The Chicago Tribune set off a #ChurchToo tsunami last week when it ran a lengthy story (I counted 6,096 words) about the revered pastor of Willow Creek Church, a megachurch and global parachurch ministry hub northwest of the city.
Those of us on the beat were commenting on it almost as soon as the mega-story came out. It was clear to several of us that a ton of work that had gone into this piece and that reporters Manya Brachear Pashman and Jeff Coen must have been working on it for a long time.
Obviously, people have been talking about this situation for some time. The story begins:
Last October, the Rev. Bill Hybels stood before worshippers at his packed sanctuary and made a stunning announcement. After 42 years building northwest suburban Willow Creek Community Church into one of the nation’s most iconic and influential churches, Hybels was planning to step down as senior pastor.
“I feel released from this role,” he said, adding that he felt called to build on Willow Creek's reach across 130 countries with a focus on leadership development, particularly in the poorest regions of the world…
What much of the church didn’t know was that Hybels had been the subject of inquiries into claims that he ran afoul of church teachings by engaging in inappropriate behavior with women in his congregation -- including employees -- allegedly spanning decades. The inquiries had cleared Hybels, and church leaders said his exit had nothing to do with the allegations.
What follows is a step-by-step recitation of what Hybels was accused of, plus the fact that these accusations have been swirling for at least four years. What was also intriguing is that within hours of the Tribune’s story, Christianity Today, which is headquartered in Chicago’s western suburbs, had its own highly detailed story up on its site.
To have their own investigation –- written by religion beat pro Bob Smietana -- at the ready tells me one thing: If CT was onto this, then a lot of people knew about these rumors and have known about them for some time.
I’ve done my share of investigations into the sexual escapades of church leaders and one thing I’ve learned after several decades: When church members feel something is getting swept under the rug and that nothing’s being done about it, they’ll go to the secular media. I’m guessing that the two reporters did not approach Willow Creek on a whim. People approached them.
The crux of this massive story was a long sit-down interview the reporters had with Hybels early last week. With his responses in hand, the paper decided it could finally run the story. The best quotes were from female staff.
Many of the women who spoke with the Tribune were loath to come forward. … But when they heard there were other women who had similar stories to tell, even in the last year, they said their silence could not last.
“That was a bit of a tipping point for me,” said Nancy Beach, the church’s first female teaching pastor and a prominent leader in the evangelical community. She recounted more than one conversation or interaction she felt was inappropriate during moments alone with Hybels over the years.
“He changed my life. I wouldn’t have the opportunities I’ve had,” she added. “I know that. I’m very clear on that. I credit him for that. But then there’s this other side.”
This “other side” was chronicled quite extensively in the piece.
Some of the most telling anecdotes about Hybels’ alleged sexual come-ons were told by women who never reported them because they felt no one would believe them. Later on in the piece, there’s a mysterious third woman who came forward with some explicit information about trysts she’d had with Hybels -- but who changed her story when asked to tell elders about the situation.
If anything, that snafu convinced me that these women were telling the truth. I know how tough it is to come forward in a church situation when you’ve got nothing to gain from talking about it and the accused is a beloved pastor. And I’ve worked on stories where I had sources who were ready to come forward, then chickened out at the last minute.
The elders at Willow Creek have fought back and in one paragraph quoted by Christianity Today, said they knew Hybels’ accusers have “aggressively shopped the story to multiple media outlets.”
Last I looked, it was mainly the Tribune and Christianity Today -- the logical local news operations -- that have significant stories on this. Most of what’s in other media are rewrites.
A follow-up piece ran on Saturday in the Tribune. The following gives you a whiff of the temper of this meeting:
The congregation of northwestern suburban Willow Creek Community Church gave the Rev. Bill Hybels a standing ovation Friday after he addressed allegations of improper behavior with women reported Thursday in the Chicago Tribune.
During a two-hour gathering that the church called a “family meeting,” Hybels, alongside a current and former elder, walked members through three inquiries overseen by elders over the last four years, all of which cleared Hybels of misconduct.
“The accusations you hear in the Tribune are just flat-out lies,” Hybels told the packed sanctuary. He said he’s not sure he will be able to repair the strained relationships with former leaders who are pushing for more scrutiny.
The response reminds me of how a Memphis church rallied around its pastor, Andy Savage, not long ago after he was accused of sexual wrongdoing. What angered a lot of folks was not so much his confession, but the fact that his congregation gave him a standing ovation. I wrote about that in January. Savage announced this past week he was resigning.
So, when Hybels said he wasn’t going anywhere until his retirement date in October, guess what happened?
“I was not afraid to come to this meeting tonight,” he said. “I know the heart of this church. I knew that you would give all of us an even hearing. You wouldn’t rush to judgment.
“I will do my level best if you allow me to continue to serve here until October when I will retire,” he said, bringing the audience to its feet with applause. “I’m going to serve my heart out.”
The resemblance to the standing ovation in Memphis is creepy.
Do read these stories, as investigative work on religion is very rare these days -- with newsroom staffs stretched thin and fewer senior editors willing to invest in professional religion-beat work. If the Bill Hybels and Andy Savage stories are any indication, such work is needed more than ever.