In what some viewed as mixing the water of politics with the oil of spirituality, President Bill Clinton discussed lessons he has learned in leadership with Willow Creek Community Church pastor Bill Hybels Thursday in front of 4,540 church leaders."I think I have given evidence that I need to be in church," Clinton quipped as the crowd laughed in response. "This job [the presidency] can overtake you. It can crowd out all that other stuff that keeps you centered."Hybels asked Clinton questions regarding the president's spiritual life during the first half of their 75-minute interview at the South Barrington, Illinois, church site. In this presidential election year, the national news media turned out in force. Willow Creek's chapel was transformed into a press room for dozens of reporters.Referring to his infidelity with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky as his "personal crisis," Clinton, said:"I feel much more at peace than I used to. As awful as what I went through was, sometimes when you think you've got something behind you and it's not behind you, this sort of purging process, if it doesn't destroy you, can bring you to a different place."I'm in the second year of a process of trying to totally rebuild my life from a terrible mistake I made," he continued. It's been an amazing encounter trying to rebuild my family life … which took a lot of effort and that I never talked about and probably never will because I don't think it's anybody else's concern."A month ago, Clinton accepted Hybels's invitation to speak at Willow Creek's annual three-day Leadership Summit Conference, which this year is being broadcast via satellite to an additional 6,300 people at 15 locations in the United States and Canada. An announcement of Clinton's visit was withheld until a week before the conference.White House spokesman Jason Schechter said of Hybels's relationship with Clinton, "They've been meeting regularly over the whole course of his administration. The president is interested in faith-based issues."The president said he became a Christian when he was nine years old at a Baptist church in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and later sent his allowance money to support Billy Graham crusades. He slacked off from church in college until Hillary encouraged him to go again. Now, he says, he and his family attend a Methodist church in Washington on a regular basis. "I don't do it for anyone else. I do it for me," he said. "It's one of the best hours of the week. I just let everything go."Contrasting his own practice of attending church for an hour a week, Clinton spoke admiringly of observant Jews, who faithfully set aside 24 hours for the Sabbath. Clinton pointed to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a sharp critic of Clinton's moral failings as an example of an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath. Lieberman is now poised to be Vice President Al Gore's Democratic running mate in the November presidential election.Some conference attendees wondered if Clinton's remark was coincidental or planned, considering the Democratic National Convention begins Monday in Los Angeles."It just seemed like he used this for a political platform," said one long-time Willow Creek church member who wished to remain anonymous. "We were very cautious about him coming here."Hybels refuted claims that Clinton has not yet apologized for his past actions of infidelity."You gave one of the most clear confessional statements that I have ever heard," he said to Clinton."I finally realized it would never be all right unless I stood up and said what I did is wrong," the president responded. The crowd applauded enthusiastically several times throughout the session. Hybels did not ask Clinton why he lied when first questioned in December 1998 about his relations with Lewinsky.After the first half of the interview, Hybels proposed moving on to discuss the topic of leadership. "I thought you'd never change the subject," the president said with a laugh.Clinton then shared his views of a successful leader:"I think vision is the most important thing. The Scripture says where there is no vision, the people will perish. Teambuilding is very important."Vice President Gore doesn't get near enough credit for a lot of the things that I've done that he was the main executor on." Clinton later reminded the audience that Gore should not be blamed for the president's mistakes.Clinton spoke on his passion for racial and ethnic reconciliation and named a few of his role models (his mother and Nelson Mandela). Some of his best moments came while working on peacekeeping efforts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, the president said, while his worst (aside from the Lewinsky affair) were the deaths of U.S. troops in Somalia, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the 1994 backlash against Congressional Democrats who supported his legislation."He's has incredible responsibilities and I respect him," said Judy Smoot, 45, Creative Arts Director at New Song Community Church in Columbus Ohio. Smoot attended the conference with her husband. "I thought he had a lot of courage; it was genuine," added Tom Hyland, 45, of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Owatonna, Minnesota.Others were skeptical, though, of Hybels's decision to interview Clinton. "I didn't support it initially," said Doug Savage, 37, a church member from Good News Gathering in Hillsboro, Ohio. "You can't help but look at President Clinton and question his behavior."Christian radio host Vic Eliason condemned Willow's invitation to Clinton on his national daily show, Crosstalk, earlier this week. "What advise could Bill Clinton offer clergymen?" he asked.Some Crosstalk listeners called Christianity Today in protest of the Clinton visit. Patsi Lowry, 57, a computer specialist from Gulfport, Mississippi, said, "I don't think the man's had a change of heart. If he had, we would have seen a difference in abortion, the promoting of homosexuals, or the prayer that's not in schools."After the Clinton interview, Hybels maintained a different perspective, "It is crystal clear that he has asked for forgiveness for his mistakes and is on a journey of spiritual restoration and growth." Willow Creek Community Church, located on the outskirts of Chicago, is one of the nation's largest congregations with 17,000 members.
:See a transcript of Clinton's appearance here .Mainstream media coverage of Clinton's appearance includes:Contrite Clinton Claims Renewal -- The Washington Post (Aug. 11) Scandal mine alone, Clinton says | Gore praised in bid to offset GOP critics -- Chicago Tribune (Aug. 11) Controversy Follows Clinton to Church -- Chicago Tribune (Aug. 11) Clinton bares his soul at Willow Creek -- The Daily Herald (Chicago suburbs) (Aug. 11) Repentant Clinton Reviews His Presidency -- The New York Times (Aug. 11) Clinton grateful for 2nd chance -- Chicago Sun-Times (Aug. 11) Clinton says blame for affair with intern is his, not Gore's -- The Washington Times (Aug. 11) Clinton: Lewinsky affair a 'terrible mistake' -- BBC (Aug. 11) 'A Terrible Mistake' | President Bares Soul on Lewinsky Scandal -- Associated Press (Aug. 10) Hear Clinton out, pastor asks church -- Chicago Sun-Times (Aug. 10) South Barrington Scrambles As Police Force 1 For Clinton Visit -- Chicago Tribune (Aug. 10)
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