Today, Ann Lindberg, a longtime member of Willow Creek Community Church, posted the following account on Facebook, accusing Bill Hybel’s mentor, Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, of clergy sexual abuse. Bilezikian, often referred to as “Dr. B,” was a co-founder of Willow Creek. A Christianity Today article in 2000 referred to Bilezikian as “the man behind the megachurch” and asserted that without him, “there would be no Willow Creek–no small, groups, no women in leadership, no passion for service.” Bilezikian also was a Bible professor at Wheaton College for 20 years. (I actually had him for a class when I attended Wheaton in the 1980s.) And he helped found Christians for Biblical Equality, an organization created “to eliminate the power imbalance between men and women resulting from theological patriarchy.” Here is Ann’s story. (I am reaching out to those whom she’s named for their response and will add that if/when they respond.):
I’m writing to tell the story of my victimization by Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, who was Bill Hybels’ professor and mentor, and was very influential in the development of Willow Creek Community Church. This is a story I take no pleasure in telling. I have waited a very long time and been in numerous private meetings with Willow leadership and others since 2010 and accomplished very little to date. It is my hope it is not too late for Willow, that the die is not yet cast with no hope for rebirth. So many truths are still concealed. My goal is for Willow leadership to finally be ready to repent, apologize specifically to the survivors from the Willow stage, and to make sweeping structural change within to prevent this from ever happening again.
I mention many names throughout this post, and I realize that I am telling my story, my truth, about my experience without the covering of a lawyer. This is a risk that opens me up to hate letters and perhaps the threats that other Willow victims have gotten, and yet it is still the right thing to do. It seems impossible to keep this short, as I have 35 years of journals, postcards and emails, like an octopus with many different tentacles and sources, spanning from 1984-2019 at Willow Creek Community Church. For that reason, I will summarize but can supply more details to those who request it. I started attending Willow in 1984 vulnerable and heartbroken new believer, and grew to become a weekly attender involved in various volunteer and leadership programs.
From October 1984 to 1988, Dr. Bilezikian pursued an inappropriate relationship with me. It began with subtle flirtations after weekend services, and grew to include hand holding, emotional sharing and intimacy, kissing and fondling, and pressure to have sex. Dr. Bilezikian confided about his unhappy marriage, his lack of joy, and desire for a better partnership. He told me I was the type of woman he wished he had married instead of his wife Maria. I was young in my faith, new to church, and hungry for someone to invest spiritually in me. He made me feel special, and he was a spiritual authority in a large church, and I did not feel like I could say no to him, even when my gut was telling me this was not appropriate.
One night, as we were walking to my car, he turned around in a hallway, pushed me hard against a wall, grabbed a breast and stuck his tongue down my throat. I pushed back, in complete disbelief, but he began skipping down the stairs like a child. Other times, we would meet during the day time and take walks down the Wheaton prairie paths or around Wheaton’s small downtown streets. He would warn me that no one could see us together, that it would ruin his reputation, yet in the next moment, he would shove me into the doorway of a storefront or behind a truck and begin wildly kissing me. I would push him away. When we walked down the prairie paths, he would reach for my hand, my waist, and other places.
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He told me he was very depressed and that being with me gave him energy and hope. He told me that he felt he could help the church thrive because I made him happy. This put an enormous and confusing pressure on me to allow the “affair “(clergy abuse) to continue, because I did not want to hurt the church or him. I would ask him to attend marital counseling, he would tell me it was too late; he was trapped and would never be able to divorce Maria and still preach. I would ask him to get into a men’s group. He said he didn’t like men. I would suggest he get individual counseling. He would refuse; it was too late; he was too old. I would ask him to talk with Bill Hybels. He said Bill would never understand. He told me I was the only one in the world he could really talk to, that everyone else had an agenda. He knew how to manipulate my weaknesses, and I honestly believed that I was the only one who could help him.
I didn’t know what to do. I felt trapped. I didn’t want to continue as things were, but wondered if this was my purpose in life, to support him so that he could keep Willow Creek alive and growing, as I had been told. I was too naïve to figure out there was no way God wanted that for me, no way to maintain the “friendship” in a godly way, and that that had never been Dr. Bilezikian’s intent. I believe we would have had sex if I had allowed it, but I think he was very good at reading people and knew just how far he could push me before I would stop having anything to do with him.[pullquote]I didn’t know what to do. I felt trapped. I didn’t want to continue as things were, but wondered if this was my purpose in life, to support him so that he could keep Willow Creek alive and growing, as I had been told.[/pullquote]He said I was too analytical and should just let God take control of my life. This confused me, because my spiritual life felt like it was growing stronger all the time. I now think what he really meant was that he was frustrated he couldn’t get physically farther with me than he did, he would just like me to give into emotion and go with it. Things were on and off again for many years.
Then I met my husband, Mark. We were married in 2006. It wasn’t until 2010 that I felt strong enough to begin to confront the spiritual abuse I’d experienced so early in my faith. I was also worried that there were other women who had been harmed in similar ways over the years.
Mark and I went together to Willow to talk with two of the Elder’s Assistants, Scott Vaudrey and Chris Hurta about Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian and the abuse I’d experienced. Sadly, the result of those early 2010 meetings were disappointing. I did not feel taken terribly seriously and, quite the contrary, that Dr.B’s inappropriateness had been minimized.
They said that since it didn’t lead to physically having sex, the issue of concern didn’t need to go further than that meeting. I asked if they thought there could be more people out there who had been taken advantage of in a similar way, Scott said he was confident there were not. Dr. Bilezikian and I had agreed to meet for lunch so that I could talk with him about all that had occurred and where I was at with it. I needed to confront him in order for me to 2 heal. But before we met, he initiated an email exchange that resulted in my expressing the transgressions to him. First, he said he had no recollection and had disgust for such people, would never have behaved like that. Then fragments of memory came back to him.[pullquote]They said that since it didn’t lead to physically having sex, the issue of concern didn’t need to go further than that meeting.[/pullquote]Bottom line was, no remorse, no repentance, no apology. He attempted to turn the tables on me by telling me the Biblical mandate for handling conflicts one on one, and he would not respond to any more emails unless I put “agreed to meet” in the subject line. That was the moment I saw clearly how predatory his behavior was.
My body began paying the price for so many years of stress, fear and abuse. I struggled to sleep, felt anxious and in pain most days, and was subsequently diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, C-PTSD, GAD, and Depression. In 2011, Mark and I met again with Chris Hurta and the Elder Response Team and talked further about Dr. B. and his effect on my health, life and marriage. Nothing came of it, other than some vague threats if I were to discuss my experience publicly in order to be able to continue to serve and attend there. I could lose my positions of leadership in ministries I volunteered in, or could be asked not to attend altogether. They did not want me to become divisive.
From then up to 2016, I was constantly and quietly criticized, rejected in leadership, accused falsely of wrong-doing and even had one of the security guards watching me while I was at church. I feel stalked and pushed out and pressured. False stories were spread about me to others and there were warnings put in my file, (yes, they had a file they kept to document me.) They wanted me to go through a weekly “rehabilitation” to teach me to think more like Willow’s version of Christlikeness. I did not want to gossip and I was not ready to go public about Dr. B., so I suffered in silence and tears alone. I was removed from leadership in a ministry I loved. I was told that my husband could continue to serve and that they would “partner him with a suitable woman so they could serve together in my place.” My husband refused to do this and we both stepped out of that ministry.[pullquote]They wanted me to go through a weekly “rehabilitation” to teach me to think more like Willow’s version of Christlikeness. I did not want to gossip and I was not ready to go public about Dr. B., so I suffered in silence and tears alone. [/pullquote]In 2016, I felt like I’d exhausted all the streams of accountability that I could find within the structure of Willow. I called Steve Carter in desperation and told him the bare bones of what is going on with my being sidelined from leadership and serving. I left out the part about Dr. B, for now. Steve, in his kindness, set up a meeting with the people involved in the attacks on me. They told him I was never under any censure, that there was no probation. It was not the truth, but it presented as such. Steve had tried to find reconciliation for me and I appreciated his gesture and his support, but it didn’t change what continued to happen to me for the rest of the year. He had no authority in the church outside of preaching, a fact I did not realize at the time.
In 2017, Mark and I had another meeting with Chris Hurta and Scott Vaudrey. I was feeling at the end of my rope with so many things that have happened to me over the last few years, and I thought I needed some form of closure. I brought proof with me that 3rd time, three original postcards from Dr. B. and a letter he left in a book for me. I took photos of these, which I include below. I am very glad I did take those photos, because in the meeting I gave them to Scott, trusting that he would take them to the elders on my behalf. He took them.
In 2018, my husband and I again talked with Steve Carter. I told him everything this time. It felt like another burden off my shoulders, although it unfortunately left it on the shoulders of Steve, Heather, Bill and the Elders. Steve reacted with his characteristic kindness, concern, respect and alarm, which I appreciated. After we spoke, Steve immediately went to Scott Vaundrey to alert him to the emergency, assuming that no one knew yet. Surely, he later said, had they known I would have been pastored and cared for better. But Scott and Heather Larson responded by saying they already knew.[pullquote]Surely, he later said, had they known I would have been pastored and cared for better. But Scott and Heather Larson responded by saying they already knew.[/pullquote]Soon after, Mark and I met with Steve Carter, Heather Larson, Scott Vaudrey, and Chirs Hurta. In the meeting, they told me it wasn’t my fault, that he (Dr.B.) was in a position of spiritual authority. I didn’t expect to hear that. They said Dr. B. felt remorseful he had hurt me. I didn’t know that, and the story had changed several times. Mark got to say how he felt. I asked them if I would still be welcome at Willow next week and they said we were more than welcome, they wanted us there. We hugged all around. I mistakenly thought Willow would handle the story honorably from here on.
Then, in April of 2018, the Chicago Tribune published the damning article sharing accounts of clergy and sexual abuse by Bill Hybels. I cried through many of the following “family meetings” and subsequent communication to the congregation by the Elders at the time. The next month Mark and I met with Missy Rasmussen, an Elder at the time, and Pam Orr, who had recently stepped down as Lead Elder, to follow-up on my prior meeting regarding Dr. B. I felt triggered after learning of Bill’s alleged behavior, and knew that they now had two male senior leaders who had been accused of sexual misconduct. We wanted to know what steps were being taken to investigate and protect the church from potential future leadership behavior. I expressed concern that the first time I had shared my experience, it wasn’t taken seriously. The Elders should have been notified much earlier in the process, and I should not at any point been told that “since it didn’t go to sex, it didn’t need to go any further.”[pullquote]I felt triggered after learning of Bill’s alleged behavior, and knew that they now had two male senior leaders who had been accused of sexual misconduct. [/pullquote]In May, the Elders put out a statement saying that “not all the allegations were untrue or the result of ‘colluding’ against Bill, and that he had made some poor choices.” Hearing that was both a validation and a trigger for me, because it meant that they believed he was not 100% innocent, and it made the misconduct committed against me by Dr. B feel all the more intense.
In August, an article came out in the New York Times that was quite specific about Bill Hybels’ abuse of his personal assistant of eight years woman who lived with them for awhile when they took in boarders. The whole revelation and the senior lead staff and Elders’ lack of response caused Steve Carter to immediately resign. He said in a published letter that he had offered his resignation many weeks ago, but they had asked for him to hold off making it public, “until it was a good time.” To me, their request of this felt like a familiar storyline of more church damage and image control.
Shortly after Steve resigned, Willow’s Elders and Heather Larson all stepped down/resigned. It was necessary, but surreal. They all addressed how Bill was out of control, that they hadn’t monitored or questioned or stood up against him sufficiently.
A few days later, Chris Hurta called me asking if I was E.S. Martin, someone who wrote a blog saying that in 2014, Dr. B. had exposed himself to her, pulling down his Depends, and then other details, like groping her, rubbing against her breasts. It felt at this moment like Chris had been sent to do damage control. I told him I wasn’t her but that clearly she was another one of his victims. Chris said there was no proof it was true and that there were lots of crazy people in the world. I said maybe, but the behavior sounded very much like what he did with and to me. Chris was silent.
I also asked Chris for the postcards and notes I had given all that time ago, as it was my understanding that they were to be passed to the Elders to support my allegations of abuse. He said of course I could have them back and that he and Scott would get them to me within a week. Later I found out that Scott had immediately shredded them, “as per common Willow policy with routine mail.” I realize now that Chris, Scott, and the Elders told me something close to a lie. I asked them if they had seen the postcards from Dr. B. and Pam Orr responded very carefully, “We have been told of the contents.” I didn’t like that answer and wondered why they hadn’t been given the originals long ago.
Now I know that Scott Vaudrey had shredded them and didn’t give them to the Elders or notify Bill or the investigations team.
In January 2019, I met E.S. Martin, the author of the blog that detailed her abuse at the hands of Dr. B. She communicated that she wanted to do a class action lawsuit and notified me that she was talking with multiple Dr. B. victims on her blog. (Note: none of her alleged victims are willing to speak publicly. She was hoping I would be the one but at that point, I wasn’t ready.)
In March 2019 the “IAG” report on WCCC & WCA came out. It was very disappointing to me, as the apologies and findings were vaguely worded. The victims/survivors were not mentioned by name. It said the public had already decided Bill was guilty, so Bill was forced to retire ahead of time.
There was no transparency or call for repentance in specific ways. I longed for the truth to be exposed, and so deeply desired that the leadership would embrace vulnerability and make safe space for all victims to come forward without the threat of judgement, shame, and the risk of being ostracized. I wanted there to be a clear directive to the leadership to apologize publicly by name, to Bill’s victims, Dr. B’s victims, and to credit Steve Carter with having the courage to speak up and apologize privately to victims immediately after finding out in 2018. I would still like for Steve to have a chance to tell his story to the congregation.[pullquote]There was no transparency or call for repentance in specific ways. I longed for the truth to be exposed, and so deeply desired that the leadership would embrace vulnerability and make safe space for all victims . . . [/pullquote]It has been over 35 years since Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian began watching/grooming me. It has been 9 years since I first began talking with leaders at Willow about the relationship I had with him. I have faced one seemingly unrelated attack after another at Willow. I have suffered one bout of loss of health after another. I have provided evidence that Willow shredded. I know Dr. B. was inappropriate during his involvement with the WCA, as he appeared at my house one day after teaching at one of the early pastor’s conferences. (Note: It is my belief he has had inappropriate relationships with women around the world, encompassing many organizations and churches, if his actions domestically are any clue.) The scope of his assaults is larger than any one organization, and yet none of them have the incentive to look at a larger picture, of how he fooled so many for so long.
I am still so scared to share my story, after all these years, but I have come to believe that the only way to real peace is through the truth. We have to be transparent and not withhold any part of ourselves from God. I love Willow with all my heart and I long for it to finally become free. I hope someday they will truly embrace the truth and trust that God’s grace will be enough to make all things new. May my stories help others and give them the chance to come out of the darkness. And may all these details I have written so far in my story help those who have not felt the trauma of Willow better understand the deep pain of those who have endured mistreatment and then been further attacked for talking about it. I pray for God’s will to be done. Amen.