Willow Creek elder board, lead pastor Larson: We will all step down

In a bombshell announcement Wednesday night, Willow Creek Community Church officials said Lead Pastor Heather Larson is stepping down and the entire elder board will follow suit by the end of the year.

"In recent days and weeks it's become clear to me that this church needs a fresh start," Larson said. "The staff, this staff that I dearly love, they also need a clean running lane to heal, to build, to dream."

She said Steve Gillen, the lead pastor of Willow Creek's North Shore branch, will "step in as interim pastor to set up the new pastoral team."

The news came in the wake of Sunday's resignation of lead teaching pastor Steve Carter following the latest sexual harassment allegations against Bill Hybels, the founder of the South Barrington megachurch.

"The timing for my transition is now right," Larson said. "I have carried what God has asked me to carry."

Then Gillen addressed the congregation at the church in South Barrington.

"We are doing an unfortunate dance of grief and sadness, and I am praying for the day when we are overwhelmed with joy again," Gillen said.

But church elder Missy Rasmussen had spoken first, apologizing on behalf of the board to the women who alleged Hybels sexually harassed them. She said the "first wave" of church elders would step down by Aug. 15.

"While Bill Hybels was our founder and our pastor, he was human, broken and self-admittedly sinful," Rasmussen said, reading from a statement also posted on the church's website. "We believe his sins were beyond what he previously admitted on stage, and certainly we believe that his actions with these women were sinful."

"We did take our spiritual oversight responsibility seriously and at times counseled and challenged Bill on his actions and behaviors. But we were not aware of many choices he made in private and therefore did not hold him accountable in meaningful ways."

The elder board is "deeply grieved" about Hybels' actions, she said. "Our collective heart breaks."

Rasmussen said the elder board had been "insensitive, defensive and reflexively protective" of Hybels when the board first heard allegations of an affair in 2014.

The investigation at the time was flawed and it "focused on whether there was definitive evidence of an affair, rather than whether Bill's action were above reproach," she said. The board's trust in Hybels clouded its judgment, she said.

The lead pastors then trusted the integrity of the process and reported that publicly, causing people to question their integrity, Rasmussen said.

Larson had announced Monday via an email to church members that an advisory council of Christian leaders from across the country will oversee an independent investigation into sexual harassment allegations against its Hybels. Rasmussen reiterated that announcement Wednesday night.

Larson wrote that the council will have "full autonomy and authority to pursue and investigate any and all allegations." An anonymous outside donor will cover the cost of the investigation "to ensure there is no undue influence on the process and the conclusions," she wrote.

Hybels resigned in April in the wake of misconduct allegations made against him by women. Larson's announcement followed a Sunday story in The New York Times detailing the latest accusations against Hybels, whose former assistant Pat Baranowski told the newspaper he repeatedly groped her in the 1980s. Hybels denied that to The Times.

Carter had been chosen alongside Larson to succeed Hybels as co-pastors. "Steve and I started in a way that none of us could have ever imagined," Larson said.

Carter wrote on his personal blog he'd been "gravely concerned" about the church's handling of the accusations against Hybels and cited "a fundamental difference in judgment" between him and the church's elders.

Church member Sandy Miller of Arlington Heights agreed. "I feel like that's kind of what people were wanting, to start off with new elders and a new leader," she said.

Lance Brolin of Carpentersville said he emailed the church Monday asking for the elder board and Larson to resign.

"I think it's important for leaders to step down when there are scandals or it's time to go," Brolin said.

The latest turmoil for the church comes as the Willow Creek Association is scheduled to host its 23rd annual Global Leadership Summit starting Thursday at the South Barrington campus. Denzel Washington was scheduled to appear but withdrew, and at least four others are reported to have withdrawn as well.

  Church members look shocked as leaders of Willow Creek Church resigned Wednesday night in Barrington. Steve Lundy/
  Church members react as leaders of Willow Creek Church resigned Wednesday night in Barrington. Steve Lundy/
  Interim pastor Steve Gillen prays with the congregation after leaders of Willow Creek Church resigned Wednesday night in Barrington. Steve Lundy/
  Willow Creek Elder Board member Missy Rasmussen wipes away tears as she on behalf of the board apologized for an inadequate investigation of church founder Bill Hybels and said the board all would resign by the end of the year. Steve Lundy/
  The elders of the church pray with Steve Carter, 38, Heather Larson, 42, and Bill Hybels at a gathering last fall. Brian Hill/
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