Willow Creek Response Frequently Asked Questions

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Introduction

Willow Creek Community Church is an Elder-governed church: a group of men and women nominated and approved by the church body to serve four-year terms. Elders are responsible for church policy, governance, and oversight of the leadership of the church. The lead pastor is a member of the Elder Board and receives a single vote like every other Elder.

The New Testament provides clear instructions on how accusations against church leaders should be heard and investigated. Whenever an accusation has been brought to the attention of our Elders, they have taken it seriously, responded immediately, and done everything possible to ascertain the veracity of the claim.

Willow Creek Community Church is committed to listening to and addressing all accusations brought to our attention against a pastor, leader, staff member, or volunteer. We believe it is appropriate and biblical to address these matters directly with those voicing the concerns rather than doing so in the media or other public forums.

 

Timeline

 

  • In 2014, Leanne and Jim Mellado had dinner with the Elders' Board Chair (at that time) to inform him of an allegation of an inappropriate relationship between Pastor Hybels and a woman who was a former Willow Creek staff member. The Elder Board initiated an immediate response. However, before the Elder Board had the opportunity to confront Pastor Hybels, the woman informed Leanne her story was not true. As part of the Elder Board's process, the woman spoke with an Elder three different times. Each time, she apologized for lying and said there was no validity to the allegation. At the same time, the church received a written retraction from the woman, who also sought forgiveness. Later, the woman reached out to Lynne Hybels, Pastor Hybels wife, and apologized personally for the pain this lie had caused Lynne. The Elder Board confronted Pastor Hybels to inform him of the allegation. Pastor Hybels responded with shock. He denied the allegation unequivocally. The Elders took additional steps to ensure the integrity of the church and moved forward with an internal investigation that was affirmed by an external investigator. The investigation included numerous interviews and the hiring of an IT forensics firm to check Pastor Hybels' technology devices. It also included reviews of emails, travel documents, personal financial records, church financial records, and calendars. The Elder Board unanimously found no evidence to support the allegation of an inappropriate relationship between Pastor Hybels and the woman.
  • In 2016, the Mellados and a group of four other people who used to be part of the church came to the Elder Board with what they said were additional allegations against Pastor Hybels from other former members, as well as concern that the first complaint wasn't taken seriously. At that time, the church hired an outside, independent law firm to conduct another thorough investigation into those complaints. After five months, 29 interviews, a review of personal financial and travel records, as well as work from an IT forensics firm, that law firm concluded—again—that there was no evidence of misconduct. Throughout that investigation, Pastor Hybels denied any wrongdoing.
  • In October 2017, Pastor Hybels introduced his replacements to lead the church upon his retirement in 2018. In 2012, Pastor Hybels announced he would retire in six years and launched a collaborative selection and coaching process for new church leadership.
  • Just months later, a staff member came to the Elder Board with complaints of alleged misconduct by Pastor Hybels. Again, the Elder Board hired the law firm to conduct an investigation. The outside, independent investigator firmly concluded there was no evidence to support charges of inappropriate behavior. In fact, he uncovered evidence that directly contradicted the woman's claims. That evidence was presented to the woman, who resigned from her church position that same day. Throughout that investigation, Pastor Hybels denied any wrongdoing.
  • In March, Willow Creek Community Church received a call from the Chicago Tribune inquiring about the allegations that had been made—and investigated—over the previous four years. Pastor Hybels sat with the reporters for nearly three hours, answering every question.
  • In the two weeks after the publication of that article, Pastor Hybels observed how the continuing discussion in the media was not only dividing the staff's focus, but more importantly it was drawing efforts away from their ministry. After conversations with the Elder Board and others, Pastor Hybels made the decision to accelerate his retirement from October to April.

FAQs

1. How was the external investigator chosen?
he Elder Board sought to hire an investigator that fit three key criteria and qualifications: 1) The investigator would have no ties to Willow Creek or the Willow Creek Association, 2) the investigator would have expertise in leading these sorts of workplace investigations, and 3) the investigator would be a Christ follower. The board interviewed three potential outside law firms to conduct the investigation, and at the end of that search process, they selected Attorney Jeff Fowler from Laner Muchin (an esteemed Chicago law firm). Click here to read more about Attorney Fowler.


2. What was the scope of the investigation?
The goal of Attorney Fowler's investigation was to determine whether there was evidence of a pattern of misconduct by Pastor Hybels. The investigation was multifaceted. It included 29 interviews; the hiring of an IT forensics firm to search the church's server; and a review of Pastor Hybels' phone records, church financial documents, personal financial documents, and travel records. Attorney Fowler interviewed senior leaders of the church, as well as current and former staff members who worked closely with Pastor Hybels. He was given full freedom to interview anyone he wanted and to review any documents that would allow him to successfully carry out his investigation—both men and women—were chosen because they had traveled on international trips with Pastor Hybels, or because they had worked with or had long-standing social relationships with Pastor Hybels. The investigation lasted five months. Pastor Hybels had no role whatsoever in leading, influencing, or conducting any parts of the investigation, and he submitted himself entirely to the process, answering all questions posed to him and providing all information requested of him.


3. Did the Ortbergs, Mellados, or Nancy Beach participate in—or cooperate with—the investigation?

No. Attorney Fowler reached out to them to see if they would participate in the investigation. Instead, they submitted a list of demands that must be agreed to before they would take part in the investigation. Some of those demands were as follows:

  • These couples, who were no longer members of Willow Creek, would approve the choice of the investigator—independent of the Elder Board.
  • The investigation would run the full course of Pastor Hybels' adulthood (from 18 years old and ongoing).
  • These couples would choose the witnesses who were interviewed, and all people interviewed would have full indemnification.
  • The investigation reports would all be public, regardless of the outcome.
  • Pastor Hybels would make a public admission of anything that only they (not the investigator or the Elders) deemed inappropriate.

The Elders believe that in matters of the local church, it is their biblical mandate to seek truth and bring it into the light. They believe Scripture is clear regarding this mandate, and that the burden and responsibility for handling such concerns belongs to the duly appointed Elders rather than to those outside their church. There is no biblical support or church governance precedence for a group of people outside the Elder Board (and in this case, outside the membership of the church) to control Elder responsibilities.

During Attorney Fowler's investigation, the Ortbergs and Mellados sent a letter, dated April 19, 2017, through an attorney they hired, stating they would now "walk away" from the process. Their wording led the Elders to understand they were leaving these issues in the hands of the Elders, and ultimately in God's hands.


4. What were the results of Attorney Fowler's investigation?
At the end of his five-month investigation, Attorney Fowler concluded there was no evidence to support any charges of inappropriate behavior or any pattern of misconduct by Pastor Hybels. His report is dated April 21, 2017.


5. Were there any objections to the results of the investigation?
Given the close relationship between Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association (WCA), the Elders shared the findings of their internal investigation with the WCA Board. When the WCA board voted to accept the Elders' investigation without the need to conduct a separate investigation of their own, three board members voted against accepting the Elders' findings and later resigned from the board. They felt the WCA should conduct its own investigation. The board members who resigned were Nancy Ortberg, John Wallace, and Kara Powell. The Elders' acceptance of the findings of this original investigation and all subsequent investigations has been unanimous. In fact, no Elder has resigned over these matters at any time over the past four years.


6. Is there a process at the church for anyone with concerns to make those concerns known?
The church has a confidential hotline for anyone who contacts the church with a concern.

There is also a thorough process in place for staff to raise concerns about any issue that they may have concerning the church. Staff members have five ways to raise any workplace concern:

  • They can talk with their manager.
  • They can talk with someone in Human Resources.
  • They can send an SOS to senior leadership. Senior leadership addresses any SOS concern within 24 hours.
  • They can send a confidential email to the Grievance Panel. This panel consists of trained professionals who are equipped to navigate workplace grievance situations.
  • They can call a confidential hotline that is administered by a third-party consulting company.

Staff attend training every year in which they review and discuss these procedures along with other workplace guidelines. Additionally, as part of the annual compliance audit, an outside organization surveys the staff to ensure they understand the workplace guidelines.


7. When Pastor Hybels announced his early retirement, what was his response to the accusations that have been made?
At the family meeting on April 10, 2018, Bill shared:

"For the foreseeable future, I feel the need to humbly look deep inside and determine what God has for me to learn through all of this. I intend to continue surrounding myself with wise counselors and trusted friends in order to fulfill more effectively whatever ministry God leads me to in the future. I have complete peace about this decision and this process. Your prayers would be appreciated.

In recent times, I've been accused of many things I simply did not do. However, let me humbly acknowledge three things I have done.

First, my first response to some of these accusations was anger. I confess to feeling some anger as I watched harmful accusations fly without accountability. I felt attacked without merit and knew that my loved ones and my church family would be affected. I wish my initial response had been one of listening and humble reflection. If I could go back, I would have chosen to listen first, to seek to learn and understand. I apologize for a response that seemed defensive, instead of one that invited conversation and learning.

Secondly, I realize now that over time, in certain settings and circumstances I have communicated things that were perceived in ways I did not intend, even at times making people uncomfortable, and I was blind to this dynamic for far too long. For that I'm very sorry.

Thirdly, too often I placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid. I was, at times, naive about the dynamics those situations created. I'm sorry for the lack of wisdom on my part, and I commit to greater discernment in this area in the future.

I want to acknowledge that anytime allegations like this are made, they are serious, and they must be received with great humility and gravity. I want to reaffirm to you that I have taken these allegations very seriously, as have our church's Elders. While some of the stories that have been told about me are misleading and others are entirely false, I have been sobered by these accusations and have invited the input of wise friends and family members."


8. How did the Elders respond to Pastor Hybels' accelerated retirement and what are their next steps?
At the family meeting on April 10, 2018, the Elders shared:

"Over the past few weeks, the Elders have been in the process of carefully discerning next steps in regard to new information that surfaced in the media. On Friday, April 6, Bill informed the Elders of his decision to move up the date of his retirement. Although we are deeply saddened, for so many reasons, by the circumstances surrounding the end of Bill's tenure, we accept and see the wisdom in his decision. We thank God that He uses ordinary people to do His good work. And we are grateful that Bill listened to God's call on his life and served the church, and God's Kingdom, for the last 42 years.

We will continue to try to meet personally with those who have made accusations or have pursued accusations on behalf of others. In recent weeks, we have persistently requested meetings with people mentioned or quoted in media accounts, but our efforts have been unsuccessful. We will continue this outreach in an effort to live peaceably with all people, so long as it depends on us (Romans 12:18)."