Things remain very much in flux for Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.
The congregation’s newly appointed lead pastor, Heather Larson, unexpectedly resigned her role Wednesday evening following a new round of allegations of sexual wrongdoing on the part of the church’s founding pastor, Bill Hybels.
Larson’s decision to step down, according to Christianity Today, came on the evening before Willow Creek’s annual Global Leadership Summit and was met with shouts of, “No,” as well as one attendee who declared, “We need you.”
My heart breaks for this community.
Willow Creek Elders and Lead Pastor Heather Larson Resign over Hybels Handling https://t.co/UnCkHDYrPL
— Dr. Derwin L. Gray (@DerwinLGray) August 9, 2018
“I am stepping down from my role as lead pastor,” Larson announced. “Because this is really important. Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return quickly. There is urgency to move us in a better direction.”
She continued, “It’s the job of a leader to define reality and it’s the job of the leader to put the team and the organization first, and I am absolutely committed to that.”
Despite the audience’s disappointment over her decision, Larson’s comments were met with a standing ovation.
Larson’s immediate resignation comes just days after Willow Creek’s lead teaching pastor, Steven Carter, announced his decision to walk away from the influential evangelical megachurch, noting his disagreements with the way church leadership handled news about the allegations against Hybels.
This is huge. I am so glad the leaders are stepping down and finally apologizing – by name – to those they harmed.
This is also a great example of how cover ups can happen: not because leaders are malicious, but because they have misplaced priorities. https://t.co/AKBbeHav0L
— Jacob Denhollander (@JJ_Denhollander) August 9, 2018
Carter described the most recent claims against the famed minister, which were documented Sunday in an article from The New York Times, as “horrifying.” He expressed solidarity with Hybels’ accuser, Pat Baranowski, who served as the preacher’s executive assistant and claimed he sexually harassed her in the 1980s.
In addition to Larson, the church’s elder board announced that its members would also be stepping down in an orderly fashion by the end of the year.
Hybels decided to retire early in April following the first round of accusations against him. In the months since, Willow Creek has faced repeated criticism for its leaders’ handling of the serious claims leveled against the 66-year-old pastor.
In early July, Larson penned a statement on the issue, apologizing over the fact that “the tone of our initial response was not one of humility and deep concern for all the women involved,” adding, “We now believe Bill entered into areas of sin related to the allegations that have been brought forth.”
Missy Rasmussen, one of the church’s elders, admitted the Willow Creek leadership team was blinded by their allegiance to Hybels, and as a result, failed to hold him appropriately accountable. Their trust in him, she said, “clouded our judgement.”
Rasmussen owned up to the fact that the church made a series of missteps, including overseeing a rushed investigation into 2014 allegations that Hybels had entered into an extramarital affair. When the woman recanted her claims, the elder recalled, the church simply dropped the matter without thoroughly reviewing it.
“Our entire elder board has had to come to grips with the areas of our hearts, minds, and souls that blinded us to the pain and suffering of the women and their advocates,” Rasmussen said Wednesday night. “We ask forgiveness from God, our congregation, the women, and their advocates, and those calling us to repent.”
She went on to apologize for allowing Hybels to “operate without the kind of accountability that he should have had,” noting, “Our desire going forward is to retain what is good and pure about Willow, but to drive out the dark places that are unhealthy.”
Rasmussen also explicitly called on Willow Creek’s founder to “acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.” Hybels has not made any comments in recent weeks, though he has in the past denied the allegations against him.
Larson, who was appointed earlier this year to lead the church alongside Carter, announced Monday that yet another investigation into Hybels, carried out by an advisory council of Christian leaders from across the country, was underway.