Bill Hybels Accused of Sexual Misconduct by Former Willow Creek Leaders

John and Nancy Ortberg, others confront megachurch with its own #MeToo moment. “The charges against me are false,” says Hybels of former friends’ “collusion.”

The church, founded in the Willow Creek Theater in Barrington, Illinois, also remains an evangelical powerhouse—and a model for churches around the country. It boasts a worship attendance of more than 25,000, making it the sixth-largest church in Outreach Magazine’s list of America’s 100 largest churches.

 

When the #MeToo movement arose this past fall, Willow Creek Community Church sprang into action.

“If you’ve been sexually harassed or harmed, your pain matters—to us and to God,” the suburban Chicago megachurch posted on its Facebook page, along with details about how to get help.

A handful of Willow Creek’s female leaders, including cofounder Lynne Hybels, also joined the Silence Is Not Spiritual campaign, calling on evangelical churches to stand up for women who had experienced sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Now the megachurch may have a #ChurchToo problem, one that pits cofounder Bill Hybels against some of his longtime friends.

A group of former pastors and staff members has accused Hybels of a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct, the Chicago Tribune reported tonight.

The group includes John and Nancy Ortberg, well-known pastors and authors who are both former teaching pastors at Willow Creek and longtime friends of Bill and Lynne Hybels. It also includes Leanne Mellado, a former Willow staff member who is married to Santiago “Jim” Mellado, the former longtime head of the Willow Creek Association (WCA) and current president and CEO of Compassion International.

At issue are allegations of pastoral misconduct by Bill Hybels, a bestselling author and founding pastor of one of America’s largest churches.

“The alleged behavior included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms,” according to the Tribune. “It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true.”

Bill Hybels has denied the allegations and says his former friends are colluding against him.

“This has been a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years. It’s time that gets identified,” he told the Tribune. “I want to speak to all the people around the country that have been misled … for the past four years and tell them in my voice, in as strong a voice as you’ll allow me to tell it, that the charges against me are false. There still to this day is not evidence of misconduct on my part.”

“The lies you read about in the Tribune article are the tools this group is using to try to keep me from ending my tenure here at Willow with my reputation intact,” Hybels told his congregation in a statement Thursday evening. “Many of these alleged incidents purportedly took place more than [20] years ago. The fact that they have been dredged up now and assembled in a calculated way demonstrates the determination of this group to do as much damage as they possibly can.”

Willow Creek’s elder board said it conducted a “thorough and independent investigation” into Hybels’s conduct and cleared him, as had its outside counsel [full statement below]. It accused Hybels’s critics of making a “coordinated effort to undermine Bill’s reputation.”

Some of the alleged misconduct dates to the late 1990s.

Nancy Beach, a former teaching pastor, told the Tribune that she traveled to Europe with Hybels in 1999 and that he asked her to stay a few extra days. She declined. But during the trip, he allegedly said his marriage was unhappy. Instead of work, Hybels wanted to have long dinners and walks on the beach.

One night, he allegedly asked her to his room for a glass of wine, then gave her a long, lingering hug.

“He would always say, ‘You don’t know how to hug,’” she told the Tribune. “‘That’s not a real hug.’ So it was like a lingering hug that made me feel uncomfortable. But again, I’m trying to prove that I’m this open person.”

Hybels also allegedly asked Beach to hang out at his house after midweek services, when his wife was not at home. She did at first and then stopped.

Vonda Dyer, a former Willow Creek employee, told the Tribune that Hybels told a joke about oral sex while they were out on his boat with another staff woman—a claim Hybels denies. She also says he repeatedly asked her to come to his hotel room.

One occasion he allegedly started caressing and kissing her.

And while Hybels coached men to abide by the so-called “Billy Graham rule”—never being alone with a women he was not married to—he often broke that rule, according to the Tribune.

“He told me what he thought about how I looked, very specifically, what he thought about my leadership gifts, my strengths,” she told the Tribune. Hybels allegedly 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,” she said.

Hybels again denied the allegation.

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

Earlier this week, before the allegations became public, Lynne Hybels announced on her blog that she was taking a “radical sabbatical,” backing off her social media and her public presence.

Like many #MeToo cases, the allegations against Hybels have been brewing for some time. And the allegations are not simple. Nor are they clear.

Concerns about Bill Hybels’s conduct first surfaced about five years ago.

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