Bill Hybels and the cycle of sexual predatory behavior

This is Pat Baranowski.

In the 1980s, she was the executive assistant to Bill Hybels, the senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. Recently she revealed that while she was in her 30s she was repeatedly sexually abused by her boss over an eight year period. It occurred shortly after she had divorced her first husband.

Baranowski is the latest in a string of women who have alleged mistreatment by Hybels.

These most recent allegations were a bombshell, resulting in the resignation of one of Bill Hybels’ successors (Hybels retired from Willow Creek earlier this year). But with the fallout of Ms Baranowski’s revelations, and widespread complaints of the church’s handling of the many allegations, it is easy to overlook the lessons to be learned from this sordid tale for anyone in ministry, or working for someone in a position of power.

The account of the abuse suffered by Pat Baranowski’s makes for informative reading, according to Dr Julia Dahl.

Dahl says this case has all the hallmarks of the cycle of sexual predatory behavior and the abuse of power by someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). She outlines the abuse cycle this way:

1. SELECTION

It begins with selection. Pat Baranowski talks about Bill Hybels approaching her in the church parking lot. Here’s the New York Times account of that evening:

“In 1984, Ms. Baranowski was walking to her car in the vast parking lot of Willow Creek one night after services. She had just been praying about whether to apply for a job at the church she saw posted. Suddenly a car screeched to a stop beside her, and the driver rolled down his window. It was the church’s pastor. ‘Could I drive you to your car or something?’ offered Mr. Hybels, who was then 33. Her car was nearby, but she accepted the ride. It seemed like a sign from God.”

In response, Julia Dahl tweeted:

He selected her. People with NPD are aware of susceptibility in others.  Ms. Baranowski had recently been through a divorce and was vulnerable.  At that time, insecurities were present (as are normal when people experience life trauma).

2. GROOMING

Bill Hybels proclaimed it a miracle that he found Pat Baranowski, and soon she was running his ministry with him. Again, the New York Times:

“The pay at Willow Creek Community Church was much lower than at her old job, but Ms. Baranowski, then 32, admired Mr. Hybels and the church’s mission so much that it seemed worth it. She felt even more blessed when in 1985 Mr. Hybels and his wife invited her to move into their home, where she shared family dinners and vacations.”

Julia Dahl tweeted:

Bill Hybels selected a vulnerable woman who was reeling from divorce, tested her boundaries (less pay in her new job, inappropriate flattery) – then created further physical dependence on him (he had control of her job, her residence & sense of belonging).  How is this toxic?

This creates the IMAGE of Bill Hybels being generous to her to others.  But in truth, while “when no one is watching” he is abusing her trust and her body.

Despite her high hopes for the job, Baranowski has said that at times Bill Hybels gave her intimate back rubs, fondled her breasts, asked her to watch pornographic films with him, and even performed oral sex.

3. IDEALIZING

While grooming a victim, a person with NPD will also idealize them in front of others. Hybels lavished praise on her in the presence of other staff members. He wrote a note to her early in her time working with him in which he told her, “You’re a knockout!”

Dahl tweeted,

Characteristic of predators, @billhybels tested boundaries with her WHILE simultaneously IDEALIZING her.  The personal notes are intended build her reliance/dependency on his affirmation.  Adding “you’re a knockout” is testing a boundary. Bosses commenting “knockout” is wrong.

4. DEVALUING

According to Julia Dahl, the cycle of sexual predatory behavior involves both Idealization and Devalue, described in the image below. She claims a neurochemical addiction occurs because the brain releases dopamine and serotonin during the Idealizing phase. But when the victim rejects the abuser’s advances or outs him to others he begins the process of devaluing her, which stunts the release of these neurochemicals.

Baranowski describes Hybels as an exacting boss, demanding excellence from those on his staff. Dahl interprets that this way:

Within the workplace, Bill Hybels uses idealize/devalue, triangulation, anger and intimidation to “lead” people.  The cycle of praise (idealization) is always matched with those who are being “disciplined” by a leader who answers to NO ONE but himself.  Fear becomes prevalent.

And:

Despite the risk of her personal loss of a residence, job, sense of family and even church – Ms. Baranowski CONFRONTS @billhybels 

His response?  Was it honesty, confession, repentance, doing all that was necessary to repair the harm he caused her? Was it removing himself as pastor because he had disqualified himself by abusing his authority & sexually harassing a member of the congregation/team?  No.

And:

Responding characteristic of someone with NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), BH minimizes his conduct and demands secrecy.  NPD fear two things:  receiving no attention – being irrelevant and BEING EXPOSED.

According to Dahl, when confronted, people with narcissistic personality disorder will respond in three ways:

  1. deny /minimize to the complainant, thus creating doubt in that person as to whether the allegations are really that serious. This is also called gaslighting;
  2. devalue the person confronting them to the person and to others. The classic smear campaign;
  3. develop a strategy for removing the person in order to limit damage.

According to Pat Baranowski, Bill Hybels did all three things to her.

The former Willow Creek senior pastor has denied these allegations, as he’s denied the previous allegations by Vonda Dyer, Nancy Beach, Nancy Ortberg, Julia Williams, and Moe Girkins and other women.

We need to become familiar with the cycle of abuse and the tactics of narcissistic personalities and establish protocols for church leaders that stop this kind of thing happening in any church again.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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36 thoughts on “Bill Hybels and the cycle of sexual predatory behavior

  1. A sad cautionary tale.

    1. As a woman who has been sexually abused and have left a church that my husband was on staff with for 25 years that had extremely abusive leaders I must say, at 32 years old, one is NOT a victim but a participant. Pat is either lying or a participant to a home wrecker. Enjoying the ‘relationship’ until she was either told it was ended or was convicted and finally felt guilty enough to stop. Instead of ‘going public’ acting like a victim, she should have gone straight to Lynne. Has she repented to Lynne and asked forgiveness to Lynn?
      I also walked through the nightmare of someone who was a victim of a false accusation and since then I have done extensive research. Especially with someone who is in the public eye, it is not uncommon that once there is an accusation, other’s come out of the woodwork for either attention (the #meetoo syndrome) or for monetary gain. (law suit).
      If there was any type of sexual relationship, it was not forced it was welcomed and we need to stop focusing on ‘victim.’
      The first person who accused came out and stated that they were lying. Another person who accused that she was invited to Bill’s hotel room was found from an e-mail to have been the one trying to get him to come to her hotel room mentioning wine and asking over and over for him to come but ‘no pressure.’

      1. To Kay Lynn, you might be right about Baranowski not being a victim and she could have refused Hybels advances. But, nevertheless, assuming Hybels did most of these things (which seems very likely with the note he left her), then whether or not she is to blame, too, is not really the point. Because Hybels still acted in a totally inappropriate and disgraceful manner, and is therefore not fit to continue as a pastor.

        1. Why isn’t he fit to be a pastor? Because he’s human and didn’t act according to everyone’s perfect ideals of this man? You all are quick to throw stones aren’t you?

          1. Kurtis Schreiber, you even have to ask why he’s not fit to be a pastor? How about the fact that he’s a sexual predator. Are you that naive? So many women have come forward saying basically the same things about Hybels behavior. Are they all lying or all have an agenda? Maybe if only one or two at the most came forward against him, you could rationalize it away. But 9 or 10 women said it and most of them are respectable, one even was the editor of his books. Or the fact that he has invited women over to his house when his wife was out of town on numerous occasions. Or how about his over 1100 e-mails to one woman? Is this all innocent behavior and all these women are conspiring to bring him down? You may think this is all circumstantial evidence, but if you have enough circumstantial evidence, it always leads you to the guilty party. So yes, I do think he was totally unfit to preach for the many years he did and I also think he got away with it and is now enjoying his retirement with no remorse to the people he has hurt

      2. Face the facts, like it or not, stop devaluing peoples stories, if you say in your 30s you are a participant solely, then you have alot to learn with reality. Shame on you

        1. A story is a story. Circumstantial evidence at best. Where is hard proof? Did she seek counseling? A doctor who could back up these claims when they were happening. She wrote journals. Still circumstantial.

      3. This “blaming” of the abuse survivor completely side steps the key issue here, that is the power differential between a boss and an employee, let alone the obvious position of a pastor’s power, trust and authority and the responsibilities that come with that. That position is always to be one of protecting the congregants and especially the vulnerable.

        Vulnerability does not have an age limitation and many factors can contribute to being in that state… ie divorce, death, illness, childhood abuse etc….

        Pat’s credibility has been confirmed by other notable employees and leaders. She is described as credible and is believed.

        Any time we blame an abuse survivor it fosters a system where we enable abuse to continue. It effectively silences others who are victims from coming forward or speaking out because they will be blamed. This WC tragic situation and any professional sexual misconduct is always about “Who is responsible?” and NOT about blaming a victim of abuse.

        Any false allegation is serious. Pat’s allegations appear to be supported in numerous ways. She also shared her distress at the time by reaching out to another employee who has validated both that she did so and her credibility.

        We are not really in a position to make a judgement on the first person who retracted her story. Given the intense pressure, judgements, media attention and emotional upheaval that comes with this type of high profile case, it would not be surprising that a victim of professional sexual misconduct would regret they confided in someone. The retraction could possibly become a way of survival…

        Many victims of clergy misconduct have expressed that the intense emotional turmoil and finger pointing after reporting the abuse became even more difficult than surviving the abuse. Its called re-victimizing.

        For WC and all the churches this is a time to listen, work very hard at making our churches a safe place to come forward and when there is an abuse survivor that does so, it is imperative we take it seriously, listen and believe the victim until the facts prove otherwise through a competent outside investigation.

        1. I smell a Bill Clinton voter.

          1. Get your nose checked. You’re way off.

      4. Narcissistic P D. Is real. But where do we draw the line between disorder and psychobabble?

        I believe this woman. But we can’t go around diagnosing people who are not under our clinical care.

      5. Kay Lynne….r u nuts? Hybels came onto Baranowski. Lynne Hybels has nothing to do with it. Baranowski should have filed with the EEOC and had the bum thrown out of the church. She should have taken legal steps to get out of the toxic mess she was in. Get an apartment of your own and then file for EEOC.

        1. Hybels should also be held totally accountable for his actions. The church let him off scott free
          With no criminal action taken, no lawyers, no accountability for his actions against his wife and children or himself. He committed an incredible sin of 40 years and rubbed his wife’s face in it. He should get down on his knees and beg God to forgive him.

          As far as I am concerned, he belongs in jail. He is a sexual predator of the worst kind. He should be on the predator list. He also should never have contact with his grandchildren or children.

          But the law, evidently, has turned a blind eye to his predatory ways.

          God, in His mercy, better find a way to forgive the idiot.

          1. Leslie, I totally agree with you. Hybels acted in a disgraceful way and he got off Scott free save for a little damage to his reputation. He’s lucky no charges were brought against him and he has shown no remorse at all to the victims or apologized. Now he’s retired and enjoys sailing on his yacht with hardly a care in the world.

      6. Just wondering whether your opinions might have changed over the last year since Willow Creek has completely substantiated Baronowski’s account.

  2. This is rampant in Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) circles. The control is assumed by men and women leaders alike. My daughter is currently brainwashed and so under their control that it is hard to talk to the real person inside of her about anything substantial. She is hyper-defensive. One year ago we had a very close relationship, but when I left the church and told her about the control happening there, this is what she became. What have they done with my real daughter? The Bible says to expose the hidden works of darkness and reprove them. They need to be exposed……and no one wants to talk about it…

  3. I know many have issues with the “Billy Graham rule” but is it too simplistic to say that if applied in this situation it may have prevented the situation????

    1. I have too many concerns about the way the Billy Graham Rule excludes women and limits their access to mentoring and making a contribution to church leadership to be able to agree it should have been applied here. But it seems there’s no question that there needed to be greater accountability and transparency in Bill Hybels’ ministry.

    2. Yes it’s way to simplistic.

    3. The Billy Graham rule is good advice for young men in ministry. It only precludes eating meals alone with women at restaurants or riding in a car alone with another woman. It does not exclude meetings, group dinners, or other interactions with women in public settings. A good rule of thumb to follow … the flesh is weak.

      1. That’s not how I’ve heard it described. Proponents of the Billy Graham Rule refuse to mentor women, or be alone in an office with them. I understand why an itinerant preacher like Billy Graham himself might adopt such a rule, but in leadership teams it has the effect of marginalizing female leaders.

    4. what is the Billy Graham rule?

      1. He will not meet, eat or ride alone with a woman both to honor his wife and to make sure he is not put in a situation that could get out of hand…nor does he think it is wise ….and he is right. It can always be turned into something or misinterpreted or used against a man. Really, Mike, how hard is it to have more than one person in a meeting to get that woman who needs to be mentored or deserving praise, coaching or promotion and then put her on a path being mentored by another leading woman or if there is not one, let her be the first…but just makes sure there is at least one other person/leader present to protect against gossip and allegation. It may not be practical but it is wise.

  4. Too busy not to groom it seems.

    God will ask for his account, as with all other leaders.

    I hope he has taken his time to ensure justice is given to his victims.

  5. This was well written and I learned a lot. Thank you for posting…

  6. Deeply saddened to read this…

  7. Who is Dr Julia Dahl? What are her credentials and where is she practicing medicine. I googled her name and learned she is a pathologist. Is that the same Dr Julia Dahl?

    1. Try googling her name and then the word psychology. There are a couple options that come up.

    2. Yes, that is the same Julia Dahl. She (I) am a medical doctor who specializes in anatomic and clinical pathology. Distinct from my work as a pathologist, I have an interest in the dark triad (tetrad to some) personality disorders, the neurophysiology and the communication tactics used by people with DTPD. I generally state on Twitter what my credentials are and reference my sources (i.e. Melanie Fisher, PhD) when engaging on this topic. I have not performed a psychological / psychiatric evaluation on Bill Hybels. My comments reflect observations of his conduct and comparison to well known predatory traits.

  8. Great post. Thanks for taking the time to summarize so much of this in light of NPD. I hope Bill comes to a massive point of repentance. It’s scary and sad that he was able to go on like this in church leadership, while writing about leadership to boot.

  9. Yikes, this is scary stuff. This new revelation of hybels conduct against Baranowski is very sickening. I could empathise with the mistakes he made prior to this news but this is shocking. I wonder how many more leaders are out there in ministry with NPD? It seems like the perfect storm of ministry and NPD. What protocols would you recommend having in place? How do you differentiate grooming and serving? Encouraging and idealising?

    1. It’s probably more accurate to not say specifically that certain people have NPD. It’s a very rare diagnosis with very extreme traits. It might be better to say people have narcissistic tendencies. https://www.sane.org/the-sane-blog/mental-illness/is-narcissism-common-the-answer-may-surprise-you

      1. That’s a fair comment. I was following Julia Dahl’s analysis on that one.

  10. How many of the disciples/apostles were women? How many of the epistles were directed to a specific woman? How many of the apostles had beach homes, private yachts, and of course no planes back then? The point; Christianity has departed from the Word of God and the simplicity of Christ. It’s largely leavened.

  11. I was too excited about reading His book “Too busy Not to Pray ” i had not heard about Him before so i was just checking out who is this Bill Hybels . Well may God have mercy , i hope i will finish the book with this kind of revelation about the author .
    Do we have any Faithful Man anyway .. I doubt

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