FLAWED PROCESS, WOUNDED WOMEN

April 12, 2018 

My name is Nancy Ortberg.  I served on the Board of the Willow Creek Association and served on staff at Willow Creek Community Church for nine years.  I would like to make clear why, after Bill Hybels’ accelerated retirement, I remain deeply concerned about the process and church governance that brought us all to this point, as well as the stories of the women who have spoken up. 

My first international trip with Willow Creek as a staff member was to Tasmania. At the end of the three-day conference a small group of us joined Bill in his hotel room to celebrate a birthday and the conference. As we got up to leave at the end of the evening Bill said to me in front of the group,  “Nancy why don’t you stay for a couple of minutes for us to discuss your ministry work?” I immediately looked at the others for how I should respond and one of them smiled and said, “Okay, see you in the morning.”

Awkwardly I stayed and we talked for about twenty minutes. When I got up to leave Bill stopped me at the door and hugged/held me tightly for about thirty seconds. Stunned, I finally slipped my arms up between us and pushed him away. I went back to my hotel room and cried, not understanding what had just happened. Later I did not know how or who to talk to and began to second-guess and doubt myself as to its significance; that is, until years later when I began to hear stories of other similar encounters.

On a subsequent conference trip to Hawaii, I went running with Bill and he struck up a conversation about the amnesiac side effects of Ambien. Having been a nurse, I told him I found it rather odd that he was focusing on one of the more rare side effects, and that he brought it up to me at all. Again, I thought not much more of that conversation until years later when other stories emerged that included Ambien.

The first woman who told me about an inappropriate relationship with Bill Hybels was in 2006. I did not seek this person out; rather, she sought me out.  This woman told me Bill invited her to drink wine on his boat at night in South Haven and used code words in their email exchanges.  She recounted an evening when she stripped naked and jumped into the water in front of him, after which he invited her to take a shower on the boat before she left. At the time, she assured me that once she told her husband about this that they had “handled it.” I assumed this meant that they talked to the Elders. Because of that assumption, for 8 years I told no one about this, not even my husband.

In 2014, Leanne Mellado let me know that a good friend of hers had shared a disturbing story. The similarities in these women’s stories were striking. This story involved a fourteen-year sexual affair. After carrying this story on her own for over six months, Leanne made the Elders aware of these allegations, and I was sure a thorough and independent investigation would be done to find out the truth on behalf of the woman, the church, the Willow Creek Association, and Bill.  

The Elders conducted the investigation on their own, and it comprised the following:

(1) Discovery of 1,150 emails between Bill and the woman over the previous two years. The Elders reviewed none for content.
(2) A face-to-face conversation with Bill Hybels on April 6th. They said they could “look him in the eye and discern if he was telling the truth.”
(3) A fifteen-minute phone conversation, also on April 6th, with the woman who made the confession, who had previously emailed Leanne three times that if her story went public she would deny it.

Then, the church Elders declared the matter closed. All of this had taken place over the course of only nine days. The coordinating Elder recommended that I talk to Bill Hybels directly.

The woman alleging an affair with Bill said that she was suicidal, both to Leanne and to Bill. The church Elders allowed Bill to stay in an unsupervised counseling relationship with her, while neither her husband nor Bill’s wife was made aware of the situation.

Months later, at a meeting with certain Elders and Willow Creek Association Board members, Bill was asked about these women. Bill characterized both of them as “having drinking problems,” being “unstable” and “stalking his family.” I was the only person on either Board who knew the identities of both women, and I knew they were smart, kind, and diligent leaders.

At this same meeting, Bill was asked about his “special arrangement with I.T.,” where his emails are permanently deleted on a frequent and regular basis. During that meeting, an Elder told a WCA Board member that Willow Creek had “no document retention policy.”  This was the first time either Board had heard about this arrangement, but both of these women told us separately that Bill had told them about this “special arrangement” years prior.

Bill also admitted that the woman alleging an affair had spent many nights at the Hybels’ home when Lynne was out of town.

In July 2014 I told the Elders about the story from 2006. They had not been aware of it and did not ask a single question, nor ask for the woman’s name until I brought it up again three months later.

In addition to everything we were learning, I and others on the Board of the Willow Creek Association grew deeply alarmed at Bill being allowed to continue in a counseling relationship with this woman who was suicidal, as well as the slipshod nature of the investigation and the overall lack of accountability in the Willow Creek culture.

I had nine of my most significant ministry years at Willow Creek. Bill was one of the most important leadership mentors I’ve had, and one of the things he told me repeatedly about situations like this was:

“Leave no stone unturned and do your homework before you go to the parties involved; know that they will always start with a denial.”

Since my resignation from the Board of the Willow Creek Association (alongside others) more than three years ago, five more women have, voluntarily, told me their all-too-similar stories. I did not seek out any of these women.

During these last three years many of us have been working behind the scenes to meet with the Elders—which we were able to do in July 2016—and with Bill, where nine months of email communication failed to result in a meeting.

I loved both my work at Willow Creek Community Church and its people. Telling the truth about this has been the most painful decision of my professional career, but it is the right one.