Whatever Is Going on at Willow Creek (?)

Whatever Is Going on at Willow Creek (?) March 28, 2018

Is not good.

According to the story at Christianity Today, reports have surfaced that Bill Hybels has acted inappropriately with women:

Nancy Beach, a former teaching pastor, told the Tribune that she traveled to Europe with Hybels in 1999 and that he asked her to stay a few extra days. She declined. But during the trip, he allegedly said his marriage was unhappy. Instead of work, Hybels wanted to have long dinners and walks on the beach.

One night, he allegedly asked her to his room for a glass of wine, then gave her a long, lingering hug.

“He would always say, ‘You don’t know how to hug,’” she told the Tribune. “‘That’s not a real hug.’ So it was like a lingering hug that made me feel uncomfortable. But again, I’m trying to prove that I’m this open person.”

Hybels also allegedly asked Beach to hang out at his house after midweek services, when his wife was not at home. She did at first and then stopped.

Vonda Dyer, a former Willow Creek employee, told the Tribune that Hybels told a joke about oral sex while they were out on his boat with another staff woman—a claim Hybels denies. She also says he repeatedly asked her to come to his hotel room.

One occasion he allegedly started caressing and kissing her.

Like many of the recent allegations against celebrity pastors, Hollywood figures, and politicians, the truth is hard to discern since such cases involve on person’s word against another’s, and courts need more than someone’s word. They need evidence and witnesses.

As insensitive as it may seem, the bigger issue at Willow Creek is the seemingly large animosity that exists between Hybels and the church’s governing body on the one side, and an array of former pastors and current members on the other.

Bill Hybels is having none of it, though:

“This has been a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years. It’s time that gets identified,” he told the Tribune. “I want to speak to all the people around the country that have been misled … for the past four years and tell them in my voice, in as strong a voice as you’ll allow me to tell it, that the charges against me are false. There still to this day is not evidence of misconduct on my part.”

“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,” Hybels told his congregation in a statement Thursday evening. “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.”

Both accounts are plausible, in a way. If some sexual misconduct happened, the reports are obviously plausible and the outrage understandable.
But if nothing happened, then the best explanation for such allegations is some sort of personal vendetta.

So far, Hybels seems to be telling the truth and his former associates appear to be willing to believe unflattering depictions:

Jim Mellado, who helped launch Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit, had just taken the job as president of Compassion, and he and his wife were about to move to Colorado. At a goodbye party, a friend and former Willow Creek staffer told Leanne Mellado that she had had a long-term romantic relationship with Bill Hybels.

Mellado learned the alleged relationship had lasted more than a decade. At first, she supported this friend and talked through what had happened. Then Leanne Mellado felt she needed to tell the elders at Willow Creek what she had learned.

Her friend balked—afraid that the revelations might harm the church—and said she’d deny having a relationship with Bill Hybels if the elders asked.

“I hope you understand. But if it comes to forcing me, I will be silent,” the woman wrote in an email reviewed by the Tribune. “I feel I should not have trusted you.” The woman did not respond to Tribune requests for comment. She later told Mellado there was flirting and insinuations but no relationship.

Willow Creek says when elders interviewed the woman, she “apologized forthrightly for making a false statement and wrote a full retraction,” noting that she was “very angry at Willow” at the time. Willow also said the woman apologized personally to Lynne Hybels for lying.

Is it still too early to tell? Unless someone brings charges to civil authorities, will the church or persons conduct other forms of investigation?

Either way, imagining Willow Creek will emerge unscathed is hard. So much of church life depends on trust, good will, voluntarism, hoping the best of officers and members. What seems to have occurred in this case is not simply a tug on the thread of that tapestry of congregational trust, but an indication of deep levels of antagonism among certain elements in the Willow Creek family. Whether Hybels is exonerated or found culpable, it is hard to see how Willow Creek goes on from here.

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