Grieving with Willow Creek Church, Bill Hybels, and the Women Whose Stories Should Concern Us All

“Love one another…weep with those who weep.” image c/o Story Blocks

 

Few Christian leaders have impacted me as deeply as Bill Hybels. As a pastor’s wife, Bill’s vision for the power and nobility of the local church changed my understanding of what my life was about: “The Church is the hope of the world.” “There’s nothing like the local church when the local church is working right.” His contagious passion energized me to be more creative and invest more deeply in the church Jesus loves.

So along with tens of thousands of others I groaned at the news that several women have accused him of sexual sin. And not just any women. Extraordinarily gifted women leaders that I watched him encourage and elevate in his own church ministry: Nancy Beach. Nancy Ortberg. Vonda Dyer.

What follows is a summary with links of this sad business and a bit of my own struggle to come to grips with these accusations.

While the accusations were brought to the Willow Creek Church elder board four years ago, after two investigations that found no evidence they broke publicly in the Chicago Tribune newspaper on March 23rd:

Nancy Beach’s story as reported in The Chicago Tribune:

“In 1999, [Hybels] asked Beach to tack two extra days on to a European trip and meet him on the coast of Spain to coach a church, she said…But during their two days there, work took a backseat to leisurely walks, long dinners and probing personal conversations, she said.

“Over a three-hour dinner, she said he told her that she needed to loosen up and take more emotional risks. 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. [30 seconds according to her blog]…’it was like a lingering hug that made me feel uncomfortable.’”

Hybels’ response to Beach’s story in The Tribune:

“Hybels…insisted that he does not give hugs and denies doing anything inappropriate with Beach, at times bringing his hand down on a table in frustration. Beach had been a close friend, he said, and was a strong enough leader in his church that she would have had the freedom to tell him at the time that she was offended by something he did…he insisted he did nothing wrong.

“When (the allegation) surfaced in 2016, I was like, no, who twisted that one? I don’t talk about women’s appendages. But there was chatter mostly from other women around (Beach), and I probably said people say they wish they could wear the same outfits you do. That it got brought up as potentially something sexual is maddening.”

Vonda Dyer’s story from The Chicago Tribune:

“Vonda Dyer said Hybels did cross a line in Sweden in February 1998. Dyer was getting ready to go to bed when Hybels summoned her to his room. (Verified by her roommate at the time.)

“She went to Hybels’ room where he poured wine and invited her to stretch out on the couch while he sat in a separate chair. She said she presumed it would be a quick chat when he told her that he had taken Ambien, a sleep aid…

“She said he came over…and kissed her. ‘He told me what he thought about how I looked, very specifically, what he thought about my leadership gifts, my strengths,” she said. [He] told her she was “sexy.” “That was the night that he painted a picture of what great leaders we would be. We could lead Willow together.”

“It felt like a proposition,” she recently told the Tribune.

Hybels’ response to Dyer’s story in the Tribune:

“Hybels told the Tribune he never kissed or touched Dyer…He said he has a strict protocol for taking sleep aids such as Ambien because he never wants to be out of control, and characterized the rest of Dyer’s story as completely false.

“’This has reached a point that I can’t sit silently by and listen to these allegations anymore,” he said. “I will dispute what she said to my dying breath. She is telling lies.’”

At the time Dyer confided her story to Betty Schmidt, an original elder at Willow Creek and current member, who confirmed being told about the unwanted kiss in Sweden.


It’s a “she said”/”he said” that breaks your heart.

And it gets worse. Other serious allegations were made, then disavowed.

Shortly after the Chicago Tribune story broke Hybels retired early—April, instead of October.

I read the unfolding story in the papers and Christianity Today. I watched the video of Bill’s decision to step down where he defended himself to his church:

“I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid,” he acknowledged. “I was naive … I commit to never putting myself in similar situations again.”

Hybels denied the accusations and called them “flat out lies.” The church elder board, after a second investigation, stood with him, affirming that the women were lying and the witnesses were colluding. The congregation at Willow gave Hybels a standing ovation as he stepped down.

The Ortbergs, Nancy Beach, Jim and Lynn Mellado (Lynn was the first to hear the accusations) and others continued to insist that the Willow Creek Church board pursue an investigation that would be far more rigorous and independent in the wake of such serious accusations. Hybels said he could not understand why these prominent former members of his church and former friends were now “colluding” against him.

And I felt myself inclined to believe him.

Through his conferences and books he had helped me and Jack and our Texas church so much. But I also have deep respect for the Ortbergs and Nancy Beach. I began to read the blogs and statements of the accusers. I read the Chicago Tribune article for myself, instead of the redactions in secondary sources. (Which is why I quoted them at length in this post.)

You can read them too: Nancy Beach here, Nancy Ortberg here, Vonda Dyer here. I began to have serious doubts about Bill’s defensive response to the women’s allegations. But I found the allegations hard to reconcile with all his leadership and teaching through the years.

As I tried to make sense of the mess I remembered that Hybels has always talked about how he was “hydroplaning” in the years of his early, meteoric success and almost lost his ministry. Maybe that’s what he meant.

Maybe, as he sought to elevate women in leadership like few other evangelical pastors have ever done, his encouragement and support was being mis-interpreted by the women.

I read a blog post written by Jodi Walle, John Ortberg’s executive assistant from the early years, that somewhat confirmed those thoughts. She was grimacing at the way John was joining his wife, Nancy, in calling out Hybels for behaviors in which he engaged too. She wrote on her blog:

  • “You have forgotten the movie nights after the midweek services and then long talks we had alone in either your car or mine in the empty Willow parking lot long after midnight?
  • “You don’t remember Bill “grooming” you? I do. After you were told by Bill that you dressed like a “college professor” and needed to dress appropriately for your position, I was the one asked to get you new clothing…34×34 pant, right? …saying he did that for women sounds creepier, but he actually did that for everyone he was mentoring. Trying to encourage and create the best in everyone.
  • “You don’t remember taking walks alone with me at St. Mary’s of the Lake while the retreat participants were having their solitude time? It wasn’t weird. We were co-workers waiting and planning for the next session.

“Absolutely the women who have come forward have had their own experiences with Bill. But I think my viewpoint shows a bit of the culture at the time. There was probably a naïve “buddy” culture that didn’t place enough emphasis on male vs female. It shows that Bill was possibly more relaxed and felt too comfortable with women, but that was for the women to make a boundary and speak up if anything made them feel uncomfortable.”

I wondered if the Me Too movement was coloring the memories of the women accusers. But their reputations and lives of integrity and fruitfulness…I wanted to believe them because of what I know about sexual abuse and the deceitfulness of our own hearts. But I could not entirely disbelieve Bill Hybels.

The New York Times Report

Then two weeks ago, on August 5th,The New York Times ran the story of Pat Baranowski, Hybels’ former executive assistant who accused Hybels of far worse–from back rubs to fondling to oral sex. In the article, clearly Ms. Baranowsky is a reluctant witness. She told her story to one friend at the time and swore him to secrecy. He, a Florida pastor, now confirms that she shared her story with him at the time..

Again Hybels vigorously denies the stories: “‘I never had an inappropriate physical or emotional relationship with her before that time, during that time or after that time.’”

For Ms. Beach and Ms. Dyer, the consequences of Bill’s one-time advances had been deeply troubling. They both wound up in tears but ultimately chalked it up to, “Well that was strange.” The consequences of Bill’s ongoing relationship with Ms. Baranowski were devastating.

As The Times reported, she said she was “wracked with guilt” and “one day in his office, she told him that it was unfair to his wife, that it was sin, and that she felt humiliated.” She said he responded, ““It’s not a big deal. Why can’t you just get over it? You didn’t tell anyone, did you?”

At the office she said “he began to suggest she was incompetent and unstable. He berated her work in front of others. She grew depressed and poured out her feelings to God, filling 20 spiral-bound journals. On May 11, 1989, she wrote, ‘I feel like an abused wife.’ …She was relocated to work in a converted coat closet…She resigned from Willow after more than eight years.”

She saw a counselor, who, with permission, confirmed that Ms. Baranowski was “humiliated, guilty and ashamed” because of her relationship with Mr. Hybels….She felt she had lost her connection to God.”

The Times reported, “since leaving the church, Ms. Baranowski said she has struggled to keep a job, lost her condominium, moved from state to state, and had migraines and panic attacks.”


On June 27th, five and a half weeks before the New York Times story broke, a Biblical Scholar with close ties to Hybels and Willow, Dr. Scot McKnight wrote on his mega-blog, “Bill Hybels and Willow Creek’s leadership have undone forty years of trust for many. A church that has stood valiantly for women in ministry, that has always stood for Christian grace and truth and forgiveness for repenters, that has supported #metoo in various places, that then responds to women as they did to these women unravels the thread Willow has woven for four decades. Many of us are asking why Bill Hybels and Willow Creek’s pastors and Elders slandered the women, calling them liars and colluders, and still refuse to offer them apologies. Willow is being undone as we watch, and the pastors and Elders are at the center of the unraveling.”

In many passages the Bible exhorts us that, “Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” In this case there are now nine or ten. This accumulation of witnesses has forced the church elders and many thousands more who have wanted to give Hybels the benefit of the doubt, including me, to LISTEN to their stories.

On August 8th the elders announced that, in the wake of the New York Times report, they were sorry they hadn’t taken the allegations more seriously, that their trust in Bill had clouded their judgment, that the two hand-picked successors to Hybels have resigned, and before the end of the year the entire board will step down. Meanwhile they have commissioned the kind of rigorous, independent investigation that they resisted and that Ortberg, Beach and others have requested.

While we wait for the results of the investigation we lament over the great crash of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Church. Bill was famous for saying that he does not “do awkward.”  But now, he like the rest of us who mourn, will go far beyond awkward. We who like to move ever forward will sit in the ashes and weep. And pray.  We will echo David’s prayer, asking God to search our hearts and see if there is any sin of which we need to repent. Do we put our leaders on a pedestal? Do we honestly pursue the truth when accusations are brought?

We will remember that in awkwardness and desperate brokenness God does his most powerful work. We will pray for Bill and his family. For Willow and its church family.

Most of all we will pray for these women. We are sorry. We are listening. May God heal your hearts and give you beauty for ashes, turn your mourning and shame into joy and confidence. And restore to you the years of hurt that you have suffered in silence. May God clothe you in strength and dignity and may you smile at the future.

[ With deep appreciation to Andy Rowell, Assistant Professor of Ministry Leadership at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, for chronicling the larger story at Willow on his blog. His post, “List of articles from allegations to resignation of Bill Hybels and its aftermath” has been invaluable to help me access the primary sources. Thank you, Prof. Rowell.]

What are you thoughts on this unfolding story? Please respond in the comments below…

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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14 thoughts on “Grieving with Willow Creek Church, Bill Hybels, and the Women Whose Stories Should Concern Us All

  1. Lael, thank you for this balanced piece on this difficult subject. As a total outsider, I can see many red flags in his doing ministry. I will pray for all involved and most importantly the Name of Christ.

  2. Noooooo!!! Not Hybels. This is absolutely heartbreaking. I have been saddened by so many stories, this one brings me to tears. Tears for these women and their families, his ministry, his family, the church, those that were waiting for something like this so they could say “see this is why ______”, countless other things I don’t know of. Thank God we are not lost that we always have hope. Now to my knees.

    • Heartsick with you, Beth. When the NYTimes story first hit two weeks ago I couldn’t even bring myself to read it for a day or two. I’ve needed to process and pray these last two weeks before I could write about it. God seems intent on not bringing closure to this matter. The elders and senior pastors have repented. Pending the outcome of the independent investigation, I’m sure the door would be open for repentance and restoration for Bill. May God shine the light of truth on the women’s stories and Bill’s defense.

  3. Lael, I could tell it pained you greatly to put this all together. But it’s helpful. As long as I have followed your writing you have been fair and thoughtful. You are a voice I listen to.

    I have been watching this story unfold for months, hoping and praying it wasn’t true. But now there is too much too ignore, from women whose integrity proceeds them. (Although I don’t know them, I have heard this.)

    I would like to recommend a book that was helpful to me: Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership by McIntosh and Rima.

    It suggests that each person who goes into leadership within the church does so based on their dark and light sides.

    People get into trouble when they don’t acknowledge their weakness. It’s not bad to have a dark side—we all have one. But it’s dangerous to only see ourselves in the light of our egos, rather than what we might be susceptible to, based on our dark side.

    I hope that makes sense. So many of us put our pastors on pedestals and want to see them as something they can never be. They are flawed and human. Therefore, we must make certain that supervisions surround our church leaders.

    • Very helpful Lucille, and thanks for the book recommendation. Of course, married to a pastor, I’ve had a tiny little glimpse of his dark side. 🙂

  4. As I read this, not knowing the church or individuals mentioned, I couldn’t get out of my head the policy to which Billy Graham faithfully adhered: Both as a married man and servant of Christ in the ministry, he refused even to have lunch alone with a woman. It wasn’t just about the possibility of temptation, he said, but the appearance of impropriety too. I’m sure he would have had this policy had he never served in the ministry, but simply to be sure he remained totally faithful to his wife. Whatever happened in these instances you so sadly described above, Lael, is a vast departure from Billy Graham’s example. Personally I am grateful for that example, knowing that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Strong words, but true.

    • And to think that when Mike Pence said that he and Karen guarded their marriage the same way as Graham, he was hammered in this same press. In his blog post McKnight was astonished that Bill’s assistant would spend the night in their home during times when Lynn was away. Even in a “buddy culture” that aspired to treat men and women with equal opportunity and all the social interaction that entailed, as described in Walle’s post, that seems clearly over the line. And a worldly-wise Hybels is not really a naive kind of guy.

  5. I am sorry for you also, Lael!!! And all the others who have been helped by him and then must take this in. Oh, that the Lord would come quickly!!!!!

  6. From an anonymous friend and ministry leader:

    I am so very sorry for all, like you, who have been deeply wounded by the revelation of sinful behavior on the part of a much revered saint. I too am somewhat crushed.

    Although I never met, nor heard Bill, nor ever had the privilege of visiting Willow Creek, I have heard so many positive reports about his, and its, ministry, that it hurts (and that is the right word!) me deeply to learn of his, and its, fall.

    My take away:
    • We are all sinners, everyone of us.

    • Be assured, our sins will find us out. (Which is a good thing, in that it ultimately, and hopefully, brings us to repentance and a deeper walk with God)

    • As sins go, his were hardly serious, by the worlds standards, (with one disgusting Clintonesque exception). They strike me as more like indiscretions that Billy Graham’s excellent guidelines would have spared him of.

    • Clearly, he is a lonely man in need of comfort that, it seems, he is not finding in his wife. He stands in need of good counsel, and needs to acknowledge that need and repent/openly and apologize to all (as do the elders), so that there might be genuine forgiveness and healing, demonstrating that even great leaders and institutions do sin, but can find grace IF they truly do respect TRUTH. (Transparency can work wonders.)

    In fact, God can use this very stage to manifest the genuine relevance of His grace to a broken world.

    The beautiful icon of Bill and of Willow Creek is shattered, but not beyond repair, IF their (and our) eyes are turned upon JESUS, who, alone, is “the author and finisher of our faith.”

    He is, after all, “our Redeemer!” Thank God!, who knew, from the outset, that we, like King David, would need just such to see us through.

    • This situation is, clearly a mess, but we are not to be absorbed by it.

    As Aslan [the lion king of C.S Lewis’s Narnia series] pointed out on several occasions, this is (happily) “not our story,” although we too certainly have areas in which God has/is/will be dealing with us, at some point.

    We need keep our eyes on Jesus, press on in pursuit of His call upon our lives, and, in love and humility, pray for all those about us who stand in need of forgiveness, healing, and restoration.

    To which end, let us now pray for Bill, the women, the Elders, and for Willow Creek, to the end that God might have His way in all, while we attend to our own walk in Christ, with our family, friends, and ministries, to the greater glory of God and goodness of mankind.

    [Good words. Thank you, friend]

  7. Lael, I appreciate your honest and progressive perspective of this whole situation. I’m so glad you posted this.

    This is just one of so many accounts of this kind of thing in churches recently. But it is not a bad thing that the sin and consequent destruction has been brought to light. In the end, it will be a good thing for the Church. God will use it as a refiner’s fire, making us aware of the issue and moving us to look within. Victims will finally be taken seriously instead of rejected. They will finally get the help they need to move past the trauma, rather than being told to shove it under the rug in the name of forgiveness.

    While we can’t undo the sin, we can respond in ways that will bring healing. Rather than allowing this to become a black mark on the 21st century church, we can learn from the problem how best to conduct ministry and to be a support to those who have been hurt.

    And maybe, just maybe, we will begin to see the common structure of the Church as flawed: putting men up on a pedestal, giving too much control and influence to leaders. It’s shocking how far we have moved from the early church in Acts or Paul’s teaching on leadership. It’s time to reevaluate how we do church. Part of that has to be the empowerment of women. Paul tells us to mutually submit to each other (Ephesians 5:21). A relationship that involves one person in subjection to another cannot produce the oneness that Jesus prayed for in John 17. Instead, it is a breeding ground for sexual aggression, which is really a power issue, after all.

    • Thanks for taking the time to respond, Julie. Good words. This situation really shows the strength of the Biblical model of leadership by a plurality of elders. It is so hard to think about a founding elder with great success at church and around the world as “just one of many.” We need to ask hard questions and expect honest answers, occasionally with evidence to back them up. And accountability for everyone’s email.

      As for the empowerment of women, that’s the curious part. Hybels and Willow have empowered women more than most evangelical churches I know. Once that happens perhaps they need more training/accountability on how to work together, lifting one another up, but with good boundaries. In her book Men and Women in the Church Sarah Sumner offers a wise perspective to help that happen.