SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. (WLS) -- The founder Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, one of the nation's largest evangelical churches, has stepped down six months ahead of schedule.
The Tuesday announcement by the Rev. Bill Hybels to his congregation comes after published reports Hybels was the subject of inquiries by church leaders. They were looking into claims Hybels engaged in inappropriate behavior with women in his congregation. He was cleared of the allegations.
Hybels has been a counselor to presidents and is considered one of the most influential evangelical figures in the country. His announcement came at his church Tuesday night.
"I have decided to accelerate my planned retirement date from October of this year to tonight. Now, this decision, so that you know, this decision was mine and mine alone after a lot of prayer," he told his congregation.
Hybels, 66, is the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, which is one of the largest in the country with eight Chicago-area locations serving more than 25,000 people every week. He started the church in Palatine in 1975.
He announced he planned to retire in October 2018 in 2012.
Hybels said he continues to enjoy support from the congregation, however the controversy was a distraction from the church's work.
"What we saw here tonight is that we do have a man who is lying to thousands of people around the world. I have gotten to know some of the victims. I have gotten to know people that have been trying to speak out on their behalf for years," said Brandy Betts, Willow Creek member.
"There is just no way that Bill Hybels would have gotten on that stage and told us a lie," said Deidre Wiza, Willow Creek member.
Heather Larson, the executive pastor, will take over as chief executive of Willow Creek, and Steve Carter will become the lead teaching pastor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Founder of South Barrington megachurch quits following misconduct allegations
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