Willow Creek Elders and Pastor Heather Larson Resign over Bill Hybels

Church leaders apologize to Nancy Ortberg, Nancy Beach, Vonda Dyer, and other women with accusations: “We have no reason not to believe you.”

On the eve of the 2018 GLS, they admitted in a special congregational meeting that church leaders had failed to appropriately handle recent allegations of sexual misconduct against their founding pastor. Lead pastor Heather Larson announced that she was resigning immediately. The church’s elder board announced that its member would also step down in an orderly fashion by the end of 2018. Steve Carter, the church’s lead teaching pastor, had already resigned on Sunday, saying he could no longer continue at the church in “good conscience.”

 

In the summer of 2008, Bill Hybels stood in front of thousands of pastors and other church leaders gathered at Willow Creek Community Church and admitted his megachurch had failed.

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“We made a mistake,” he told the crowd gatheredfor the 2008 Global Leadership Summit (GLS). A detailed Willow study had found that the church had helped many people find new faith in Jesus, but had failed to teach them how to practice the spiritual disciplines needed to grow their faith.

He vowed the megachurch would do be better in the future.

Ten years later, Willow Creek’s leaders confessed even more mistakes. On the eve of the 2018 GLS, they admitted in a special congregational meeting that church leaders had failed to appropriately handle recent allegations of sexual misconduct against their founding pastor.

Lead pastor Heather Larson announced that she was resigning immediately. The church’s elder board announced that its members would also step down in an orderly fashion by the end of 2018.

Steve Carter, the church’s lead teaching pastor, had already resigned on Sunday, saying he could no longer continue at the church in “good conscience.”

At tonight’s Willow family meeting, elder Missy Rasmussen said she and other church leaders had been blinded by their faith in their founding pastor and had failed to hold Hybels accountable.

“We trusted Bill, and this clouded our judgment,” she said.

That blindness, Rasmussen said, led to a number of missteps, including a rushed investigation when allegations that Hybels had had an affair first surfaced in 2014. Church leaders did not move quickly enough to secure his’ devices or other forms of communication, she said. When the woman who made the first allegations later recanted, the church dropped the matter without a thorough review.

Other allegations were met with skepticism, and later defensiveness. On behalf of the elders, Rasmussen apologized for that.

“Our entire elder board has had to come to grips with the areas of our hearts, minds, and souls that blinded us to the pain and suffering of the women and their advocates,” she said. “We ask forgiveness from God, our congregation, the women, their advocates, and those who have been calling us to repent.”

“We are sorry that we allowed Bill to operate without the kind of accountability that he should have had,” she said. “Our desire going forward is to retain what is good and pure about Willow, but to drive out the dark places that are unhealthy.”

Rasmussen also called on Hybels to repent of his actions.

“We believe that [Hybels’s] sins were beyond what he previously admitted on stage, and certainly we believe that his actions with these women were sinful,” she said. “We believe he did not receive feedback as well as he gave it, and he resisted the accountability structures we all need.”

She apologized by name to Nancy Ortberg, Nancy Beach, and Vonda Dyer, as well as the other women who have made accusations against Hybels.

“We have no reason not to believe you,” said Rasmussen on behalf of the elders. “We are sorry that our initial statements were so insensitive, defensive, and reflexively protective of Bill. We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.”

“Our board never acted out of malice, and tried to serve the church we love faithfully,” she said. “But the reality is we feel the failure of the board to move our church through this in the way we should have calls for action to be taken.”

She concluded: “We as a board know Willow needs a fresh start, and the entire board will step down to create room for a new board.”

The statement drew a round of applause.

When Larson announced her own resignation shortly after, shouts of “No” rang out instead. One attendee shouted, “We need you.”

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