An Influential Evangelical Pastor Has Been Accused of “Inappropriate Behavior”

In a bombshell of a story dropped last night by Chicago Tribune reporters Manya Brachear Pashman and Jeff Coen, we learned that the founder of Willow Creek Community Church, Bill Hybels, has been accused by multiple women of “inappropriate behavior” over the course of several decades.

To be clear, Hybels isn’t Harvey Weinstein. He didn’t assault anyone. But he appears to have crossed the line with a number of women he worked with. Their allegations, while tame relative to other high-profile cases in the #MeToo era, are explosive in the evangelical world and suggest a great deal of hypocrisy between Hybels’ preaching and his actions.

Hybels denies everything and says the accusers are essentially conspiring against him.

If you’re not familiar with Hybels, that’s not entirely surprising. He’s not a televangelist. He’s not overtly political. His church isn’t a cult of personality as we see with other well-known pastors. But he is incredibly powerful in Christian circles. TIME magazine once declared him one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.” If you’ve been inside of a megachurch in the past couple of decades, your experience was likely shaped by something Hybels had a role in creating.

He stepped down as senior pastor of Willow Creek last year after four decades there.

The Tribune, however, found that allegations of inappropriate behavior had been leveled in his direction for some time before that, unbeknownst to the congregation.

An investigation by the Chicago Tribune examined those allegations and other claims of inappropriate behavior by Hybels, documented through interviews with current and former church members, elders and employees, as well as hundreds of emails and internal records.

The alleged behavior included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms. It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true, the Tribune found.

Hybels responded in a sit-down interview with the reporters and “flatly denied doing anything improper,” writing off the allegations as an attempt to bring down his ministry.

One of the most striking things about the article is that Hybels enforced the “Billy Graham rule” with his male staffers. That is, he told them they should never be alone with a woman who isn’t their wife in order to avoid temptation or even the appearance of impropriety. Yet Hybels himself allegedly broke that rule all the time.

On one international trip, Hybels invited [former director of the church’s vocal ministry] Vonda Dyer alone to his hotel room with explicit instructions to exclude her husband who was there too, the Dyers said. On another trip, Hybels called her up to his room and answered the door, freshly showered, wearing slacks with no shirt and just staring at her, she said…

Dyer recounted that she went to Hybels’ room where he poured wine and invited her to stretch out on the couch while he sat in a separate chair. She said she presumed it would be a quick chat when he told her that he had taken Ambien, a sleep aid.

The conversation quickly turned uncomfortable, she said, when he started complimenting her appearance and criticizing her husband, and suggested they lead Willow together. She said he came over, put his hands on her waist, caressed her stomach and kissed her.

Hybels says that never happened.

There are other stories, too, of women who worked closely with him and grew uncomfortable with his apparent advances. Internal investigations by the church never found anything damning, but many of the church leaders who spoke with the Tribune said those investigations never went far enough.

The most serious allegation involves an unnamed woman who says she had a months-long affair with Hybels and confided that secret to a friend with ties to the church… but when the friend urged her to come clean to church leaders, the woman walked it back and began denying much of what she had said earlier. (It’s possible she just didn’t want to play any part in this kind of a story, and withdrawing her testimony was the simplest way to remain anonymous.)

Writing at Christianity Today, Bob Smietana notes that Hybels’ wife announced a “radical sabbatical” earlier this week, “minimizing my presence on social media.” That’s pretty convenient when you’re aware a story like this is going to break.

The church also released a statement last night siding with Hybels and agreeing with him that this was all part of a coordinated attack to bring him down.

It turns out Christian Persecution is real… I’m just surprised the culprits are other Christians.

It’s tempting to do what some online commenters are doing and dismiss all of this as #MeToo blown way out of proportion. Even if some of the allegations are true, the commenters suggest, this is hardly anything to freak out about. The worst allegation — later withdrawn — was a consensual act (despite the power imbalance), and infidelity or flirtation may be ethically wrong but they’re not legal matters. Perhaps Hybels deserves a stern warning from church leaders, but this is something that concerns him and his family, not everybody else.

The problem with those criticisms is that evangelical Christians have always had an air of moral superiority precisely because of their strict rules regarding relationships. Any deviation, including flirtation or lust or even being alone in a room with another woman, is then magnified. That’s even more true when it involves the church’s founder. But the allegations made against Hybels would be serious enough even outside of a church setting.

Just to get this out there, the named accusers have nothing to gain by coming forward, and I’m not sure what anyone has to gain by bringing down Hybels. It’s not like he’s Ted Haggard at the height of his infamy.

It also strikes me as remarkable that Hybels jumps straight to calling many of the accusers liars rather than offering an explanation for why a touch or comment or invitation may have been misinterpreted. It’s also weird that there were apparently 1,150 emails between Hybels and the unnamed woman who claimed she had an affair with him… but his staff couldn’t read them because he stopped archiving his messages to avoid hackers. There’s just a lot of weirdness that needs to be explained in order to accept his version of the story.

If all these Christians are colluding to bring down a powerful man, they sure picked a strange target.

(Screenshot via YouTube)

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