When allegations first surfaced of Bill Hybel’s sexual sin at the Willow Creek megachurch, church leaders insinuated that the women and their testimonies were untrustworthy. An internal investigation was launched by Willow Creek into Hybels’ behavior, initially with just one woman known to cooperate with the investigatory committee. According to the Chicago Tribune, which spearheaded the press’ inquiry, several women declined to speak to the church’s investigatory committee, some because they feared the investigation lacked integrity and others because Hybels had been so instrumental in promoting their personal ministry. After further investigation and new revelations, Willow Creek leaders have come to the conclusion that Hybels was guilty of at least some sexual sins and furthermore, that they themselves did not act properly in response to the accusations.
Heather Larsen – the new (female) lead pastor of Willow Creek – and the new teaching pastor, Steve Carter, issued the statement of apology and regret. Larsen, who also serves as church “CEO,” wrote the following:
It was stated that the allegations are all lies, and I do not believe that. I should have jumped in and declared that personally right away when that statement was made. I believe the stories that Bill had interactions that were hurtful to these women. That is wrong, and I hope and pray that someday this can be made right.
I ask for forgiveness that I did not personally declare that sooner.
The women showed courage in coming forward. In full transparency of what was going on in me, one of the hardest parts for me was that I did not agree with how the information came out in the media, and I allowed that to get in the way of focusing on the pain of these women. I am sorry. I should have listened more to why the women felt like they were forced to take that path.
It was wrong to host those first family meetings and to release those initial posted statements in the way we did. We should have started by listening. As I walked out on stage that first night, I realized that the humility and tone were not right, and I have deep regrets about even holding those meetings. I said things that hurt people, and I am deeply sorry.
Steve Carter, who is responsible for much of the teaching at Willow Creek, also said:
Specifically, I do not think it should have been said that the women were lying or that they were colluding against Bill and the church. I believe the women and applaud their courage.
I have personally reached out to and connected with several of the victims and listened to their experiences. I have made private apologies to several of the women and their families for the way they have been treated. I thank God for the opportunity to seek grace and forgiveness from these individuals.
I recognize that I am not blameless in this. I take full responsibility for my actions that contributed to the injustice that was done to these women. I should not have been on stage for any of the family meetings, to pray or lead any part of those nights. I believe now that what our church needed initially was to practice transparency and repentance, to grieve, and to reflect on what Jesus was inviting us into and to listen to the Holy Spirit.
It is unknown if Willow Creek church leaders will evaluate the role of women in ministry, and how it played a role in the sexual abuse or sin in the congregation. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, stonewalling the process of the investigation were many women who had advanced in ministry positions throughout the organization due to Hybels’ influence, and he used his ability to promote women throughout the ministry ranks in exchange for carnal affection.
While Hybels is first and foremost responsible for his sin, along with any willing participants, a serious discussion needs to be had in regards to how women being in ministry so extensively at Willow Creek led to the toxic environment that made such predation possible among co-workers.