One of the prominent leaders in American evangelicalism resigned abruptly Tuesday night in the wake of a series of accusations of sexual misconduct. Citing “confusion” about the accusations, which span decades, Bill Hybels announced from the stage at his suburban Chicago church that he was retiring effective immediately. “It has been extremely painful for us to see this controversy continue to be a distraction,” he said, referring to himself and his wife, Lynne. Church members in the audience gasped, and some shouted, “No!”
The accusations against Hybels come from multiple women, including several former employees who spoke on the record with the Chicago Tribune as a part of a major investigation published in March. They accuse the pastor of behavior including flirtatious comments, lingering hugs, and an unwanted kiss. The claims were noteworthy in part because of who made them: multiple employees who went on the record were highly respected within Willow Creek and in some cases had high profiles outside the church. Nancy Beach, the church’s first female teaching pastor, told the Tribune that Hybels repeatedly initiated inappropriate conversations with her over the years and invited her to one-on-one meetings in his home and hotel rooms with no clear professional agenda. Vonda Dyer, another employee, also said Hybels invited her to a hotel room more than once; on a work trip to Sweden, she said, he told her she was “sexy” and kissed her. (One woman, not named in news reports, said she had a long-term affair with Hybels but later recanted her claim in full.)
If Hybels is not a household name outside of evangelicalism, it’s because he is more interested publicly in spiritual topics than politics (although he did serve as a spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton). But within evangelicalism, his fame and influence are hard to overstate. He founded Willow Creek in 1975, and it has since become one of the largest churches in America. The church now has multiple locations in the Chicago area that together draw 25,000 worshippers every weekend. Hybels also founded a related network of thousands of churches worldwide, and an annual leadership summit that has featured Clinton, Colin Powell, and President Jimmy Carter as speakers.
The accusations against him may sound like relatively minor offenses compared with others made against prominent men over the past six months. But there’s a reason so many of President Donald Trump’s prominent evangelical defenders excused his behavior by saying “we’re not electing a pastor”: Pastors are generally still held to high standards of personal behavior by their congregations. Just last month, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee stepped down over a “morally inappropriate relationship.” If even the milder accusations against Hybels are true, many church members would consider them disqualifying.
Hybels had announced in 2012 that he would retire in October 2018, and the church had been working on transition plans for years. That means his sudden departure will not be as disruptive to Willow Creek as it might have been. But the larger impact will surely be felt within evangelicalism more broadly, where Hybels has been a longtime champion of women at the highest levels of Christian ministry, including preaching, leading churches, and serving as elders. Female leadership in these arenas is a subject of theological dispute between Christians, and many large nondenominational megachurches fall on the conservative side of the debate. Last fall, Willow Creek became one of the largest churches to name a female head pastor, when Hybels announced that then–executive pastor Heather Larson would co-lead the church when he departed. According to Christianity Today, Larson and co-pastor Steve Carter would make Willow Creek the only major evangelical megachurch to have a co-ed pair of pastors who aren’t married to each other. “When we saw this shaping up, we had to ask ourselves, ‘Can our congregation have a lead pastor that’s a woman?,’ ” Hybels said when he announced the leadership plan. “And because this is a deeply held value in our church, we said, ‘No problem.’ ”
In a congregational meeting after the Tribune story was published in March, Hybels discussed the allegations against him in detail and vigorously denied them, pointing out that he had been cleared by an investigation overseen by the church’s board of elders. But several former Willow Creek leaders have spoken publicly about their frustrations with that investigation. Meanwhile, Dyer posted a more detailed description of her story this week, in which she said Hybels often spoke with her about difficulties in his marriage and denigrated her own husband to her. A founding elder of the church, Betty Schmidt, backed her up with a new statement that accused Willow Creek’s current leadership of misrepresenting her in its attempts to protect Hybels.
In the second congregational meeting on Tuesday night, an emotional Hybels confessed only to placing himself in unwise situations, to interactions “that were perceived in ways I did not intend,” and to reacting in anger to the initial set of allegations. He said that some of the stories are misleading and that some are false. But that is very different from saying none of them were true at all. He also did not say he has always been faithful to his wife, whom he barely mentioned. If clear-eyed listeners were hoping for a reason to believe Hybels is beyond reproach, they would have been disappointed.