CHICAGO (CBS) — The founder of the Willow Creek Community Church has retired six months ahead of schedule, amid allegations of inappropriate relationships with women.
The church hosts 25,000 people for services each weekend at eight different locations in Chicago and the suburbs.
Parishioners knew Rev. Bill Hybels for years had been planning to retire in October, but many were shocked Tuesday night when he called a special meeting at the main campus in South Barrington to announce it would be his last time at the pulpit.
“He’s my senior pastor, and I love the man in Christ, and we’ll miss him,” Willow Creek member Susan Len said.
A former spiritual adviser to Bill Clinton and various celebrities, including Bono and Mel Gibson, Hybels told his congregation the decision to accelerate his retirement was his alone. It comes after highly publicized allegations of suggestive comments, unwanted kisses, extended hugs, and invitations to hotel rooms.
The Chicago Tribune reported those claims came from female parishioners and staff members.
Hybels, 66, called the controversy painful, while also denying any wrongdoing.
“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,” he said. “As I said, I’m inviting the input of wise counselors, friends, and family members to help me sort through all of this in the days ahead; and God will guide.”
The pastor said an independent and outside investigation cleared him.
“While most of you in this congregation have listened carefully to and accepted the findings of these external investigations commissioned by the elders, some in the wider Christian community continue to be confused and conflicted,” he said.
Hybels said church leadership encouraged him to stay, but he does not want to be a distraction.
Members of the church were surprised and torn over the decision, as well as the allegations against Hybels.
“I came to Christ here because of him, and so did my dad right before he died. So I owe the man a debt of gratitude,” Willow Creek member Ron Elkin said.
Willow Creek’s new leader, Heather Larson, also spoke last night. She ensured everyone at the megachurch that the elders respect women and are committed to creating a healthy culture.