Hey, Bill Hybels — Where There’s Smoke…

Smoke on Black BackgroundBill Hybels is the founder of Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch headquartered in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Willow Creek is one of the largest churches in the United States and is affiliated with thousands of churches across the globe via their Willow Creek Association. Bill Hybels has affirmed women in all levels of church leadership. Friday, March 23, 2018, the Chicago Tribune broke a story about accusations of sexual misconduct against Hybels. Three former Willow Creek Association leaders, including Nancy Ortberg, have resigned, protesting what they claim was inadequate investigation of the accusations. Hybels denies any wrongdoing. Read more on Christianity Today and the Chicago Tribune.

CFT Member Tara J. Hannah attends a church associated with Willow Creek, via membership in the Willow Creek Association.

Hey Bill, I see a lot of smoke lingering over Willow Creek and, Lord forbid, I’ve even heard there are missing emails. I’m sure we can at least agree it’s yet another example of 2018 #MeToo (and #ChurchToo) America, of a powerful man being accused of misusing his power.

As a feminist, I can’t say this ever gets old. It’s not that I like watching powerful men squirm. There are many powerful men fighting alongside us, and I’ve always counted you among them. It’s just that, as a woman, I’m tired of constantly having to navigate the obstacle course of sexism and having to prove myself to be more than a sexual object.

Bill, I know you have a history of treating women as more than sex objects. You have worked alongside women in ministry, promoted women in ministry, and supported the authority of women in the church. So what’s up with this? I am heartbroken by the entire ordeal, as are so many others.

We believed in you.

But as the news broke, some of your biases came to my mind. I remembered things that didn’t quite fit with my notion of you as a crusader for women’s equality.

In 2016, I watched you interview Melinda Gates at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. You asked her personal questions about dating Bill Gates, and you took the liberty to delve into their home life. I doubt you would have asked Bill Gates the same questions about home and children if he were talking to you as a representative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Honestly, I was embarrassed! It struck me that your sexist questioning seemed to represent the church of yesterday, when women’s worth was measured only in terms of the men in their lives. If your questions frustrated me, 230 miles away, certainly other women, and Melinda herself, were frustrated, too. You see, Bill, your questions only served to illustrate how women are forced to first establish themselves as worthy wives and mothers before they can be heard in many church environments. Was it really necessary to explore Melinda’s connection to Bill Gates and her status as mother of their children before letting her speak on behalf of the Gates Foundation?

In 2017, I watched you do the same thing to Sheryl Sandberg. In your defense, Sandberg was promoting her book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, a subject that was a bit more personal in nature than Gates’ platform. But the questions still seemed to revolve around Sandburg’s personal, not professional, life. In all my years of watching you interview men at Global Leadership Summit events, I have never seen you center your questions around their personal relationships or home lives. With the men, you stuck to leadership and business.

If you are not able to manage your bias in the way you question men and women, I have to wonder if you are also unable to see your bias in your expectations of women. Does your tendency to see women’s worth mainly in their roles relating to men—as partners, wives, and mothers—and your interest in their personal (more than professional) lives predispose you to see inappropriate actions as normal?

Part of the responsibility of being a pastor is modeling correct behavior. And if you’re a man, it’s about making sure your female parishioners and staff members feel safe with you. Even the suggestion of inappropriate invitations, inappropriate questions, or inappropriate touching is never okay. It’s about being above reproach.

The need to pursue the investigation into your behavior, even when you’ve been cleared by others, is because your behavior has not been above reproach. When you say that these former members of your church leadership have “colluded” against you, simply because they find your accusers believable and need further investigation to believe you, it makes you look guilty.

It would be refreshing to see a church organization work to be above reproach and to properly self-govern. We are all tired of reading about misuses of power and sexual misconduct in church environments. We are especially tired of seeing church communities hide abuses and honor offenders.

Bill, I read that your congregation gave you a standing ovation when you discussed this with them. I couldn’t help but wonder when the women and men who have come forward in search of justice and truth, the people who refused to overlook questionable behavior and missing emails, will get their standing ovation.

I’m not new to sitting in the pews and hearing about church scandal investigations. Some involve money, some sexual misconduct; most involve a grab for power. What I don’t see in this Willow Creek scandal is a grab for power; however, I do see a few powerful people fighting for justice and for the integrity of the church. At a time like this, I try to remember that we are all followers of Jesus and, as a church, we build on the foundation of Jesus.

Paul said it frankly when dealing with leadership squabbles in I Corinthians 3:10–15 (NIV):

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

So, Bill, it’s fair to say that, in this case, the fire has come—the Jesus kind of fire. I hope your intention in building powerful women was to build on the foundation of Jesus and not so that you could enjoy a position of power over them. I hope you will honor those who pursue justice and consider the importance of allowing an investigation to continue, so the church can be found blameless. I hope you will consider the different ways in which you interact with women and men. And, Bill, I hope you will remember your own meme-worthy words: “Your culture will only ever be as healthy as the senior leader wants it to be,” and always remember our senior leader is Jesus.


Notice of corrections: The introduction to this article originally stated that three members of the “church” board had resigned over the allegations, when actually it was the Willow Creek Association board. We also stated Nancy Ortberg’s husband, John, was among those three, but he was not on that board. CFT regrets the error and has edited the text to reflect these corrections.
Tara Hannah
Tara J. Hannah is the founder of YOGATHEA® Christian Yoga + Meditation and author of Pink Sunglasses and Yoga Pants: 31 Reflections on Biblical Feminism. She is an occupational therapist in private practice and spends her days rehabilitating women’s health impairments. In the evenings she and her husband, Joe, operate a taxi, dinner, and counseling service for their four children.


  1. When ever somebody says “Where there is smoke…”, I feel sad. It contradicts the principle of considering people innocent until they are proven guilty. I could never imagine Jesus saying those words of anybody.

  2. Satu, though I would agree with your point in the vast majority of instances, and I do believe in innocent until proven guilty, when it comes to patriarchal institutions and sexual harassment/assault, I have to make an exception. Five+ decades on this planet have taught me that smoke on this issue seldom leads to the fire of any kind of action. Smoke is all we get. I know of hundreds of instances of harassment, instances I have no question about in my mind, even instances that I’ve endured or witnessed, and it is extremely rare that powerful institutions or people did anything at all about it. It is almost always “he said, she said,” and “she said” is not considered any kind of proof. Thus, there is no chance of “proven guilty.” And while I agree Jesus wouldn’t have used the metaphor, I do think he would have believed the women.

  3. Great article – unfortunate that it has to be written.

    I agree the initial defensive tone and the “colluded” narrative – made Bill Hybels look guilty to be sure.

    The standing ovation at any of these family meetings to me was heartbreaking… this is a very somber and sober time for everyone – there are victims here. Not a celebration.

    What about the victims/accusers? Are they innocent until proven guilty? Are we to summarily dismiss them as liars and colluders out to ruin Bill because he said so? These are men and women who are well-respected leaders, teacher, and pastors.

    When Bill communicated at last night’s family meeting that he was “naive” in some of his behavior (when in fact he has apparently “preached” the Billy Graham code of conduct for years) was unacceptable, to say the least. Any man in his position knows better whether they comply with it or not.

    I am frustrated and heartbroken about this and I do pray and believe that some of Bill Hybels best years are ahead of him.

  4. As a former lawyer and now university instructor of law, I take offense when people who don’t know what they’re talking about garble the law and make overarching principles out of legal things without a clear understanding of them. The principle you cite is not a principle as much as it’s a court procedure. The prosecution has the burden of putting forth evidence establishing the essential elements of the case against a criminal defendant before the defendant has to present evidence refuting the prosecution’s case. In other words, the prosecutor must go first, must establish the veracity of their case first, to avoid a successful directed verdict motion by the defendant. That’s what “innocent until proven guilty means”. It does not even mean that a juror must sit in the box trying to play mind games saying “the defendant is innocent, the defendant is innocent.” Nonsense! The only thing required is that a juror be impartial and able to decide the case fairly without undue bias.

    Innocent until proven guilty certainly DOES NOT mean that anyone must automatically assume that people are innocent in everyday life. We have every right to state our opinions as to who we think is or is not innocent of any given claims against them and comment on evidence as it mounts against a person.

    Please, the next time you offer an opinion, educate yourself on the matter that is the subject of it, it will make your opinions informed and useful, as you have failed to do here.

  5. Thank you for this. I have little tolerance for this kind of hypocrisy. He has spoken at the Global Leadership Summit year after year about the importance of an organization’s culture. I might be a bit more forgiving if he were at least repentant.

  6. Law Professor, Innocent until Proven guilty is more than a “court room procedure”. It is a reflection within the justice system of the Natural Law upon which the foundations of our legal system are based. It reflects the belief that it is far worse to condemn an innocent man than to let a guilty one go free (See God and Lot; See also Blackstone’s formulation). Authoritarians such as Bismarck would agree with your implied position that it is better to kill an innocent man and get the guilty one (see, Wikipedia on Blackstone’s formulation).

    You state “we have every right to state our opinions as to who we think is innocent of any given clams against them and comment on evidence as it mounts against a person”

    You then attack the commenter for offering an opinion, by claiming he has lacked the sin of not “educating” himself. I seem to remember certain teachers of the law doing the same thing to Jesus….throwing the first stone, anyone?

    As far as “evidence”, we have a whole hot mess of hearsay, including a woman who has already admitted lying about an affair. Hybels is rich, women are complaining decades after the occurrence…see a trend? Let me offer an “opinion” about as to who I think is “innocent” according to the “mounting” evidence.

    The God of the Universe has said that we are all guilty, none are innocent; not even one. That All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That if it weren’t for the work of Christ Jesus on the Cross we are all guilty beyond a SHADOW of a doubt.
    That means Hybels. It means the women that are accusing him too. It means me, and it means you.

    But YOU, have elected to be a teacher of the law, sir. And the Bible says that not many should desire such a position because it is better for a millstone to be tied around your neck and be thrown in the ocean, than to mislead the ignorant and naive. Use your authority wisely, and with humility.

  7. I don’t understand the sensitivity to the standing ovation. The love for Bill does not automatically end at the hearing of these issues. You can express your love and support for someone without condoning their behavior. He was speaking to a room of hundreds. Each individual cannot speak to him directly so they did collectively.

    If your child committed a crime and was convicted, would visiting them in jail equal negating their victim’s plight? Does his alleged behavior negate all the good he and the church have done for the last 40+ years?

    I’m so tired of our culture ignoring gray areas and expecting everyone to immediately respond perfectly to every situation.

    The WC congregation is still processing this. There is grief and disappointment but there is also still love for a man that led many into relationship with God and taught them well. Can’t we want justice and still love Bill?

  8. “Tired” I think one’s reaction to the standing ovation probably depends on with whom you most identify.

    You primarily identify with Bill Hybels, as per your example, and thus feel the standing ovation to have relevance only in showing support and love toward him. This is likely what many participants intended their ovation to indicate, not approval, but support and love.

    But there is another way of experiencing it. Many other people identify primarily with the victims. They might, to use your example, find themselves feeling like their child was a victim, and that the ovation received by the one who harmed their child showed a lack of empathy and appreciation for what they were going through.

    What feels loving and supportive to you, can feel invalidating and denigrating to someone else. This is actually what makes the picture so gray. Your feelings are valid, but so are the feelings of the victims and those who can relate primarily to them.

    And really, I thought Tara’s admiration for Bill’s work toward gender equality very evident in this piece.

  9. It’s not a personal letter. Were it a personal letter Tara would have sent it directly to Hybels. Perhaps you are not familiar with a literary device called epistolary narrative.

  10. Dear Tara,
    If this is supposed to be a personal letter to Bill Hybels. Then it should be sent to him in person. Not published on a website! The personal note leaves a bad taste.
    For me this is a unfortunate bad example of selfrightous feminism!
    It seems like you have never crossed the lines of abusing your power or harming a good cause you believe in by acting in unfortunate maybe even distructive ways…


  11. Snarky. And I’m sorry, what’s wrong with a man asking woman about her kids. Listen, I worked for hybels and saw something of his power influence as being a bit amiss. I know some of the victims. But your parallel between that and the Melinda Gates interview is stretching. I find it sad that feminists have to pit their families as lower on the totem pole than big jobs in the work place. Women, not men, do the Herculean task of growing a human being in their own bodies and that takes second fiddle to no job. Why then shouldn’t they be asked about it more then men? Motherhood should be more celebrated by feminist ilk not pouted over. Can we stop with the comparisons with men? OMG they have penises and we have vaginas. Celebrate that. I seriously doubt Mrs Gates took offense at being asked about human beings that she loves, her children.

  12. As a 30 year Willow member who attended the ‘Family Meeting’ I can tell you that the standing ovation was that of a ‘Family’ who were confused, shocked and did not have full disclosure. Up to that point, Bill’s character was unblemished for 40 years and suddenly, without warning, we are given information that we did not know what to do with. We saw our Paster humbled with tears in his eyes; of course we wanted to believe and support him. As more information came out, it became obvious that there was indeed a pattern of behavior that was unacceptable for a Pastor of any Church and hypocracy in Bills actions versus preachings. However, the Women accusers are not innocent in this continuance of bad behavior, none of them were weak, naive women; they are strong leaders who were also accountable to our Church and none of them did the right thing 20 years ago. Any perpetuation of his inappropriate behavior falls firmly on their lack of wisdom to report it. Discernment has been sadly missing from everything I have read and taking sides the norm. There is plenty of blame to go around and no one has handled this biblically.

  13. With all due respect, Ms. Reetz, the second half of your comment is very, very problematic (and possibly even dangerous because you seem to tether it with a psuedo-Biblical tone.) Bill’s behavior was bad. That’s the end of it. For you to acknowledge that and then blame the victims of the behavior is so unfair and without merit.

    Victims do NOT have a duty to stop an abuser. I don’t think I can convince you of that. So, let me use your logic. Almost all of the women who initially came forward, were indeed well respected leaders in the church. Yet, when elders “investigated” the accusations, they dismissed the women’s claims and trusted Bill –some even going as far as to say they’d looked him in the eye and KNEW he was telling the truth. When the story finally broke in the news, Willow stood behind Bill and attacked these respected strong leaders, calling them liars and claiming that they were colluding to destroy Bill and Willow.

    Again, it wasn’t and will never be a victims job to stop abuse. But, in this case when many victims came out and were still rebuffed and humiliated so publicly (THEY NAMED EACH OF THEM AND CALLED THEM LIARS!!!!), it’s some troubling that you would place any blame on these women.

    Also, full disclosure, I’ve attended Willow for over 15 years now. There’s no one who isnt/wasn’t in awe of Bill’s gifts (even the accusers). That said, bad behavior is bad behavior. Bad behavior, like what Bill is accused of and has only begun to admit, that hurts in deep ways that are really tough to mend is a problem. Willow’s main place in the faith seems to be it’s ability to convert the completely unsaved, those who are completely cynical about Church, Christ and Christians. Bill’s behavior and, then, the leadership’s response might be blows that will be tough for the church to recover from. I pray for grace in this situation and restoration.

  14. No, we cannot stop the comparisons with men. It was very male chauvinistic of Bill to never ask the men how they balance their duties as fathers and homemakers with their careers. As long as we let men “outsource” their housework and childcare responsibilities to women, men will rule the world and women will continue to be subordinate.

    I also strongly disagree with your comments about feminists. The feminist movement is the leader in trying to make the workplace more family-friendly and get fathers to be equal partners in raising children. Patriarchy deserves the blame for pitting families as lower on the totem pole than big jobs in the work place, not feminism.

  15. my only issue with the article: that to rectify power abuse by men in the christian context we need to build up powerful women. as long as anyone, men or women wants to be powerful in the church, we haven’t understood Jesus. its all about sacrificing power, privilege, position etc for the benefit if others.

  16. If the statistics that say for every one woman that reports sexual abuse there are 10 others that are silent victims, it is chilling. That means Hybels victims are legion.

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