Lessons From the Hybels Fallout: We All Need Boundaries and Accountability

With realistic boundaries and accountability, we can make sin more difficult for everyone.

Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels stands before his congregation, Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in South Barrington, Ill., where he announced his early retirement effective immediately, amid a cloud of misconduct allegations involving women in his congregation.

By Marni Chediak Published on April 28, 2018

More women are coming forward with stories about Bill Hybels. When the Chicago Tribune first broke the story, both Hybels and Willow Creek Church denied everything. Now they’ve pledged to listen to each woman’s story. “Bill acknowledged that he placed himself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid,” the elders wrote. “We agree, and now recognize that we didn’t hold him accountable to specific boundaries.”

As Bob Smietana writes, the women’s accounts follow a similar pattern: Hybels pressured them into spending time alone with him. This led to flirting, secrecy and unwanted hugs. As Hybels eventually acknowledged, “I placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid … I was naïve about the dynamics those situations created. I’m sorry for the lack of wisdom on my part. I commit to never putting myself in similar situations again.”

Too Cruel to be Kind?

The comics and others like to make fun of the supposedly prudish “Mike Pence rule.” Which is odd, because a majority of Americans support it. Pence is unwilling to dine alone with women or to have alcohol at events when his wife isn’t present. Critics suggest that policies like this “fence us off” from fostering loving, pure relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ. Or that this rule turns women into liabilities, limits their opportunities for advancement, or causes innocent situations to become sexualized. These are real concerns.

The Pence rule is a form of the Billy Graham rule, a policy implemented when the workforce was far less mixed than it is today. As a young professional, I benefited from lunches with senior male mentors and supervisors. I also found it convenient to drive to work with a married male co-worker who happened to live in the same apartment complex. These encounters were not sexual. Bryan’s wife, also a friend of mine, was fine with the carpooling.

But in the wake of the MeToo movement, we’re told, “senior men are 3.5 times more likely to hesitate to have dinner alone with a junior woman than with a junior man and are 5 times more likely to hesitate to travel for work alone with a woman.” In many lines of work, networking is critical. Too much caution could have devastating effects on the careers of women.

A strict policy of never meeting privately with someone of the opposite sex can be hurtful. But late-night drinks or hotel room visits are hardly a necessity. Reasonable boundaries can be set with common sense and counsel from godly advisors.

Do Not Be Naïve

Yet it’s naïve to think that merely striving for pure relationships with members of the opposite sex is enough. Even the best-intended Christian is vulnerable. Paul reminds us that he needed to discipline his body to keep it under control. We all need some kinds of boundaries — both for ourselves, and out of respect for our spouses.

Yes, a strict policy of never meeting privately with someone of the opposite sex can be hurtful. But late-night drinks or hotel room visits are hardly a necessity. Reasonable boundaries can be set with common sense and counsel from godly advisors. We should be honest with ourselves. Emotional intimacy leads to other kinds of intimacy. If an illicit attraction is developed, it should be acknowledged and corrected for.

A Better Way

Graham and Pence did well to protect their marriages. But accountability is better than boundaries. It’s better because it’s built on relationships of trust and respect with fellow Christians — people God gave us to provide strength and encouragement.

Hybels should have had accountability for his interaction with women from his earliest days in ministry. He had no business as a married man thirty years ago taking one-on-one jogs with Julia Williams, which led to inappropriate conversations. He had no business asking a young woman on a ministry retreat to join him in his hotel room to watch a movie. He had no business asking the president of Zondervan to travel alone with him in his private plane to discuss a book contract, leaving her husband to get home another way. How could he not know better?

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Patterns of Accountability

Churches should require patterns of accountability. For example, pastors can have weekly conversations with same-sex friends where private interactions with the opposite sex are at least reported. “Is it really important that you jog alone with Julia?” And install windows in every office. Secrecy is overrated.

None of these measures is foolproof. But acting in love, we can make sin more difficult for everyone: the predator, the godly man trying to be holy, the young woman climbing the career ladder. The senior male manager can make sure his boundaries are fair and treat male and female employees alike. We can all respect and support the good intentions of wise, even if possibly inconvenient restrictions.

To be sure, external structures are no substitute for internal virtue, and done carelessly can cause great harm. But who among us is above temptation? “Let he who is standing take heed, lest he fall” (I Corinthians 10:12).

 

Marni Chediak is a graduate of Stanford University. Before becoming a mom, she worked in various management positions for AT&T and General Mills. She has been homeschooling her 3 children in Southern California for the past 7 years. She is currently an English grammar and writing tutor in her local Classical Conversations community.

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