Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels moved up his planned retirement Tuesday night, stepping down immediately amid a cloud of misconduct allegations involving women in his congregation -- at least some of which he called misleading and entirely false.
Hybels said he decided to leave his post now to allow his successors the "freedom to carry out the important mission that God has given to them."
"It has been extremely painful for us to see this controversy continue to be a distraction that is hindering our elders and church staff," Hybels said, referring to him and his wife, Lynne. "It has been increasingly clear to us that they can't flourish to their full potential when the valuable time and attention of their leaders are divided."
"Therefore I have decided to accelerate my planned retirement date from October of this year to tonight," he said, which prompted gasps and cries of "No!" from the members of the South Barrington megachurch who had assembled for the community meeting Tuesday night.
Hybels said he told the church leadership team and elders of his decision over the weekend. He said he also would be stepping down from his teaching and hosting roles at the church's upcoming Global Leadership Summit, the annual two-day leadership-building workshop featuring secular and faith-based speakers. He said he intends to rejoin the Willow Creek congregation after a period of reflection.
"Willow will always be my church home," he said.
The announcement comes just six months before Hybels' planned retirement and nearly three weeks after publication of a Chicago Tribune story that detailed misconduct allegations against Hybels made by five women. Hybels on Tuesday did make some apologies while also continuing denials.
"In recent times I've been accused of many things I simply did not do," he said. He apologized for feeling angry the past few weeks "as I watched harmful accusations fly around without any accountability. I felt attacked."
"I sincerely wish now that my initial response would have been one of listening and one of humble reflection," he said.
Hybels said he "too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid. At times I was naive about the dynamics of those situations created. I'm sorry for that lack of wisdom on my part."
"I have taken these allegations very seriously, as have our church elders," he continued. "While some of the stories that were about me have been misleading and some entirely false, and while investigations found no evidence of misconduct, I have been sobered by these accusations."
The Tribune report, released online March 22, included allegations of inappropriate conversations, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms, along with the allegation of a consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim was untrue.
One of the accusers, a one-time teaching pastor at the church, said Hybels gave her a long embrace and asked her personal questions during a trip to Spain in 1999, while another former employee accused him of putting his hands on her waist, caressing her stomach and kissing her in his hotel room during a trip to Sweden in 1998, according to the Tribune story.
Hybels has continued to deny all charges -- on Tuesday night, during two previous meetings last month with the congregation, and in a video statement posted last month to the church's website. In turn, he had accused a group of former church members of dredging up and assembling the allegations in an effort to damage his reputation before his planned retirement in October.
"Going forward I feel the need to search deep inside myself and determine what God wants to teach me through all of this," Hybels said Tuesday. "I intend to continue surrounding myself with wise counsel and trusted friends and I'm asking them to speak honestly into my life so I can learn every single lesson I need to learn from all of this.
"I have complete peace about this decision, and I'm not going to rush this process," he said.
Members of Willow Creek's Elder Board, which is responsible for governance of the church, have also denied Hybels engaged in misconduct, after internal and external investigations over the past four years.
Pam Orr, the board's chairman, took the podium Tuesday after Hybels, saying she was saddened by his decision to step down but could "accept and see the wisdom in" it.
Hybels, 66, founded the nondenominational, evangelical Christian church 43 years ago in Palatine. He announced last October his plans to retire.
Effective immediately, Heather Larson, a 20-year Willow Creek veteran who has managed the church's day-to-day operations for five years, is the church's new lead pastor. She said the church would find an appropriate way to honor Hybels and his family in the future.
"This is going to take time for all of us to process," Larson said. "This is not the end of the story. It's not the end of Bill's story. It is certainly not the end of God's story. God is still writing new chapters for all of us."
Steve Carter, who has been Hybels' teaching associate for the last six years and now the church's new lead teaching pastor, ended the meeting with a prayer, joined on stage by Hybels and his family. Elders encircled the group, some placing their hands on him.
Church members leaving Tuesday night expressed shock and sadness, many still standing by Hybels and not believing the accusations against him.
"I felt like I was walking through a disaster scene," said Bill Philbin of Schaumburg, who was in the front row during the half-hour service. "People are kind of sad Bill's time here ended in this way."
The church averages 25,000 attendees each week at eight locations in the Chicago area, making it one of the nation's largest churches.