After abuse: Hybels accuser shares her insights

Nancy Beach on men and women working together

Revelations of inappropriate relations with women and abuse of power by charismatic pastor Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Church in Chicago, rocked the Global Leadership Network (GLN) ministry of member churches last year.

Hybels’ fall from power led GLN Australia to consider cancelling three “Leading Well” events with previously-invited guest speaker Nancy Beach across the country this year. But after a day of prayer, the team decided to face the challenge rather than go to ground and continue with their plans for events across the country with Beach as keynote speaker.

Abusive Christian leaders

After all, who better to train church leaders in healthy male-female relationships and how to empower women than Nancy Beach? The author of Gifted to Lead: The Art of Leading as a Woman in the Church, she is a leadership coach at a group called Slingshot, based in Los Angeles.

But before all that, Beach was Willow Creek’s Program Director – carving out creative arts ministry a long time before that was an accepted thing. She also became a teaching pastor, and for five years was on the executive team of the Willow Creek Association, building a global network of churches.

And as one of the women who had revealed Hybels’ abuse, the GLN Australia team knew that Beach had some valuable insights to share.

The events before and after Hybel’s abuse was revealed

On the eve of the first GLN Australia event, Beach explained to Eternity that it was a trip to Spain where she felt Hybels crossed the line with her.

“I thought we were there to coach a church and it was just the two of us. I don’t know why I didn’t put together that that was weird. He had set this whole thing up. When we both got there, he was exhausted from all this other travel and it seemed like he just wanted to spend time with me and I’m like ‘When are we going to the church?’”

In fact, the church coaching took only an hour or so of the two-day stop in Spain. During the trip, Hybels invited her into his room to talk further, which Beach says made her feel “very uncomfortable”.

Nancy returned home wondering “What was that?”. She didn’t think he would have behaved in that way with a male colleague. “When we got back to the office, he said something to me like, ‘You know, we don’t really need to tell anybody about that Spain trip, right?’ and I was so embarrassed.”

Beach did tell a girlfriend but didn’t tell her husband because she didn’t want him to worry about her workplace situation. She then didn’t think about it again for years.

“I definitely saw the abuse of power subsequent to it, but I only shared that story later when I found out that there were other women who had experiences that were much worse than my own and I was trying to support them.”

Beach’s decision to share her experience publicly wasn’t taken lightly

Or quickly. In fact, it was reached after four years of failed attempts to get Willow Creek’s eldership to address the matter privately.

“We had really, as far as we could tell, two options. One was letting it go and the other was going to the press. We didn’t know how else to bring it to light.”

So, Beach spoke to the media about Hybels’ pattern of behaviour – originally under the proviso of anonymity. Then the journalist asked her to go on the record because all the women except one wanted to remain anonymous, which was making a confusing story even more so.

Beach and her husband Warren prayed about it. A week later, Warren said “You do what you feel is best, but I want you to know that I’ll support you if you put your name in there and I think that maybe it’s needed.” Beach says she “was terrified” to do so because “I knew that that would get blown up beyond what it really was – it was just supporting a pattern.” But she agreed, and her name was published.

What followed was exactly what Beach feared most

The article ran in the Chicago Tribune on March 22, 2018, coinciding with a flurry of #MeToo media articles, causing the Hybels case to be labelled #ChurchToo on social media.

The next day, Willow Creek held a meeting – simulcast to its satellite locations – in which its Lead Pastors, elders and Hybels rejected each of the women’s claims and defended their handling of the matter. A written defence by Hybels was also published on the church website.

As the attacks on Beach mounted up on social media, her eldest daughter, Samantha, took on management of her mother’s social media accounts to shield her from reading the most personal attacks.

“But I read them,” Samantha tells Eternity, with a heaviness that betrays the price she paid in trying to protect her mum from the criticism of people she’d grown up with at church.

Yet, though some responded badly to Beach’s revelations, for others, her name gave the story credibility. Yet, though some responded badly to Beach’s revelations, for others, her name gave the story credibility.

“I found out later that God used the fact that I put my name in there. People from the church and who’ve known me for a long time took the whole thing a little more seriously because there was a name in there that they couldn’t quite write off,” she explains.

Beach states clearly that the incident in Spain with Hybels was “not scarring” to her. But other women clearly were scarred.

“It was more his abuse of power that I observed over time … “

“The abuse of power I experienced with him was not unique to females … I saw him in similar situations with the men on the team,” Beach explains.

It was Hybels’ abuse of power ultimately led her to decide she “just couldn’t endorse it any longer and be in that culture”. She resigned as a Willow Creek staff member and, after about 18 months of continuing to worship at Willow Creek, the family left the church.

Beach’s book (published in 2008) includes a chapter about “leading up”, which raises the question of whether her experiences with Hybels have changed any of her thoughts on leadership.

“I wish I’d had a stronger voice,” she says. “I wish I’d sometimes called him on things. I think I could have leveraged in some way the history we had and friendship, to maybe speak to some things more than others could. But the few times that I chose to do that, I felt he’d power up and intimidate me and it didn’t go well. So I gave up after a while.”

Was strength a quality Hybels sought in his team members?

“We talk a lot about accountability, but who really has the strength – whether it be elders or staff – to go toe-to-toe with someone at that magnitude and giftedness and charisma?”

“I don’t think there were enough people who were strong enough,” Beach says. “That’s what you see in most of these dynamic situations. We talk a lot about accountability, but who really has the strength – whether it be elders or staff – to go toe-to-toe with someone at that magnitude and giftedness and charisma?”

Their working relationship was further complicated by friendship, which Beach believes is “always an interesting dynamic when it comes to leading up”, “whether that’s male to male, or female to male”.

“I met Bill when I was 15 and he was he was my youth leader. There was an immediate sense that we both knew each other had leadership gifts and we could talk each other’s language.

Beach’s leadership skills were evident and “there was definitely a sense that he [Hybels] was willing to be an advocate for me. He first opened the door for me to be on the leadership team, and then later to teach at the church. I later discovered he had taken some hits for that, you know. Certainly, there would been some criticism for that.”

Beach remains a believer in the power of the local church.

Unlike many people who experience abuse within the church, Beach speaks positively about the local church.

“Every church has its flaws and dysfunction,” she says, adding she never thought Willow Creek was “Camelot or perfect”.

“But in spite of this piece of the story, it doesn’t take away from the other parts of the story,” she says. “I don’t ever want to deny that I believe that God used Bill in a mighty way. There are people who are going to be in heaven because of his ministry. There are churches that exist because of the inspiration that he brought, and other churches that were stirred up and brought to life, really, all over the world … I think that all of that is true. And then there’s also this other part of the story that’s also true.”

For the past five years, Nancy and Warren Beach have been enthusiastic members of  Soul City Church, which meets in a warehouse in the West Loop of Chicago. It was planted seven years ago by Jeannie and Jared Stevens – a young couple who also used to be on staff at Willow Creek. Beach is one of the teaching pastors, but is not on staff.

“It’s the most naturally diverse church I’ve ever been in my whole life,” Beach says with apparent enthusiasm.  “Racially, it really reflects the neighbourhood that it’s in. When we leave, most Sundays we’re like ‘We are two of the oldest people there for sure!’ I mean, it’s very, very young. But our younger daughter, who lives in Chicago, goes there as well, so that’s really great, and I’ve mentored several of the leaders. So it’s really fun.”

She also works as a leadership coach for churches, channelling her experiences at Willow Creek, positive and negative, into powerful learning opportunities for other churches.

Beach inspires church leaders to develop healthy working relationships

“I want to challenge all the male leaders in the room for a moment. Are you taking intentional steps to be an advocate for emerging women leaders like Phoebe [a notable woman mentioned by Paul in the book of Romans]?” she asks attendees at GLN events in Australia.

“Men, I don’t know if you realise the power the you hold to choose to call out leadership in women or not. In many ways, your hand is on the door; you can open it or not. We might take pride and say ‘Women are welcome to whatever in our church’, but if we don’t develop them and we don’t invite them, nothing will change and we may end up excluding, even though it isn’t our theology.”

About five years ago, his church realised that, though they held to egalitarian theology, there were no women on the board, or regularly teaching on the weekends, or on the senior leadership team.

She shares the example of a pastor friend. About five years ago, his church realised that, though they held to egalitarian theology, there were no women on the board, or regularly teaching on the weekends, or on the senior leadership team. So, they set a goal of having a minimum of 30 per cent women on leadership teams.

First, they resolved to make a “disproportionate investment in female leadership” – identifying women with potential who were already in leadership and developing skills training and leadership development for them to help them find their voices. They also created a program called Brave, designed for girls in 6th, 7th and 8th grade to build into their potential. Next, they made a plan for a “disproportionate invitation into leadership” for women. Five years later, 50 per cent per cent of the board are female – including a female chair – as well as half of upfront female communicators and teachers.

Samantha Beach – Beach’s actor and scriptwriter daughter – also ministered at the GLN event, punctuating Beach’s teaching with spoken-word performances. Bible Society Australia’s Melissa Lipsett took attendees through the Bible’s teaching on women in leadership and joined a panel of local pastors – male and female – to discuss the reality of male-female relationships on church teams.

For attendees – church leaders from a range of Australian denominations – the event provided a time to reflect personally, be equipped practically, and commit themselves afresh in prayer to the task at hand.

At Willow Creek Church, a similar process is under way

The church has undergone massive changes since allegations against Hybels first surfaced publicly and were vehemently denied by the Elder Board in March last year.

For a start, Bill Hybels resigned on April 10, saying “I placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid,” he said. “I was naïve about the dynamics those situations created. I’m sorry for the lack of wisdom on my part. I commit to never putting myself in similar situations again.” (This, by the way, is the closest Hybels has come to repenting and apologising to his accusers).

Then, on the evening of April 20, with more accusations against Hybels coming to light, the Elder Board sent a letter to church members saying, “Even though Bill is no longer in his role, our work to resolve any shadow of doubt in the trustworthiness of [Willow] is not done … With the benefit of hindsight, we see several aspects of our past work that we would have handled differently, and we have identified several areas of learning.”

On May 9, the elder board apologised for casting doubt on the women’s allegations against Hybels. Within the first 8 days of August, Lead Teaching Pastor Steve Carter and Lead Pastor Heather Larson had resigned; Steve Gillen was named acting senior pastor; the entire Elder Board resigned; and an Independent Advisory Group (IAG) was commissioned by the resigning Elder Board and the Willow Creek Association Board (WCA). The WCA is now named the Global Leadership Network.

On September 18, an Independent Advisory Group (IAG) was named, and finally, on February 28 this year, Willow Creek’s IAG Report was released, along with a third-party verification. The report said the advisory group found the women credible, found Bill Hybels guilty of verbal and sexual behaviours, verbal abuse of both women and men, and various abusive power behaviour that had created a culture of fear.

Nancy Beach takes no pleasure in the church’s demise

Beach says she grieves for the women who were scarred by Hybels’ behaviour, saying “I’ve talked to them and I see the healing that they that they need to do”.

“But I see progress [at Willow Creek], too, and I’m talking with the new elders of the church. I’m very hopeful … I’ve known for many many years the man who’s the interim pastor and we talk periodically … He’s a very good man; he’s a loving shepherd; I think he’s an excellent choice for this season. And I have many friends still at the church. I think it is accurate to say that attendance is down about 30 per cent or more and the giving is certainly down as well. I think that’s all to be expected for right now. They are seeking to rebuild.”

The IAG  has spoken to Beach and she will meet them in person in June. She’s still sad Hybels hasn’t publicly repented, but has had many healing conversations, though long and exhausting, with people from the church and from the Willow Creek Association.

“I think we’re all coming to a place of recognising that God says the truth will make you free. There’s no freedom until we get this stuff out into the light and and deal with it.”

“I think we’re all coming to a place of recognising that God says the truth will make you free. There’s no freedom until we get this stuff out into the light and and deal with it.”

Beach says: “I’m not by nature a brave person at all. I don’t like conflict – I avoid it. I come from this Swedish Scandinavian background where you just kind of push things down and you don’t face stuff.”

Yet, after five years of dealing with the highly contentious situation, Beach still patiently answers questions about Hybels with an unexpected transparency. Her responses do appear weary, but she also seems to sense light at the end of the tunnel. She’s even managed to find a silver lining.

“For me, personally, this year has been such a time of growth because the worst things happened,” she explains. “What matters is that I felt like I was doing what I sensed God was calling me to do, and that the people who know me well are in my corner and supporting me, which they have been. So it’s been very stretching and, in some ways, a real deepening for me this year.”

Though Beach’s willingness to involve herself in such an ugly situation – one she could have justifiably avoided – is remarkable, her optimism after the last year’s events is even more so.

Surely, if it’s possible to make metaphorical lemonade from the bitter lemons of pastoral abuse, the ministry of Nancy Beach is what it must look like.

Editor’s Note: Nancy Beach and Kylie Beach are not related.