Bill Hybels’ exit sparks conversation

Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Community Church’s senior pastor, announced his early retirement amid a cloud of misconduct allegations involving women in his congregation. Associated Press

By Thomas Moran | Staff Writer

In the past year, men in positions of power have been accused of various forms of misconduct. Following the trend, the Rev. Bill Hybels, founder and pastor of an evangelical megachurch in the Chicago area, stepped down from his position on April 10 after allegations of misconduct were brought against him.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Hybels announced his stepping down last October, but did not, at that time, explain that claims had been brought against him that he had engaged in inappropriate behavior with women of his congregation for decades, some of whom had been employees.

Though the allegations brought against Hybels were never proven and he continues to deny them, the impact of his stepping down are far-reaching. The church Hybels founded and pastored, Willow Creek Community Church, has eight locations across the Chicago region and more than 25,000 weekly attendees.

Baylor psychology lecturer Dr. Tamara Lawrence has studied power dynamics in relationships and suggests that there are some similarities between interpersonal and group-wide power dynamics. Lawrence suggests that one potential link may be in an individual’s original intentions for pursuing powerful positions.

“Why do they want to be in a position of power?” Lawrence asked. “Is it for personal gain or is it to promote social responsibility? I really think the answer to that question can really predict how ethically people are going to use their power. That’s the crucial component: their motive for wanting to be in a position of power.”

Dr. William Bellinger, chair of the religion department chair, said a crucial part of evading these problems with clergy is accountability.

“Ministers have a sense of responsibility and an influence over a congregation and it is really a shame when they abuse that influence in that way,” Bellinger said.

Bellinger pastored a rural congregation at Union Baptist Church in eastern North Carolina and served other congregations intermittently. Having been a minister himself, Bellinger emphasized the importance of good training and sufficient accountability for clergy men and women.

Congregations need the support of a constructive and virtuous leader, Bellinger said. However, congregations should resist idolizing their clergy.

“In the free church tradition, of which Baptists are certainly a part, I do think there is often a tendency to put pastors on a pedestal and to forget that pastors are human as well,” Bellinger said. “The pastor ought not to have all of the power in a congregation. Baptist tradition suggests that you can trust the community.”

Clergy should constantly seek personal improvement both spiritually and emotionally, Bellinger said. Cultivating integrity and empathy for the congregation is a crucial element of clergy life, no matter how demanding it can be.

Sherman junior Reyna Diaz highlighted that clergy should be held to higher ethical standards as leaders of church communities.

“I think clergy do a lot of good,” Diaz said. “Not everybody is like that. There are some really good people. It’s great that our nation is speaking up against leaders who abuse their positions of power.”

Bellinger said events like this should be viewed as further motivation to continue shedding light on the areas of the church that need improvement. When situations like this arise, leaders should be held accountable, but forgiveness is also necessary.

“We need to be both holding people accountable and forgiving and figuring out how to do that,” Bellinger said. “We need to commit ourselves to going forward into the future with integrity. I think we definitely need to be honest about them and deal with them straight forward.”