For many Church leaders in the UK, Bill Hybels has become something of a hero. His teaching, encapsulated by phrases such as "the local church is the hope of the world" and "lost people matter to God", had galvanised a generation of Christians.
It looked as if his superstar status had been built on sound foundations. He'd grown a church from 150 youngsters meeting in a rented movie theatre in 1975 into a congregation of tens of thousands in a plush campus in northwest suburbs of Chicago, and other satellite locations.
In my early years as a pastor I had visited the campus, and was later part of a UK church plant in Southampton that received input from Willow, including a one off gift. Hybels gave us hope that if we only put the lost first in our approach to church we might experience the same growth. Seeker services and seeker targeted churches were birthed. We were part of a movement and the two day Global Leadership Summits run each Autumn continue to be a staple part of many UK church leader’s calendar.
The Independent Advisory Group hired by Willow Creek Community Church to conduct six months of investigations, has now found that: "Allegations of sexually inappropriate words and actions by Bill Hybels in the context of his ministry and leadership of Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association were credible", and that he "verbally and emotionally intimidated male and female employees". The report goes on to say that the allegations were sufficient to require the church to initiate disciplinary action against Bill had he still been senior pastor. Here are four things I believe we should consider in the light of this news.
1. Remember the many casualties
There are some women who have been through hell: suffering for years in silence, then speaking out and being disbelieved. There are former Willow elders and staff who have resigned because of their collective failure to spot Hybels’ deception. There are the many thousands who came to faith through Bill’s ministry now devastated by this news. We are wise to take time to pray that their pain may be healed and new grace provided.
2. Recognise there are still questions remaining
We need to recognise that some questions remain unanswered, perhaps most notably regarding the veracity of an alleged 14 year-affair, and why the woman who made the accusations retracted her story. This new report contains no further details on the salacious stories published in the Chicago Tribune and Hybels himself was not directly involved in the investigation. He had admitted to being "unwise" and has sought counselling, but his lack of transparency over specific accusations - where weight of evidence is against him - means many will assume the very worst.
3. Acknowledge Hybels is both gifted and flawed
Hybels was textbook in what he taught. There’s no reason to doubt his books and talks detailing his daily quiet times, journaling, listening to God, wise and faithful witness, setting aside time to host meals for non-believers, leading many people to faith. If I had 1% of his success evangelistically I would be thrilled. But it would seem that flaws in certain areas led to a pattern of behaviour that left unchallenged and unconfessed, damaged many.
We instinctively love to rejoice in how God has blessed people and learn from them. But every last one of them will know that they are broken. With the exception of Jesus, all our Bible heroes have flaws, and typically flaws shared on stage are carefully managed. That’s not to make us cynical, or dismissive, but to realise that there has always been one chief shepherd and without him we can do nothing. The branding and adulation is not always the fault of the perceived ‘hero’, but it may be more than they can ultimately bear, and mean they are a particular target for enemy attack.
When the news first broke some churches cancelled their hosting of the Global Leadership Summit. Did they think that somehow those speaking were sullied by these events: guilt by association? All of us face the daily challenges and temptations of walking with Christ and all of us minister in weakness, aware that it is sheer grace and the goodness of God who hides us in Christ that anyone is blessed at all and helped by anything we do. The Holy Spirit gloriously used and empowered Bill as he does all of us. And if by God’s grace our platform becomes larger and our responsibility greater we too will need his help and accountable structures to stay faithful.
4. Don't throw out his wise leadership principles
When one prominent church leader fell from grace his publisher stopped selling his books. But wise principles and godly wisdom still stand, whatever a proponent may subsequently do. For the wisdom was never actually Bill’s anyway! There are aspects of Bill Hybels’ leadership approach that I don’t like (I have detailed these in The Leadership Road Less Travelled). It did sound like a very corporate environment. But Bill’s exaltation of the importance of Christ centred leadership through the Global Leadership Summit can and must flourish if churches around the world are to stand against the myriad of challenges that come their way. And ironically if Bill had followed his own advice and teaching none of this would have happened. He penned a book, Who You Are When No One's Looking: Choosing Consistency, Resisting Compromise back in 1987. As the apostle Paul said: "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!" (1 Corinthians 10:12)