Weeks after revelations that Willow Creek Community Church investigated misconduct allegations against founding pastor Bill Hybels, the megachurch minister announced his early retirement from the congregation Tuesday night.
Hybels, 66, already presented a new leadership structure in October for the Christian church he started in Palatine in 1975, saying he would step down in October 2018.
But in the wake of an exhaustive Chicago Tribune report that outlined misconduct allegations — which he vociferously denies — Hybels made his retirement immediate on Tuesday.
“This decision was mine and mine alone after a lot of prayer,” an emotional Hybels said in a hastily announced Willow Creek gathering.
Hybels cited the distraction from the misconduct allegations as “hindering our elders and church staff,” claiming “some in the wider Christian community continue to be confused and conflicted.
“In recent times, I have been accused of many things I simply did not do,” he said.
Among the allegations leveled in the March 23 Tribune report were “inappropriate behavior” with women in his congregation dating back to the 1990s, including “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms,” as well as “an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true,” the newspaper reported.
On Tuesday, Hybels said he had been “naive about the dynamics those situations created,” but again denied wrongdoing.
“I realize now that in certain settings and circumstances in the past I communicated things that were perceived in ways I did not intend, at times making people feel uncomfortable,” he said.
The church previously acknowledged it hired a law firm to conduct an investigation, saying they determined the allegations were not credible.
“Simply put, there was nothing to report,” the church said in a statement explaining why the investigation was not announced publicly.
Willow Creek, now based in South Barrington, has grown to eight Chicago-area locations and is one of the largest evangelical churches in the country. Leaders say it draws 25,000 attendees each week at its locations in Chicago, Glenview, South Barrington, Crystal Lake, Huntley, Lincolnshire and Wheaton.
In his October announcement, Hybels said he planned to devote more attention to the Global Leadership Summit, which he launched in 1995 to train faith leaders. But he said Tuesday he wouldn’t be taking part in the summit, which has featured several well-known figures over the years, including former President Bill Clinton and U2’s lead singer Bono.
Two new positions were created to replace Hybels, the church said last fall.