Willow Creek Community Church pastor, elder board to step down

Mass exodus follows sexual misconduct allegations against church’s founder

The Rev. Bill Hybels
The Rev. Bill Hybels

The lead pastor at South Barrington’s Willow Creek Community Church and the entire elder board will step down amid new sexual misconduct allegations leveled against church founder Bill Hybels.

In a statement published to Willow Creek’s website Wednesday, lead pastor Heather Larson said the evangelical megachurch needs a “fresh start.”

“The staff, this staff that I dearly love, they also need a clean running lane to heal, to build, to dream,” Larson said. “As hard as I have tried, I simply have not been able to get the momentum that we need to address the issues that need to be addressed and to bring about the fresh start.” 

Steve Gillen, lead pastor at Willow Creek’s North Shore branch, will step in as interim pastor.

“We are doing an unfortunate dance of grief and sadness,” Gillen said, “and I am praying for the day when we are overwhelmed with joy again.”

Willow Creek officials announced Monday that they will launch a new investigation into accusations that the Rev. Bill Hybels sexually harassed a congregant and women he worked with over many years.

The announcement followed a Sunday New York Times report detailing new accusations from Hybels’ former executive assistant, Pat Baranowski.

Now 65, she told The New York Times that Hybels sexually harassed her for two years.

The new allegations pushed Steve Carter, a lead teaching pastor at Willow Creek, to resign.

The allegations in the article left him no choice but to leave the church. 

“I cannot, in good conscience, appear before you as your lead teaching pastor when my soul is so at odds with the institution,” he wrote.

The first incident, Baranowski told the newspaper, happened in 1986, when Hybels allegedly offered to rub her back and instead straddled her, unhooked her bra and touched her near her breasts.

Hybels touched Baranowski inappropriately and rubbed against her multiple times over the next several months, she told The New York Times.

Baranowski, who lived with Hybels’ family in the 1980s, said the pastor’s wife and children were away when the alleged incident unfolded.

“The incidents later escalated to one occasion of oral sex,” New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein wrote. “Ms. Baranowski said she was mortified and determined to stay silent.”

Hybels denied the allegations.

“I never had an inappropriate physical or emotional relationship with her before that time, during that time or after that time,” he said in an email to The New York Times.

Church Elder Missy Rasmussen said in a statement that the “first wave” of elders will leave by Aug. 15.

“Today I stand before you broken. The Elder Board wants to express our deepest sadness around the events that have occurred over the past few months at our church. But to limit our sadness around these past few months is to not recognize the obviously painful events that have occurred over the past 40 years of our existence,” she said. “We are also deeply grieved about the new accusations that came to light this past weekend, and our collective hearts break for the pain that Ms. Baranowski has carried these many years.”

After The New York Times article that appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday edition, several speakers scheduled to attend the Global Leadership Summit, which is set to begin Thursday at Willow Creek, backed out – including Oscar winner Denzel Washington.

In addition, more than 100 churches called off plans to broadcast the event.

Hybels started the church in 1975 in Palatine. There are eight churches in the Chicago area, including one each in Crystal Lake and Huntley.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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