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Hybels Heir Quits Willow as New Accusations Arise Before Global Leadership Summit

Teaching pastor Steve Carter resigns after New York Times article; GLS had already lost 111 host sites.
Hybels Heir Quits Willow as New Accusations Arise Before Global Leadership Summit
Image: Hybels: Mary Fairchild / Flickr; Carter: Willow Creek

[Updated Monday, August 6, with Heather Larson email to Willow Creek members.]

Steve Carter, teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, resigned Sunday after new allegations surfaced against founding pastor Bill Hybels.

Carter, one of Hybels’s two successors at Willow, had previously apologized for the church’s handling of accusations against Hybels, who resigned earlier this year after allegations of misconduct.

Earlier on Sunday, one of Hybels’s former assistants accused the Willow Creek founder of repeatedly groping her. Pat Baranowski told The New York Times that Hybels allegedly touched her breasts repeatedly and rubbed against her, had oral sex with her on one occasion, and once asked her to watch porn with him as a research project.

Baranowski told her therapist about the incidents, according to the Times. She also told another pastor at the church, but asked him to keep silent until now. She is the tenth woman to accuse Hybels of misconduct.

Hybels told the Times that the allegations were not true.

“I never had an inappropriate physical or emotional relationship with her before that time, during that time or after that time,” he told the Times in an email.

Those accusations were the last straw for Carter.

“The new facts and allegations that came to light this morning are horrifying, and my heart goes out to Ms. Baranowski and her family for the pain they have lived with,” he wrote on his blog, announcing his resignation. “These most recent revelations have also compelled me to make public my decision to leave, as much as it grieves me to go.”

In a Monday email to the Willow church family, lead pastor Heather Larson—Hybels’s co- successor alongside Carter—responded to the Times article. “As I read the words, I was heartbroken, and I felt deep sadness for Ms. Baranowski. This was new information, and I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for her,” she wrote.

Regarding Carter’s resignation, Larson wrote, “We had been processing together with Steve for a few weeks, and our team was hoping and working towards a different outcome.” She acknowledged that many members have questions. “We will give you a fuller update as soon as we can, and I know it is urgent.”

The new allegations and Carter’s resignation come days before the annual Global Leadership Summit (GLS), which opens this week at Willow Creek and simulcasts worldwide.

Hybels’s shadow lingers over the event, since he hosted the GLS for more than two decades. The controversy over his past conduct has led to more than 100 churches and other organizations canceling their plans to host a GLS viewing site.

Tom DeVries, president and CEO of the Willow Creek Association (WCA) which runs the GLS, is expected to make a statement about Hybels at the start of the summit.

Author and activist Danielle Strickland is also scheduled to speak about “creating a healthy work environment for men and women.”

So far, 111 host sites for the GLS had canceled, in advance of today’s developments. Sixty-seven of those were sites that have hosted the summit in the past. The rest were new sites that would have been hosting for the first time.

The summit will also be simulcast into more than 60 prisons, according to the GLS. Churches and other groups can also sign up for “private views”—a simulcast of the event for a small group.

All told, there will be 690 host sites for the summit, according to the GLS. Churches or other groups can also sign up for a livestream of the event, meant for a senior pastor or a few staffers. About 50 groups have signed up for the livestream so far.

Some churches have changed from being a “premiere hosting site”—open to the public—to private viewings.

That was the case for the Traverse City, Michigan, campus of Kensington Church. The simulcast there won’t be open to the public, but will be available to staff and key volunteers, the church told CT in an email.

Other churches have canceled outright, including Vineyard Cincinnati Church, an Ohio megachurch.

“After much thought and prayer, we have decided that Vineyard Cincinnati Church will not be a host site of the [GLS] this year,” the church said in a message on its website announcing its decision. “We are reminded from Scripture that God calls us to defend the vulnerable—the orphan, the widow, the oppressed, and those who suffer under the misuse of power.”

Bill Clark, pastor of Redeemer Covenant Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said their church staff decided to take a break from hosting the GLS this year. They were disappointed in how the allegations against Hybels were handled—and wondered if being associated with Willow Creek might hurt their congregation’s reputation.

Too many questions about what happened at Willow Creek remain, said Clark.

On a personal level, Clark said he was saddened by what happened at Willow Creek. And he’s lost confidence in the church’s ability to host a leadership conference.

“It seemed hypocritical of us to endorse a leadership training model that was incubated in a climate of sexual harassment and sexual impropriety,” he said. “I know there is a separation between the summit and Willow Creek. But we could not distinguish between the two.”

Scot McKnight, author, blogger, and professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, says the GLS’s credibility has been undermined by the Hybels controversy. In a blog post from earlier this summer, he said that Willow Creek’s response to the accusations against Hybels had done long-term damage.

“What I do know is this: Bill Hybels and Willow Creek’s leadership have undone 40 years of trust for many,” he wrote. [Update: On Monday, he called for current leaders to be replaced.]

McKnight, who attended Willow Creek for a number of years, told CT that Willow leaders and GLS leaders need to confess their failings, and admit that the church allowed Hybels’s misconduct to go on for far too long.

Without that, he said, the leadership conference has no moral authority.

“The GLS cannot with Christian moral integrity move on with this conference without confessing, apologizing, and then dealing with the women’s accusations,” he said. “To host a conference connected to Bill Hybels without doing that is unacceptable.”

When allegations against Hybels first became public, Willow labeled the accusations against their founder as “all lies” spread by former staff members, who the church said had organized a campaign to damage Hybels.

Since then, Willow Creek has walked back from those claims. In late June, Carter had issued an apology for the way the church handled the accusations.

“I wish I had done more to prevent the hurtful statements that were made, and to advocate more forcefully for what I believe would have been a more humble and biblical approach,” he wrote on his blog.

Larson also previously issued an apology of her own. Willow Creek’s elders also admitted that Hybels was guilty of wrongdoing.

“We are grieved that we let Bill’s statement stand for as long as we did that the women were lying and colluding,” the elders said. “We now believe Bill entered into areas of sin related to the allegations that have been brought forth.”

Willow Creek leaders told their congregation they would consult with outside experts on how to deal with the accusations against Hybels. So far, they have declined requests for an independent, third-party investigation. On Monday, Larson told members that such an investigation would now take place, reported the Chicago Tribune.

Carter’s decision today was appreciated by one Hybels accuser: Vonda Dyer, a former Willow employee. “I deeply respect Steve Carter for taking a stand of integrity in this situation that could have been avoided entirely if Bill Hybels would have admitted his sin and if the church had taken swift action to hold him accountable,” she told CT.

For now, plans for the GLS—to be held August 9-10—are moving forward.

DeVries declined to comment for this story. However, in an email to host sites, he said that he’d reached out to the women who have accused Hybels of misconduct. And he made it clear that there are no plans for Hybels to return to the summit in the future.

“We’re hopeful that through the power of the Holy Spirit, all parties involved in that matter will experience God’s intervention and healing,” he wrote. “But I want to be clear that there is no roadmap in place for Bill to return to WCA or the Summit. Bill has never suggested or asked for that, either.”

One of the nation’s largest congregations, Life.Church, is standing by the GLS. Pastor Craig Groeschel will speak twice at the summit, filling a slot that had traditionally been filled by Hybels.

“Craig is honored to serve as a speaker at the [GLS]. The [WCA] asked if Craig could speak an additional time at the summit this year, and he is happy to do it,” said Rachel Feuerborn, a spokesperson for the church, in an email.

Carter said that he and the elders disagree about how Willow Creek can move forward. He said that he had thought about resigning weeks ago, but held off. Until Sunday’s allegations.

“At this point, however, 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.

In her Monday email, Larson stated the events of the past few months “feel overwhelming and deeply sad,” yet “God is still God, and I believe he will guide.”

“I know that God is not done with our church, though, and he promises each of us a hope and a future,” she wrote. “He is still at work, and we will follow where he leads. Let’s pray desperately and fervently.”

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