Another pastor and every single member of the overseeing elder board at Willow Creek Church has resigned.
The months long fallout at the Chicago-area megachurch began in April after founder Bill Hybels resigned when women within the church, and former members, accused him of repeated sexual misconduct and harassment.
This week both lead Pastors Steve Carter and Heather Larson resigned saying the church needed new leadership.
“Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return quickly. There is urgency to move in a better direction,” said Pastor Heather Larson, who stepped down.
“God has been at work to help me put things in place, so I know this church is in good hands. The actions our elders announced tonight have been in the works for weeks. They have been diligently and humbly seeking God and asking Him to help us do the right thing,” Larson also said.
In a church meeting, Missy Rasmussen, an elder at Willow Creek for seven years, told her church family she is broken by all that has happened and that the Elder Board “wants to express our deepest sadness around the events that have occurred over the past few months at our church. But to limit our sadness around these past few months is to not recognize the obviously painful events that have occurred over the past 40 years of our existence.”
She says they are also “deeply grieved” over the latest accusations.
“These painful and troubling events have scarred these women, their families, and tarnished our church,” Rasmussen said.
She also said Steve Carter worked with the board, before he resigned, toward establishing an independent investigation and transparency with the multiple sexual abuse allegations against Hybels.
“We invited Steve to participate in setting up an outside, impartial investigation council, and we reached alignment with Steve in many areas,” she said. “There were also other requests Steve made that we were not able to accommodate, and in the end, he felt he needed to leave Willow. We wish Steve and his family all the best in the next chapter of their lives.”
Rasmussen went on to say Carter’s leadership, teaching and shepherding of their congregation will be missed.
She also elaborated on the entire board’s decision to resign.
“We are grateful to serve a God of truth, justice, grace, and mercy in equal measure. God uses broken people to do His work and forgives freely all who come to Him with a repentant heart,” she explained to her church family. “To that end, our entire Elder Board has had to come to grips with the areas of our hearts, minds, and souls that blinded us to the pain and suffering of the women and their advocates. We ask forgiveness from God, our congregation, the women, their advocates, and those who have been calling us to repent.”
She also told the congregation that they did take their spiritual oversight responsibility seriously and attempted to challenge Hybels on his actions and behaviors, but made it clear they weren’t made aware of “many choices he made in private and therefore did not hold him accountable in meaningful ways.”
“While Bill Hybels was our founder and pastor, he was human, broken, and self-admittedly sinful. We believe that his sins were beyond what he previously admitted on stage, and certainly we believe that his actions with these women were sinful,” Rasmussen said. “We believe he did not receive feedback as well as he gave it, and he resisted the accountability structures we all need.”
She said when the first accusations came to light in 2014 the board took it seriously and investigated internally even though they thought the allegations “seemed out of character.”
“We can now see this investigation was flawed. It focused on whether there was definitive evidence of an affair rather than whether Bill’s actions were above reproach,” she went on to say.
“We viewed the allegations through the lens of trust we had in Bill, and this clouded our judgment, which resulted in us not acting quickly enough to secure and examine his devices and in us allowing him to have counseling conversations with the woman who was the subject of the first investigation. Heather, Steve, the executive team, and lead pastors trusted our process and publicly stood behind the work we had done. This caused people to question their integrity, and for putting them in this position, we are so sorry,” she stated.
Steve Gillen will serve as Willow Creek’s interim pastor to help build a new pastoral team according to Larson. She said he’s been a part of many of the church’s ministries and regional campuses through times of transition.
He told the church, “These are tough days, Willow, and we desperately need each other to get through them. May we come together, lean into God and seek Him for guidance.”
“We are doing an unfortunate dance of grief and sadness, and I am praying for the day when we are overwhelmed with joy again,” Gillen said.
“The church is the Bride of Christ, and this church is dearly loved by God—it deserves our very best through the good and bad times. I pray that we can come together and do the hard, and much needed, work of reflection, repentance, and healing,” he told his church family.
“God is not giving up on this church. He created it. He has always been faithful to it. So, I ask you not to give up on it either,” Larson concluded in her statement before the church. “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.”