Prominent pastor Bill Hybels announced Tuesday he is stepping down from his Chicago-area megachurch Willow Creek, just weeks after the Chicago Tribune published allegations of misconduct from several women. Hybels, who with his wife co-founded one of the nation’s largest churches in 1975, was a spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton around the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
He told the church publicly last year that he was planning to step down in October, but he resigned Tuesday, saying he would be a distraction to the church’s ministry. Some members of his congregation shouted “No!” in response to his decision, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation following his address.
The stories surrounding Hybels have been part of a series of recent high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct among some evangelical leaders.
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In March, the Chicago Tribune published allegations that Hybels made suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to a staff member to hotel rooms. The newspaper also reported allegations of a consensual affair with a married woman, and the woman who said she had an affair later retracted her allegations. Hybels has denied all the allegations and said on Tuesday again that the church’s investigations found no evidence of misconduct. However, he told his congregation he felt attacked and wished he had responded differently.
“I apologize to you, my church, for a response that was defensive instead of one that invited conversation and learning,” he said.
He said that while most of the members of Willow Creek accepted the church’s findings of investigations, “some of the Christian community continue to be confused and conflicted.” The decision, he said, was his, with the approval of the church’s elders.
Hybels also said that he “placed myself in situations that would be far wiser to avoid. I was naive … I commit to never putting myself in similar situations again.”
He said he plans to seek counsel during his withdrawl but he plans to return to Willow Creek as his home church.
The church conducted its own internal review, and hired an outside attorney who investigated the allegations and told the Tribune his work led to no findings of misconduct by Hybels. In the Tribune’s report, other high-profile evangelical leaders, including John and Nancy Ortberg, suggested that the church’s internal review of the allegations was inadequate. Hybels had said that those leaders had colluded, to which John Ortberg responded in a recent blog post, saying it was “untrue.”
“It takes great courage for women to tell their stories,” wrote John Ortberg, who leads a megachurch in California. “In this case, the tremendous courage of several women has been met with an inadequate process that has left them without a refuge and with no way to be assured of a fair hearing.”
Hybels has been hugely influential in the megachurch movement, helping to popularize what was known as “seeker-sensitive,” a consumer-friendly approach it has shied away from in the past decade. Willow Creek has also been known for adding women to significant leadership roles in the church. Last year, Willow Creek appointed two pastors to replace him: Heather Larson and Steve Carter.
With Larson as a lead pastor, Willow Creek was described last year by Christianity Today as the only major evangelical megachurch with male-female lead pastors who aren’t married. She addressed the women in the congregation after Hybels’s address, saying recent media accounts did not match many congregants’ experience.
“I know many of you are confused or frustrated,” she said. “We can respect someone’s story and stand up for our own. You are strong. You have your own voice.”
In his address to his church, Hybels said he would also leave the board of the Willow Creek Association, a network of thousands of churches around the world, and he will no longer lead Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit, an annual event that draws popular speakers and authors. The church draws more than 25,000 people every weekend at its main campus and seven satellite sites, according to the Tribune.
This story has been updated with additional comments from Tuesday.