Hybels, sixth from left, and other church leaders pray before the congregation on Tuesday in a ‘Family Meeting’ where Hybels resigned amid a cloud of misconduct allegations
- Bill Hybels, 66, stepped down on Tuesday from his church outside Chicago
- Follows published reports of sexual harassment allegedly spanning decades
- Alleged behavior included comments, invitations, lingering hugs and a kiss
- Hybels says many of the claims are false but admits he was oblivious at times
- He served as spiritual advisor to then-President Bill Clinton during impeachment
The Rev. Bill Hybels, 66, stepped down on Tuesday night as leader of Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago suburb of South Barrington, one of the largest churches in the US with over 26,000 regular attendees.
The resignation, six moths ahead of Hybels’ planned retirement in October, follows published reports of church investigations into the pastor’s alleged sexual misconduct. Those investigations cleared Hybels of wrongdoing and he spoke out to deny the claims.
The alleged behavior included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms, according to the Chicago Tribune report. 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.
Providing more details on the sexual misconduct case against Willow Creek Community Church founder Bill Hybels, former staffer Nancy Ortberg claimed that the woman who alleged a prolonged sexual affair with Hybels was suicidal and that the founder was allowed to continue counseling the woman even after the allegation was made.
Ortberg, who served on the Board of the Willow Creek Association and on staff as teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church for nine years, decided to release the details two days after Hybels announced that he would retire, because she remains “deeply concerned about the process and church governance that brought us all to this point.”
Ortberg said she first heard the “disturbing story” in 2014 from Leanne Mellado, a former Willow Creek staffer, who said a good friend of hers had confided in her.
“This story involved a fourteen-year sexual affair. After carrying this story on her own for over six months, Leanne made the Elders aware of these allegations, and I was sure a thorough and independent investigation would be done to find out the truth on behalf of the woman, the church, the Willow Creek Association, and Bill,” Ortberg said.
She then detailed the investigative process conducted by the elders of Willow Creek which her husband John Ortberg, senior pastor of the nearly 4,000-member Menlo Church in Menlo Park, California, previously dismissed as “poorly designed” and dangerous for the women involved.
According to Nancy Ortberg, the internal inquiry conducted by the church elders lasted a little over a week. During that review period, they discovered 1,150 emails between Hybels and the woman over the previous two years but “the Elders reviewed none for content.”
They also had a “face-to-face conversation with Bill Hybels on April 6th. They said they could ‘look him in the eye and discern if he was telling the truth.'”
That same day, the elders had a 15-minute phone conversation with the woman who alleged the 14-year affair with Hybels. This woman had previously emailed another former Willow Creek staffer, Leanne Mellado, three times, saying “that if her story went public she would deny it.”
“Then, the church Elders declared the matter closed. All of this had taken place over the course of only nine days. The coordinating Elder recommended that I talk to Bill Hybels directly,” Ortberg said.
At a later meeting, Ortberg said Hybels “admitted that the woman alleging an affair had spent many nights at the Hybels’ home when Lynne was out of town.”
“In addition to everything we were learning, I and others on the Board of the Willow Creek Association grew deeply alarmed at Bill being allowed to continue in a counseling relationship with this woman who was suicidal, as well as the slipshod nature of the investigation and the overall lack of accountability in the Willow Creek culture,” she wrote.
For their part, the Willow Creek elders explained to the congregation that the woman had written a retraction of her claims, saying it was all a lie, and that she apologized several times to the elders and to Hybels and his wife.
According to the elders, their internal investigation included “numerous interviews and the hiring of an IT forensics firm to check Bill’s technology devices. It also included reviews of emails, travel documents, personal financial records, church financial records, and calendars.” And they found no evidence of misconduct.
The elders also hired an external investigator, who conducted a five-month investigation and found no evidence to support the allegations.
On Tuesday, Hybels resigned months earlier than planned, while staunchly maintaining his innocence, explaining that the controversy has become a “distraction” to ministry work. He called some of the allegations “misleading” and others “entirely false.”
“I’ve been accused of many things I simply did not do,” he said.
The controversy went public last month when the Chicago Tribune published an extensive investigation of allegations from several women, which included the prolonged affair, suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms.
Hybels admitted to being sometimes naïve in his relations with others and noted some of his actions were misinterpreted.
According to Ortberg, when Hybels was asked at a 2014 meeting with elders and Willow Creek Association Board members about two women who made allegations against him, “Bill characterized both of them as ‘having drinking problems,’ being ‘unstable’ and ‘stalking his family.’ I was the only person on either Board who knew the identities of both women, and I knew they were smart, kind, and diligent leaders,” Ortberg wrote.
She further noted that at that same meeting, Hybels was asked about his “special arrangement with I.T.,” where his emails were permanently deleted on a frequent basis.
“During that meeting, an Elder told a WCA Board member that Willow Creek had ‘no document retention policy.’ This was the first time either Board had heard about this arrangement, but both of these women told us separately that Bill had told them about this ‘special arrangement’ years prior,” she said.
Ortberg, who is currently a founding partner of TeamWorx2, a business and leadership consulting firm, also recalled how she felt inappropriately touched by Hybels after a meeting with others in his hotel room on a mission trip to Tasmania.
“When I got up to leave Bill stopped me at the door and hugged/held me tightly for about thirty seconds. Stunned, I finally slipped my arms up between us and pushed him away. I went back to my hotel room and cried, not understanding what had just happened. Later I did not know how or who to talk to and began to second-guess and doubt myself as to its significance; that is, until years later when I began to hear stories of other similar encounters,” she said.
Others like Nancy Beach, Willow Creek’s first female teaching pastor, have also spoken out this week, saying the truth needs to come to light.
She said Hybels’ resignation over multiple allegations of sexual misconduct was not enough to rectify the damage caused by his alleged actions and called for more contrition and accountability.
Betty Schmidt, who was an elder at Willow Creek for 30 years, released a statement Tuesday accusing Willow Creek leadership of twisting the truth about what happened with Dyer into “untruths.”
“My post states the truth of my knowledge of Vonda’s personal account. It has been very disturbing to hear my words from the meeting with the WC elders become twisted, added to and extrapolated from. By speaking truth of what I actually said, I hope to make the record clear. The current Willow Creek elders have misquoted and misrepresented me,” Schmidt said in part of a five-point rebuttal to Willow Creek leaders.
“I did not say I never had an inkling about whether allegations of misconduct had ever been brought against Bill. It’s precisely because I had such concerns (which went beyond an ‘inkling’) that I wanted to meet with the elders in the first place,” Schmidt insisted.
“I did not say that the woman (Vonda) ‘claimed to have kissed Bill.’ Vonda did not initiate the kiss. Bill did. This is what Vonda told me. This is what I told the elders,” she added.
“Women need to know that if they muster the courage to tell their stories, church leadership will listen with compassion and fairness. That has not happened here. Yet. I hope and pray it will.”
Vonda Dyer, a former leader within the church, on Sunday expanded on her claims in the Tribune report by writing a lengthy personal blog post.
In a hotel room in Sweden in 1998, Hybels ‘put his hands on my waist, moved one hand to caress my stomach and kissed me on the lips,’ before she stopped him and left, Dyer claims.