(USA Today) — The pastor of a powerful Chicago-area megachurch has resigned after a series of sexual misconduct claims he described as "flat-out lies."
Bill Hybels, 66, founded Willow Creek Community Church more than four decades ago, building it into an eight-campus evangelical Christian megachurch with a 7,000-seat worship center.
Hybels has been dogged in recent years by a series of investigations into claims of inappropriate behavior with female staffers and congregants. Accusations of lewd comments and inappropriate touching stretching back more than 20 years are "flat-out lies," Hybels told the Chicago Tribune last month.
In a statement released late Tuesday, Hybels said church elders had clearly stated that outside, independent investigations found no evidence to support the "allegations brought to their attention."
"In recent times, I've been accused of many things I simply did not do," Hybels said. But he said he had been "naive" and "placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid."
Hybels said he appreciated what he described as the continued support from within his congregation. But he said the controversy was a distraction from the church's mission.
"While most of you in the Willow congregation have listened carefully to and accepted the findings of the external investigations commissioned by the elders, some in the wider Christian community continue to be confused and conflicted," he said.
Hybels had previously planned to retire later this year to focus his energy on the Willow Creek Association, a nonprofit dedicated to leadership development that conducts a leadership summit each year. He said he now plans to step away from both.
"Given my love for both this church and the leadership summit, you can imagine how grieved I have been by the way the controversy surrounding me has impacted both these ministries," Hybels said in a statement. "But it has been increasingly clear to us that they can't flourish when the valuable time and energy of their leaders are divided."
Hybels apologized to the congregation for how he handled the accusations, saying he regretted reacting with anger when they were made public.
“I apologize to you, my church, for a response that was defensive instead of one that invited conversation and learning,” he said.
The resignation comes three weeks after megachurch pastor Andy Savage resigned from the Highpoint Church in Memphis amid accusations he assaulted a teenage girl in Texas 20 years ago. The woman contacted Texas authorities after the case was publicized in January, but she was told the statute of limitations had expired.