The founder of one of the largest U.S. megachurches announced his resignation Tuesday amid allegations of sexual misconduct but continued to proclaim his innocence.
Rev. Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., told church members that he was retiring for the good of the church community because the controversy arising from the allegations was “hindering our elders and church staff,” according to The Associated Press. Hybels maintained that the allegations of inappropriate behavior with women in the congregation, which includes accusations of unwanted kissing, extended hugs, and lewd comments, are patently false.
“But it has been increasingly clear to us that they can’t flourish when the valuable time and energy of their leaders are divided. The leaders of both our church and the WCA need the freedom to get on with the task of carrying out the missions God has given them,” Wybels said in a statement. “Therefore, I have decided to accelerate my planned retirement date from October of this year to tonight.”
Church leadership conducted inquiries into the allegations against Hybels when they first received complaints over four years ago. An internal church investigation cleared Hybels, but two of the church’s former teaching pastors, John and Nancy Ortberg, and the wife of a president of the church-related nonprofit Willow Creek Association called for another investigation. They cited concerns over the process of the first investigation and the fact that at least three of the church’s association board leaders quit over what they alleged to be the inadequacy of the inquiries. The wife later recanted her allegation of an extended affair with Hybels.
The church hired an attorney in 2017 to conduct another investigation into the claims against Hybels. The attorney, whose law firm specializes in workplace issues, told the Tribune that his investigation turned up no proof of Hybels’ alleged misconduct. Despite the results of both investigations, some of the women, both former members and former church employees, maintain their complaints against Hybels.
“This has been a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years. It’s time that gets identified,” Hybels told the Chicago Tribune in March. “I want to speak to all the people around the country that have been misled … for the past four years and tell them in my voice, in as strong a voice as you’ll allow me to tell it, that the charges against me are false. There still to this day is not evidence of misconduct on my part.”
Hybels did apologize in his Tuesday statement for what he characterized as his mishandling of the situations that led to the allegations and of the allegations themselves. He claimed that he had been naive about the dynamic of certain interactions between himself and other women and that he had placed himself “in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.” He also apologized for reacting with anger toward the publishing of the allegations against him.
“First, my first response to some of these recent accusations was anger. I confess to feeling very angry these last few weeks as I watched harmful accusations fly around without accountability. I felt attacked and knew that my loved ones and this church family would be affected. I sincerely wish my initial response had been one of listening and humble reflection. If I could go back, I would have chosen to listen first, and then to seek to learn and understand. I apologize for a response that was defensive, instead of one that invited conversation and learning,” Hybels’ statement read.
Hybels said that, although he is stepping down from all leadership roles, he intends to rejoin Willow Creek as a congregant.
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