Statements from the Willow Creek Elders, Heather Larson, and Steve Gillen on August 8, 2018
Hello Willow Creek Family,
Thank you for coming tonight. My name is Missy Rasmussen. I have served for a total of seven years as an Elder.
Today I stand before you broken. The Elder Board wants to express our deepest sadness around the events that have occurred over the past few months at our church. But to limit our sadness around these past few months is to not recognize the obviously painful events that have occurred over the past 40 years of our existence.
We are also deeply grieved about the new accusations that came to light this past weekend, and our collective hearts break for the pain that Ms. Baranowski has carried these many years.
These painful and troubling events have scarred these women, their families, and tarnished our church. On Sunday, our church was further shocked to learn about Steve Carter leaving. We are sad to see Steve leave our church after years of teaching and shepherding our congregation and will certainly miss the way he used his gifts to bless us. Steve advocated for a number of action steps with respect to investigation and transparency, several of which were already in process when he made the request. We invited Steve to participate in setting up an outside, impartial investigation council, and we reached alignment with Steve in many areas. There were also other requests Steve made that we were not able to accommodate, and in the end, he felt he needed to leave Willow. We wish Steve and his family all the best in the next chapter of their lives.
We are grateful to serve a God of truth, justice, grace, and mercy in equal measure. God uses broken people to do His work and forgives freely all who come to Him with a repentant heart. To that end, our entire Elder Board has had to come to grips with the areas of our hearts, minds, and souls that blinded us to the pain and suffering of the women and their advocates. We ask forgiveness from God, our congregation, the women, their advocates, and those who have been calling us to repent.
While Bill Hybels was our founder and pastor, he was human, broken, and self-admittedly sinful. We believe that his sins were beyond what he previously admitted on stage, and certainly we believe that his actions with these women were sinful. We believe he did not receive feedback as well as he gave it, and he resisted the accountability structures we all need.
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.
When those of us who were on the board in 2014 first heard the allegations of an affair, we were shocked. We thought we knew what Bill’s weaknesses were, but his interactions with women were not something our board thought we had any reason to be concerned about. The allegations seemed out of character, but they were so serious we knew we had to investigate.
We can now see this investigation was flawed. It focused on whether there was definitive evidence of an affair rather than whether Bill's actions were above reproach. We viewed the allegations through the lens of trust we had in Bill, and this clouded our judgement, which resulted in us not acting quickly enough to secure and examine his devices and in us allowing him to have counseling conversations with the woman who was the subject of the first investigation. Heather, Steve, the executive team, and lead pastors trusted our process and publicly stood behind the work we had done. This caused people to question their integrity, and for putting them in this position, we are so sorry.
When new allegations were made in the Tribune article, we did not initially handle those allegations with the care, humility, and repentant posture we should have. We realized this error and have worked hard to repair some trust and create an investigation that the women who made allegations would be willing to participate in. We have consulted experts, had conversations, offered different options to the women who made allegations as to a structure of investigation, but we have been unsuccessful in securing their participation. We realize this has taken too long and left you, our congregation, wondering why we didn’t respond. We are truly repentant.
We have some other apologies we need to make in addition to those we’ve made before, and we may repeat some of those previous ones for good measure.
To the people of Willow Creek Community Church, on behalf of the Elders, we are sorry that we allowed Bill to operate without the kind of accountability he should have had. Our desire going forward is to retain what is good and pure about Willow Creek but drive out the parts that are unhealthy. We commit to building a community that is known for its humility, honesty, and transparency.
To all of the women who have come forward, the church should always follow in Jesus’ footsteps to help the wounded find healing, and we are sorry we added to your pain. That was not our intention, and we regret that it has taken us this long to acknowledge that. While we will probably never know with certainty everything that’s true about each of your stories, we have no reason not to believe you. We are sorry that our initial statements were so insensitive, defensive, and reflexively protective of Bill. We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.
To Nancy Ortberg, we are sorry about the way your allegations were handled and the time it took us to truly understand your experience.
To Nancy Beach, we are sorry we let Bill call your motives into question and didn’t correct that until now.
To Vonda Dyer, we are sorry we allowed Bill’s statement calling you a liar to stand. Based on conversations we have had with various parties, we believe that Bill kissed you in that hotel room in Sweden.
To the staff member who came forward recently to share about her experiences working for Bill, we are sorry for how we have communicated about you. We allowed Bill to give his account of those experiences without you having an opportunity to do the same. We specifically regret reading your emails at our family meetings and any impressions that may have created. We are grateful for your courage to come forward to share with leadership about your concerns. We know you care deeply about our church, and we will continue to engage with you in our steps toward repentance, ownership, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
As we’ve been taught, repentance means to turn away from sin and toward God. In the areas in which we’ve been wrong, we are here today to acknowledge our missteps and turn toward God and the different and better future He so badly wants for us. What does that look like specifically?
Our board never acted out of malice, and we tried to serve the church we love faithfully, but the reality is we feel that the failure of the board to move our church through this in the way we should have calls for action to be taken. We have engaged an outside, independent governance expert to conduct a robust governance review. He will report his findings to a task force made up of a majority of non-Elders. Suggestions for best practices and model improvement will be considered and enacted, setting our future leadership up for success.
We are also convening a group of respected, independent Christian leaders to spearhead an investigation to look into the reprehensible actions Ms. Baranowski has reported and all other allegations and areas they determine need to be investigated. Regardless of what an investigation may find, we know enough to know that if Bill had not already stepped down, he would have disqualified himself from pastoral leadership here.
We, as a board, know Willow needs and deserves a fresh start, and the entire board will step down to create room for a new board. This board replacement process will start promptly and proceed in waves to ensure an orderly transition, with all current Elders leaving by the end of the year. The first wave of Elders will leave by August 15. The members of the current board will not control the implementation of the findings of the governance review and investigations we are announcing tonight.
We want to be the kind of church God is calling us to be. A church that learns lessons and grows through painful situations. A church that is filled with hope for healing and that demonstrates the love of Christ. A church that reflects the heart of God and is about lives changing, hope, and through Him, making the impossible possible. We believe that God is still building His church!
When I walked into the doors of this church for the very first time, I never imagined the journey that would lie ahead. You, Willow Creek, have been my world for the past 20 years.
In my early years here, I got to be part of the most amazing community of young people called Axis. I began to form relationships and friendships that will carry me through my entire life. I remember the exact spot in this building where I stood and had my first conversation with Dan Larson. I had been told he was the most eligible bachelor at Willow, and I quickly saw why. We got married surrounded by many of our church family. Our daughters have grown up here. They know how to hit the buttons on the lighting board and run around the catwalks up there. They were both baptized right over there. This is home. You have been part of my family.
During my journey here, my belief in the local church has exploded—it is hope personified.
God is working to redeem and restore the broken parts of our world, and He is doing it in and through His church. And through this church.
I will never forget the circle of people around a room many years ago, declaring together that we will fight poverty and injustice so that lives are transformed and Jesus is known. We started this little thing called Celebration of Hope that has now had impact in places that are dear to my heart all over the world. We got to build that Care Center from the ground up, and every time I walk in that place, I am in awe of what God is doing and the team that is carrying on with great Kingdom work. I love to see what God is doing at Casa de Luz, in our kids and students, in our regional campuses, and in so many other ministries around this place.
My greatest joy has come in seeing God transform lives. There is nothing like looking into someone’s eyes as they plunge into the waters of Baptism. Somehow, you know, I’m always given the biggest and tallest people. I would look up at them and say, “Don’t worry, I haven’t lost anyone yet!” Those moments are sacred, and it has been a deep privilege to share them with so many of you.
I love this church.
Over the past couple of decades, I have continually asked God to show me how He wants to use me in whatever way I can help in this place. Titles and roles have never been my focus. It has been about asking God for my next assignment to serve and about wanting to be faithful to His call.
When I felt God calling me as lead pastor, I didn’t know or understand the task He was actually calling me to in this role. That was a good thing.
I’m glad God doesn’t give us the full picture all at once!
In the midst of enormous turbulence, I have fought hard to try to move us ahead, to navigate my brand-new role, to step into processes with the Elders, to learn more fully about where we are and what happened over the past decades. The circumstances have been heartbreaking and devastating on many levels.
At the same time, it has been centering and eye opening for me to be on my knees saying to God that He is the only one who can help us through this. He is the only one who can help us make this right. I’ve wanted to own the things that I need to own. I know I’ve made mistakes, and there are things I wish I could go back and do differently. I have made apologies from this stage to our staff and to individuals.
But as I step back and reflect on the past season, I realize it wasn’t very long ago that we were dreaming about Chapter 3, about a new model: Steve would teach, I would lead, and Bill would be around for coaching. Things have really changed! Steve and I started in a way that none of us ever imagined.
In recent days and weeks, it has become clear to me that this church needs a fresh start. The staff, this staff that I dearly love, they also need a clean running lane to heal, to build, to dream.
As hard as I have tried, I simply have not been able to get the momentum that we need to address the issues that need to be addressed and to bring about the fresh start.
I have spent a lot of time seeking God and asking Him for guidance. He has given me clarity and peace. I am stepping down from my role as lead pastor.
Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return quickly. There is urgency to move in a better direction. It is the job of a leader to define reality, and it is the job of a leader to put the team and the organization first, and I am committed to doing that.
God has been at work to help me put things in place, so I know this church is in good hands. The actions our Elders announced tonight have been in the works for weeks. They have been diligently and humbly seeking God and asking Him to help us do the right thing. They have put important steps in place to ensure a better future, and they too are now moving aside to give Willow a fresh start.
God has helped to give us a clear plan, and we have asked Steve Gillen to step in as interim lead pastor to set up the new pastoral team. He has helped lead and pastor many Willow ministries and regional campuses through times of transition, and I have complete confidence that God has already prepared him for this role.
With his leadership in place, the timing for my transition is now right. I have carried what God has asked me to carry. Most of all, I know that ultimately this church is in God’s hands.
Willow Creek—and certainly its future—is not about any one person. The local church is the body of believers, and this church must always be about you and those you bring and reach in your communities. It must be about men and women coming together and using their gifts to build the church and impact our world. Please know that I am not giving up on this church. Most importantly, God is not giving up on this church. He created it. He has always been faithful to it.
So, I ask you not to give up on it either. The Chicagoland area needs Jesus, and our world needs Jesus. They desperately need people who will live and act like the Jesus we have taught about for the past 43 years. May it be true of us a hundred years from now too. I love you, Willow Creek!
These are tough days, Willow, and we desperately need each other to get through them. May we come together, lean into God, and seek Him for guidance.
We are doing an unfortunate dance of grief and sadness, and I am praying for the day when we are overwhelmed with joy again. We can look back on decades of God’s faithfulness to us, and we can be grateful for those, like Heather and Steve, who helped shape tremendous values in our culture, like a heart for compassion and a pursuit to love everyone, always.
The church is the Bride of Christ, and this church is dearly loved by God—it deserves our very best through the good and bad times. I pray that we can come together and do the hard, and much needed, work of reflection, repentance, and healing. Please continue praying for our church as we navigate this season. I look forward to getting to know many of you and walking with you in the weeks and months ahead.
Learn more about Steve Gillen here.