The voices of those accusing are not people with a grudge against Hybels but folks who have been part of the core and center of the Willow Creek ministry and association of churches for a very long time. There have been investigations and so far no charges seem to have stuck but the number of allegations and the individuals who are raising them is not going to go away soon.According to a report in Christianity Today Online: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or harmed, your pain matters—to us and to God,” the suburban Chicago megachurch posted on its Facebook page, along with details about how to get help. A handful of Willow Creek’s female leaders, including cofounder Lynne Hybels, also joined the Silence Is Not Spiritual campaign, calling on evangelical churches to stand up for women who had experienced sexual harassment and sexual violence.Now the megachurch may have a #ChurchToo problem, one that pits cofounder Bill Hybels against some of his longtime friends. A group of former pastors and staff members has accused Hybels of a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct, the Chicago Tribune reported tonight.
Why does this matter? First of all, the church, founded in the Willow Creek Theater in Barrington, Illinois, is an evangelical powerhouse with a worship attendance of more than 25,000 and an association that has cultivated all kinds of leadership programs and publishing encouraging other congregations to follow its lead. Clearly the ripples extend well beyond the congregation itself. So many have held up Willow Creek as a model organization that this will a difficult stain upon its reputation and influence to disregard. On top of that, the retirement of the founding pastor and its central personality is always a test for megachurches and will certainly be one for Willow Creek.
That said, there is a central weakness in non-denominational mega churches that cannot be denied. While it is certainly related to succession and the continued success of the enterprise as a whole, it is also related to the fact that most of their boards and governing structures are self-sustaining and tend to be populated by people who support the status quo. There is little in the way of independent authority with the stature to challenge major leaders like Hybels when charges or allegations threaten. We have already seen this happen in other similar churches time and time again. While some are quick to condemn denominations and jurisdictional structures, they offer at least the real potential of holding church leaders accountable -- even charismatic and larger than life figures. It is no guarantee that things will not go wrong (as they certainly did for the Roman Catholic Church and the priest abuse scandal) but it is more likely that the wrongs will be acknowledged and remedied when there are independent authorities in the church to hold people accountable.