One of the country's most influential mega-church pastors is facing accusations of inappropriate behavior with women staff members--and categorically denying them.
Pastor Bill Hybels founded Willow Creek Community Church in Palatine, Illinois in 1975 with a unique seeker-oriented style and it quickly grew. Today, the church boasts 25,000 in attendance at eight locations in the Chicago area every weekend.
Now, Christianity Today reports that a small group of former Willow Creek pastors is calling for a third-party investigation into accusations that they say lead to questions about patterns of sexual harassment by Hybels.
The group holds high-powered evangelical credentials. It includes John Ortberg, the senior pastor at Menlo Church in California and a former teaching pastor at Willow Creek; his wife, Nancy; Jim Mellado, the former head of the Willow Creek Association and current president of Compassion International; his wife Leanne; and Nancy Beach, a former programming director and teaching pastor at Willow Creek.
Christianity Today reports that the Ortbergs and Mellados were formerly a part of Hybels' inner circle, meeting regularly for home Bible study.
Late Thursday the Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today published detailed stories outlining the concerns that the small group has about Hybels and how it believes that two Willow Creek investigations were not satisfactory.
In a recent church meeting, Hybels told those in attendance that none of the allegations against him are true and said he believes the group is trying to discredit his decades of ministry at Willow Creek.
"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," he said.
Hybels announced last fall that he would step down from leadership at Willow Creek in October 2018 and named two successors: Heather Larson and Steve Carter.
Pam Orr, the chair of the Willow Creek elder board, told the church Friday night that it initially investigated an allegation against Hybels in 2014. Orr says it centered around a woman who claimed that Hybels had engaged with her in an inappropriate relationship. She later retracted her claim.
The Tribune reports that other women accused Hybels of unwanted advances. They include Vonda Dyer, a former director of the church's vocal ministry, who said Hybels called her to his hotel room during a 1998 working trip. He surprised her by kissing her and suggesting they could lead Willow Creek together.
Beach said that Hybels also engaged inappropriately with her on a working trip the following year. She said he talked about her most attractive body part, confessed to his marital unhappiness and invited her to his hotel room where he gave her a long hug after drinking wine together.
On Friday night at the church meeting, Orr spoke of how the church also hired an outside law firm that specializes in workplace issues to investigate the accusations by Dyer, Beach and a few similar other ones. She said that Hybels was not allowed to influence or lead the investigation but that he was interviewed.
"The outside law firm concluded that there was no evidence to support any charges of inappropriate behavior," she said.
But the Mellados and the Ortbergs are not convinced. They told the Tribune that the church did not release a full copy of the final report of the investigation to them.
They also noted lingering concerns about the woman who reported an intimate relationship with Hybels and later retracted her claim. That woman told her story to Leanne Mellado before refusing to stand by it, they said. When Mellado approached Willow Creek elder Brian Johnson about the accusation, he shared that he found more than 1,000 emails between the accusing woman and Hybels but was not able to read them.
Both the Ortbergs and Mellados told the Tribune that they have not conspired to collude against Hybels.
"It's absolutely not the case," John Ortberg told the Tribune. "This information came to us in a way that was unlooked for, unwanted and it put us in a terrible situation. To say I was motivated to find a problem couldn't be further from the truth."
On Friday, numerous Christian leaders expressed their concern over the crisis at Willow Creek. Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission commented on the news saying "the church of Jesus Christ is triumphant in heaven. American evangelicalism, though, is in a time of great peril."
"Most have no idea the warfare and seduction Satan wages against leaders and potential leaders. He's relentless," Bible study author and teacher Beth Moore said.
Christian writer and speaker Andy Crouch warned of a Christian celebrity culture that doesn't put in place systems of accountability.
"When boards are are beholden to founders; when elders allow it to be publicly said that 'no one person can replace' a senior pastor; when information systems can yield the number of emails exchanged between a senior leader and a given person but somehow the content is not recoverable—none of this means that any malfeasance has been committed," he said. "But it does mean that the sheer gravitational pull of those charismatic figures has nullified the institution's ability to protect itself, and indeed its leader, from both legitimate and falsified allegations of misconduct."
On Friday night Orr told the gathering that Willow Creek has never been about one person. She also lashed out against Hybels' accusers saying, "It's not right that a small group of people with a stated desire to tarnish one man's reputation have sown seeds of distrust throughout our community."
Orr encouraged church members to come forward with questions.
"If there's more you need to know, we'll tell you," she said. "If there's more work we can do, we'll do it. We are as committed as ever to this church, to the integrity of our community and to what God is doing here and around the world."