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Willow Creek leadership summit goes on despite mass resignations

The Global Leadership Summit kicked off Aug. 9, 2018, on the main campus of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. The megachurch has been in turmoil for months since sexual misconduct allegations against its founder, Bill Hybels, have come to light. Photo courtesy of Global Leadership Summit

SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. (RNS) — The Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Community Church began Thursday (Aug. 9) morning by addressing the elephant in the room: Its opening speaker was not the event’s accustomed headliner for 26 years, church founder Bill Hybels.

Instead, Craig Groeschel, senior pastor at Life Church, which meets across the country and online, opened the conference. He began by talking about why he had not backed out of his speaker’s slot despite a still-unfolding sexual harassment scandal that forced Hybels to step down from Willow Creek and that, just 12 hours before the summit’s start, prompted the mass resignation of the church’s board of elders and its lead pastor.


RELATED: Willow Creek elders and lead pastor resign in wake of Hybels revelations


The leadership summit has long showcased Willow Creek’s success and the man who engineered its growth from a neighborhood house church to a 25,000 worshipper, multicampus behemoth. Hybels’ conversational preaching, sharp marketing sense and charisma made the summit popular beyond those interested in copying his church building methods. Past speakers have included former President Bill Clinton and the U2 rocker Bono.

But in April, Hybels stepped down months ahead of his planned retirement, after a Chicago Tribune investigation revealed allegations against him of inappropriate behavior with women. Four speakers, including actor Denzel Washington, pulled out of this year’s summit, and more than 100 sites planning to simulcast the event reportedly canceled

The weekend before the summit began, lead teaching pastor Steve Carter resigned, citing differences with the church over how it handled the allegations. Three days later, lead pastor Heather Larson and one of Willow Creek’s nine elders stood at a “family meeting” of the congregation to announce Larson and the entire elder board were stepping down to give the church a “fresh start” after new allegations had been made against Hybels.

Life Church pastor Craig Groeschel speaks at the Global Leadership Summit Aug. 9, 2018, on the main campus of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. Photo courtesy of Global Leadership Summit

Groeschel said his own reactions to the scandal have run the gamut, from grief to disbelief to anger to “deep compassion” for everyone involved. He decided to speak at the summit, though, for the same reason many decided to attend: “It’s because we know and believe we can make a difference. We must make a difference.”

Those who had signed up to attend the summit seemed to agree. A Willow Creek spokesperson said about 118,000 people were expected to watch via livestream nationwide and about 10,000 in person on Willow Creek’s main campus. About 156,000 people in the U.S. had watched the summit the year before.

The summit will go out to countries around the world next month, and organizers said overall attendance is expected to jump to 445,000, up from 405,000 last year.

Several Chicago-area attendees said they were aware of the allegations against Hybels before they came to the summit.

Andrew Smith, who grew up attending Willow Creek, came to the summit Thursday for the second time to “drink up all the different information that I can from all these great leaders” and apply it to his work as a financial adviser in Chicago.

Smith knew about the allegations against Hybels but he said he was comfortable with the speakers who were there, including Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter’s House.

Krista Stiefel of Algonquin, Ill., came with her dad for the sixth year. In the past, Stiefel has hosted a monthly group afterward to discuss each session in detail.

She said Groeschel’s speech had encouraged her to inspire others and she wished she could show it to the group of project managers she leads at Allstate. She thought he addressed the allegations against Hybels well.

Willow Creek Association President Tom De Vries speaks before the Global Leadership Summit Aug. 9, 2018, on the main campus of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. Photo courtesy of Global Leadership Summit

Before the summit’s official start Thursday, Willow Creek Association President Tom De Vries said that the allegations against Hybels had created “tremendous turmoil” for the summit as well as the church.

Despite the difficult timing of the resignations, Willow Creek’s leadership felt there was no other way.

“This is really important. Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return quickly,” Larson, the lead pastor, said Wednesday evening. “There is urgency to move us in a better direction.”

Several female congregants and former staff have alleged Hybels invited them to hotel rooms, commented on their appearances and, in one case, gave a former co-worker an unwanted kiss. Hybels’ former executive assistant Pat Baranowski alleged in a report Sunday in The New York Times that Hybels had sexually harassed her — fondling her breasts, rubbing against her and once engaging her in oral sex.

The Tribune also reported that allegations previously had been investigated by Willow Creek’s elders and an outside law firm and that Hybels was cleared of wrongdoing. Hybels has denied all allegations.

Missy Rasmussen, who has been an elder at Willow Creek for seven years, said the board now could see that investigation was “flawed.” She apologized for its mishandling of allegations to all the women who have come forward, including former Willow Creek staff members Nancy Beach and Vonda Dyer.

“While we will probably never know with certainty everything that’s true about each of your stories, we have no reason to not believe any of you. We are sorry that our initial statement was so insensitive, defensive and reflexively protective of Bill,” Rasmussen said.

“We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.”

Rasmussen announced to applause that the entire elder board will step down by the end of the year to create room for a new board. A first wave of elders will leave by Aug. 15, she said.

Willow Creek Community Church lead pastor Heather Larson announces her resignation Aug. 8, 2018, at a “family meeting” at the megachurch’s main campus in South Barrington, Ill. Screen grab via WillowCreek.tv

Announcing her departure, Larson noted that since she and Carter replaced Hybels in April she has not been able to get “the momentum that we need to address the issues that we need to address and to bring about the fresh start.”

Steve Gillen, who pastors the church’s North Shore campus in Glenview, Ill., will step in as interim lead pastor of Willow Creek.

Moving forward, an independent expert will conduct a governance review of the church, and an advisory leadership council of Christian leaders from across the country will oversee a new investigation of allegations against Hybels.

Hybels also resigned as chair of the board at the Willow Creek Association when he resigned from the church in April, De Vries said Wednesday evening, and “there is no plan for him to return.” He did not share more details about the new investigation or who would serve on the council. But he said the association wants to create an environment where it and others can learn to better navigate power dynamics between men and women.

The effort would begin, he said, with an afternoon summit session on the topic of “creating a healthy work environment for men and women” led by pastor and author Danielle Strickland.

“We’ve had missteps, mistakes, slip-ups, blunders: not condemning Bill’s actions to a greater degree and more publicly, not showing more support to the women who courageously came forward with their concerns, perpetuating a narrative of false allegations and collusions. We are sorry for the places we could and should have done better,” De Vries said.

In Thursday’s opening session, Groeschel made that message the unofficial theme of the summit.

“We must stop making excuses,” he said, “and we must make things right.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

34 Comments

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  • RECAP THIS WAY. “Lead teaching pastor Steve Carter resigned … [with] lead pastor Heather Larson … and the entire elder board … stepping down … just 12 hours before the summit’s start … [only because Bill] Hybels was cleared [by them] of wrongdoing … [and they via] the Global Leadership Summit … showcased [this] man”!

  • The entire leadership of the organization has resigned due to abuse of authority or gross incompetence.

    Yet they have the gall to instruct others in leadership. Wow.

    And thousands of other fools actually think learning leadership from these people is a good idea. Also wow.

    This boggles the mind.

    Clueless, thy name is christian.

  • Too little too late. The whole corrup organization should just shut down.

    And if they had any integrity, they would have canceled this so-called leadership summit before it ever got started.

  • So, you’re associated with this group in some way?

    Or do you just like to hand out unsolicited advice to organizations you don’t belong to?

  • Credit where credit is due: What other organization (e.g news organization, businesses, government administration, Hollywood, etc.) faced with a #MeToo moment to the top had a mass resignation of its leadership?

    Single standards: What other organization faced with a #MeToo moment at the top (e.g news organization, government administration, Hollywood, etc.) was expected to shut down their whole organization and cancel all events?

    Recommended reading from Rod Dreher’s blog: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/willow-creek-catholic-bishops-church-leadership-sex-scandal/

    Quote therefrom: “When senior leadership has lost the trust of the faithful, it has to go. I commend the sense of stewardship the Willow Creek leadership team has.”

    Dreher is Eastern Orthodox and a former Catholic who is very critical of clerical abuse and coverups. Indeed, he has been on fire of late.

    I am not associated with Willow Creek in any way, nor do I consider myself an Evangelical. I am a fan of Rod Dreher.

  • If you go to the Willow Creek website, you can learn from the Elders’ Statements that “WE BELIEVE the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.” Although this is standard fare in many churches going back centuries, you do not get valid “global leadership” from this perspective. There is a difference between using the Bible to make us better people and making claims about the book itself which amount to baloney. I don’t know about the political make-up of Willow Creek, but I know that a majority of people who hold this view of the Bible happen to be the core supporters of American Trumpism. There is a correlation between fibbing about what scripture is and fibbing about public affairs. It’s bad news.

  • I don’t think that the resigned leaders are doing the teaching, they have invited guest Christian leaders from outside of their church organization to do the teaching.

  • What other organization (e.g news organization, businesses, government administration, Hollywood, etc.) faced with a #MeToo moment to the top had a mass resignation of its leadership?

    The Roman Catholic Church in Chile.

  • But the Chili resignation was not voluntary. Francis stepped in a big pile when he called the victims in Chili liars. He got a lot of public pushback. Somebody had to take the fall for his screw-up. It was the bishops of Chili. And in the end, he only accepted five resignations. More smoke and mirrors from Francis and the Vatican.

  • Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk.

    That was written around 160 CE by Lucian of Samosata. I found it on a list published by a Christian of PROOFS that Jesus existed and the claims of Christianity are true. Reread that pasaage. It says people who call themselves Christians will fall for anything.

    1800+ years later, christian leaders are still training people to believe anything. They are saying it’s perfectly reasonable for people who resigned for gross incompetence to teach others how to lead. Just like you should never question a preacher who tells you something is God’s will. It’s God’s will that you give thousands to a church and never see a financial report. It is God’s will that a televangelist needs a new jet. It is God’s will that you learn leadership from us.

    The people are systematically trained to disregard their own common sense, in big ways and small.

    This is just one lesson of many. “Trust us, cuz we said so. God will be mad if you don’t.”

    Honest people with integrity would cancel this sideshow.

  • The report was that they were voluntary. He has only accepted 5 so far. There is still investigating happening. More may fall.

  • “The report was that they were voluntary”
    About three years ago Pope Frances promised an abuse tribunal that would investigate bishops involved in the cover-up. Then he and his advisors backtracked and decided it wasn’t needed. Events have proved otherwise. Perhaps Francis and his advisors knew what the tribunal would find and did not want to know about it.
    Francis and his advisors may be well intentioned (in a limited sort of way) but they are certainly not very trustworthy. Any report coming from the Vatican that the resignations were voluntary is not credible.

  • Not a spelling Nazi…

    but Chile. Chili is a kind of capsicum, or a stew made of beans and meat.

  • Looking at the photo I can’t help but think —

    “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” 2 Timothy 4:3

  • I doubt everybody watching is expecting to learn anything. I imagine a fair number of them are paying attention for voyeuristic reasons, like stock car fans that look forward to crashes.

  • Looking at that photo at the top of the article, I have to wonder about the long term value of the megachurch. Besides the fact that such communities seem more formed around the charisma of the preacher than the efficacy of the Word of God, I question the wisdom of any faith community growing to such size.

    Christian communities don’t do well when they become too economically comfortable or influential. The church was meant to be a witness to the dominant culture, not to be subsumed by it. That’s one of the pitfalls of the so-called prosperity gospel — the acquisition of wealth for person comfort instead of service.

    But most of all, faith communities should be intimate, and not in the perverse way that Rev. Hybels is now on the hot seat for. Authentic spiritual intimacy is a matter of shared struggle and mutual support. That’s not something that a congregation of multiple thousands is conducive to.

  • You are absolutely right. Thank you. But I have a stupid excuse. I am trying to dig post holes with a garden shovel for a stockade fence that is leaning precipitously.

  • Willow Creek leadership summit goes on despite mass resignations

    Mass resignations? I didn’t know Willow Creek was Catholic.

  • LOL if jesus was born today in the USA it would be the Evangelical Christian who would crucify him. =)

  • Nah. You hang around here with a few of the religious crazies— sorry, I meant to write Only True Christians and/or The Only People Who Know What God Wants— and it’s no surprise that some of it affects your spelling. 😘😬🤔

    Sometimes I feel stupid just reading what they have to say.

  • Have we forgotten the Lord has also been offended? Is worthy of our conviction, confession, contrition? Joel chapter 2 is still the living word of God. IMHO, the slots opened by the cancellations should have been used for prayer; a Joel chapter 2 solemn assembly. Someone saying a prayer is not the same as a Daniel 9 “we have sinned” lament to the Lord. When corporate culture rules, God never reigns. Maybe that is a leadership lesson.

  • I always thought a post-hole digger was an instrument of torture. ;>) But a shovel can’t be much better.

  • Reverend Billy Graham was a great Evangelical Christian but there are also a number of Elmer Gantry’s out there lining their pockets.

  • Okay, don’t believe it.

    Your constant comments seem to support the conclusion you reject everything Catholic, so why would that create a problem anyone would care to solve?

    Go to a pow-wow instead of a Mass, be happy.

  • The intimacy should be between the Creator and the believer.

    That can be achieved in any size congregation.

  • Just more of the Angelic/Satanic con game:

    AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC/SATANIC CONS CONTINUE TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD

    Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As do BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan) (And Trump, tough to tell what this nut case is thinking)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty wingie/ugly/horn-blowing thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

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