What follows is my story about Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church. If you’ve read previous articles in the Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today – including the most recent April 21st CT article written by Bob Smietana - then you already know about this subject – and a little bit about me. Please read on to learn more…
This is the story I shared nearly 31 years ago with a friend, with the most intense fear I had ever felt. The fear of sharing my story back then has only grown more frightening today. But I believe that God is asking me to do this.
I first met Bill Hybels, nearly 32 years ago, at the YMCA in Palatine, Illinois. My husband and I, along with our two sons, had recently moved to the area from California. I knew nothing about Willow Creek Community Church and had no idea what Bill Hybels did for a living. I would run in the afternoons when the Y offered childcare, and would notice Bill occasionally, running with a group of men. There were many times that Bill would show up alone, and sometimes he would ask to join me, and we logged in more loops than we could count. I found Bill to be very charming, engaging and very comfortable, but he sometimes asked questions about my life that seemed much too personal. At times, I felt that his questions were not out of concern, but rather made me feel he was questioning whether my marriage was strong. He began to go into detail about how unhappy his own marriage was, how little time he and his wife spent together, and even what she would wear to bed at night. When I look back today, I certainly would have handled myself differently and would have cut those conversations short. However, at that time, I believed this guy needed a friend and a listening ear.
At some point, I mentioned to Bill that my husband and I were not happy with the Presbyterian Church we were attending. Bill then mentioned that he was a pastor and that we should visit his church. Well, after I got over the shock of learning he was a Pastor, I asked him about the church. I even went so far as to ask him if the children’s ministry was very good. So, it was clear to Bill that I had never heard of him or Willow Creek.
I would travel to California throughout the school year, and informed Bill that I would be away to visit my family. There were times that Bill would hug me, look at me with tears in his eyes, and tell me how much he was going to miss me. I can remember one time particularly it seemed like he did not want to let me go. It was a strange reaction, and it began to make me uncomfortable about my relationship with him.
After returning from one of these visits to see my family, I felt that I needed to stop running with Bill, and changed my running times to avoid him. It was probably less than two weeks after I had made this change that Bill began calling me at home regularly. He would ask, “Where have you been? I miss you. Are you coming to the Y today?” I never gave him my phone number, but we did have phone books back in those days.
During this time, I began attending my first women’s bible study at Willow Creek. The leader was Betty Schmidt. Betty and I became fast friends over the 3 months of the study. She also liked to run, so I enjoyed a new running friend when our schedules aligned. I was still seeing Bill occasionally at the Y, but not as frequently as the prior weeks. The conversations were still uncomfortable and crossed boundaries of just being friendly. On one occasion, without me being aware, Bill had come up the stairs to the track area and noticed me on the leg extension machine. He then came around in front of me – and shockingly greeted me by placing his hands on my thighs and rubbing them up and down. I was able to get up quickly and deflect what had just happened by suggesting that we run on the track.
I will never forget the day I sat across from Betty, at the Hobson House in Long Grove, Illinois, to share the intense fear I was feeling about this inappropriate relationship with Bill. I was absolutely petrified! I knew it was not right! I felt that I was hurting God. I just desperately needed to tell someone. My conscience was destroying my days. I had multiple irrational visions of semi-trucks wiping me out on the road and my children being in the car as a result of my shame from these interactions. These were paralyzing emotions and feelings that I had never experienced before. I prayed all the way to lunch that Betty would be willing to hear me, believe me and help me. But, before I shared my story, I begged her to make a promise to me that she would never share what I was telling her.To this day, I am so very sorry that I put her in this position…I did not fully understand what I was asking of her that day.
Betty never made me feel like she didn’t believe me. She never judged me. She understood that the relationship had crossed boundaries, but she wanted to know about my feelings, how I was doing and what could she do to help. God made it very clear to me that day that telling Betty was exactly what He had been asking of me. I knew that Betty’s friendship was the gift He had waiting for me. I am forever grateful.
Over the next few months, I was preparing for back surgery and a corporate move back to California. Bill called at times to see where I was. I was actually glad to have had a good reason to not be running at that time, but I was conflicted. I still felt I had not shown God the courage He was asking of me. I believed I needed to confront Bill and tell him that it was not right for him to have been calling me, pursuing me and certainly not to be sharing such intimate information about his own personal life with me, and that it made me uncomfortable. I also had to tell him that I was wrong to not have said something to him months before. I needed to own my sin in the matter.
I wish I could say that the meeting in his office ended as I had hoped. After telling Bill that I had been wrong to have spent so much time with him running and discussing our personal lives, Bill seemed very nervous. I felt that he was trying to put the blame completely on me. He was not willing to own any part of what I had just shared, even the phone calls. He told me that he only called me because he was my pastor. I felt that Bill wanted me to think I was completely crazy. “We’re running partners, that’s all,” he said. I will always remember his face; it wasn’t the crying face any longer of a man who was going to be missing me. Bill was angry and appeared very nervous while I was talking. He had opened the top drawer of his office desk and was fiddling in a very nervous manner and was clearly anxious for me to leave. Our meeting was now over, this was very clear. There was no apology, not even a kind word as I walked toward the door.
I remember closing the door to Bill’s office, and I had two immediate emotions. Initially, I was proud of myself that God gave me the courage to confront Bill, but quickly, I felt like a piece of dirt. Bill had made me feel like I was a worthless soul and certainly not worth listening to. He had completely turned the story of our relationship around on me, and denied that he did anything that was inappropriate.
People will wonder why I am writing this story after all these years. I want you to know that up until almost two years ago, I had only shared this with my husband and Betty. At that time, I was asked if I would share my experience because other similar situations had come to light, even though I was not given any details. My first questions were, “Is this a safe place to share, can I trust this person and would it be kept confidential?” I was assured that it would be. I was ok with being interviewed, knowing my name would never be made public.
But, then, I heard the other stories. I saw the hurt. I felt their pain, and I remembered that fear. I saw their fear turn into courage. I knew if the stories of the multiple women who have already come forward were being shared, I could also show some courage. It’s been because of the bravery of these women that I could share my story…and my name. I know there are more stories out there; I have heard of some of them. I have heard of their fear to come forward. Given Bill and the elders’ reactions to the other allegations, why wouldn’t they be afraid?
I certainly understand that fear. It is paralyzing to think that you may lose your job and/or your friends, to be publicly humiliated, to be made to feel worthless, to be called a liar, or to have your name splattered across social media. Despite my fear, I believe in the good that can come from telling the truth and showing God that we want His church to be made whole.
I have been privileged to work in home health for the past seven years. During this time, I have seen many patients suffering with the different stages of dementia. Many are on Hospice care. The one message I hear often is, “I wish I could do my life again” or “I wish I had said or done this or that differently.” I encourage families to say what they need to say while they still have the chance to do so. Don’t put off what you know you need to do or say. My daily message is “You never get a do-over, so do it now!” It’s inspiring to see the healing this brings, and my hope is that it’s not too late for this community.
My prayer is that at least one of the elders at Willow Creek Community Church or someone in leadership with the Willow Creek Association will come forward and model the integrity and transparency God requires of these positions.
The Lord began a good work at Willow Creek Community Church. It is up to its leaders to handle their roles responsibly. God will complete the work.
Married to a wonderful guy, passionate about our family and building forever memories with our precious grandchildren. I work in geriatric healthcare. I love guiding and helping families to learn all they can about the “great brain robbery” – Alzheimer’s.