For the past twenty-five years, Rev. Bill Hybels has enjoyed world-wide fame as the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago.
Hybels pioneered the “seeker sensitive” method for church growth. Willow Creek used contemporary music, drama, and sermons aimed at both Christians and those interested in the Christian faith in order to grow from 200 to over 20,000 attendees each week. Almost everyone – at least in Evangelical and Mainline Protestant America – knows who Bill Hybels is.
But Hybels accomplishments as pastor of Willow Creek are threatening to be washed away by claims of sexual harassment by at least seven women. What makes this case especially interesting is the absence of any suggestions of adultery. Each of the women makes the same basic charge: Hybels insisted on meeting them alone. Sometimes they met in hotel rooms, on his yacht, at his vacation house and even at his home. All the women agree on something else as well: During these meetings, Hybels engaged in inappropriate conversations, often sexual in nature.
Maureen Girkins, the former head of Zondervan publishing company, provides several examples. Hybels told her that if Zondervan wanted to publish his books, then she had to accompany him on his private jet to work on the contract. When Girkins asked if her husband could accompany them, Hybels refused. Hybels followed up with one-on-one meetings at his beach house, on his yacht, on his jet or at restaurants near the beach house. Girkins detailed one encounter in which Hybels “docked his boat at a slip near her home in Michigan and asked her to pick up a bottle of wine and some dinner. He also asked her to keep the meeting secret." She too says that he spoke in sexually inappropriate ways at these meetings.
In his defense, Hybels could argue that since he had not had any sexual contact with these women, he had done nothing wrong. The private meetings were for business purposes. Even if the conversations sometimes drifted to topics outside of business, nothing had actually happened.
Still, you have to wonder what Hybels was thinking. His position of senior pastor at Willow Creek gave him enormous power and influence. Few women, particularly a client like Girkins, would refuse a meeting alone. With that kind of power comes responsibility. And for a Christian minister that means being above reproach. Clearly, Hybels violated that qualification for leadership which Paul sets forth in the epistle to Timothy: church leaders must be above reproach.
Mike Pence was derided for his “rule.” He never meets with a woman alone. But Billy Graham had the same policy. Graham made sure that everyone knew that was his policy. And in his 75 years of public ministry Graham never had even the slightest whiff of scandal. I am certain that Bill Hybels knew this. But he apparently ignored it.
The elders at Willow Creek have announced that they will conduct a thorough investigation of the charges. Hybels has taken retirement six months before he intended to. His legacy will never be the same. He should have adopted the Pence rule.