Willow Creek accusations

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 16th of August, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Willow Creek Community Church is a mega-church in Chicago with a national reputation.

Last week, its lead pastor and entire elder board unexpectedly resigned. Missy Rasmussen is one of nine elders.

RASMUSSEN: We as a board know Willow needs and deserves a fresh start, and the entire board will step down to create room for a new board…

She admitted that church leaders mishandled internal investigations into one woman’s claims. Back in 2014, the woman accused founding pastor Bill Hybels of sexual harassment.

REICHARD: The issue resurfaced in March of this year.

The Chicago Tribune published a story identifying more women with similar accounts, three by name.

Last week The New York Times profiled a former executive assistant detailing unwanted advances and intimate activity.

Bill Hybels denies all the accusations.

WORLD Radio’s Paul Butler lives in North Central Illinois and he’s here with the context and implications of this story.

Paul let’s begin with a just a little background about Bill Hybels himself and a little bit about Willow Creek Community Church.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Well, Bill Hybels started Willow Creek Church in 1975 with Wheaton College professor Gilbert Bilezikian, which is a name most of us don’t know, but he was very instrumental in shaping Hybels’ perspective on both the role of women in the church and how to reach the unbeliever. And they did two things unique at the time: first they encouraged women to participate in all roles of ministry, which was a very countercultural idea at the time in evangelical churches. And they also made the term “seeker sensitive” popular. They did everything they could to remove religious imagery, religious speak, and appeal to the unbeliever who wanted to learn more.

REICHARD: And contemporary music, for example, or high quality media, coffee shops even, making sure the bathrooms are always clean and well-stocked. That was part of that movement as well.

BUTLER: That’s right. It really got the attention of church growth leaders and so he started the Willow Creek Association in 1992, and it duplicated his church philosophy all around the nation, and really, all around the world.

REICHARD: You know, my family attended Willow Creek a few times in the 1990s. Really friendly greeters, a well-stocked bookstore, and a very young congregation.

BUTLER: Yeah, I think that’s one of the reasons why it also garnered some criticism—that the whole seeker-sensitive idea seemed incomplete. And 10 years ago Bill Hybels even admitted that himself, that seeker-sensitive churches were great for introducing people to Christ, but poor in discipleship. So there was a ministry shift in 2008. Then just last year, Bill Hybels announced that he was retiring after 40 years of ministry and he put in place two successors to take his place: Steve Carter and Heather Larson.

REICHARD: Well, transitions of any kind are challenging enough, but Carter and Larson had a very steep climb with even more allegations of scandal to deal with.

BUTLER: They thought the 2014 allegations were behind them, but then in March of this year, the Chicago Tribune released an article that named three women with very specific allegations about inappropriate behavior.

REICHARD: What happened next?

BULTER: On March 23rd, there was a family meeting at Willow Creek and Bill Hybels vehemently denied all allegations saying that the women were trying to tarnish his reputation. Church leadership backed Hybels, detailed their own investigations and called out the accusers. But in April, Hybels unexpectedly announced his immediate retirement saying that he’d become a distraction. And over the summer there were a number of other women who came forward with similar accounts, prompting pastor Heather Larson to publicly apologize during a June 30th church service. Let’s listen.

LARSON CLIP: I need to publicly apologize to the women who raised concerns about Bill…I can’t imagine how painful these months have been for you, and I am so sorry for the ways that I have contributed to that.”

Then earlier this month The New York Times published a story about a former executive assistant who detailed inappropriate physical interactions, though she claimed that they never kissed or had intercourse.

REICHARD: Well, how did the church and association respond to that?

BUTLER: Co-pastor Steve Carter resigned, citing fundamental differences of opinion on how to deal with the scandal. Then a few days later the entire elder board resigned as well as pastor Heather Larson.

And during a meeting last week, Tom DeVries, the new president of the Willow Creek Association, admitted that the church and association had “made mistakes and blunders” and that they were cutting all ministry ties with Hybels and opening a new investigation.

REICHARD: Paul, this is a painful episode, indeed, but we can learn from it. So, thanks for this report, Paul.

BUTLER: You bet. Thank you.

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File) In this Thursday, July 1, 2010, file photo, Bill Hybels, then-senior pastor of the megachurch Willow Creek Community Church located in Northwest-suburban Chicago, speaks in Washington. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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