By Lisa Cannon Green
Bill Hybels, the pastor who grew Willow Creek Community Church into one of the nation’s most influential megachurches, stepped down tonight amid accusations of a pattern of sexual misconduct.
Hybels said some of the accusations against him have been “misleading” and others “entirely false.”
However, in a meeting live-streamed at willowcreek.tv, he told the church: “I too often placed myself in situations that I would have been far wiser to avoid.”
His departure further rocks an evangelical world already reeling from several high-profile misconduct cases. Within the past two months:
- Andy Savage, a Memphis megachurch pastor, resigned over sexual misconduct with a high school student when he was a youth pastor in the 1990s.
- Larry Cotton resigned as director of an internship program at a Texas megachurch for failing to report Savage’s behavior at the time.
- Frank Page, president and chief executive officer of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, resigned over a “morally inappropriate relationship.”
Hybels’ announcement comes 18 days after the Chicago Tribune published a long but inconclusive account of allegations against him by a handful of former church members.
Multiple women told the Tribune they experienced unwanted advances from Hybels. He has denied all of the accusations.
“I’ve been accused of many things I simply did not do,” he told the church Tuesday night.
However, he acknowledged that in some situations, “I communicated things that were perceived in ways that I did not intend. At times, it made people feel uncomfortable. I was blind to this dynamic for far too long.”
He also apologized for reacting in anger when accused: “I sincerely wish now that my initial response had been one of listening and humble reflection.”
Hybels is stepping aside not only from the pastorate but also from hosting Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit, a two-day event in August that reaches hundreds of thousands of leaders worldwide.
He emphasized that leaving was “my decision and mine alone, prayerfully made,” for the sake of the ministries caught up in the controversy surrounding him.
“They can’t flourish to their full potential when the valuable time and energy of their leaders are divided,” Hybels said.
After a time of reflection with counselors, Hybels said, he intends to return to Willow Creek as a member of the congregation.
“I feel the need to look deep inside myself and determine what God wants to teach me through all of this,” Hybels said.
Last year, Hybels had announced plans to retire this fall. In a statement after the Tribune’s story, Willow Creek said the church had full confidence in Hybels and that he would remain in his role as senior pastor until his planned transition in October.
As Willow Creek’s founding pastor, Hybels has been one of the most influential American evangelical leaders. The church has grown from 125 people at its launch in 1975 to an attendance of 25,000 at eight Chicago-area locations today, according to the church’s website.
- Megachurch Pastor Bill Hybels Accused of Sexual Misconduct
- Bill Hybels, Willow Creek, and #MeToo: How Churches Should Respond to Accusations of Pastoral Misconduct
- Proceed With Care: Handling Pastoral Misconduct
- Healthy Ways to Help Sexual Abuse Survivors in Your Church
- Preventing Sexual Harassment Webinar (Brotherhood Mutual)
- Good Employment Practices Protect Ministries (Brotherhood Mutual)
- Creating Sexual Harassment Policies for Church Workplaces (Church Law & Tax)
LISA CANNON GREEN (@lisacgreen) is senior editor of Facts & Trends.