Two weeks into their investigation into allegations of misconduct involving former Senior Pastor Bill Hybels, leaders from the Willow Creek Community Church issued an apology on the church's website Wednesday night, saying "at least some of Bill's choices were inappropriate."
Hybels stepped down from his leadership position at the megachurch April 11, six months ahead of his planned retirement amid the allegations made by five women in the congregation, including a church leader. His announcement came just three weeks after the Chicago Tribune published allegations of unwanted kissing and hugging, suggestive comments and other improper behavior spanning decades.
Hybels has repeatedly denied the allegations. But Wednesday night the Elder Board, in charge of the investigation, said: "We do not believe the stories were all lies or that all the people were colluding against him [Hybels]."
When the Tribune first published the article, the Elder Board claimed that all of the allegations were "lies" and that "the individuals involved were colluding against Bill." The board apologized for its initial reaction Wednesday, admitting the first response "had too much emphasis on defending Bill and cast some of the women in an unfair and negative light."
"We are sorry," the elders' statements said. "... We are grieved that this situation is difficult for so many people."
The change comes just two weeks into a 45-day investigation into allegations. The board has invited those with complaints to come forward and talk about their experiences.
"It takes courage for a woman to step forward and share her story" the board said. It pledged its commitment to listening respectfully.
"We see now that while we have many policies in place, they did not prevent the situation we are now in," the board said. In the future the board is "looking into what additional safeguards could be implemented." The elders have consulted outside experts to help them with their next steps as an organization.
Church leaders also pledged to "continue seeking to have personal conversations, in a spirit of humility and listening, to speak directly with those who have raised concerns" and to "walk alongside Bill pastorally" as "appropriate next steps" are taken.
The board stated it plans "to provide an update every other Wednesday through the end of this 45-day period" to keep the public informed.
After the Chicago Tribune published allegations by the five women, the former head of evangelical publisher Zondervan said in a Christianity Today article published April 21 that in private meetings Hybels spoke "sexually inappropriately" with her.
"A good example would be the first time he saw me dressed casually," Maureen "Moe" Girkins told the nonprofit Christian magazine. "He made a big deal of how I looked in jeans and said I needed to dress sexy more often."
One of the private meetings took place at a home Hybels owns in Michigan, she told the Carol Stream-based evangelical magazine. Hybels asked her to pick up wine and dinner, the magazine reported, and that she keep the meeting a secret.
The magazine also reported that two women who met Hybels in the 1980s said they had uncomfortable encounters with the pastor, including an invitation back to his hotel room during a conference.
When he announced his immediate retirement, Hybels said he decided to leave his post 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."
He also both apologized and continued 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, 66, founded the nondenominational, evangelical Christian church 43 years ago in Palatine. He first announced last October his plans to retire.
Heather Larson, a 20-year Willow Creek veteran who has managed the church's day-to-day operations for five years, took over as the church's new lead pastor. She said last month the church would find an appropriate way to honor Hybels and his family in the future.