The current lead pastor and elders of Willow Creek Community Church have issued an apology over the way they handled former pastor Bill Hybels' resignation from the church in April for misconduct allegations.
Hybels, 66, founded the 25,000-strong Chicago-area church 42 years ago.
What's the background?
Hybels announced his resignation in April six months ahead of schedule after being at the center of “inquiries by church leaders into claims that he ran afoul of church teachings by engaging in inappropriate behavior with women in his congregation — including employees — allegedly spanning decades.”
According to a Chicago Tribune investigative report published in March, Hybels had been cleared on all allegations.
The report alleged that accusations against Hybels included inappropriate behaviors including “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms.”
Allegations also reportedly included an “prolonged consensual affair with a married woman.”
The woman later reportedly recanted her allegation.
During Hybels' April announcement, he claimed that he was leaving the church ahead of schedule because the swirling controversy proved to be too much of a distraction to church members.
The Tribune reported that Hybels initially reacted with anger after the accusations against him went public. He later apologized for his defensive stance, and had previously called the allegations “flat-out lies.”
Later, however, Hybels said that some allegations were misleading, instead, but others were “entirely false.”
In a statement, Hybels added that he realized “in certain settings and circumstances in the past I communicated things that were perceived in ways I did not intend, at times making people feel uncomfortable.” He also added that he “too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid,” calling himself “naive.”
Who replaced Hybels?
In 2017, the church announced that pastor Heather Larson would succeed Hybels after his departure as lead pastor. Upon Hybels' resignation, Larson took over immediately.
Larson admitted in a statement that the news of Hybels’ investigation and departure was “hard.”
“There is no way to get around it, this season has been difficult beyond words,” Larson wrote. “Some of the women who brought their stories are women who have mentored me and invested in me. To those women, I want to say that I have love and gratitude for you and the role you played in my life, and I am so deeply sad for all of us that we find ourselves in this place.”
As for the future of the church, Larson wrote, “We will be radically committed to a healthy environment where we can work and serve together.”
Larson's initial statement on Willow Creek Community Church's website is no longer available to view online.
What is the church saying now?
Larson and other Willow Creek elders say that Hybels "entered into sin" in a statement published Saturday to the church's website.
The statement noted that the church's elders should have believed women who made allegations of sexual misconduct against Hybels.
"We apologize and ask for forgiveness that the tone of our initial response was not one of humility and deep concern for all the women involved. It takes courage for a woman to step forward and share her story," a portion of the statement read.
"We are grieved that we let Bill's statement stand for as long as we did that the women were lying and colluding. We now believe Bill entered into areas of sin related to the allegations that have been brought forth," the statement added.
Larson added that she and her fellow pastors are looking to right the wrongs done as a result of the allegations.
"I need to publicly apologize to the women who raised concerns about Bill," a portion of Larson's statement read. "To the women directly, I can't imagine how painful the past months have been for you, and I am so sorry for my part in that."
She claimed that she did not agree with Willow Creek's initial decision to characterize the women's stories as lies and said that she should have "jumped in" right away and made that known.
"I ask for forgiveness that I did not personally declare that sooner," Larson's statement added.
"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," Larson admitted in the statement. "I am sorry. I should have listened more to why the women felt like they were forced to take that path."
Larson's fellow pastor, Steve Carter, called attention to a blog post by author and New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, who wrote that he believed the church lost a plethora of trust as a result of the way it handled allegations against Hybels.
In his own statement, Carter wrote that he agreed with McKnight's assessment.
"I do not think it should have been said that the women were lying or that they were colluding against Bill and the church," a portion of Carter's statement read. "I believe the women and applaud their courage."
Carter's statement noted that he "personally reached out" to those who levied allegations against Hybels and listened to them, apologizing all along the way.
"I thank God for the opportunity to seek grace and forgiveness from these individuals," Carter's statement added.
"I wish I had done more to prevent the hurtful statements that were made, and to advocate more forcefully for what I believe would have been a more humble and Biblical approach," Carter's statement continued. "For this, I am deeply sorry and ask your forgiveness."