and women were “verbally and emotionally intimidated.”

Report says that for decades the leadership of WCCC and WCA were not able to “provide effective oversight.”

Report has a string of recommendations that are worth reading.

7/19/19 – Julie Roys – Willow Creek Elders Release Statement Supporting the “Women”; Yet One Woman Says Hybels’ Sins Were “Far Worse” Than Anyone’s Said Publicly. Article reports on a reconciliation worship service held at the church.

Article has complete statement from the new elder board, which stands by all the allegations raised by various women and stands by the independent investigative report.

Article also has complete statement by one of the accusers, which says the details of the allegations are worse that what has thusfar been made public.

A few new pieces of information in the article are that a range of threats have been made against senior leaders in the Christian community and the organizations they work for. Elders also mention stories are still being circulated that the accusers were liars and working in collusion.

Elder’s statement also says they have reached out to Mr. Hybels but he “has chosen not to engage in dialogue.”

7/24/19 – Christianity Today – Can Willow Creek Find Closure After Bill Hybels? Article reports on the worship service including some specific comments from elders with reaction from three people who attended and followup on how the church is doing.

The question you should ask

As you read about this mess, focus on what leadership did and when. Also, ponder what they did not do.

As a leader, what can you learn from this fiasco?


Update:  If you would like more detail, check out Andy Rowell’s blog post, which has a chronological, cumulative list of articles. Since it has been built over time, is dated 6/7/18:  List of articles from allegations to resignation of Bill Hybels and its aftermath.

His blog is called Church Leadership Conversations.

Post has links to about 23 main stories. Some of the stories have an additional 2 or 6 articles or discussions linked.

A few things of note from the article. There are 10 known women who have come forward with allegations of sexual improprieties.

Article also has several mentions of specific failures in board governance.

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