Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the most basic facts.
When I was teaching at Denver Seminary in the early 1990s, the Denver area was in the middle of a remarkable boom era for evangelical megachurches. There were congregations that -- in the space of 12 months or so -- attracted several thousand members.
During a classroom discussion one day. a student from overseas (I think it was Russia) asked an interesting question: Why are there no old, unattractive, balding superchurch pastors? Why are they all young, super attractive and really funny? And how can you be a pastor when you have 7,000 members or more? Were these men pastors or celebrities?
The Americans laughed, but the laughter was rather weak.
I thought about that exchange when I was reading some of the early coverage of the latest scene in the ongoing drama of the Rev. Bill Hybels and the massive Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago.
Obviously, Hybels is more than a pastor who founded a giant evangelical megachurch 42 years ago. He is the creator of what amounts to a new Protestant mini-denomination -- more than a mere parachurch network. He has been a hero -- a celebrity -- among moderate evangelicals who want to make sure that the world understands that they aren't like all of those other tacky evangelicals.
There's a reason that GetReligionista Julia Duin's original #ChurchToo post about the accusations against Hybels has attracted nearly 18,000 readers.
With all that in mind, let me say something very obvious about the main news reports about the Hybels resignation.
These stories are, as a rule, long, detailed and full of nuance. In other words, look at the bylines on the following stories in the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and the hard-news website at Christianity Today. This is what happens when newsrooms give veteran religion-beat professionals room to cover an important story.
I am sure that partisans in this debate will have strong opinions about parts of these stories. But, let's face it: There are lots of voices and points of view in these reports. You can sense the pain and convictions on both sides. This is why editors need to hire religion-beat pros. Period.
At the Tribune, here is a key passage from the report by Manya Brachear Pashman and Jeff Coen:
At times choking back tears, Hybels told the somber crowd at a hastily called meeting at the church’s main campus in South Barrington that, while he continued to enjoy support from within his congregation, the controversy was proving to be a distraction from the church’s mission and work.
Referring to his wife, he said, “It has been extremely painful for Lynne and I to see this controversy continue to be a distraction.”
He also announced that he would not lead the church’s Global Leadership Summit, an annual event featuring leaders from business, government, entertainment and churches hosted by the Willow Creek Association, a nonprofit dedicated to leadership development, where Hybels had planned to focus his energy after retirement.
While saying he believes he has been cleared of all of the accusations, he apologized to the church for how he handled himself. He said he regretted that he reacted in anger when the accusations were made public.
“I apologize to you, my church, for a response that was defensive instead of one that invited conversation and learning,” he said.
Hybels had previously called the allegations against him “flat-out lies.”
The Tribune, of course, published the original Hybels investigation, which led to a remarkable series of events (see video at top of this post for a sample) in which Willow Creek leaders offered their side of the story -- including information about inquiries that cleared Hybels.
Since evangelicals are in the news these days, for political reasons, I wondered where some news organizations would play Hybels connect to an earlier #MeToo era. At the Washington Post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey (a former GetReligion writer, who also has experience at Christianity Today) managed to get the Beltway angle at the very top of the story:
Prominent pastor Bill Hybels announced Tuesday he is stepping down from his Chicago-area megachurch Willow Creek, just weeks after the Chicago Tribune published allegations of misconduct from several women. Hybels, who with his wife co-founded one of the nation’s largest churches in 1975, was a spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton around the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
He told the church publicly last year that he was planning to step down in October, but he resigned Tuesday, saying he would be a distraction to the church’s ministry. Some members of his congregation shouted “No!” and gave him a standing ovation following his address.
The stories surrounding Hybels have been part of a series of recent high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct among evangelical leaders.
As always, note that this is a story about a giant church that is, in effect, policing itself. How does that work?
As is often the case, the final court is in the press. Things go better when the reporters doing the coverage know the ropes.