Willow Creek Community Church’s lead pastor and board of elders announced their resignations Wednesday over mishandling sexual harassment allegations concerning their former lead pastor.
Lead pastor Heather Larson and the board of elders said they would be out by the end of 2018 in light of mistakes they made in handling allegations of sexual harassment against former lead pastor and church founder Bill Hybels. Larson admitted that “trust has been broken by leadership,” especially with the women who brought forth accusations against Hybels, and apologized for the distrust with which leadership treated them. (RELATED: Founder Of One Of The Largest US Megachurches Resigns Over Sexual Misconduct Allegations)
“To all of the women who have come forward, the church should always follow in Jesus’ footsteps to help the wounded find healing, and we are sorry we added to your pain. That was not our intention, and we regret that it has taken us this long to acknowledge that. While we will probably never know with certainty everything that’s true about each of your stories, we have no reason not to believe you. We are sorry that our initial statements were so insensitive, defensive, and reflexively protective of Bill,” a statement from the church read.
Larson and the elders made their announcement and apologize just ahead of the church’s 23rd annual Global Leadership Summit, which has been marred by the scandal surrounding the church’s defense of Hybels. Over 100 churches canceled plans to broadcast the summit and several church leaders who were scheduled to speak at the event also backed out, according to The Associated Press.
Hybels resigned in April, saying that he had been naive about the nature of certain interactions he’d had with women over the years. He denied, however, the allegations of lewd comments, extended hugs, unwanted kissing, and of having a 14-year affair with a congregant while serving as pastor. Hybels claimed that the continued complaints were “a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years.”
Larson and the board of elders admitted Wednesday, however, that the church had not only treated Hybels’ accusers with distrust, but had also failed to properly investigate the accusations and had therefore allowed Hybels to operate without accountability.
“We trusted Bill, and this clouded our judgment,” elder Missy Rasmussen told the congregation, according to Christianity Today.
“We are sorry that we allowed Bill to operate without the kind of accountability that he should have had,” she added.
In light of the elders’ mistakes, Rasmussen said that the church deserved a new start.
“We, as a board, know Willow needs and deserves a fresh start, and the entire board will step down to create room for a new board,” she said. “This board replacement process will start promptly and proceed in waves to ensure an orderly transition, with all current Elders leaving by the end of the year.”
Larson announced her resignation the same night, but clarified that she was not giving up on the church, as it is ultimately in God’s hands, and urged congregants not to give up on the church either.
“The Chicagoland area needs Jesus, and our world needs Jesus. They desperately need people who will live and act like the Jesus we have taught about for the past 43 years. May it be true of us a hundred years from now too,” she said. “I love you, Willow Creek!”
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