Willow Creek Association President Tom De Vries apologized Thursday at the Global Leadership Summit for the “missteps, mistakes, slip-ups, blunders” made in not condemning sooner the alleged actions of Willow Creek Community Church founder Bill Hybels.
De Vries also encouraged leadership partners to help build constructive dialogue in charting a path forward.
On April 10, after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct, Hybels resigned as pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and from his position as chair of the board of directors of the Willow Creek Association which produces the annual Global Leadership Summit.
In a statement described as a “family conversation” at the start of the summit at the megachurch Thursday, De Vries reiterated that Hybels’ connection to the organization since his resignation had been severed and admitted “we could and should have done better.”
“Bill’s engagement with the summit and the Willow Creek Association has been severed,” he said.
“There is no map for the journey we’ve been on. We’ve had missteps, mistakes, slip-ups, blunders not condemning Bills actions to a greater degree and more publicly; not showing more support to the women who courageously came forward with their concerns; perpetuating a narrative of false allegations and collusions. We are sorry for the places where we could and should have done better,” De Vries said in a recording of his remarks at the summit.
He explained that the Hybels scandal created “tremendous turmoil” for the summit and the Willow Creek family.
About two weeks before the start of the summit, the organization announced that they had suffered a loss of 111 host sites as a direct result of the sexual misconduct allegations that led to Hybels’ resignation.
Weeks before that, in early July, three major speakers slated for the summit also dropped out of the event. Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington, Pastor A.R. Bernard of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York, and Lisa Bodell, founder and CEO of Futurethink all pulled out on principle as some critics argued that the summit should have been suspended this year.
De Vries noted that he and his team have been trying to handle concerns from partners privately and thanked those who supported the event this year.
“We have purposely tried to not navigate this situation publicly. We’ve worked to be transparent with our host sites, with our Global Leadership Summit partners who journeyed with us faithfully during these 20 weeks,” he said.
Some host sites in New York City said they were instructed to keep media away from the summit and no recording of any kind would be allowed.
“Along with me our team has spent hundreds of hours on the phone and in video conferences and through email answering questions and inquiries and being as open and transparent as possible,” De Vries said. “We’ve reached out to have open dialogue and conversations with those who shared these concerns and their experiences. It’s an effort that I have made personally and as recently as yesterday. And would hope that in the days ahead the response and requests extended to sit down and talk this through in a more honest and helpful way will be honored.”
“We’re still in the middle of a very difficult and demanding set of circumstances. The accusations and allegations need to be pursued in order to acknowledge wrongdoing, misconduct and even abuse where applicable,” he added.
In the wake of the scandal, De Vries said the Willow Creek Association was committed to establishing an independent leadership advisory council to provide oversight for an independent investigation and helping to create “an environment that can be helpful in the dialogue regarding power dynamics.”
“… Women and men in the marketplace and in the church and how these dynamics impact gender equality, gender bias, and the glass ceiling. Leaders are learners and we are learners just like you,” De Vries said.
He noted that social justice advocate Danielle Strickland would speak to the audience that morning about power dynamics and “how the relationships between men and women are eroding, marked by suspicion, confusion, pain, suffering and a whole lot of ambiguity about what to do at this time.”
A commitment was also made to develop future opportunities for growth and learning on the issue of power dynamics as it relates to gender and inequality.
“The Global Leadership Summit has a track record of dealing with the issues of the day head on. Whether it’s HIV/AIDS, global poverty, racial reconciliation or refugees, we’ll invite those that are on the forefront of this movement of social change in order to assist in providing help and healing and offering ways for businesses and churches and organizations to be proactive, to power, gender and inequality dynamics,” he said.
De Vries further noted that among the reasons the summit did not take a pause, as suggested by some critics this year, is the teaching moment that could be missed at an event that is predominantly supported by women.
“Why have we chosen this pathway forward rather than stand on the sideline or take a pause? I believe the task of leadership is to step up, step out, engage and equip. To inspire and call out the best in others in order to make a difference for good and for God in our world. The future destiny of thousands of women around the world can be impacted through their learning experience at the Global Leadership Summit. Over these two days more than 50 percent, 57 percent to be exact, of those attending this summit are women,” he said.
“By sitting in your seat this year, we praise God for that. … By sitting in your seat this year, you help to make a difference globally, especially in the lives of women as we expanded to 135 countries. We’re in 23 of the 25 poorest countries in the world and many of those countries marginalize, disregard and dishonor women,” De Vries explained.
“I hope you will join us in providing heartfelt compassion to the hurting, to those who are harassed and helpless and whom we know Jesus had a heart for. And also unconditional grace to all of us who have fallen and are broken. We all need to be voices of healing, repairers of the breach, givers of grace and raising the standards in showing honor and in speaking the truth in love.”