The sudden resignation of Willow Creek Community Church’s top leaders following sexual harassment allegations against Rev. Bill Hybels, their founding pastor, has shaken evangelicals far from the church’s base in the Chicago suburbs.
There are few bigger names in the evangelical world than Mr. Hybels, and few churches more influential than Willow Creek. Christians worldwide looked to it as a model of smart leadership.
“When a falling star, a literal star falls out the sky, everyone looks at it, notices it, gasps,” said the Rev. Jack Graham, of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Tex., who said he worried that people would view the scandal as evidence that all evangelicals were hypocrites. “Yet there are millions and millions of galaxies of stars that stay in their place and keep shining.”
Now some evangelicals are talking about turning Willow Creek’s painful episode into a teaching moment for churches in the #MeToo era.
The considerations now are far more complex than in the ’80s and ’90s when showboating televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart were ensnared in sex scandals and the lesson drawn was simple: Pastors should not succumb to temptation.
Some evangelical leaders, including those left at Willow Creek, now want to examine systemic problems — and look for lasting solutions. They are asking what kind of structures churches need to keep their pastors accountable, how to handle allegations of sexual harassment, and how to ensure that men working alongside women do not violate boundaries.
The effort began at Willow Creek’s main site in the Chicago suburbs on Thursday, where thousands of Christians from around the world happened to be gathered for the opening of the church’s annual Global Leadership Summit. The event started with an apology.
“There is no map for the journey that we’ve been on. We’ve had missteps, mistakes, slip-ups, blunders,” said Tom DeVries, president of the Willow Creek Association, which organizes the leadership summit, in his opening address. “We are sorry for the places where we could and should have done better.”
He said the Willow Creek Association would be developing resources to help navigate the new “power dynamics” between men and women in the workplace.
Terrance Forbes, a Pentecostal pastor with the Church of God of Prophecy in the Bahamas, said during a break at the summit: “What happened here brings an awareness of the seriousness of the times. It makes us all more conscious, as leaders, of how we should act. I believe we’ll learn how to employ safeguards and safety nets for those in leadership positions.”
Willow Creek occupies a separate sphere from the Trump-supporting wing of the evangelical world. The church is seen as more moderate theologically and politically. Mr. Hybels intended Willow Creek to attract secular Americans seeking a spiritual connection, and it has grown to 25,000 members at eight sites near Chicago.
Unlike most conservative evangelical churches, Willow allows women to hold top leadership positions. In fact, its lead pastor who stepped down on Wednesday night was the Rev. Heather Larson, a woman.
Ms. Larson and the nine members of the elder board resigned on Wednesday night, saying that they had made a mistake by failing to believe the women who accused Mr. Hybels of sexual misconduct over many years.
“We viewed the allegations through a lens of trust we had in Bill, and this clouded our judgment,” said Missy Rasmussen, the elder who announced the resignations to a stunned congregation on Wednesday night.
As many as nine women had accused Mr. Hybels in news reports in the spring of a range of violations over many years, including inappropriate sexual comments, lingering hugs and invitations to his hotel room. Earlier efforts by the board of elders to investigate were inconclusive, and Mr. Hybels retained their trust until the news reports were published. In April, as the cloud of allegations thickened, Mr. Hybels said he was voluntarily stepping down six months ahead of his planned date of retirement.
But he cast himself as the victim of the accusers, saying that people were colluding against him to tear down his reputation. Many members seemed sympathetic.
Then on Sunday, Mr. Hybels’s former executive secretary in the 1980s went public with accusations that he had betrayed her trust by groping her breasts on multiple occasions, and once insisted on oral sex. The assistant, Pat Baranowski, had kept detailed journals, and handwritten notes from Mr. Hybels. And she had told one friend at the time, a noted pastor, about how ashamed she was that she had allowed Mr. Hybels to touch her.
Those allegations, reported in The New York Times, prompted one of the church’s two lead pastors, the Rev. Steve Carter, to resign immediately. Three days later, his co-pastor, Ms. Larson, and the board of elders also stepped down.
It is too early to say whether evangelicals will look to Willow Creek in the future for guidance on leadership. More than 100 churches dropped out as sites for airing the live telecast of the Global Leadership Summit, a spokesman confirmed. The actor Denzel Washington and the author Daniel Pink canceled their speeches at the event, which has drawn celebrities in the church and secular worlds alike.
“I think everyone is still wounded and shocked,” said Alan Huizenga, who works for an evangelical publishing house and was eating Chick-fil-A during a lunch break on the grass outside the church. “Bill was so involved in the leadership summit. I feel bad the story has damaged the church as a whole, across the world. We’re all failed people.”