Willow Creek Elder Board ends chapter of abuse and cover-ups

But can the church turn the page?

Willow Creek’s new Elder Board has released a public ‘Elder Update: Reconciliation’ letter and held a ‘worship and reflection service’ in an attempt to close off the tragic chapter of the church’s recent history.

The Chicago-based church was rocked on March 22 last year when allegations of abuse by Willow Creek’s charismatic pastor and bestselling author, Bill Hybels, broke in the Chicago Tribune and quickly made international Christian news headlines. What followed was a complex story that unfolded painfully, piece by piece, before the gaze of a watching international Christian community (reported by Eternity here and here).

The public letter, published on July 19 on the church’s website by Willow Creek’s new Elder Board, was the result of meetings between the Elder Board and former Elders, former staff, and Hybels’ accusers. The Elder Board had also “reached out” to Hybels himself, who “has chosen not to engage in dialogue at this time.”

“We welcome the opportunity to meet with him to aid in healing and reconciliation,” the Elder Board wrote. “We are issuing this statement because in listening, we recognize that there are some specific harms that must be named.”

“We learned that the narrative persists in identifying you as liars and colluders despite the apology.” – Reconciliation letter

The letter goes on to address specific groups: “the women and their advocates”; past and present staff; the Elder Board of 2018; the church community; and affiliated organisations embroiled in the situation. To the women who had accused Hybels, the Elder Board wrote:

“In the days and months following the March 2018 Chicago Tribune article, the church’s response led to verbal and written attacks. We have heard about the impact this has had on you, your families, and your professional standing within the Christian community. We learned that the narrative persists in identifying you as liars and colluders despite the apology released by the lead pastors in June 2018 and the former Elders in August 2018. In early 2019, the IAG report found your allegations to be credible, and we unequivocally support their findings. We believe your allegations about Bill. We ask anyone who participated in verbal and written attacks to prayerfully examine their actions, apologize for wrongdoing, and seek to mend the relationship.”

On Tuesday night, the Elder Board also held a ‘worship and reflection service,’ which was promoted in the letter as an opportunity to “share more on reconciliation, our vision for the future, and the gospel-centered hope that anchors our church.”

“This meeting did not name any of the sin and abuse and deceit and failed leadership.” – Nancy Beach

For Nancy Beach – one of the women who has disclosed alleged abuse by Hybels – the service fell short of her hopes in several specific ways. She said the hours she and others had spent meeting with the new Elder Board had left her telling friends and family she was very hopeful about the service.

“These elders were compassionate and listened with tremendous empathy. They believed us. Many of them wept when they heard our stories. They apologized for how we were treated.” Beach wrote in her personal blog.

But she left Tuesday evening’s service, disappointed that, “Whereas in March of 2018 there were two public meetings where several of us were labeled as colluders who mounted a campaign to bring down the church, and where the women were called ‘liars’, this meeting did not name any of the sin and abuse and deceit and failed leadership. Nothing was owned. No apologies were offered. They just taught about reconciliation.”

Beach acknowledges that many who read her blog may well think, “Those people will never be satisfied” and says she “understands their point of view and the deep desire to move on.” Yet, Beach asserts, “Truth and Transparency must come before Reconciliation,” writing: “The church continues to refuse to tell the truth, to name what has happened, to call out sin. The meeting last night would have been wonderful if it had been a future step, after we acknowledge the mess and clean it up.”