SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. (WLS) -- Many church members said they knew about the controversy but had no idea it would come to this, and they're praying it won't cast a shadow over the church's mission.
Rev. Bill Hybel's 42-year journey with the Willow Creek Community Church came to an end Tuesday night with one final message
"I have decided to accelerate my planned retirement date from October of this year to tonight. This decision was mine and mine alone," Hybels said.
Audible gasps filled the room.
And so did the thoughts, prayers and reactions from church members.
"I'm sure Bill is going to be in all of our hearts. We're praying for him and praying for the family. And I'm grateful for him in my life and some of his truth teaching," said David Yonker, Willow Creek member.
Hybels announcement that he would be retiring six months earlier than planned came less than a month after the Chicago Tribune published allegations of unwanted kissing and hugging, suggestive comments and other accusations of improper behavior.
The complaints were reportedly made by women in the congregation, including employees, and spanned decades.
The 66-year-old pastor has denied the allegations but said it was in the best interest of Willow Creek for him to step down.
The church said it hired a law firm to investigate the accusations but did not find the claims credible.
Some members questioned Hybels' decision to retire.
"I don't think it was really necessary just because of so many accusations. It wasn't enough," said Larry Swanson, Willow Creek member.
Other members believed it was the right decision for the community as a whole, and now they're praying it won't obscure the good work that they're trying to do.
Willow Creek is one of the largest churches in the country with eight locations in the Chicago area, serving more than 25,000 people every week.
"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