The founder and former pastor of the Willow Creek megachurch, Bill Hybels, is fighting a string of sexual misconduct accusations of sexual over many years levelled at him by respected former leaders of the church.
A detailed investigation by the Chicago Tribune uncovered allegations of misconduct involving ‘suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms’. Hybels denies all the accusations.
Elders of the church had investigated the claims and cleared him of all the charges, but a group of former leaders claim the inquiry had shortcomings and believe further investigations are needed.
One woman, Vonda Dyer, became a Willow Creek employee in 1997 and accompanied Hybels on foreign trips. She said he had attempted to caress her in a hotel room. He told the Tribune he had never kissed or touched her. ‘This has reached a point that I can’t sit silently by and listen to these allegations any more,’ he said. ‘I will dispute what she said to my dying breath. She is telling lies.’
Another, Nancy Beach, the church’s first female teaching pastor, recounted conversations and interactions she felt had been appropriate over the years.
She said: ‘I feel so conflicted about the whole situation because I’m so protective of the reputation of the church, not just here but globally. But I have confidence that the truth matters. Even though he’s 66 years old, there are still young women in his path. I certainly wouldn’t want one of my daughters or anyone else to be in this kind of situation.’
Hybels denied any wrongdoing in connection with Beach.
The group urging greater scrutiny by the church includes John and Nancy Ortberg, both well-known pastors and authors, formerly pastors at Willow Creek and friends of Hybels and his wife Lynne. It also includes Leanne Mellado, a former staff member married to Jim Mellado, former head of the Willow Creek Association (WCA) and now president and CEO of Compassion International.
Another woman told Leanne Mellado she and Hybels had had a consensual affair, but retracted her statement when Mellado urged her to come forward with her claims.
According to the Tribune, the board of the Willow Creek Association (WCA), founded by Hybels to train Christian leaders around the globe, also considered investigating allegations against him but decided not to proceed. Three WCA board members, including Nancy Ortberg, resigned after saying they believed the elders’ review had been inadequate. Ortberg told the Tribune that the board’s decision not to pursue another inquiry was a ‘complete abdication of fiduciary responsibility’, and left the board vulnerable to litigation if the allegations were proved true.
Hybels has characterised the pressure on him as ‘a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years’ in an interview with the Tribune. He said: ‘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 no evidence of misconduct on my part.’
By 2017, continued pressure via the Ortbergs and Mellados had impelled the church to hire an attorney, Jeremy Fowler, to conduct an investigation. He said: ‘After looking at thousands of documents, after interviewing 29 people, and doing as much as I possibly could, I concluded that there was no basis for believing that Pastor Hybels had engaged in a pattern and practice of misconduct, and to the extent any specific incident had been raised with me, I concluded that his actions in those instances were not inappropriate,’ Fowler said.
Hybels told the Tribune the Mellados and Ortbergs were at the centre of what he described ‘collusion’ against him, describing them as a kind of ‘vacuum cleaner’ pulling in false accusations.
They deny the charge, with John Ortberg saying: ‘It’s absolutely not the case. This information came to us in a way that was unlooked for, unwanted, and it put us in a terrible situation. To say I was motivated to find a problem couldn’t be further from the truth.’
Hybels’ successor as lead pastor, Heather Larson, supported his view that there had been a campaign against him, saying: ‘This situation has been heartbreaking for me.’