Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of the multi-campus Willow Creek Community Church, received standing ovations from the congregation after he addressed multiple allegations of sexual misconduct over the weekend.
"I was not afraid to come to this meeting tonight. I know the heart of this church. I knew that you would give all of us an even hearing. You wouldn't rush to judgment," Hybels said at a "church family meeting" Friday night, according to Chicago Tribune.
During the meeting, the congregation was told about three inquiries overseen by elders over the last four years that have cleared Hybels of misconduct.
Three leaders on the board of Willow Creek Association, a nonprofit organization related to the church, earlier resigned over what they believed was an insufficient inquiry.
"I will do my level best if you allow me to continue to serve here until October when I will retire. I'm going to serve my heart out," Hybels added, after which the congregation stood up and applauded.
Hybels first announced in May 2012 that he would start the process of succession. He named his successors — Heather Larson, who will be lead pastor, and Steve Carter, who will be lead teaching pastor — last October and said he would be stepping down in October 2018.
Larson and Carter moderated Friday's meeting.
Feeling "heartsick," Carter said Friday on Facebook, "We are committed to prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to pastor each soul that is hurt, confused, disheartened. I am absolutely convinced of this: God's love for us is unwavering ... And this I also believe: the Church has the potential to shine brightest in moments like these when we put God's love on display. Dear Church, may we have the courage to search for the light and live into the love He calls us to. We can do this together."
On Thursday night, the Tribune published an extensive investigation of the allegations, in which former members of the church, including those who resigned from high-level leadership positions, argue that the church's investigations have been deficient. The Tribune report also alleged a pattern of behavior against Hybels that includes suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms.
A married woman had earlier made an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with Hybels, but she later retracted her claim and apologized to Willow Creek elders.
"The accusations you hear in the Tribune are just flat-out lies," Hybels said at the Friday meeting.
In a separate statement provided by Willow Creek addressing the alleged consensual affair which was first reported to Willow Creek elders in April 2014, Hybels said, "This is one of the most heartbreaking and frustrating things I've ever experienced—for me, for my family, for our church family."
"I was shocked and saddened when the Elders confronted me with the woman's claim. She had been not only a hard-working staff member, but also a family friend. I categorically denied the allegation. It was not true," he continued. "When the Elders reached out to the woman, she immediately acknowledged that she had lied, and she sent a very thorough written retraction. She also met with my wife, Lynne, personally and apologized earnestly for the pain her lies had caused Lynne."
Pam Orr, current chair of the Willow Creek Elder board, insisted in a statement published on the church's website that despite the criticisms of the investigations conducted into the claims made against Hybels, the process was thorough and above board and Hybels would step down in their eyes with his reputation intact as well as their full support.
Orr told the congregation Friday that elders hired an independent, experienced external investigator, attorney Jeffrey Fowler, who is a "Christ follower."
Fowler told the Tribune he reviewed emails and interviewed 29 individuals and yet found no evidence of misconduct.
Orr told the members they had not been informed about the allegations in the last four years because their pastor had been cleared. "We had concluded in the first investigation that we found no evidence to support the allegation brought forward. To bring that into full light, to bring that to the congregation just did not seem appropriate at the time," Orr was quoted as saying.
The church plans to hold another "family meeting" Monday evening.