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What church leaders should learn from the Bill Hybels scandal

This week the entire leadership team at Willow Creek megachurch resigned in the wake of the sexual harassment allegations against founder Bill Hybels. Luke Gibbons explains why churches must get better at confronting sexual sin and abuse.

Once again, a well-known pastor is making headlines across the country.And, as is too often the case, the story is about sexual misconduct and even sexual abuse.

Bill Hybels, the founder of Chicago’s Willow Creek megachurch, was accused by former church employee Pat Baranowski of inappropriate sexual conduct and abuse during the 1980s.

This is not the first time Hybels has been the subject of such claims. In April, Hybels announced to his congregation that he would speed up his planned retirement by six months and resign immediately. In March, Hybels had been accused by several women of inappropriate behavior that occurred several decades earlier.

Two investigations, one by the church and the other by an outside lawyer, cleared Hybels of those claims. But Baranowski’s accounts are more serious and indicate Hybels’ behavior was ongoing and not an isolated incident. In light of these recent allegations, Willow Creek has vowed to conduct another investigation.

While Hybels stood down from church ministry when the allegations first surfaced, he denied wrongdoing but apologised for being "unwise" and potentially misleading people.

It is important to understand that church leaders are human and they face the same struggles as everyone else. Pastors are held to a higher standard than anyone else, so when they fall, they fall hard. Sadly, in many situations where a church leader has a moral failing, they are publicly shamed and shafted by the church. This forces leaders who are struggling with sin to keep silent and continue in their downward spiral of destruction. Churches must have in place discipleship to prevent this from happening, and a process of healing when it does occur – for all involved.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from the #MeToo campaign, it’s that women must be listened to and claims of abuse taken seriously and investigated immediately. The pastors at Willow Creek have acknowledged their failings on this front.

A Troubling Pattern

Hybels is just one of many ministers to be accused of sexual misconduct. Since the 1980s, preachers such as Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard have been involved in sex scandals.

Catholic priests, including a number of cardinals, have also been involved caught up in sexual abuse charges around the world – although often of a different nature: involving abuse of minors.

But it is not just the high-profile stories that are alarming. Many smaller churches have had to deal with similar situations. One denomination reports that in 2016, more than half of minister dismissals involved male pastors engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior.

The Reaction Has Been intense

Women are breaking their silence. On November 21, following in the path of the #MeToo movement, #ChurchToo was started. The hashtag collects stories of sexual abuse, harassment, and other related misconduct by church leaders.

One of Savage’s victims, Jules Woodson, said: “We as a church, of all places, should be getting this right. It’s unfathomable to me that the secular world, Hollywood, are taking a stand. The Church should have been the first group to stand up and say, ‘We will not allow this.’”

Bryan Born, president of Columbia Bible College, noted: “The church should be out ahead on the issue of sexual misconduct, and not lagging behind.”

Is pornography part of the problem?

But pornography doesn’t have any connection to actual abuse, does it? Actually, it does.

For example, Baranowski mentions porn in her account about Hybels. President Reagan had appointed James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, to his anti-pornography commission.

Hybels told Baranowski that Dobson had told him to educate himself on the porn issue. He instructed her to go rent several porn videos, claiming it was for the purpose of research. Hybels insisted that she watch them with him, much to her embarrassment.

According to author Jessica Harris: “Let’s recognise the movement for what it really is. It is not a war on men, but a call to change a culture shaped by exploitation. To change that, we have to talk about how we view sex. How we consume sex, and how we, ultimately, consume each other. Pornography is very much a part of this conversation. If we ignore that, we’ll be living through a #MeToo cycle every 12-15 years.”

How the Church must change

Church leaders must realise that the subject of sex cannot be avoided and ignored. Sermons that tiptoe around sexual addiction and sexual abuse are no longer acceptable. What was once taboo to speak about is now talked about everywhere.

Pornography is an epidemic around the world, and it is an underlying factor in most sexual crimes and misconduct. With over 50 per cent of pastors struggling with pornography, the Church is in desperate need for sexual discipleship to break the trend of abuse.

Harris writes: “Other groups have shown how porn fuels a culture of sexual violence and how pornography ties in with sexual exploitation. I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say the stories we are seeing now are influenced in part by a culture in which pornography consumption is ok.”

Author and speaker Eugene Hung has been unequivocal in his approach: “No, men, it is our issue. We are the main cause. We need to own it, take responsibility for it, and change the way we teach and model masculinity for men and boys so that this evil stops.”

The Church must address these issues now. And it must start by helping men break free from porn addiction and renew their minds.

Change starts at the top

If true change is going to take place, it must begin with the church leaders, starting at the top.

Beth Backes, director of pastoral care at Northwest Ministry Network, explains: “The Barna Group reports that even though pornography use is at epidemic rates, 93 per cent of pastors admitted not having adequate ministries in place to help those who are struggling. There is a link between online porn addiction and crimes against women. Addressing the root of sexual brokenness is a crucial step for the church.”

Thankfully there is a growing number of churches who are taking pornography and sex abuse seriously. For example, Southland Church in Steinbach, Canada, made a decision to provide sexual discipleship for their congregation, taking 1,300 men through the Conquer Series. The Conquer Series is a cinematic study that has been helping men find freedom in thousands of churches in over 75 countries. But it has largely been men within the church that have made it happen.

It is not enough for recovery to simply be a side ministry of the church for a couple of men to meet together. In many churches, it is not only the men and women in the pews that need help, but also the leaders.

Luke Gibbons is an Aussie living in Florida and is the marketing director for KingdomWorks Studios. From a pornography addiction that took Luke to rehab in 2010, God has brought him on a transformational journey to now helping other men find freedom through the Conquer Series. 

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