Megachurch founder Bill Hybels denies reports of sexual misconduct

Church elders and an outside firm investigated and cleared Hybels. But recently several former employees went public with their accounts—and doubts about the investigations. 
March 27, 2018
Bill Hybels
Bill Hybels in 2012. Photo by Marc Gilgen via Creative Commons.

Bill Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, one of the nation’s largest megachurches, has been investigated because of allegations of inappropriate behavior with women in his congregation and on its staff.

Those inquiries cleared Hybels. He and the church elders posted statements denying the allegations on the Willow Creek website after the Chicago Tribune published a report in late March.

The report included accounts that were the subject of those inquiries, as well as others that women recounted to the Tribune, including the following:

  • Vonda Dyer, a former director of vocal ministry at Willow Creek, said Hybels called her to his hotel suite on a trip to Sweden in 1998, where he made comments about her appearance, kissed her, and suggested they could lead Willow Creek together.
  • Nancy Beach, the church’s first female teaching pastor, said Hybels asked her to extend a European trip in 1999 to coach a church in Spain. While there, he invited her to long dinners; commented on her arms, which he called her most attractive body part; confided he was unhappy in his marriage; and invited her to his hotel room for a glass of wine and an uncomfortably long hug.
  • Leanne Mellado said she alerted church elders and former teaching pastors John and Nancy Ortberg when a friend told her in 2013 she had had a consensual affair with Hybels, including intimate email and oral sex. The unnamed woman later denied it when contacted by an elder.

Unsatisfied with elders’ investigation into the allegations shared with Mellado, Nancy Ortberg, who was a member of the Willow Creek Association board, and other board members pushed for an independent investigation, according to the Tribune. When that didn’t happen, Ortberg resigned from the board, along with Jon Wallace, president of Azusa Pacific University, and Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute and a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Last year, Willow Creek elders hired Jeffrey Fowler of Laner Muchin in Chicago to renew an investigation, according to the Tribune. Fowler, a lawyer specializing in workplace issues, closed the investigation last April, clearing Hybels of any misconduct, although he told the newspaper the investigation did not have the full cooperation of many involved.

Among the concerns the former church staff expressed was lack of full access to documents and records for the investigation, the Tribune reported.

Hybels announced last year he would step down in October as senior pastor of the church he co-founded. In his statement, he said the allegations coming out now are an effort “to try to keep me from ending my tenure here at Willow with my reputation intact.”

“Let me be clear: none of these allegations are true,” he said.

Pam Orr, chair of the Willow Creek elder board, wrote in a statement, “We have full confidence in Bill’s character, and we look forward to him continuing in his role as senior pastor until he transitions as planned.” —Religion News Service staff, with added information

FOLLOWING UP (Updated April 23): Hybels resigned April 10 as senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. Speaking also for his wife, Lynne, who has led justice initiatives at Willow Creek, he wrote in a statement that “it has been extremely painful for us to see this controversy continue to be a distraction that is hindering our elders and church staff.”

While still denying the accounts of sexual harassment and extramarital affairs, he apologized for having “often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.” He also wrote, “I realize now that 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.” Hybels wrote to church members that “after a season of reflection,I intend to rejoin all of you here in the Willow congregation.”

After Hybels resigned, Heather Larson, who had been executive pastor, became the lead pastor of Willow Creek, and Steve Carter became lead teaching pastor. When the succession plan was announced last fall, Christianity Today described Willow Creek as “one of the largest churches in America with a woman in the lead pastor position, as well as the only major evangelical megachurch with male-female lead pastors who aren’t married.”

A version of this article, which was edited on April 23, appears in the print edition under the title “People: Bill Hybels.”