Rev. Bill Hybels, the famed leader of Illinois’ Willow Creek Community Church, has stepped down from his position as senior pastor, announcing his decision to retire six months early after being accused of misconduct.
His departure, announced on Tuesday, comes less than a month after an investigation by the Chicago Tribune found that the married pastor had been accused of engaging in inappropriate behavior with women in his congregation for decades. The publication revealed that Hybels had been accused of making suggestive comments, giving an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms.
However, in his candid statement published on the church’s website, the 66-year-old denied the allegations, claiming that an outside, independent investigation by the church 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,” he wrote. “Going forward, I feel the need to humbly look deep inside myself and determine what God wants to teach me. I intend to continue surrounding myself with wise counselors and trusted friends, and to ask them to speak honestly into my life so that I can learn every single lesson I need to learn from all of this.”
A church spokesperson confirms to PEOPLE that Hybels is stepping down six months before his originally intended retirement date, October 2018. The spokesperson also confirms that the church conducted an independent investigation into the claims and found Hybels not guilty. “I have complete peace about this decision and will not rush this process,” Hybels wrote of his departure. “Your prayers would be much appreciated during this upcoming season of reflection.”
Church leaders became aware of the claims against Hybels more than four years ago, according to the Tribune. Some leaders said the church’s investigation had been inadequate, and three even resigned from their positions as they believed the investigation had many shortcomings, the Tribune reports.
“I realize now that in certain settings and circumstances in the past I communicated things that were perceived in ways I did not intend, at times making people feel uncomfortable,” Hybels continued in his statement. “I was blind to this dynamic for far too long. For that I’m very sorry.”
Over the years, Hybels has risen to fame after founding what is now one of the nation’s largest churches alongside his wife, Lynne, in 1975. The church now hosts more than 25,000 at its main campus in South Barrington. Hybels even served as a spiritual advisor to former President Bill Clinton as the politician faced sexual misconduct allegations in the late ’90s.
Hybels has been applauded for his egalitarian leadings, as he encouraged and promoted women to leadership roles in the church. However, some women have said that it was Hybels’ strides in supporting women in the church that made them hesitant to speak out about his alleged misconduct.
“He changed my life. I wouldn’t have the opportunities I’ve had,” Nancy Beach, the church’s first woman teaching pastor, told the Tribune. “I know that. I’m very clear on that. I credit him for that. But then there’s this other side.”