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Willow Creek elders and lead pastor resign in wake of Hybels revelations

Willow Creek Community Church lead pastor Heather Larson announces her resignation Aug. 8, 2018, at a "family meeting" at the megachurch's main campus in South Barrington, Ill. Screen grab via WillowCreek.tv

CHICAGO (RNS) — The lead pastor and entire elder board of Willow Creek Community Church have announced they will resign to give the church a “fresh start” following new allegations of sexual harassment against founder and former pastor Bill Hybels.

That announcement came late Wednesday (Aug. 8) at a “family meeting” of the congregation at the church’s main campus in South Barrington, Ill., the night before the start of Willow Creek Association’s popular annual Global Leadership Summit at the church.

“This is really important. Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return quickly,” Willow Creek lead pastor Heather Larson said. “There is urgency to move us in a better direction.”


RELATED: Willow Creek offers lessons in accountability (COMMENTARY)


The news follows the resignation over the weekend of lead teaching pastor Steve Carter, who cited differences with the church over how it handled allegations against Hybels and a “horrifying” report in the Sunday New York Times that detailed new allegations by Hybels’ former executive assistant.

Pat Baranowski, who worked for Willow Creek in the 1980s, alleged in that report that Hybels had fondled her breasts, rubbed against her and once engaged her in oral sex.

A March investigation by the Chicago Tribune and further reporting by Christianity Today documented more women’s claims that Hybels had invited them to hotel rooms, commented on their appearances and, in one case, given a former co-worker an unwanted kiss. The Tribune also reported that allegations previously had been investigated by Willow Creek’s elders and an outside law firm but that Hybels was cleared of wrongdoing.

Hybels — who resigned from the church in April, months ahead of his planned retirement — has denied all allegations.

Missy Rasmussen, who has been an elder at Willow Creek for seven years, said the board now could see that investigation was “flawed.” She apologized for its handling of allegations to all the women who have come forward, including former Willow Creek staff members Nancy Beach and Vonda Dyer.

“While we will probably never know with certainty everything that’s true about each of your stories, we have no reason to not believe any of you. We are sorry that our initial statement was so insensitive, defensive and reflexively protective of Bill (Hybels),” Rasmussen said.

“We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.”

Rasmussen announced to applause that the entire elder board will step down by the end of the year to create room for a new board. A first wave of elders will leave by Aug. 15, she said.

Larson said she will step down, too, noting that since she and Carter replaced Hybels in April she has not been able to get “the momentum that we need to address the issues that we need to address and to bring about the fresh start.”

Moving forward, an independent expert will conduct a governance review of the church, and a group of Christian leaders from across the country will oversee a new investigation of allegations against Hybels. Steve Gillen, who pastors the church’s North Shore campus in Glenview, Ill., will step in as interim lead pastor of Willow Creek.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

55 Comments

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  • This is one way to clean house. Perhaps the Pope and his Holy Oligarchs should follow the Willow Creek example.

  • Unfortunately, you are right Bob, the Roman Church is too corrupt and mired in its sin to address the root causes of the plague of sexual abuse to purge itself and let a new leadership model take over.

  • Unfortunately(?) I am right.

    Since it follows the “leadership model” of its founder, it is not about to change to suit johny-come-lately critics.

  • “Never change, especially when you’re wrong!” has been working out great for churches so far.

  • This is a watershed moment and an opportunity, not unlike the aftermath of quoting scripture to justify Roy Moore’s pedophilia or megachurch standing ovations for a sexual predator pastor in Memphis or quoting scripture to justify kidnapping and imprisoning refugee children or revelations of a Russian spy at the National Prayer Breakfast. U.S. White Evangelical Patriarchy is crumbling in real-time.

  • “the ‘leadership model’ of its founder”

    Absolutely, BobBob. It is right there in the Bible where the founder demonstrates his “leadership model” by protecting pedophiles. As you well know, the protection of pedophiles is exactly what the founder meant when he said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” You sure know how to tell it like it is, BobBob.

  • This indeed is an awkward time for a “Global Leadership Summit”, no? I’d suggest they just divide the church now on whether attendees support Trumpism, rather on whether attendees support Bill Hybel. If the Trumpees were to all get up and leave, they could start over with the remainder and fix the doctrine and the soul of the place. My guess is that these “leaders” they are assembling from elsewhere as consultants will try to do the exact opposite. We’ll know how it turns out after it turns out.

  • This is a good step, of course. The growing number of revelations that 1) sexual abuse by faith leaders occurs not only in the Catholic church but in faith communities across the board and 2) an increasing number of those coming forward in the wake of #MeToo are adult women vastly complicates the homophobic narrative that 1) tried to confine the abuse story to the Catholic church, 2) claiming that it is a result of the large percentage of gay priests in the Catholic church.

    Sexual orientation — whether heterosexual or homosexual — is not the root of sexual abuse within faith communities. The unmerited sense of entitlement of faith leaders, almost always male, to use and abuse others is the root of sexual abuse within faith communities. Until that root and the patriarchal culture it presupposes are addressed, abuse will continue.

    Homophobia is a red-herring diversion in discussion of these issues. Though it may be psychologically gratifying to a certain kind of aberrant personality that fixates on this issue and gratifies itself by singling out LGBTQ folks for attack (and we do need to ask what kind of people typically manifest this fixation and why they do), it won’t get us far in understanding the abuse situation in communities of faith.

  • It is always amusing to read the ex-Catholics from the now disbanded National Catholic Reporter’s Comments section pontificate on matters about which they know nothing just like they were really Catholics, unceasinglystumped.

    Actual Catholics know that Vatican II, continuing the work of Vatican I, spoke clearly and directly about “the ‘leadership model’ of its founder” in Lumen Gentium.

    http://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/V2CHURCH.HTM

    Pick it up at:

    “CHAPTER III ON THE HIERARCHICAL STRUCTURE OF THE CHURCH AND IN PARTICULAR ON THE EPISCOPATE”

    and begin to dispel the lack of knowledge, unceasinglystumped.

    Meanwhile, back to reality.

  • We have all moved on to better forms of church and civil government since the Emperor Constantine and the Dark Ages where the Roman Church began and evolved.

  • The Catholic hierarchy has determined and fully demonstrated that the Catholic hierarchy is the “leadership model” established by Jesus. Can you figure out the problem there, BobBob. I didn’t think so, bless your precious little heart.

  • I can’t imagine whom you might be referring to when you mention “graitfying a certain kind of aberrant personality”.

    And here comes The Usual Suspect in 3…2…1…

  • Puzzled is kidding, of course. Bob is under the illusion that Jesus founded the Catholic church. It was Paul ad others in the next few centuries.

  • Looks like Willow Creek’s leaders, even the female pastor, are accepting some pretty drastic changes. Not to appease the haters, (for that is impossible anyway), but to get honest and get right about this situation.

  • Love how resignations only come when it’s acknowledged that there is a huge mess to clean up.

    The time to resign was years ago…before the ship sailed this far. Now the crew are jumping into lifeboats…leaving the passengers to fend for themselves on a sinking ship — far from the shore !!

  • “We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.”

    Part of the problem with church-related abuse is that we’ve muddled sin, scandal and crime. They’re not the same, and until we figure that out we’re never going to get past these things.

    Scandal is really a marketplace issue. It’s reflected in people leaving faith communities and taking their financial support with them. Some scandals can’t be fixed and some are fixed only over time and with good PR efforts. And sometimes those involved recover professionally and sometimes they don’t. But one way or another, the situation eventually takes care of itself.

    Sin, for those who believe in it (and I do), is a matter between the sinner and God. I, for one, don’t need Bill Hybels to publicly acknowledge any sin. (Who knows if he’s on the level or crying crocodile tears anyway?) Yes, he may need to publicly account for some personal hypocrisy and, yes, he should try to make amends to those he’s injured. But personal penitence isn’t something that the masses need to witness.

    Which brings me to the third and, as far as the public is concerned, most important category, which is crime. Not all situations of abuse are necessarily crimes, but some are. Obviously, that includes anything involving minors and/or the use of force. That’s where the obligation of public accountability really lies.

    It’s God’s purview to deal with sin and it’s the purview of congregations to deal with scandal. It’s society’s responsibility to deal with crime, and since I’m neither God nor a member of the Willow Creek community, it’s the only thing I care about having to do with this story.

  • Ben, gosh, so hard to think of any names at all that fit this description, isn’t it?

    Certainly not ones that post unrelenting, vicious attacks on gay folks at RNS, suggesting that they are positively transfixed by and can’t stop thinking about the gays.

    I’ll rack my brain and see if I can come up with names of some folks like that!

  • I thought scripture quoted Jesus saying, “Come watch me suffer, kids.” Come to think of it, maybe he said, “Let the children suffer to come to me.”

  • As much as one might like Vatican II (as I do), we must remember it was populated by bishops formed in the old Tridentine model of church. Anyway, we must acknowledge self-serving and self-aggrandizing claptrap from hierarchs who contend Jesus “founded the Church” and the bishops “are successors of the Apostles”. Pure bunkum.

  • William, you’re being your usual modest self. “R.A. Bob” (Arnzen) comes to mind. I’ve won more cats eye marbles from him than I can possibly count or hold. No wonder he pouted and took his marbles home. He’s a sore loser.

  • I know what you mean. It’s so hard to think of any names like that. It’s probably all a figure of our overly active, errr ummm, imaginarily persecuted victimhood.

    They don’t hate us, They really love us. The just hate out seminarian sexing, child molesting, disease spreading, civilization destroying, morality attacking, religion defying, god hating, jesus despising, military demoralizing, child endangering, heterosexuality endangering, family deconstructing, marriage eroding, gender role ignoring, nasty sex having, innocence undermining, and sexuality obsessing ways.

    And really! who could possibly find any hate in THAT?

    No one I can think of. And any sandimonious Bob, Tom, or Floyd will agree with me.

  • You can, Joseph. All it takes is a little time and effort. 😊

    By the way, have you heard from Monica Deangelis? She started a new blog for some of the old crowd from NCR.

  • If I commented “I hate to see Heather Larson resigning, I had always assumed she had gotten her position because she was capable”, I’d hope it would motivate her to stay and prove all the people thinking otherwise they are wrong about her.

  • Goodness gracious, consistentlybewildered, that IS a BUNDLE of passive-aggressive hostility. You’ll give yourself the vapors.

    So, what you’re saying is “phooey” to Vatican II.

    I cannot imagine why the 5,500 Catholic bishops in the world haven’t recognized your sheer intellect, scrapped nearly 2,000 years of teachings, and dialed you up on how to organize the Church as YOU see it should be done.

    Let’s see …. your bona-fides consists of being a frequent critic whose comments are noted for both brevity and snark.

    Oh, and you were a commenter at the National Catholic Reporter Comments section from the fall of 2013 until it sank leaving a small slick on the surface.

    Have I left something out?

    They’re simply successors to the Apostles.

    I can’t imagine why “the Catholic hierarchy” isn’t pounding on your door.

  • There seems to be that issue of divine institution, which so far as I know civil governments don’t claim.

    So, what model of church government are you selling?

    Or, better yet, which one did you buy personally?

  • You might to read the Bible, the part about Judas Iscariot, consistentlybewildered.

    Apparently some portion of the successors to the Apostles, just like some portion of the original Apostles, fail.

    Be sure to share your plan for preventing that with them when the 5,500 Catholic bishops come to partake of your wisdom.

  • Boo hoo hoo, poor Ben has been picked on.

    Sandimonious Bob, Tom, or Floyd should exhibit the same charitable approach as you do to religion.(?)

  • Stating the Christian position apparently constitutes “vicious attacks on gay folks”.

    Oh, and you feel the same way about the Catholic Church, St. John Paul II, etc, etc, etc.

    There’s a pattern, but not the one you seem to think.

  • Exactly, Ben. They love us to death — and imagine that no one in the world sees through their tissue of lies about their “love.” It’s Orwellian:

    “Even the names of the four Ministries by which we are governed exhibit a sort of impudence in their deliberate reversal of the facts. The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy; they are deliberate exercises in doublethink. For it is only by reconciling contradictions that power can be retained indefinitely.”

    And then there are those inconvenient scientific studies which have shown that “heterosexual” men fixated on condemning gay men predictably turn out to be turned on by gay erotic images far more than actual straight men are. What’s that about, I wonder, and why does this syndrome manifest itself so predictably with religious homophobies who want to build their whole understanding of religion around hating LGBTQ folks?

  • Hybels started the Seeker Sensitive movement, bringing sinners into the church to get indoctrinated, instead of preparing the congregants to go forth and disciple to all nations. So, should we be surprised when someone who was apparently fully of head knowledge but not going through sanctification would be himself the object of sinfulness? The Body of Believers have Jesus Christ as the head of the church. We already know there will be many who come to deceive, and God will handle the chastening.

  • Yes, I got e-mail from her yesterday. Have not had chance to give her requested feedback. Hope to do so tomorrow.

    How can I give you a thousand UP arrows? Use a thousand names/accounts??? God help me :o)

  • The Catholic position on homosexuality is rank hypocrisy. Rome wants to have its cake and eat it, too. We’re beyond that crap.

  • A federation of churches with a modified congregational approach seems to be relatively transparent and makes it difficult to pass pedophiles from one congregation to another. Further, there is better accounting for expenditures with a large community of Christians setting the agenda for mission. Our Bishops are elected and we select pastors from a list of qualified individuals. The congregation with the grace of God decides the continued operations of the local church and its mission. My religious background emphasizes following Christ not false prophets, praying to dead people and governments that are products of the Dark Ages. We do not believe there is one way to govern a church,. However in this modern democratic era of openness and accountability, we have set aside the idea of monarchs who claim divine right and a top down approach.

  • This is the most blatant comment of hatred of White Christians I have read in days (sadly, very common now). White Evangelicals somehow endorse kidnapping and imprisoning “refugee children” (i.e., parents and often unrelated adults stealing across a dangerous border illegally)? What is the relationship to an alleged Russian spy – are Russians “White Evangelicals”? And if so, didn’t Obama himself declare to Romney in 2012 “Hello, the 1980s are calling for their Cold War back” – those evil WHITE Russians.

    The category of the hated “WHITE Evangelical” seems to expand to cover all manner of ills in the world.

    Dude, see a psychiatrist.

  • The Dark Ages as a term may have fallen out of favor, but it is the era in which the Roman Church began to consolidate power after its founding by Constantine and establish its traditions. Any form of corporate government that is detrimental to society needs to be reshaped or abolished. The corporate structure of the Roman Church has led to wide spread abuse and therefore needs to go especially if it desires protection in bankruptcy court.

  • Russians aren’t white evangelicals, they are using white evangelicals to infiltrate the US government, through channels like the National Prayer Breakfast. That’s exactly what a Russian intelligence operative has just been indicted for. Dude, read the news.

  • Only time will tell if they are honestly attempting to right the situation, or just trying to move on.

  • I have become increasingly convinced over the past few years that a good deal of the opposition to gay people coming from religion comes from four sources:

    1) people I will call traditionalist authoritarians, thought not in the traditional sense of the words. Their religion told them something, they have made it central to whatever they think of as their faith, and it will never be questioned until such time as someone hits them upside the head with a rhetorical 2×4. They can’t question the teaching, because that would be to question the faith. If they are wrong about this, what else are they wrong About?

    2) homo hating homos. They infest conservative religion. Thus the catholic “priests” like McCarrick, O’Brien, or Ted Haggard and Lonnie Latham from the Protestant side. Religion provides them both a defense, a deflection, and a camouflage. “lookee me! I hates them homos, I hates them forever. Precioussssssssss! I’m not one of them!”

    But ya are, Blanche. Ya are. And you’ll do whatever you can to avoid revealing that.

    3) your regular garden variety bigots. So much of bigotry is not hate, but despite. “I’M better than you.” is their never ending whine. Their self praise is “I’m god,s BFFF.” Megalomania also plays into this: “you’re a threat.”

    4) the sexually confused, the sexually immature, the sexually terrified. As I’ve stated repeatedly to our local uberCatholic, these infest the RC priesthood, as far as I can tell.

    The groups aren’t necessarily Discrete, or in McCarrick’s case, discreet. I suspect that he entered the priesthood, not with a head filled with the thoughts of all that hot, sweaty mansex, but with a head filled with fear and a belief that the priesthood would save him from himself. And then, he found a whole bunch of men just like himself, and voila! He was the kid in a candy store, with lots of hot, sweaty, shame-filled, horny candy.

    Just my thoughts on this. Maybe there has been a study done. I don’t know and I don’t care. This is what I have observed, repeatedly, for decades.

  • Solving the Willow Creek crisis and in general the crisis in all religions: (and putting an end to Religion News opinion pages?)

    The Great Kibosh:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • The “Dark Ages” have zero to do with the “Roman Church”.

    The structure of the “Roman Church”, hereinafter called the Catholic Church, follows the plan given to it by its founder, just as does the Orthodox, Assyrian, Non-Chalcedonian, and so on.

    As to bankruptcy court … an attempt by the government to design and enforce a system of church governance won’t fly thanks to the First Amendment, so drop it.

  • I cannot prove the Rational Conclusions is a person or a moderately sophisticated internet bot. That the same comment is posted over and over in so many threads suggests a bot. A few hundred or a few thousand years from now, proving that Rational Conclusions was a person may well be impossible. We, for example, don’t know if he is far or skinny, like the Buddha.

  • Hollywood, news organizations, businesses, government administrations, etc. with #MeToo moments have not had mass resignations, let alone mass resignations before the problem was made public. Sometimes government administrations don’t have resignations at all.

    The time for Hollywood to have cleaned up its act was, indeed, years ago, but the Hollywood ship sails on. And does anyone believe the problem is over in Hollywood?

    I have no relationship with Willow Creek, but I suspect they will do OK, if not better, without the board members who resigned. I don’t know if the old board has anything that one could call a lifeboat.

    In contrast, Congressional representatives who have dishonored their office can still get their pensions – even while doing time in prison. That is a life boat. But the ship of state somehow sails on.

    Kudos to the board and, in a separate situation, the Chilean bishops, for resigning.

  • Just more of the Angelic/Satanic con game:

    AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC/SATANIC CONS CONTINUE
    TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD

    Joe Smith had his Moroni and Satan/Perdition/Lucifer. (As does M. Romney)

    “Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the
    first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being
    created by God and of course Satan and his demons.

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tin-kerbell” got around) and of course the
    jinn.

    Jesusand his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern
    day demon of the demented. (As do BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan) (As does Trump although no one knows about what he believes other than money and women)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to
    do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty
    wingie/ugly/horn-blowing thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same
    to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals.
    Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders
    and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

  • As a good student, you have read the reiterations of the “fems” (Flaws, Errors, Muck
    and Stench) of religion.

    Therefore the seeds have been planted in rich soil. Go therefore and preach the truth to all
    nations, reiterating as you go amongst the lost, bred, born and brainwashed souls
    of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism as Rational Thinking makes its triumphant return all because of
    you!!!!

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