Willow Creek lead pastor announces independent investigation of Hybels

An advisory council of Christian leaders from across the country will oversee an independent investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Willow Creek Community Church founder Bill Hybels, the South Barrington megachurch's lead pastor wrote in a message to members Monday.

“For many weeks we have been working together with the Willow Creek Association in seeking an independent investigation to examine any and all accusations made ...” Heather Larson wrote.

“This has been a difficult process because of the public nature of these allegations, but we are working on finalizing this key group of people,” she continued. “This council will have full autonomy and authority to pursue and investigate any and all allegations. Furthermore, an anonymous outside donor has come forward to completely cover the cost of this investigation to ensure there is no undue influence on the process and the conclusions.”

The email follows one Larson sent to church members Sunday in which she said she was “heartbroken” by the latest accusations against Hybels, detailed Sunday in The New York Times.

Pat Baranowski, Hybels' former assistant, told the newspaper he repeatedly groped her in the 1980s. Hybels, who resigned in April in the wake of other misconduct allegations made against him by women, denied the latest accusations to the Times.

“The behavior that (Baranowski) has described is reprehensible,” Larson wrote Monday.

The new allegations prompted Willow Creek lead teaching pastor Steve Carter to resign effective immediately Sunday. Carter had been chosen alongside Larson to succeed Hybels as co-pastors.

Carter announced his resignation in a post on his personal blog, saying he'd been “gravely concerned” about the church's handling of the accusations against Hybels. The most recent accusations “compelled me to make public my decision to leave,” Carter wrote.

“After many frank conversations with our elders, it became clear that there is a fundamental difference in judgment between what I believe is necessary for Willow Creek to move in a positive direction, and what they think is best,” he wrote.

Larson said the church “had been processing together with Steve for a few weeks, and our team was hoping and working toward a different outcome.”

“I also understand that some are waiting for more information about past allegations and related investigations,” Larson wrote Sunday. “Many also want to know about our follow up with Bill Hybels and our plans for selecting a new lead teaching pastor. We will give you a fuller update as soon as we can, and I know it is urgent.”

Carter's resignation was a blow to the congregation, said church member Kerri Liu of Elgin, who questioned how the investigation announced by Larson will play out.

“On its face it sounds hopeful, but I don't know ... How independent is it going to be? Who's picking the people and will the report be public?” she said. “The anonymous person financing it, who are they? What is their intention?”

The latest turmoil for the church comes as the Willow Creek Association is scheduled to host its 23rd annual Global Leadership Summit starting Thursday.

Tom De Vries, the association's president and CEO, said Monday the summit will move forward as scheduled at Willow Creek's South Barrington campus.

The summit will be broadcast live at 690 host sites, including the Lakeside Auditorium of the church, where Carter was to be the host, De Vries said. “We are going to miss him for that location,” he said.

Some on social media have called on leaders to cancel the summit in the wake of Carter's resignation. Former Willow Creek church member Joe Misek of Algonquin said church leaders should focus on being transparent and “re-creating a healthy church.”

“I know enough people (there) ... they are wounded right now,” he said. “I don't know that (Willow Creek) should be teaching about leadership at this point when their leadership is in shambles,” he added.

De Vries said it “doesn't make a lot of sense” to cancel the summit, which also will be live streamed at 75 smaller, private sites and 66 prisons across the country.

One of the speakers at the summit will address” the larger issues we are dealing with” regarding Hybels, De Vries said. “We think this is an opportunity to speak out in defense of women and about empowering women, especially as it regards women in leadership,” he said.

Some host sites, like Christ Church Oak Brook and Downers Grove, withdrew their participation following the allegations against Hybels.

Judson University in Elgin still plans to host the summit, said its director of communications Mary Dulabaum.

“This is an important moment for the Global Leadership Summit to address concerns about sexual assault, sexual harassment and the impact specifically on women regarding these issues,” Dulabaum said. “How the leadership of the Global Leadership Summit and the Willow Creek Association responds to these concerns will directly impact whether Judson University chooses to host this event in the future.”

De Vries also said he's reached out to the women that have accused Hybels.

“We have wanted certainly to be in dialogue, and talk about ways in which we can be helpful and supportive and bring about healing even in the middle of what ... has certainly been painful.”

“We now are hoping there will be further investigation,” he added.

In June, Willow Creek elder board Chairman Lane Moyer told a gathering at the church that Hybels “made inappropriate choices in how he conducted certain meetings.”

Moyer and other elders did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Misek suggested the investigation include the formation of an independent board of leaders from other churches to look into how Willow Creek leaders responded to the Hybels allegations.

“It's drastic stuff, I know,” he said. “But this is the time.”

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  Heather Larson, lead pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, said she understands "some are waiting for more information about past allegations and related investigations" regarding former senior pastor Bill Hybels. Brian Hill/, 2017
  Steve Carter, lead teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, resigned Sunday following new sexual harassment allegations against former senior pastor Bill Hybels. Brian Hill/, 2017
Willow Creek Community Church Lead Pastor Heather Larson said she was heartbroken after reading new sexual harassment allegations against church founder Bill Hybels. Daily Herald File Photo, April 2018
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