SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. — After the pain of watching her marriage fall apart, Pat Baranowski felt that God was suddenly showering her with blessings.
She had a new job at her Chicago-area megachurch, led by a dynamic young pastor named the Rev. Bill Hybels, who in the 1980s was becoming one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the country.
The pay at Willow Creek Community Church was much lower than at her old job, but Baranowski, then 32, admired Hybels and the church’s mission so much that it seemed worth it. She felt even more blessed when in 1985 Hybels and his wife invited her to move into their home, where she shared family dinners and vacations.
Once, while Hybels’ wife, Lynne, and their children were away, the pastor took Baranowski out for dinner. When they got home, Bill Hybels offered her a back rub in front of the fireplace and told her to lie face down.
Stunned, she remembered feeling unable to say no to her boss and pastor as he straddled her, unhooked her bra and touched her near her breasts. She remembered feeling his hands shake.
That first back rub in 1986 led to multiple occasions over nearly two years in which he fondled her breasts and rubbed against her. The incidents later escalated to one occasion of oral sex. Baranowski said she was mortified and determined to stay silent.
“I really did not want to hurt the church,” said Baranowski, who is now 65, speaking publicly for the first time. “I felt like if this was exposed, this fantastic place would blow up, and I loved the church. I loved the people there. I loved the family. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. And I was ashamed.”
Hybels denied her allegations about her time working and living with him. “I never had an inappropriate physical or emotional relationship with her before that time, during that time or after that time,” he said in an email.
Since the #MeToo movement emerged last year, evangelical churches have been grappling with allegations of sexual abuse by their pastors. A wave of accusations has begun to hit evangelical institutions, bringing down figures like the Rev. Andy Savage, at Highpoint Church in Memphis, and the Rev. Harry L. Thomas, founder of the Creation Festival, a Christian music event.
Baranowski is not the first to accuse Hybels of wrongdoing, though her charges are more serious than what has been reported before.
In March, The Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today reported that Hybels had been accused by several other women, including co-workers and a congregant, of inappropriate behavior that dated back decades. The allegations included lingering hugs, invitations to hotel rooms, comments about looks and an unwanted kiss.
The accusations did not immediately result in consequences for Hybels. At a churchwide meeting where Hybels denied the allegations, he received a standing ovation from the congregation.
The church’s elders conducted their own investigation of the allegations when they first surfaced four years ago and commissioned a second inquiry by an outside lawyer, completed in 2017. Both investigations cleared Hybels, though the church’s two lead pastors have since issued public apologies, saying that they believe the women.
In April, Hybels announced to the congregation he would accelerate his planned retirement by six months and step aside immediately for the good of the church. He continued to deny the allegations, but acknowledged, “I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.” The congregation let out a disappointed groan. Some shouted “No!”
On Sunday, one of the church’s two top pastors severed his ties with Willow Creek. After services, the Rev. Steve Carter announced that he was resigning immediately in response to Baranowski’s “horrifying” allegations about Hybels.
Carter said he had a “fundamental difference” with the church’s elders over how they had handled the allegations against Hybels, and had been planning to resign for some time.
Carter did not appear as scheduled at Sunday services at the church’s main campus, and the congregation at the second service was told that he was so sick that he was vomiting backstage.
No mention was made of Hybels or the allegations against him at either service at the main campus.
In many evangelical churches, a magnetic pastor like Hybels is the superstar on whom everything else rests, making accusations of harassment particularly difficult to confront. Such a pastor is seen as a conduit to Christ, giving sermons so mesmerizing that congregants rush to buy tapes of them after services.
In the evangelical world, Hybels is considered a giant, revered as a leadership guru who discovered the formula for bringing to church people who were skeptical of Christianity. His books and speeches have crossed over into the business world.
Hybels built a church independent of any denomination. In such churches, there is no larger hierarchy to set policies and keep the pastor accountable. Boards of elders are usually volunteers recommended, and often approved, by the pastor.
But the most significant reason sexual harassment can go unchecked is that victims do not want to hurt the mission of their churches.
“So many victims within the evangelical world stay silent because they feel, if they step forward, they’ll damage this man’s ministry, and God won’t be able to accomplish the things he’s doing through this man,” said Boz Tchividjian, a former sex crimes prosecutor who leads GRACE, an organization that works with victims of abuse in Christian institutions.
“Those leaders feel almost invincible,” said Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham who has consulted with some former staff members accusing Hybels of wrongdoing. “They don’t feel like the rules apply to them, because they’re doing great things for Jesus, even though their behavior doesn’t reflect Jesus at all.”
— A Sign
In 1984, 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 Hybels, who was then 33. Her car was nearby, but she accepted the ride.
It seemed like a sign from God.
Hybels later also described the meeting as a miracle: He had been driving out of the parking lot when God urged him to go back and find the woman he drove by.
“That night I had no idea how offering help to a person who probably didn’t need it would affect my life and ministry,” he wrote in one of his first books.
Soon after, she left her position as a computer systems manager. She found great purpose in working for a church that was adding more than 1,000 new members a year. She served as Hybels’ gatekeeper, fielding calls from pastors across the country eager to tap him for advice.
“It was a wonderful time,” she said. “I thought maybe God was just being good to me, and I think he was. But I couldn’t understand: Why did he select me? Because I didn’t think that highly of myself.”
Baranowski kept handwritten notes she received from Hybels. In one, Hybels praised her work and said, “I am praying that your new small group” at church “will be a source of much happiness and strength in your life.” Then he added, “P.S. Plus, you are a knockout!"
Hybels was regarded as a maverick in the evangelical world for giving women leadership positions.
Nancy Beach, who joined the staff soon after Baranowski, said the work was exhilarating.
“We were at the center of this grand adventure,” said Beach, the first woman appointed by Hybels to be a “teaching pastor,” meaning she could preach at services.
Beach recalled that Hybels was an exacting boss who got angry if the sound system was fuzzy or if a Christmas drama wasn’t performed smoothly. And he didn’t tolerate personal misconduct. After one staff member had an affair and another was discovered with pornography, she said, “They had to speak publicly to everyone affected. They lost their jobs.”
Beach is among the women who have recently come forward in articles accusing Hybels of harassment. She said that on a work trip to Spain in 1999, he invited her to his hotel room and gave her a long hug that made her feel uncomfortable.
She didn’t speak up until recently, when she heard there were other women with similar experiences.
“That’s what makes some of this so confusing, because he has been a champion for women,” said Beach, who has since left Willow but still preaches widely.
— Guilty and Ashamed’
In the late 1980s, crusading against pornography was a top priority for evangelicals. Hybels told Baranowski that he had been told to educate himself on the issue by James Dobson, founder of the ministry Focus on the Family, who had been appointed by President Ronald Reagan to an anti-pornography commission.
Calling it research, Hybels once instructed Baranowski to go out and rent several pornographic videos, she said, to her great embarrassment. He insisted on watching them with her, she said, while he was dressed in a bathrobe.
One night, she said, Hybels felt too sick to go to a church event, so he sent his wife in his stead to introduce the guest speaker, a famous evangelist from India. He asked Baranowski to bring him something to eat, and fondled her again, she said.
Baranowski said that during the years of harassment, Hybels never kissed her, and they never had intercourse. She was particularly ashamed about the oral sex. She grew increasingly wracked by guilt and tried to talk with him. One day in his office, she told him that it was unfair to his wife, that it was sin, and that she felt humiliated.
That night she recorded in her journal what he had said in response: “It’s not a big deal. Why can’t you just get over it? You didn’t tell anyone, did you?”
His attitude toward her slowly began to change, she said. She moved out of the house after two years. In the office, he began to suggest she was incompetent and unstable. He berated her work in front of others. She grew depressed and poured out her feelings to God, filling 20 spiral-bound journals.
On May 11, 1989, she wrote, “I feel like an abused wife.”
She feared that she would be forced to stand in front of the congregation and confess, like the other employees who were fired. She was relocated to work in a converted coat closet.
Hybels finally sketched out an exit plan for her on a piece of note paper, which she kept. She resigned from Willow after more than eight years.
Hybels said in an email last week that Baranowski had “wanted a bigger challenge than being my assistant” and changed jobs “on good terms.”
She saw a counselor, who said in an interview that she remembered only that Baranowski was “humiliated, guilty and ashamed” because of her relationship with Hybels. The counselor, who spoke with Baranowski’s permission, requested anonymity because she did not want to be part of the controversy.
She recalled of Baranowski, “She felt she had lost her connection to God.”
Since leaving the church, Baranowski said she has struggled to keep a job, lost her condominium, moved from state to state, and had migraines and panic attacks.
“I carried Bill’s responsibility, for things he should have been responsible for,” she said.
Baranowski told only one friend, the Rev. Don Cousins, about one month after she left the Willow staff. She begged him to stay silent, and he did, until now.
The entanglement with Hybels “altered the trajectory of her life,” said Cousins, a well-known evangelical leader who worked at Willow for 17 years.
“She had been a very high-performing person, committed, high-caliber, responsible,” said Cousins, now a pastor in Orlando, Florida. “And the church was her life.”
Hybels went on to expand Willow to eight sites with 25,000 worshippers. He published more than 50 books, many on ethics, like “Who Are You When No One’s Looking.”
He was a spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton and stuck with him through his impeachment. He drew speakers like Colin Powell, Bono and Sheryl Sandberg to his annual Global Leadership Summit, which has continued and will be held later this week.
When news of the other allegations against Hybels broke, Cousins encouraged Baranowski to get in touch with Beach. The two women had a tearful reunion. Both wish they had confronted Hybels at the time so they could have spared other women from harassment.
Beach remembers traveling to 27 countries representing Willow Creek and hearing pastors say hundreds of times that they owed their churches’ success to Hybels.
“How could he have done all this good,” she asked, “when there were such dark things happening behind the scenes?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Laurie Goodstein © 2018 The New York Times