The Willow Creek Community Church is moving on without Bill Hybels

This week I received another update from the Willow Creek Community Church elders, as I am on their mailing list. It is one of several I have received since a new elder board was installed at the beginning of 2019. There is a lot to the tragic story at the well-known mega-church over the last year-and-a-half. Stories have been splashed across the news, and written about on scores of ministry blogs. So, this is no secret. But it now appears that the current elders, after giving it hundreds of hours of their time and energy, are ready to move on as best they can.

With this July 19, 2019 update, the elders say now they are bringing their part of the discussion to an end. The thrust of the update is their appeal to the Willow Creek family to embrace and strive for reconciliation, whatever it takes.

Part of that challenge, as you can read for yourself, includes their challenge to Bill Hybels, the founder and 40-year leader of Willow Creek Community Church.  The long-time leader resigned in April 2018. It’s evident in this update that the elders have tried hard to get their long-time leader involved in the reconciliation process but to no avail.

Sad to say, the elders report says that Hybels has decided to not be involved in the reconciliation process. The elders, in one accord, agree that for years Hybels publicly exhibited unchecked, intimidating and overly controlling behaviors toward both men and women. Many of the Willow Creek elders and leaders did not have full information with what was happening when many of the accusations were being made of Bill Hybels have all the power, and they thus believed Hybels’ story over and over again, and stood with him, even as so many men and women had been abused and deeply hurt.

I don’t know Hybels’ heart, but I am very sorry to continue hearing this. Neither I, nor anyone else, is Bill Hybels’ judge, of course. We can all give up that role. I actually really love the man, and I have high regard for his wife and the ministries she has supported, especially in the Middle East. (My wife, Jennifer, and I support a ministry in the Middle East, directly as a result of Lynn Hybels’ encouragement.)

But it sure makes me sad to read that apparently Bill now has chosen to not be involved in the reconciliation process with the Willow Creek elders, at least to the degree that the elders have hoped for.  (I have no idea how Lynn Hybels feels about all this. I can only imagine that it has been an awful year-and-a-half for her.)

I think so many pastors and leaders somewhat familiar with the situation feel as I do. So many of us admired Hybels over the years and looked to him to read the tea leaves. His leadership talks can set a room on fire like few people I’ve ever heard. I listened to many of them over the years, and they had me on the edge of my chair.

Ironically, in early 2018 Hybels had just 2 months earlier handed over the church leadership reigns to his young proteges Heather Larson and Steve Carter, with the congregation giving its full blessing and support.

As Bill handed over the reigns, he announced that he and his wife Lynn would exit Willow Creek leadership following the August 2018 Willow Creek leadership Summit and spend time traveling the world, working with churches, pastors and denominations, and encouraging them to stay in the fight.  It was after all, or at least sure seemed to be, what Bill Hybels had done so well for decades. “Hang in their warriors,” he said. “We will overcome, if we stand firm, let nothing move us, and stay faithful to the end.”

The Hybels’ plans do not seem to have come to pass, sad to say. Everything hit the fan in January of 2018, and Hybels resigned in April 2018. By last August (2018), leaders-in-waiting Larson and Carter had resigned, along with all the Willow Creek elders.  A new elder board was elected in late 2018 and installed around January (2019). The mere fact that Willow Creek had the tenacity to push ahead and elect new elders is pretty amazing in itself.

The current elders are the signers of the 2019 updates, including this recent one calling all parties involved to reconciliation.

I find Hybels’ apparent unwillingness to now engage in the reconciliation called for by the current elder board especially troubling because over the years one of Bill Hybels’ leadership hallmarks — if not his singular hallmark — has been his challenge to pastors and leaders alike to own their stuff, take their pain on the front end, take one for the team and to repent quickly and often. And now to not even want to talk with the elders? He may have reasons to remain silent that none of us knows about. Maybe, but his silence (unwillingness) seems very puzzling to me.

Though disheartened by it all, I also have read the stories of Hybels’ abusive behaviors, especially toward women, and frankly, I believe the women.  What Bill did to several women (some of them staff members) was awful. No woman would want to be treated as some of them were treated. That’s even more reason for Bill to own his behaviors toward men and women in leadership at Willow Creek. But alas, he chooses to say almost nothing.

After reading the recent update from the Willow Creek elders, I took an early morning walk to try to make sense of this sad story. Paul’s haunting words to his disciple, young Timothy, came to mind: “Do your best to come to me quickly, 10 for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.” II Timothy 4:9-10

Demas has deserted me, Paul said.  What sobering, certainly crushing, news, given that Paul realizes his fight is nearly over and that his own days were numbered. I can only imagine how Paul felt, knowing that he had fought the good fight, to now see that one of his teammates — maybe even a dear friend — had deserted Paul and the team.

Honestly, I can only imagine how the folks at Willow Creek have felt and must continue to feel, given Bill Hybels choice not not to step up to the reconciliation plate, as the current elders so want him to do.

With the elders trying to move on now, I hope many in the congregation, and many of the former staff who were hurt by Bill Hybels, will be able to move on, too. I can only imagine how hard it must be for some of them.

The truth is, you just never know what’s in the heart of a man or woman. I think that’s why I find Proverbs 4:23 to be one of the most stirring verses in the Bible: Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

For all of us who have ears, let us hear.