CHICAGO (CBS) — Willow Creek Community Church kicked off a two-day leadership summit in South Barrington on Thursday, just hours after church elders and the new lead pastor announced they are stepping down, and apologized for mishandling sexual misconduct allegations against the church’s founder.
Willow Creek Association president and CEO Tom De Vries began the annual Global Leadership Summit by addressing the allegations against founder Bill Hybels, who retired in April, amid allegations of inappropriate relationships with women.
“We’re still in the middle of a very difficult and demanding set of circumstances. The accusations and allegations need to be pursued in order to acknowledge wrongdoing, misconduct, and even abuse,” De Vries said.
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Speaking to a crowd of hundreds inside the church, De Vries made it clear Hybels is no longer involved with the church, its association, or the annual summit.
Since Hybels retired, both of his replacements have resigned.
New lead pastor Rev. Heather Larson and all the church elders announced their resignations Wednesday night, in front of dozens of members of the congregation. Larson and the elders made it clear not only does the church need a fresh start, but a clear running lane to heal. They will step down by the end of the year.
“This is really important. Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return quickly. There is urgency to move us in a better direction. It’s the job of a leader to define reality, and it’s the job of a leader to put the team and the organization first, and I am absolutely committed to that,” Larson said.
Hybels retired in April, six months ahead of schedule, amid highly publicized allegations of suggestive comments, unwanted kisses, extended hugs, and invitations to hotel rooms. The claims reportedly came from female parishioners and staff members.
Some people attending the summit said they believe the decision by the elders and pastor to step down will mean a fresh start for the church.
“I hope that this all gets corrected. I’m sure it will, and we’re just going to have to start now. I mean, that’s just how it works,” Laura Elsaden said.
De Vries said the association is making three commitments moving forward, including pursuing an advisory leadership council to provide oversight for an independent investigation.
Several speakers and many churches backed out of the conference because of the controversy.
For 26 years, the church has drawn big names like Bono and former President Bill Clinton.
This year Denzel Washington was scheduled to speak at the summit, but a church spokesperson said he has since backed out.