On May 26, 2021, during a midweek meeting of church staff and volunteer leaders, Willow Creek Community Church senior pastor Dave Dummitt (left) fist-bumps Willow Creek South Barrington campus pastor Shawn Williams as the two discuss the legacy of former senior pastor Bill Hybels. (Video screen grab)

Opinion: ‘Why is Bill Hybels’ Name Rarely Mentioned?’ — My Response

By Laura Barringer

Last week, a YouTube video from Willow Creek Community Church dropped. I clicked on it, wondering why Willow Creek watchers responded to it so viscerally. I read comments before I watched the video, and twenty seconds into it I understood. I understood and I was stunned, shocked, alarmed, and bewildered.

The video was an excerpt from a core meeting Willow Creek held for members on May 26, where new senior pastor Dave Dummitt and new South Barrington campus pastor Shawn Williams fielded questions from those in attendance. Among others, this question was asked: “Why is Bill Hybels’ name rarely mentioned?”

Let me pause here.

It’s been three years since the evening of March 23, 2018, the night in which a Chicago Tribune article revealed allegations of misconduct against Willow Creek’s senior pastor Bill Hybels. The article left our family stunned, bewildered, and disoriented.

That Bill Hybels did such things was hard enough, but we simply could not believe that a church we loved and trust(ed) would so callously brand Hybels’ victims as liars and colluders. I have language now to understand the events as a predictable pattern of institutional betrayal, but at the time I felt thrown into a tailspin. For me, a common disorientation was the question: Why are people angry at me for asking Willow Creek to tell the truth? 

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Since then, I’ve watched Willow Creek move on without seeking true, redemptive healing. (More on that later.) The story about Hybels quieted, but emotions lurked and simmered at the surface always. Victims, family, and former staff and members would often be triggered by sermon titles and Willow Creek’s flashy events and snippets of weekend messages that seemed careless in light of its larger story.

A pattern developed: We reeled and then we processed. Some tried to meet with elders and begged for truth-telling and then the story quieted once again. 

Unreconciled relations and unfinished reconciliations, however, seemed to be put behind us even if uncompleted.

Then came the video—and the question: why isn’t this man who’s shattered the lives of so many people mentioned anymore?

The answer to that question is sacred. It is delicate. It can destroy or it can contribute to a redemptive process. It holds the stories of abused men and women within it, men and women who suffered faith-shattering wounds and were buried beneath a powerful institution. We know their stories, we know (some of) their names, and we honor them by responding to their soul-trauma with compassion and truth and grace.

Before I continue, I offer this prayer my father and I wrote, printed in our recent book A Church Called Tov—that God will be gracious, that God will forgive, that God will heal, that God will restore people to himself and to one another, and that tov (the Hebrew word for goodness) will abound in Willow Creek.

Back to the video. I was instantly alarmed by the tone and the applause, and joking and fist-bumping between Senior Pastor Dave Dummit and South Barrington Campus Pastor Shawn Williams over who should answer the question: “Why is Bill Hybels’ name rarely mentioned?”

I was alarmed by appeals by Williams to being “the new guy” as an excuse for not knowing how to respond. Abuse was labeled a “polarizing reality of people’s perspectives.”

Williams said he talked to people “who can’t understand why Bill was treated the way he was treated.” I was alarmed that an answer to a question so delicate and sacred would be treated with cavalier attitudes and back-slapping and no mention of the victims. Or concern for their deep, enduring wounds.

And then this: Williams spoke about the life-changing impact Bill Hybels had upon his life. He described Hybels as a “once-in-a-generation leader.” Williams described Bill or Willow Creek as a broken tree who produced good fruit.

The senior pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, the successor to Hybels, Dave Dummitt added, “I agree with everything you said,” labeling Williams’ words beautiful.

On that stage, with seemingly no pre-planning, he invited Williams to share that same message at a weekend service to a wider audience. They spoke of Hybels with great respect and deference.

This needs to be said. The men’s descriptions about Bill describe something real. He was influential, he was a gifted leader, and he introduced thousands to Christ. He wrote books, and he shared great leadership principles.

But what Williams and Dummitt did on stage was wrong.

It was wrong because they downplayed the evil of abuse. They re-wounded the women. Hybels is (as far as we know) unrepentant. Saying he had a “shadow side” is a severe underestimation of sexual predatory behavior.

Above all, this: Abused men and women do not want to hear their abuser’s name lauded and clapped about in a church before leaders in that church. The entire eight minutes were recklessly, needlessly wounding. They lack pastoral presence, and they lack discernment and wisdom. 

It was unwise, unprofessional, and non-pastoral for Shawn Williams, a recent staff addition, to answer that question. The question should have been answered (1) only by the senior pastor and (2) never so casually as in a question-and-answer session.

This is a story of deep trauma and tragedy, a story whose response requires preparation, prayer, counseling, and clear indication to the church that something very serious about Willow Creek will be discussed from its platform. And if that conversation is to occur in public, the women should be consulted and prepared and satisfied with what is to be said.

Should Bill Hybels’ name be mentioned? This is what I think: Yes. Yes, it should be mentioned. But it should not be celebrated, as Williams and Dummitt directly stated and indirectly did with continuous praises and accolades.

Hybels’ name should be mentioned, yes, but in a Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) sort of way, with seasonal or continuous confession and sorrow and repentance. Yes, he had an impact, but the entire impact is stained beyond praise.

Willow Creek should tell the truth about itself, confess its complicities and sins, and receive God’s forgiveness and healing. But confession means to admit, to name, to describe, and to own what happened. It means to affirm the truth teller(s), name the abuser and his wrongdoings, and confess all complicity. It means to publicly acknowledge the harm done and express a sincere desire to change.

I understand this May 26 core-meeting was not a confessional service, but it appears to me Willow Creek skipped Yom Kippur. This was a missed opportunity for Dummitt to affirm the courageous women, to name Hybels’ sin, and to confess the church’s complicity in contributing to a culture that allowed it. 

Think about it: an abuser was praised by Willow Creek’s new leadership. The victims were unnamed and dragged through a callous rehearsal of the man’s stained accomplishments. 

The question was Why is Bill Hybels’ name rarely mentioned? The real question is Why were the women once again dishonored?

I was baptized by Bill Hybels. I attended Willow Creek for 20 years, I was a member, and I met my husband there. The man was influential in my life, too. I offer a prayer for him here, again printed and adapted from A Church Called Tov:

Father of All Mercy,
You know the hearts and minds of all your people.
You know all and you reveal your truth in Christ.
Grant to us, your people, including the pastors mentioned in this post, to know the truth of the gospel and to know the truth of your grace, which transforms us into Christlikeness.
Grant further, O Lord, the rich graces of reconciliation between those on opposing sides of the devastating events at Willow Creek.
Grant this so that we may live in the light, knowing the graces of your forgiveness and power and walking in the way that brings you all the glory.
Through Christ, who lives with you, the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Amen.

Video of Willow Creek pastors discussing why Bill Hybels’ name is rarely mentioned:

Laura Barringer is an outspoken advocate for the wounded resisters of institutional abuse. Laura is co-author of A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing (October 2020). She has also written articles for The Jesus Creed and Overthinking Christian blogs. You can read more at churchcalledtov.org and follow her on Twitter at @laurambarringer.

To listen to The Roys Report podcast with Laura and her father and co-author of A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight, click here.

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20 thoughts on “Opinion: ‘Why is Bill Hybels’ Name Rarely Mentioned?’ — My Response”

  1. In this article she says, “They lack pastoral presence.” She was referring to the new pastors. Of course they lack pastoral presence because pastoral presence isn’t a prerequisite for being the CEO of a large institutional religious corporation. I can’t believe that so called Jesus followers still attend this circus.

  2. Jeffery Garnett

    Speaking as a man, it takes a lot of effort to try to understand what this was like for those women. I saw or read an interview with Scott and Vonda Dyer. That helped me understand a lot better.

    And having been there and being personally shocked and appalled at the lack of repentance, leads me to agree that two men who weren’t there should not have endeavored to answer the question.

  3. I just wanted to thank YOU, Ms. Barringer, for all the tov that you have placed in this article. It jumped out at me and encouraged me today and I felt led to share that with you. I will do my best to explain that if I can.

    Warning I can be a little wordy in my writing.

    You have been very precise in pointing out the error in the conduct without making it personal to the people involved. Discernment was lacking here, and you are championing the cause of those who certainly would have had wounds reopened by this mistake in judgment.

    However, you did it in a way that you were not throwing darts at a church that has done good or at a fallen brother who himself also is responsible for some good.

    The Bible tells us that they who condemn the just and they who justify the wicked, they both are an abomination to the Lord. Well in our world, it is certainly hard to know what to do with places that seem to have both good and bad coming out of them. You did an excellent job of expressing no condemnation but still being true in your expression. I would think that has brought healing to those who needed it and I hope it will bring wisdom to those who need it as well.

    I also hope Bill Hybels is repentant of his sin.

    I hope Willow Creek learns and grows for these kinds of errors and continues to takes steps towards acting more and more like a church and less and less like a corporation.

    Your article seems to be written in a way that could help that as opposed to those who would simply throw stones at them. For that, again I say, “Bravo.”

    As the profoundly wise theologian Forest Gump said, “sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks” and when it comes to the mistakes of men and women and churches that is most certainly true. Still, it is God’s chosen vessel to reach the World and He is more than capable of using it to that end.

    I just wanted to share that as a Lead Pastor, who is trying to lead well and live my life well for Jesus, I really appreciated your article. I am not perfect. I need grace like everyone else. But we are called to live our lives after Christ and there are things that disqualify us from our positions. The church should not hide or disguise that when those lines are crossed.

    I Timothy 5 says it should be dealt with in a public way so that all will see that even an Elder or Pastor in a church is not to be treated in some special “above the rules” kind of way. But everyone should still be treat with love. Your article has both. Truth and love. Just as Jesus said, to speak the truth in love and maybe somehow that is in the essence of tov? In any case, I was moved by that when reading your article and encouraged today.

    Thanks.

  4. Fred Monninots

    What “Christ” was introduced to thousands by Bill Hybels? The real Jesus or a false christ He warned us of.
    It really is a matter of Jesus roulette…and rare is the saving Christ preached and followed.
    Many worshipped Bill…let him save them.

  5. CAROL J HIESTAND

    Using the statement Rick Warren about his son to what we could say about bill Hybels is incomprehensible to me.

  6. For those who are into podcasts, there are several featuring the author of this post and Scot McKnight talking about their book referenced here, which covers a variety of abusive church situations, not just Willow Creek. The podcasts can be found here:
    https://soundcloud.com/user-212639123
    The episodes about the book are numbers 159, 160, 161, 163, and then numbers 169-171 cover listener questions.

  7. I am an ex-member of this church though I continue to receive their emails. These “leaders” frequently send emails that begin “Hey Willow”, which is off-putting, unprofessional, and painfully obvious of the characteristics of their current leadership.
    I am still grieving the loss of our church, our weekly routines of worship, teaching, and fellowship. I can differentiate the good and faults of this church, but the ongoing disregard and disrespect of members during the unveiling of the abuse issues is appalling and unacceptable.
    It is time to rename this church since there is no evidence that Willow Creek will ever regain its honor and respect. To remain “Willow Creek” dishonors the faith and dedication of the congregants pre-scandal.
    Thank you for writing this article.

  8. Darren Gruett

    Willow Creek was the church that other churches looked to for leadership, but when the Bill Hybels scandal broke, everyone could see plainly how faulty that leadership really was. They were unable to apply the very principles they taught. Now, despite all that they have been through, it seems that nothing much has changed. The names are different but the ideas are still the same. If being a disciple means being a learner then I have to wonder how much discipleship is actually happening there, especially if the leaders themselves seemed to have learned so little.

  9. These two [people] are great examples of why the Church is becoming irrelevant. If they can’t recognize sexual abuse I wouldn’t let my girls around them!!! It’s the “Elder” board keeps goofy leaders in place. The best thing people can do is read the book The Church Called Tov so they know what’s amiss. The Allender Center that specialized in sexual abuse is offering an online conference this weekend called Confronting Spiritual Abuse
    https://theallendercenter.org/event/confronting-spiritual-abuse-june-2021/

  10. The new leadership exhibited a remarkable degree of tone deafness here. It doesn’t give me confidence in their leadership.

    There’s a place for stressed out private “gallows humor” in groups as a release valve. But it certainly is not this setting.

    Can the leadership be this lacking in interpersonal social skills?

  11. Paul Lundquist

    I watched the video of Williams and Dummitt addressing the question of why Bill Hybels was no longer mentioned at Willow Creek and was appalled like everybody else on this thread. Then I listened a second time just to note whether either man referred to the Bible. Neither did. Williams quoted Rick Warren, and Dummitt quoted Hybels himself, but in eight and a half minutes of light verbal breeze neither pastor seemed able to alight on even one text of Scripture to help guide their understandably troubled congregation..

    My brothers, these things ought not so to be.

    Charles Spurgeon said of John Bunyan: “Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God.”

    Spurgeon’s and Bunyan’s lifeblood must be that of all pastors, and it must be evident when they open their mouths to address spiritually momentous things. A good man brings up good treasures stored in his heart, since from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. One who is is mighty in the Scriptures summons wisdom at a moment’s notice from the quick, powerful, sharper-than-any-two-edged-sword Word of God, and commits its truths to faithful men who can instruct others also.

    Here is what Williams and Dummitt might have said had their minds been soaked with Scripture. It would take less than 2 minutes:

    We do not mention Bill Hybels – except as a byword, and as a warning – because he was a false brother. Jesus said that the pure in heart will see God (Matthew 5:8), but Bill, by anyone’s standards, has been impure for decades. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9), but Bill has refused to confess even when faithfully confronted. Instead he has stuck to his lies and slandered those who spoke the truth. Followers of Jesus Christ cannot do that, because no one who is born of God continues to sin (1 John 3:9). Sexually immoral people (like Bill) will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5). Revelation 21:8 says concerning sexually immoral people, liars, and other evildoers that “their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.” As your pastors, as men who will one day give an account to God concerning the watch that we kept over you (Hebrews 13:17), we solemnly warn you that without holiness you will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). So, for the love of God and the sake of your souls, stay away from Bill and people like him. Bad company corrupts good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33.) Until he repents or openly acknowledges that he is an unbeliever, you must not even eat at the same table with him (1 Corinthians 5:11). We don’t want any of you to go to hell. Along with our God, we want all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). No ocean could furnish enough tears for us to shed should those under our charge arrive with confidence before the throne of Christ only to hear him say, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).

    1. Mark Zimmerman

      Right on, Paul L.; thanks for the strong Biblical reminders for all to take seriously.

      Not only did they not use Scripture, what they did say was largely inappropriate and inapplicable.

      Comparing Hybels to Rick Warren’s depressed son does not make sense and is insulting (starting at about 4 minutes in the video). Hybels is a chronically sexually abuse, spiritually abusive, bullying, lying former pastor who utterly failed his flock and continues to fail Jesus and His Body, the Church. A more appropriate horticultural analogy for Hybels at this point would be comparing him to a weed among the wheat, about whom Jesus says: “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned.” (Mt 13:30) Or, “So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” (Rm 11:20-1)

      As Hybels persists in defiantly maintaining his innocence, slandering victims and truth-tellers, his unrepentant state is more like an open, festering, gangrenous wound than a scar, a part of healthy healing, if his past and ongoing sin is not called what it is. The current strength of Hybels is to serve as a negative example and warning to others.

  12. Donna O'Scolaigh Lange

    Has no one been able to forensically determine the content of the thousands of emails between BH and the woman who said they had an affair, then recanted?

  13. I believe Bill Hybels absorbed all the wrong lessons that were popularized and spread by the late Dr. Robert Schuller decades ago. A corporate, top-down system such as Schuller (and other growth gurus) championed breeds abuse. The Crystal Cathedral ministries crashed and burned because of similar faults — an institutionally independent church built around one man, run by an unaccountable, anti-congregational oligarchy, and guided by worldly corporatism. This system of church fosters an environment of temptation, with inadequate institutional safe-guards.

  14. Tiffany Emery

    What a missed opportunity. I wasn’t a Willow member, but I was a Harvest member and know the pain of a fallen pastor who is suddenly gone and silent. The new leadership clearly has no experience with that. They want to put Bill back on the pedestal from which he fell, rather than deal with the pain and brokenness of the fall and what it did to their wounded congregation and Bill’s victims.

    Bill Hybel’s name isn’t mentioned, and there are “landmines” because of one reason: Bill Hybels. We are to confess our sins to one another, and senior leadership is not above that, in fact, they have the highest calling to that. Bill Hybels sinned against his victims and against his congregation for which he was spiritually responsible to shepherd. He was not absolved of that because he “resigned” from his corporate position as senior pastor. He impacted and shepherded the hearts of a great deal of people and then he absolutely broke them. Bill Hybels has not come to the table, he is a ghost and THAT is the reason his name is not mentioned. There is a lack of resolution from the man himself, and that starts and ends with him. The new senior leadership sits now in that gap, with a broken hearted congregation who has this tension of love and pain for this man. That question was an opportunity for healing, but you don’t heal by ignoring a festering wound, you have to treat it. You have to do the treatment of the issue which involves pain and scar tissue. You don’t pretend that enough time has passed that the wound is hopefully healed by now and let’s gloss over the memory of the injury. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, especially spiritual ones.

    A better response to that would be that while Bill did have a profound impact thru his ministry here, he also has spiritually wounded many people in the wake of his sins and his absence and silence. In the end, Bill was merely a vessel thru which Jesus worked, and so we enter in as new vessels and we choose not to focus on Bill or bring him up because (a) he was never the point and (b) in time we pray that he will repent and confess his sins in the way that only he can. Until then, we’re doing the work of Jesus and moving on but we pray for Bill, we thank God for what He did thru him and we thank God for Bill’s willingness and surrender to God in some capacities to allow God to move the way he did. But make no mistake, Bill Hybels was a man, and if we are to be a true church of God we must move past Bill Hybels or any corporate leader. That is our sin to confess to each other as members, that if we ever let Bill Hybels become bigger than Jesus, then, Lord forgive us and help us to restore Jesus to his rightful place as the leader of this church.

  15. I remember my aunts and uncles discussing a small town businessman/local politician. He’d been very popular and successful but his career ended with the exposure of some really bad thing. I was too young to be let in n the details. The argument went back and forth, he did good things, he did bad things. My father was one of the youngest of 11 kids, he was quiet. Finally my father spoke up – “He was SCUM!” That completely ended the conversation. Someone at Willow needs to have that nerve.

  16. Two pastors so impressed by the sound of their own voices. Shawn Williams asking for grace and volunteering to answer the question but not really saying anything is crazy making. No kidding Bill Hybels did a lot of good things in leadership. He was praised for years. He burned down his legacy when he abused the victims and till this day won’t take ownership or repent. Bill Hybels failing to repent is the most important thing here. It defines everything else. He torched his ministry and not allowing space for the women who were dragged through the mud and accused of all sorts of things. None id that is mentioned. Only about Hybels contribution. Own your stuff Willow. Stop pretending it didn’t happen and you can forget about it and move on.

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