Statements from Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Elder Board chairwoman
Willow Creek Community Church senior pastor the Rev. Bill Hybels and Pam Orr, chairwoman of the Willow Creek Elder Board, have issued statements that the accusations by women of inappropriate conduct by Hybels have no merit. Here's the text of those statements.
The Rev. Bill Hybels
This is one of the most heartbreaking and frustrating things I've ever experienced -- for me, for my family, for our church family.
In 2014, for the first time in my entire ministry career, a woman made an accusation that I had had an inappropriate relationship with her. This was not true. Because we are an Elder-led church, it became the Elders' job to do a comprehensive investigation into the accusation.
I was shocked and saddened when the Elders confronted me with the woman's claim. She had been not only a hardworking staff member, but also a family friend. I categorically denied the allegation. It was not true.
When the Elders reached out to the woman, she immediately acknowledged that she had lied, and she sent a very thorough written retraction. She also met with my wife, Lynne, personally and apologized earnestly for the pain her lies had caused Lynne.
Even though she retracted her allegation, the Elders decided to move forward with an extensive investigation process -- both internal and external, which they have already described. I was subject to those investigations and had no part in leading or influencing them. I cooperated fully and turned over my phone records, my calendar, my finances, my travel logs, and all my personal devices. I opened my entire life to them.
I personally want to commend the Elders for their thoroughness and the rigor with which they did their work. At the end of their investigation, the Elders concluded that there was no evidence to support any misconduct on my part.
Unfortunately, it has become clear that when the woman retracted her story, the group of former staff members who brought the original allegation then began to reach out to women who are or who have been a part of Willow, asking if any of them have ever had an uncomfortable interaction with me. Without mentioning the woman's full retraction, they told women that I had an inappropriate relationship that Willow's Elders had covered up, and they invited the women to share any negative experiences of their own.
The lies you read about in the Tribune article are the tools this group is using 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.
Many of these alleged incidents purportedly took place more than 20 years ago. The fact that they have been dredged up now and assembled in a calculated way demonstrates the determination of this group to do as much damage as they possibly can.
It's damaging not only to me, but to my family and to our church as well.
I hate that the leaders of our church have had to spend so much time and energy on these matters. I'm heartbroken that my family -- my children and grandchildren -- have had to endure this. I hate the way these lies have affected the wider church community. I can't tell you the frustration this has caused me, but I have to leave it in God's hands. It's the only thing I can do.
In the midst of a dark situation, I've asked God to show me what I can learn and what I need to change moving forward. As a result of this situation, I have resolved to be increasingly diligent to avoid being in a situation where a false allegation could be made against me. But be clear, I will continue to work side by side with competent women and men on the teams that I lead.
While I am deeply saddened by these things, there is much that I am thankful for.
First and foremost, I am so thankful for my wife, Lynne. We have been blessed with nearly 44 years of marriage, and I will be forever grateful for the love and support I have received from her and from our children throughout this difficult situation.
I am thankful for this church. One of the greatest gifts of my life is the front row seat that God has given me to watch His vision for Willow come to life. I say this to you all the time, and it is as true for me now as it has ever been: Willow is the most passionate, generous, kingdom-minded, openhearted church on the face of the earth. Being a part of the Willow story has been one of the greatest privileges of my life, and I would never do anything to hurt the church I love.
As I look to the future, I am determined to lead strong until my stated transition in October of this year. I will also do my level best to build the church locally and globally. Beyond that, I will continue to develop leaders as long as God gives me breath. I hope the wisdom of years will enable me to do that with even greater effectiveness in the future.
Today we have an update to give you about a situation that came up several years ago. I am communicating with you on behalf of the full Elder board. Scripture tells us that it is the role of the Elders to lead and protect the church, being "shepherds of God's flock that is under (our) care" (1 Peter 5:2). The situation that I am going to tell you about is one of the most challenging and complicated situations that we have ever navigated.
Several years ago, an allegation was made against Bill. The Elders thoroughly investigated it. They even sought outside counsel to conduct a thorough and independent investigation. After doing so, we found no concerns, nor did outside counsel. To be clear, there is no ongoing investigation of wrongful conduct. We have looked into every allegation that was brought to our Elders.
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 in October of this year.
I'll share the story with you now.
On April 1, 2014, a couple (both former Willow staff members) approached the Elders with an allegation. The woman claimed another person told her about potentially inappropriate conduct on Bill's part. We took this very seriously. Our Elder board met immediately -- off-site and without Bill -- to discuss how to best move forward.
The decision was made to talk directly to the woman who made the claim of inappropriate conduct. The Elders also met with Bill, who unequivocally denied any inappropriate conduct.
When the Elders reached out to the woman, she apologized forthrightly for making a false statement and wrote a full retraction that the Elders have on file. She spoke with an Elder three times and apologized for her lies. She also met with Bill's wife, Lynne, and apologized personally to her. In the woman's retraction, she freely admits to having become "very angry at Willow," so much so that she could no longer attend the church. Additionally, in an email to a friend, she said, "Now I have to tell everyone that I am a liar, which I basically am. I lied to you and I am so sorry. I wanted to tear (Bill) and Willow down and get it out of my system."
Even though there was a full retraction, the Elders commenced a comprehensive internal investigation on this matter to be sure that they had done everything possible to protect the integrity of our church. Bill was not allowed to be part of the investigation, and he agreed that the Elders should do whatever they needed to bring the full truth to light. Our investigation included numerous personal interviews, as well as a thorough forensic check of Bill's personal technology devices. We reviewed phone records, church financial documents, personal financial documents, and travel records. The Elders also consulted with an independent, outside firm to get their counsel on our investigation. After the investigation was completed, the Elders concluded that there was no evidence of misconduct.
Despite those thorough efforts, the former staff couple shared the allegations and the findings of the investigation with other former staff members and a former Elder. Together, this group made the charge that the investigation was not conducted with sufficient rigor. It was not the outcome they wanted, so they called it a white wash.
Despite the fact that the allegation was retracted, this group demanded the Elders do an external investigation. They outlined how they believed it should be conducted and raised some additional concerns about how Bill related to women. Those additional concerns included one hug that one of the women in the group said she had received and one compliment that another one of the women said she had received about her arms. The Elders met with this group and listened carefully for several hours.
To be clear, this group, especially two couples, have now engaged in a coordinated effort to undermine Bill's reputation.
The two couples made specific demands outlining how they wanted the investigation to unfold and the control that they wanted to have -- demands that our Elders deemed unreasonable and unbiblical. These demands included the following:
• These couples (non-Willow members) would approve the choice of the investigator.
• The investigation would run the full course of Bill's adulthood (from 18 years old and ongoing).
• These couples would be able to choose the witnesses who were interviewed, and all people interviewed would have full indemnification.
• The investigation reports would all be public regardless of the outcome.
• These couples would insist that there be a public admission of anything that they (not the investigator or the Elders) deemed inappropriate.
Because their demands were not met, these two couples communicated to the Elders, before the external investigation even began, that they would not participate in interviews. They eventually sent a letter stating that they did not agree with the process, but they would leave it in the hands of our Elders.
The Elders decided that even though the small group of former staff members did not accept the validity of it, we would still move forward with the hiring of an outside law firm to do an external investigation. We made this decision because of continual circulation of this rumor. It became clear that this small group of former staff members had expressed to people around the country their belief that the Willow Creek Elders had not adequately addressed their concerns about possible inappropriate behavior on Bill's part. The Elders decided to hire an attorney with absolutely no ties to Willow Creek to review its prior investigation and to examine the concerns that were brought to them.
In the external investigation, 29 interviews were conducted, and an information technology (IT) forensics firm was engaged to search the Willow server. In addition, email messages, phone records, church financial documents, personal financial documents, and travel records were all thoroughly reviewed once again.
Despite the fact that the group of former staff members alleged that Bill was controlling and compromising the validity of the investigation, please understand clearly that Bill submitted himself entirely to the authority of the Elders. He was interviewed as part of the investigation, but he did not lead it or influence it in any way. The outside law firm concluded that there was no evidence to support any charges of inappropriate behavior. They commended the work of the Elders. Neither of those investigations produced any evidence to support accusations or concerns brought forward by the group of former Willow staff members. At that time, the Elders closed the case.
Despite the fact that this group previously agreed to leave the investigation in the hands of the Elders, they continued to be unsatisfied. They also continued to contact pastors and key influencers across the country to share misleading and damaging information about a process that they refused to be involved in and knew nothing about.
They also continued to contact current and former female staff members of our church to ask if Bill had ever done anything to make them feel uncomfortable since the early days of his ministry at Willow. One person brought additional concerns, which the Elders asked the external investigator to look into immediately. The investigator firmly concluded that there was no evidence to support charges of inappropriate behavior. In fact, he uncovered emails and video footage that directly contradicted her claim. The emails made it clear that she had been pursuing Bill, and he refused each and every advance.
This small group of former staff members has articulated outright to several people that they believe Bill does not deserve to finish his ministry tenure at Willow well, despite the thorough and conscientious investigative process that has cleared his name. It has become clear to us that they have decided to spread this sentiment through rumors and now through the media. They aggressively shopped the story to multiple media outlets. These actions fail to live up to biblical standards, and they have caused much pain for many people. We have deep sadness over the broken relationships with people we have respected and people we love. We are grieved for Bill and his family. After 42 years of faithfully pastoring you and me, our congregation, and after his family giving sacrificially, this has been painful beyond words for them.
I want to be very clear. Our full Elder board, as well as each Elder that has served over the time of this challenging situation, believes that we have functioned according to biblical standards, with utmost integrity and exhaustive diligence in navigating this situation. We are in full support of Bill and are grateful that he will continue in his role as senior pastor until he plans to transition in October 2018.