'No path for him to return': Hybels allegations hang over Willow Creek leadership summit
Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington kicked off its 23rd annual, two-day Global Leadership Summit amid swirling controversy over sexual misconduct accusations leveled against founder Bill Hybels and the continuing resignations of its leaders.
Tom De Vries, president and CEO of the separate Willow Creek Association, which hosts the summit, began the event Thursday by repeating apologies that have been issued by Willow Creek leaders. On Wednesday night, roughly 12 hours before the summit began, Lead Pastor Heather Larson announced she was stepping down and the entire elder board will follow by year's end.
De Vries apologized for how Willow Creek officials initially were defensive after the first round of accusations against Hybels surfaced. He said an independent investigation of the allegations will occur and that Hybels has not had anything to do with the popular summit since leaving the church about four months ago.
"There is no path for him to return," De Vries said.
Life.Church co-founder and Senior Pastor Craig Groeschel was the summit's first speaker -- a slot that went to Hybels over the years, he noted. He said he's been "sickened" by the allegations against Hybels and that power must be used for the good of others.
"Like many of you, I am grieving deeply," Groeschel said. "I hurt. I ache."
Despite the cloud hanging over Willow Creek, a festive atmosphere greeted attendees as they entered the summit with a band playing near the main entrance. The musicians resumed playing at lunchtime near where long lines formed for food trucks.
Another round of allegations against Hybels surfaced in a New York Times story Sunday in which his former executive assistant, Pat Baranowski, claimed he repeatedly groped her in the 1980s. The same day, lead teaching pastor Steve Carter announced his resignation in a blog post, saying he was "horrified" by the new accusations against Hybels.
Hybels, who denied the latest accusations to The Times, stepped down as senior pastor April 10. His departure came six months before his planned retirement and three weeks after published allegations of unwanted kissing and hugging, suggestive comments and other improper behavior that spanned at least 20 years.
In June, Lane Moyer, the new chairman of the elder board at the South Barrington megachurch, addressed accusations other women made against Hybels. He said "there's truth Bill made inappropriate choices in how he conducted certain meetings" and that women believed they were wronged.
De Vries said Willow Creek remains in the middle of difficult and demanding circumstances. He said Willow Creek will be committed to forming an advisory leadership council to provide oversight for the planned independent investigation to get to the bottom of any misconduct or wrongdoing.
"I hoped that we would have moved further in constituting this (advisory) group," De Vries said. "We do have key evangelical leaders who are willing to step up and participate."
The two-day Global Leadership Summit was dogged in advance by defections from at least three scheduled speakers -- including Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington -- and several churches across the country that had planned to broadcast the seminars.
Also, best-selling nonfiction author Daniel Pink suddenly backed out of his morning slot. De Vries said Juliet Funt, CEO of WhiteSpace at Work, agreed to substitute for Pink on 48 hours' notice.
About 10,000 people were expected to attend the summit on the main campus Thursday and Friday, with another 150,000 viewing remotely across the United States. Roughly 250,000 people in 135 other countries were projected to listen in 60 languages.