The lead pastor and the entire board of elders resigned on Wednesday night from Willow Creek Community Church, one of the nation’s most influential evangelical congregations, saying that they had made a mistake by failing to believe the women who accused the Rev. Bill Hybels, the church’s founding pastor, of sexual harassment.
“To all the women who have come forward,” said Missy Rasmussen, one of nine elders, speaking to the hushed congregants, “we are sorry that we added to your pain.”
“We have no reason to not believe any of you. We are sorry that our initial statements were so insensitive, defensive and reflexively protective of Bill,” she said, while some in the church’s cavernous auditorium, in South Barrington, Ill., wept openly. “We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.”
It was a shocking blow for a church that has cast itself as a model of effective leadership for churches worldwide, and it comes at a particularly fraught moment for Willow Creek’s international network of supporters.
On Thursday, the Willow Creek Association’s annual Global Leadership Summit, watched by nearly 700 churches and half a million people worldwide, began in the same auditorium where the resignations were announced. Until this year, Mr. Hybels had hosted the event.
The event, which every year draws thousands of Christians from around the world, began with a confession.
“There is no map for the journey that we’ve been on. We’ve had missteps, mistakes, slip-ups, blunders,” said Tom DeVries, president of the Willow Creek Association, which organizes the leadership summit, in his opening address. “We are sorry for the places where we could and should have done better.”
On Wednesday night, the church’s lead pastor, the Rev. Heather Larson, said she was stepping down because “trust has been broken by leadership and it doesn’t return quickly.”
“There is urgency to move us in a better direction,” she said.
She turned the leadership over to Steve Gillen, who has been on Willow Creek’s staff for 20 years, most recently as lead pastor at the church’s North Shore site. Ms. Rasmussen, the elder, said the church has also hired an outside expert to conduct a “robust” review of its governance.
“It’s really tragic that things had to come to this point,” said Vonda Dyer, who once led the church’s vocal ministry and accused Mr. Hybels of luring her to his hotel room in Sweden in 1998, touching her stomach and kissing her unexpectedly.
[Read more about the church employee who accused the Rev. Bill Hybels of groping her repeatedly]
“This is not the outcome I would have ever wanted. My hope was that Bill Hybels would have admitted his sins, and that Willow Creek leaders would have come to repentance voluntarily, not through pressure from the national media,” Ms. Dyer said, crying in a telephone interview. “This is a sad day for Willow and for me personally.”
Mr. Hybels, the two pastors he chose as his successors and his board of elders have all been brought down by a gathering storm of allegations that ended in a thunderclap. It began more than four years ago, when the elders were told privately about a woman who said she had had a lengthy affair with Mr. Hybels. But Mr. Hybels denied it, and when the elders questioned her, she insisted she had been lying.
Then the elders learned that several women employed by the church, including Ms. Dyer, had accused Mr. Hybels of making inappropriate comments about their appearance, giving them uncomfortably long hugs and in one case an unwelcome kiss, and inviting some of them to his hotel room for a drink. The elders conducted their own investigation and commissioned another by an outside lawyer, all of which cleared Mr. Hybels.
The congregation learned of the allegations only after some of the women told their stories to The Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today last spring. The elders and the church’s two pastors stood by Mr. Hybels in March as he appeared before the congregation and said that the women were lying, and that their advocates, former Willow Creek staff members, were colluding to bring him down. However, he stepped down in April, six months ahead of his planned retirement, saying it was for the good of the church. He denies all the accusations against him.
Finally, on Sunday, Mr. Hybels’s former executive assistant Pat Baranowski alleged in an article in The New York Times that Mr. Hybels had broken her down emotionally, groped her repeatedly and once insisted on oral sex while she worked for him and lived in his home in the 1980s. Ms. Baranowski left her job and spent more than 25 years struggling with depression, unemployment and homelessness.
One of Mr. Hybels’s two successors, the Rev. Steve Carter, was so disturbed by Ms. Baranowski’s accusations that he vomited backstage before Sunday services and immediately resigned. On Monday, Ms. Larson, the remaining lead pastor, said the church would conduct a new independent investigation.
Several congregants leaving the church on Wednesday said they agreed that the leaders needed to resign and that the church needed a fresh start. Carol Rathmann, who is 71 and has been a member since 1982, shook her head in relief.
“At this point, they just needed to be up front,” she said. “They had to wipe the slate clean.”
Lisa Dudley, at the church with her 8-year-old son, said, “I never had a personal relationship with any of those pastors, but I have a personal relationship with God.”
Willow Creek, with more than 25,000 members, is the country’s fifth-largest megachurch, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The scandal at Willow Creek is likely to bring greater scrutiny to matters of church governance and the role of boards of elders, said Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary and director of the Hartford Institute.
“It challenges the idea that a group of elders internal to the congregation can truly be a healthy check and balance on leadership and direction and accountability,” he said.
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