The sanctuary during service at Willow Creek Community Church

The implosion of the Willow Creek Community Church started earlier this year as celebrity pastor Bill Hybels stepped down in disgrace, followed by the entire board of elders. The megachurch, located just outside of Chicago, had been rocked by a scandal akin to those uncovered in the #MeToo movement.

Since about four years ago, more than nine women have come forward accusing Hybels of sexual harassment or abuse. He has denied these allegations, saying that they are misleading or flat-out lies.

On August 6, it was reported that the church would launch two investigations into the matter. One would be conducted by the board of elders, and the other would be through an independent attorney. Neither investigation found any wrongdoing by Hybels. In response, the women went to the press in an effort to force the board and Hybels to deal with the situation.

Willow Creek is the country’s fifth-largest megachurch. It has more than 25,000 members. Hybels’s ideas for drawing secular people into the church were considered innovative, and have been adopted by churches across the country.

Needless to say, the church had quite the reputation and the damage of such a scandal could be devastating. Many of the Willow Creek members believed that the elders were covering up wrongdoing by sacrificing the reputation of the accusers in favor of protecting their own.

The board of elders gave off signals that they clearly didn’t believe the women who were accusing Hybels. Although they never outright said anything of the sort, their attitude made it clear that the women were threatening their leader.

Can a Church Board Successfully Hold Leaders Accountable?

The New York Times reported:

“The scandal at Willow Creek is likely to bring greater scrutiny to matters of church governance and the role of boards of elders, said Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary and director of the Hartford Institute.

‘It challenges the idea that a group of elders internal to the congregation can truly be a healthy check and balance on leadership and direction and accountability,’ he said.”

Thumma has spent over twenty years studying megachurches and authored two books about the phenomenon. “Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches” was published in 2007, while “The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church’s Spectators into Active Participants” came along four years later.

We don’t have many of the details of what occurred within Willow Creek. We can, however, peer through the windows and discuss what we do see and how it might have been handled differently. We can use the experience of Willow Creek to be better.

Is the Pastor Replaceable?

Pastor Bill Hybels quit amongst accusations of sexual assault

Before the scandal ever erupted, Bill Hybels announced that he was retiring. It was announced that “no one person can replace” him. The megachurch announced that two individuals would step into the lead pastor role. The transition was expected to take a few years, because they were moving from a one-man leadership role to a team approach. When Hybels resigned, he was at the end of the period, so the transition wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.

Could the church have become too reliant on one person? The truth is that everyone is replaceable and none of us is perfect. There might be struggles, but the whole mission of the church is to focus on Jesus, not to idolize men and women.

Leaders need to be developed. The best leaders are produced internally. They know the organization from the bottom up, because they grew up and were nurtured by other leaders. It’s worth noting that the organization, which hosts an annual Global Leadership Summit, could not find a clear successor to its senior pastor. Perhaps their leadership model is flawed in the regard.

Pastors Are Held to High Standards

We’ve seen many famous preachers fall from grace. Of course, there are many other who haven’t. But the larger the ministry, the more scrutiny the church faces. Pastors are generally held to a higher standard than other people. Hybels may not be accused of major offenses like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, but his association to the religious community and prominence in evangelical circles makes the accusations much more damning.

The Willow Creek scandal can be a lesson to all churches. What can your church learn?

31 comments

  1. Rev. Joe says:

    A lot of “people in power” abuse their power. These pastors are no different. Flawed and weak humans. They shouldn’t get any special treatment. If the pastor in question is guilty, he should face the same public shame and legal penalty as anyone else.
    What I don’t get is why people are so surprised when a pastor, mayor or president is caught doing ill deeds.

    1. Rebecca L Tice says:

      Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. Maybe we should accept our wicked nature and expect it… watch for it… pray about it…and take action when it occurs. This morning I was reading 1 Kings 12 where Jeroboam crafted two golden calves and taught the people to worship them instead of traveling all the way to Jerusalem to make sacrifices and worship God. Jeroboam did this, according to the Bible, to keep people loyal to him. Jeroboam figured if he made it convenient, people would even worship a fake god….knowing that worshiping a fake god is against the 2nd commandment…. but accepting it anyway. Complacency….

      1. Rev. Joe says:

        Right on Rebecca!

    2. Marilyn E Gibson says:

      Yep

    3. Thom says:

      Rev. Joe I guess because we expect and tend to hold those leaders more accountable than those of us whom may interpret ourselves as weaker spiritually.

  2. Wesley W Brown says:

    ANY PASTOR THAT WOULD DO THAT TO ANY WOMEN WILL HAVE TO ANSWER TO THE HIGHEST COURT AND HE WILL HAVE TO PAY THE PRICE OF HIS SIN

    1. Rev. Joe says:

      Stuck in the old testament? God doesn’thave a “court”. If he has acknowledged his wrong and asked for forgiveness, he’s “good to go…..as far as God is concerned. Legally…….who knows?

      1. Rebecca L Tice says:

        Sarcasm… right?

        1. Rev. Joe says:

          Not really…

          1. Rev. Joe says:

            Being a pastor has nothing to do with it really. Anyone who does that kind of thing is a preditor. HOWEVER- EVERYBODY sins. EVERYBODY has the chance to make things right….in the eyes of God, (it’s called “forgiveness”) and they can also pay the price for their “sins” legally. (it’s called “jail time”)

          2. claude cuff says:

            Whether you understand or accept it, some things cannot be ‘forgiven’, like sexual abuse.

          3. Jason D Bender says:

            claude cuff (1) Quit making stuff up. You neither are God nor do you speak for Him. (2) “Sex Abuse” covers a lot of ground… from staring at your nips too long to almost strangling you to death while violently raping you in the behind… I am pretty sure that most of that ground is forgivable even by most human institutions… Not my place to define God’s position – but I also am pretty sure your opinion on the matter is entirely incorrect…

  3. Frank Villari says:

    With great power comes great responsibility. If that responsibility is too great, then perhaps the power should be shared by others with more ethical, moral, righteous agenda.

  4. John Owens says:

    I don’t really believe in a professional clergy, anyway. The idea that people can get cushy jobs supposedly serving God is silly, since the end of the Aaronic priesthood. They certainly should not be there to score with women or abuse children. I cannot find the concept of a professional pastor anywhere in the epistles.

  5. Lori Mongillo says:

    The people that flock to, and idolize, these charismatic pastors aren’t really looking for God, They’re looking for a physical idol. If a pastor has a gift for leading and guiding in the name of God the people expect to be wowed. They want to be elevated by HIM, not by God, (though they will always say it’s God). Women will frequently throw themselves at a pastor who is trying to counsel them and they expect something more than guidance. When they don’t get what they’re looking for sometimes it can get ugly. I believe pastors need to protect themselves by incorporating others into there counseling, or making it clear that the counseling must be recorded, and not put themselves in a position where it’s “me against you”. So many church leaders start out sincerely and as they grow in popularity so does their ego, which can send them in a corrupt direction. We all possess positive and negative attributes, but the congregation only wants to see the angelic side of a pastor, which is not realistic. They want to be swept away in the pastors piety. I sympathize with the struggle within, but church leaders must take responsibility for their weaknesses and find a way to protect themselves while protecting the people that depend on them.

    1. Rev. Joe says:

      Well said.

      Personally, I am a lound, swearing, rock-n-roll, biker, tattooed reverend. I don’t “fit the mold” of a pastor, or reverend.

      1. Rev. Joe says:

        That would be “loud”….not “lound”. “lound” is urban slang for “lost and found”…..oh ho! Maybe I AM “lound”!

        1. Lori Mongillo says:

          How you appear as a pastor can be appealing, or not, to any particular group of people. It isn’t as important as who you really are. You don’t have to “fit the mold” to be respected and accepted as a spiritual leader.

          1. Rev. Joe says:

            Thanks Lori. I try to be a “spiritual leader/coach” whenever or where ever I can. Sometimes I think people listen MORE because of “how I am”.

          2. Lori Mongillo says:

            You may be right, Rev. Joe

      2. Marilyn E Gibson says:

        You’re my kind of preacher

  6. William Waugh says:

    Not certain, but I think the above well stated comments pretty much cover this!

  7. Minister Norman says:

    Every one of us is personally responsible for our own beliefs, and consequently for our own actions, and then ultimately for our own lives!

    Tao refers to this as, “Being on the Path toward The Way in becoming our True Authentic Selves”!

    That Path toward enlightenment is an individual journey; one that others can help with, as “guides”, but ultimately each of us must embark upon as individuals! We must take responsibility for ourselves! As such, we are not only responsible to ourselves, but we are also accountable to Humanity, and then ultimately to the Universe. This is why we must care for the most vulnerable among us, as we continue on our individual paths to enlightenment!

    “Embrace the Whole World as yourself” – Tao

    This means our actions not only have consequences for us, but that they reverberate, and “Create” the World we all inhabit, and impact all of Humanity, and thus the Universe itself!

    When people ignore their personal responsibility (which is to the self, but also to the World & the Universe), and instead follow Pastors & Priests, and make THEM the arbiters of “Faith” & “Humanity” & Truth” and fall upon THEIR every word & interpretation as “Gospel”, then there will always be abuses that both individuals & the World must endure, as the Universe awaits the enlightenment of our greater selves!

    Blindly following anyone or anything is not very enlightened! When individuals make themselves accountable to others, bad things always follow.

    When each of us holds ourselves responsible however, and for all of our actions, and thus for our individual lives (as much as is humanly possible), then WE not only benefit greatly, but so does humanity as a whole, and the Universe that cradles our better aspirations!

    It’s like a great tide!

    When a great tide of true enlightenment arrives, all the boats rise, and the great sea of adventure that lays beyond our lesser selves, then welcomes us to so many great journeys that await us all!

    1. Minister Melanie says:

      Well stated, Minister Norman. Let us not lose sight and pursuit of ultimate “truths” and purpose while we’re here.

  8. Marilyn E Gibson says:

    All I have to say is I’m sick and tired of showman calling themselves pastor. I want a teacher not a preacher

  9. Dave Hinman says:

    The greatest teacher ever was hung on a tree to die with two common criminals.

    1. John Owens says:

      Just an aside- there may have been four criminals. One account mentions two thieves. Another mentions two malefactors– I believe these were Sicarii, Jewish resistance against the Roman occupation. The two words translated thieves and malefactors are just so different, I can’t believe it is even speaking of the same people. Some early depictions of the hanging depicted 5 poles, rather than three. Just some trivia.

  10. Old Bill says:

    Religious “freedom” does not trump criminal law.

  11. Secretary3rd says:

    I’m in that Church 4 days a week and have been there for years. I have not met Bill, but I know his brother. There are check and balances that have been in place for decades. Cameras are everywhere and when that place is in full swing the place is on full alert for any problems. Do a Google search of the place and see the parking lot. That get full of cars and anyone of those owners can be having a bad day.
    That place during service where you sit depends upon who you know. Who you hang out with. If your part of the inner click. What section are you in. Then you have parties all the time and one needs to be invited. If it was a party with Pastor Hybels it was close off. I had no problem when not being invited, but others could be offend by it.
    You can offend people very easy.
    The selection of people at Willow Creek is like a small town a very diverse cross section.
    Some times it reminds me of my high school days.

    For our next witch burning we will bring marshmallows.

  12. Secretary3rd says:

    Unless you have been through internal sensitive training you can offend women very easily. A smile at the wrong time and she is offended. A wrong tone in your voice it can be offensive. Some women in that church can be very crude with speech that rivals that of a woman truck driver.
    Yesterday I was in the volunteers room where a bunch of women were talking about matters that made me cringe like any guy I did not react to the crude comments. I would say they lack sensitive training.
    I did not say anything since their comments were being recorded by the camera and mic that was above their heads. Who would ever be aware of that likely no one useless it becomes an issue.
    There are some very nasty crude women in that church who have issues. There comments are less than normal utter by a sane person.
    Any person so crude might have to see one of the many pastors in the place if their behavior is not improved (can not say for fact) that they are ask to find another church.
    I’m in the Care Center over the years there have been volunteers that have been ask that their services are no longer needed. It could be their way they talk, act around others, handling of food products, or their just plain jerks. Both sexes are included.
    If you see my words as being as a sexist pig your judgement is right on.

    1. Jason D Bender says:

      “Unless you have been through internal sensitive training you can offend women very easily.” – agreed… thats why we should have left the men in charge ,,, nothing but problems since the ERA…

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