In the year #MeToo went to church, I guess it was fitting that I had a very Hybels kind of 2018 in the blogosphere.
My top three posts for the year all addressed the topic of sexual propriety in the church, each bouncing off the unfolding fall from grace of American megachurch pastor Bill Hybels.
Hybels’ story is instructive because allegations against him weren’t taken seriously for many years, even though they were coming from more than one woman. As a highly successful pastor, and an author whose writings focused on integrity and courage, there was a reticence to believe that he could be guilty of the kind of abuse that was being alleged against him. Indeed, some questioned whether the charges could even be categorized as abuse.
I mean, if little physical contact occurred and intercourse didn’t take place, is it abuse?
So 2018 became the year when the church was forced to acknowledge that the term ‘abuse’ can be used to describe any situation in which a minister, priest or church employee attempts to use their position of power over or proximity to someone to sexualize their relationship.
And Bill Hybels isn’t an isolated case. Thanks to both the #MeToo movement, we now know the sexual exploitation of women by ministers is not uncommon. In fact, some researchers suggest that misconduct by clerics toward women is even more prevalent than their sexual abuse of children.
According to research from the World Council of Churches, cited in their publication When Pastors Prey, 90 to 95 percent of victims of clergy sexual exploitation are women. This report cited a survey of Protestant clergy that found that 39 percent admitted to having sexual contact with a congregant and 12.7 percent had had sexual intercourse with a congregant.
After the huge response to #MeToo, spoken word poet Emily Joy and writer and religious trauma researcher Hannah Paasch launched the hashtag #ChurchToo as a repository of women’s accounts of being groped, raped, coerced and disbelieved by pastors and fellow parishioners.
Paasch said, “I have followed the stories of survivors online, lived them myself, and held my friends as they waded through the aftermath of their abuse and trauma, while [also experiencing] a complete lack of care and often hostility from the faith communities that were supposed to care for, support and protect them.”
This year, Bill Hybels became the face of #ChurchToo.
In 2017, after leading Willow Creek Community Church for nearly 40 years, Hybels announced he was retiring and would be succeeded by two younger pastors. His departure date was scheduled for October 2018. He didn’t last that long.
After that announcement, 10 women accused Hybels of misconduct, including his former executive assistant. In August, 2018, one of Hybels’ intended successors, Steve Carter, resigned. Shortly after, the board announced Hybels’ departure had been brought forward. And soon after that, the whole board and Hybels’ other intended successor Heather Larson also resigned.
The Hybels’ scandal forced the church in general to look at the power dynamics between clergy and parishioners. It also forced the church to take seriously any allegations brought by women against their pastors.
So, here’s how I observed the disgrace of Bill Hybels, my three most popular posts of 2018:
I wrote this in April, before the scandal erupted in full in August. I was reflecting on Moe Girkins’ allegations that in 2008, she and Bill Hybels had worked on a book together at various times in his church’s private jet, at his beach home, on his yacht, and at restaurants near Hybels’ summer home. She also alleged he spoke to her in a sexually inappropriate manner during those meetings.
I used these revelations as a catalyst to ask whether it’s ever a good thing for pastors to have access to private jets or luxury yachts.
I was taken to task by several correspondents for daring to question how someone spent their money, and by others who told me Bill Hybels’ boat wasn’t a “luxury yacht” and his plane was leased by the church, not owned by him.
But my point wasn’t specifically to question Hybels’ ostentatious lifestyle, but to ask about the dangers of male pastors having the opportunity to wine and dine young women in private like this. My question had more to do with whether summer homes, boats and planes afforded opportunities for unaccountable behavior.
Several correspondents suggested I should repent of my previous rejection of the so-called “Billy Graham rule” — the practice among some male Christian leaders where they avoid spending time alone with women to whom they are not married.
I have stated, I think the rule treats all women as potential sexual temptations, it excludes women from joining men as equal partners in creative projects, and it surreptitiously silences them from decision-making.
I still don’t like the Billy Graham rule, but I do believe members of the clergy should develop strategies for creating good, healthy boundaries in relationships, without resorting to social and professional exclusion.
While the previous post was written when allegations against Hybels were beginning to bubble up through social media, this post was written after the scandals were confirmed, and after Hybels had been forced to bring his retirement date forward.
Again, it’s not so much an analysis of the scandal as it is a plea for a return to the servant leadership model of pastoral care promoted by Henri Nouwen in an era before the more corporate model favored by Hybels and others gained ascendancy.
In it I shared the example of my own pastor, Christine Redwood and the way I believe she embodies this post-corporate model of leadership.
Some correspondents took me on, suggesting I was throwing the baby out with the bathwater by promoting a rudderless model of care without leadership. And I acknowledge there’s always the danger of over-steering when reacting to the failure of a particular approach.
But clearly a lot of people resonated with my call (and the Nouwen quote I shared) for a gentler, more compassionate, less KPI-driven approach to pastoral leadership.
In my third most viewed post I addressed the Hybels scandal head on.
Pat Baranowski, who was Bill Hybels’ executive assistant in the 1980s when she was in her 30s, had revealed that she was repeatedly sexually abused by her boss over an eight-year period.
Those revelations, combined with allegations by nine other women, finally led to Hybels’ undoing and plunged Willow Creek Community Church into disgrace.
In this post, I analysed Pat Baranowski’s description of the abuse she experienced at the hands of Bill Hybels. It perfectly fitted the cycle of sexual predatory behavior developed by Julia Dahl.
Just as concerning was Dahl’s conclusion that the kind of leaders who engage in this cycle also usually exhibit the pattern of someone with narcissistic personality disorder.
In a year I posted about stuff I Iove, like the films of Wes Anderson, the music of John Coltrane and Johnny Cash, and the joys of Trappist beer, I’m kind of sorry my most popular posts were focused on the fall from grace of a fellow Christian leader. But if by airing this story I’ve helped contribute to making churches safer places for women, I’m enormously pleased.