Willow Creek Elders Release Statement Supporting the “Women”

Julie Roys blog
July 21, 2019

The elders at suburban Chicago Willow Creek Community Church today released a “last statement” about the scandal involving church founder Bill Hybels, charging Hybels with “unchecked sin and intimidating behavior,” and addressing “specific harms” against Hybels’ accusers and their advocates.

In their statement, the elders said they had met with the women accusing Hybels of wrongdoing and their advocates over the past six months. And as a result, they had learned of how the church’s response had led to verbal and written attacks on the women. They said they also learned that a “narrative persists in identifying (the women) as liars and colluders,” despite apologies by the lead pastors and former Elders.

The elders stated that they “unequivocally support” the findings of an independent council, which concluded that the women’s claims of “sexually inappropriate” conduct by Hybels are credible. They added, “We ask anyone who participated in verbal and written attacks to prayerfully examine their actions, apologize for wrongdoing, and seek to mend the relationship.”

Similarly, the elders urged Hybels to “reflect on his years in ministry, repent where necessary,” and seek “reconciliation.” They said they had reached out to Hybels, but he had “chosen not to engage in dialogue at this time.”

In response, Vonda Dyer, one of the women who accused Hybels of sexual misconduct, today also released a statement, expressing gratitude “that the elders believe all of the women’s allegations.” She also praised the elders’ “posture of godly response to the magnitude and depth of Bill Hybels’ destructive behaviors toward me and toward other women spanning four decades.”

Yet Dyer also expressed disappointment that today’s statement “lacks the specificity that I wish it contained.” One of the specifics Dyer noted concerned Pat Baranowski, Hybels’ former assistant who accused Hybels of groping her in a New York Times article. Dyer said that during her last meeting with the elders, they heard Baranowski give three hours of “painful and horrific testimony that left many of the elders weeping, some face down on the table in disbelief and mourning. Bill’s actions toward Pat were not simply missteps, but cruel, manipulative and abusive . . . Bill’s sin is far worse than anyone has been willing to say publicly.”

I reached out to Baranowski for comment but she did not respond by the time of publication. 

In their statement, the elders also acknowledged that the leaders of Compassion International and Menlo Church, who “spoke up for the women,” were also harmed. These leaders include John Ortberg, senior pastor of Menlo Church and a former pastor at Willow Creek, and his wife, Nancy Ortberg, also a former Willow Creek pastor. The couple were some of the very first to publicly support the women in 2018 and to accuse Hybels of a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct. Also included is Jim Mellado, president and CEO of Compassion International and former president of the Willow Creek Association, now The Global Leadership Network. Mellado joined the Ortbergs in publicly calling for a third-party investigation of the allegations concerning Hybels in 2018.

The elders wrote, “We have learned of mail and email messages threatening these advocates and their ministries. We again ask anyone who participated in sending threatening messages to prayerfully examine their actions, and seek to reconcile with those who have been harmed.”

Today’s statement also addressed what the elders said was “an unfair assumption” that the former elder board “acted with malice.” When the women’s allegations first surfaced in 2018, Hybels called the allegations “flat out lies” and the former board publicly supported him. The new elders said they believe that the former board was misled. “Bill’s denials and failure to acknowledge sinful, intimidating, and overly controlling behavior led leaders to make statements that were misinformed and incomplete,” they said. 

The elders acknowledged that the church had “experienced a fracture,” marked by “disbelief, confusion, fear, and hurt.” They also acknowledged that staff had “suffered harm in broken relationships, trust, and sense of community.” But they expressed optimism about the future, and urged past and present Willow Creek attenders to seek reconciliation and “grow in compassion, grace, forgiveness and unity . . .”

The elders said today’s statement is their “last public statement intended to address the events of 2018,” which included not just Hybels’ resignation, but the resignations of Willow Creek’s lead pastors and its elder board. However, the elders added that they will “continue to work privately with individuals seeking renewed relationships and reconciliation.”

The elders will be leading a “worship and reflection” service this Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Lakeside auditorium of Willow Creek’s South Barrington campus for all “past and present Willow family.”

Dyer said she hopes the elders will provide more detail on Tuesday night about what led them to their conclusions. “I believe that detail, rather than causing unnecessary obscurity and harm, would help illuminate truth and give needed closure to people in the congregation, to the global church, and to the women and their advocates.”


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