Thinking Out Loud

August 7, 2018

Willow Creek: The Nightmare That Doesn’t End

Happier Days: Passing the torch, on the weekend of October 14th and 15th, (left to right) Steve Carter, Heather Larson, Bill Hybels. Click the image to read our reporting on that event.

Steve Carter, the teaching ministry heir to Bill Hybel’s position at Willow Creek has resigned. After years (literally) of developing a succession plan at Willow, things continue to unravel. Returning to a regular habit of watching Willow Creek online on Sunday afternoons a few years ago, I have greatly, greatly appreciated Steve’s preaching. As I watched yet another chapter in that church’s drama unfold yesterday, while some of it might have been continued jet-lag, and some of it might have been the heat wave, it is no exaggeration to say that I felt physically ill.

Furthermore, I feel we’re not done yet with this story. Attendance at the church seems to have been holding — I’ve tried to get more information — with the likes of David Crowder and Chris Tomlin leading worship; and guest speakers such as Henry Cloud (Boundaries), Christine Caine, Danielle Strickland, and former Willow teaching pastor Darren Whitehead. But over 200 comments on Twitter yesterday, responding to Steve Carter’s resignation letter, would indicate some might not be intending to stick around. Hence my title for this piece referencing “the nightmare that doesn’t end.”

You have to feel especially for families whose children are immersed in Promiseland and youth programs who shouldn’t have to be a casualty in all this; who should have to break up a routine and have friendships fractured.

For those not up to speed, I’m going to do something different here and share with you the top three items on tomorrow’s Wednesday Connect so you can track the story for yourselves:

♦ Author, seminary professor and veteran blogger Scot McKnight calls for sweeping restructuring at Willow Creek Community Church in the wake of new accusations concerning the personal conduct of Bill Hybels

♦ …and most of you know by now that Willow teaching pastor Steve Carter has resigned. ” I offered my resignation many weeks ago, but I was requested to delay an announcement and continue with my duties until the leadership determined how to make the decision public. At this point, however, I cannot, in good conscience, appear before you as your Lead Teaching Pastor when my soul is so at odds with the institution.”…

♦ …and in this statement from the Global Leadership Summit, don’t miss the wording of the section which forms the hyperlink: “Bill’s engagement with the Summit and Willow Creek Association was completely severed in early April. He has had no involvement in the 2018 Summit or Willow Creek Association since, and there is no path for him to return.”

That last item, the Global Leadership Summit is important. If your church’s biggest deal each year is an annual Christmas or Easter pageant, know that the GLS is Willow’s highest point on the calendar.

It’s next week. Craig Groeschel has stepped up to take a larger role, as have others, but right now the church wants to get past this — over 100 of about 700 remote location sites have pulled the event — to then focus more fully on the situation at the church itself. (The GLS is structured as a distinct organization, but intricately entwined with the church and (formerly) Bill Hybels.)

…I truly believe that the at the outset, the leadership at Willow wanted to believe in Bill’s innocence. I say that because I know I did. My first reaction was denial; in other words, mistrusting those bring the accusations forward to the Chicago Tribune (and now, the New York Times.) That turned to wanting to minimize the severity of the charges, to finally accepting the situation, and then to refocus on the leadership and the way they kept trying — possibly with some measure of sincerity — to sweep the situation under the carpet.

I can’t imagine the pain this is causing the church leadership, the church membership, the Hybels family, and now, Steve and Sarah Carter. Praying.

Steve and Sarah Carter. Steve had been mentored by Bill Hybels before coming on staff at Willow Creek.



October 15, 2017

Bill Hybels Announces Willow Creek Succession Plans

The team, both current and future (left to right) Steve Carter, Heather Larson, Bill Hybels.

At the first of three weekend services on October 14/15, which was also the celebration of the church’s 42nd anniversary, Willow Creek Community Church senior pastor Bill Hybels announced that one year from now, in October of 2018, the job he has held as Senior Pastor of the iconic church will be divided among two different people.

In a process that began 6½ years ago, Hybels and a team of leaders considered the possibility that his replacement might represent someone from an entirely different nation, given the church’s role in the annual Global Leadership Summit and the contacts it has produced, or possibly an international contact through the Willow Creek Association. He stated the search was essentially world-wide.

In the end however, the baton is being passed not to one, but two different people already serving the church in high profile capacities. An official announcement released on the church website confirms:

Executive Pastor Heather Larson, 42, will step into the role of Lead Pastor over all Willow Creek locations, and current Teaching Pastor Steve Carter, 38, will become Lead Teaching Pastor. Senior Pastor Bill Hybels, who founded the church in 1975, will continue coaching and developing these leaders until he transitions off the church staff in October 2018, at which point he’ll assume the title Founding Pastor.

Larson has been with the church for 19 years in various capacities, launching many new initiatives, and also worked for the American Red Cross. Carter arrived at Willow relatively recently and has held pastoral positions at Mars Hill (Grand Rapids, MI) and Rock Harbor (Fullerton, CA)  and is the author of This Invitation Life (David C. Cook, 2016).  However, before joining Willow five years ago, he had a 15-year mentoring relationship with Hybels.

Hybels detailed that after meeting with a consultant somewhat unfamiliar with the church, the question was asked, “What does Bill do?” After enumerating the work hours and the projects which currently fall under the Senior Pastor’s jurisdiction with the church Elders, the follow-up question was, “Why would we wish this on anyone?” So the decision was made to create two top-level positions.

The announcement continued:

The transition to new leadership will take place gradually over the next year, and Bill will transition off paid staff at Willow Creek Community Church in October 2018. During this transition, Heather and Steve will take steps of increased responsibility within their new job descriptions.

The complete 42nd Anniversary service is available on demand at where the announcement was made in lieu of a sermon.

For many years, Willow was the largest church in the United States and still ranks in the top five. Today, the church meets in six different locations and also has a Spanish congregation, Casa de Luz. The church’s early years, meeting in a theater in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, was a key element to the recent movie The Case for Christ. Past teaching pastors at the church include the movie’s main subject, Lee Strobel as well as John Ortberg and Gene Appel. The church hosts the Global Leadership Summit which is carried by satellite around the world. Bill Hybels’ wife Lynne is a strong social activist and daughter Shauna Niequist is a noted Christian author.

Newly announced leadership team at Willow Creek and their spouses: Heather Larson (2nd from Left) and Steve Carter (right)


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