The leaders of Willow Creek Community Church, arguably the most influential evangelical church in the nation, resigned en masse tonight, days after the latest news broke involving sexual harassment committed by its founding pastor Bill Hybels.
On Sunday, the New York Times broke the news that Hybels had harassed his assistant for years (in the 1980s), including an act of oral sex. That’s on top of the multiple allegations earlier this year from multiple women saying Hybels overstepped his boundaries with them as well.
When those initial stories broke, Hybels denied the allegations to his congregation while flanked by his handpicked replacements Steve Carter and Heather Larson. He said the church elders had investigated the situation and he was cleared of any wrong-doing. And the congregation gave him a standing ovation.
Sunday’s report put all of that in a new light. How could an investigation clear Hybels when his own assistant had these stories to tell? Did they not even bother speaking with her? Did they ignore her? Did she not trust them enough to share her secrets? The whole report, while focused on Hybels, really condemned the elders overseeing this investigation, too.
“To all the women who have come forward,” said Missy Rasmussen, one of nine elders, speaking to the hushed congregants, “we are sorry that we added to your pain.”
“We have no reason to not believe any of you. We are sorry that our initial statements were so insensitive, defensive and reflexively protective of Bill,” she said, while some in the church’s cavernous auditorium, in South Barrington, Ill., wept openly.
The church’s lead pastor, the Rev. Heather Larson, said she was stepping down because “trust has been broken by leadership and it doesn’t return quickly.”
“There is urgency to move us in a better direction,” she said.
It’s a chance for Willow Creek to make a clean break from its past, with new leadership and a new direction. But let’s be honest: This only happened because Willow Creek had become a national laughingstock and a perfect symbol of evangelical immorality and hypocrisy. (Donald Trump didn’t even have anything to do with it.)
The founder was credibly accused of harassment by several women. The elders helped cover it up through opaque “investigations” that clearly didn’t investigate thoroughly enough. The pastors acted (publicly, anyway) like this was a problem with one bad apple and not the entire orchard. The congregation was quick to defend Hybels over the many, many stories told by brave women. And that’s before we even get into the evangelical culture that pushes women to remain silent about these issues even when they’re victims — as Hybels’ assistant said about her decision not to come forward for so long, “I really did not want to hurt the church.”
So it’s about damn time that those who were involved in treating the women as part of some vast conspiracy admitted fault in all this.
All of this, by the way, is happening on the eve of the Global Leadership Summit, a conference started by Hybels more than two decades ago and run by the non-profit Willow Creek Association. Unless the entire event is one giant running apology — or maybe a livestream of the church’s leaders announcing their resignations, playing on loop — I have no idea what advice they could legitimately impart to others. (More than a hundred churches had already opted out of participating after the initial allegations against Hybels. Surely even more left after Sunday. After tonight, you have to question the churches that still think it’s a good idea to participate.)
For what it’s worth, I don’t think real change will occur unless members of that church withhold their money and walk out for good. They’re the ones who propped up this leadership and supported them even as victims came forward with their stories. They may not have made the decisions, but they also didn’t put any real pressure on the people running the church.
Every story about pastors resigning from Willow seems to include anecdotes about audience members begging them to stay. They’re always in shock. They always give standing ovations to the leaders.
No wonder the victims spoke to reporters. The people in that building were never going to take them seriously until pressure came from outside.
(Thanks to Jessica for the link)