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.


March 24, 2018

Bill Hybels, John Ortberg: Why This Scandal Strikes Close to Home

John Ortberg (left) and Bill Hybels (right) – surprising combatants in a war of accusations.

Over the years, when a noted Christian leader has been accused or charged with any type of impropriety, it has usually taken place at a distance from what I would consider my circle. Typically these stories concern:

  • a Catholic priest
  • a member of the Reformed/New Calvinist community
  • a Pentecostal/Charismatic fringe church
  • a smaller African-American church
  • a story taking place overseas

This time it’s personal.

Bill Hybels was the subject of a Chicago Tribune story this week which rocked my world. (The term being used is sexual misconduct.) Part of the reason this hits closer to home is that he’s one of a select list of pastors whose sermons I listen to weekly. I’ve been onboard with Willow since a friend gave me a cassette entitled “Philosophy of Ministry” back in the early 1980s. I’ve championed the concept of seeker-friendly churches (most churches are seeker-hostile) and applauded them when they realized in 2007 that the spiritual needs of seekers had changed and that on their current course they were not producing long-term disciples. I’ve attended services at Willow; my wife attended a conference at the Northwest Chicago campus.

But John Ortberg, who is bringing the charges against Hybels is also on that list of pastors whose teaching has influenced me and I continue to enjoy. I tracked with Ortberg when he was on staff at Willow and have followed his sermons at Menlo Park Presbyterian. I’ve read and reviewed his books. When I started a church plant in my town, for six weeks we did the videos for If You Want to Walk on Water You Have to Get Out of the Boat.

I have had great respect for both men…

…As I’ve written before, my father was involved with Charles Templeton before and during the time when Templeton abandoned the faith (paving the way for Billy Graham, who once said he was only continuing the mandate which Templeton started and never finished.) This has taught me one very important principle:

In times like this we need to keep our eyes on Christ, not people.

We need to focus on Jesus, not Christian leaders or Christian institutions.

We need to not be surprised when stories circulate (a type of  ‘wars and rumors of war’ if you think about it) and continue to make Christ our focus.

For now, that’s all I have to say about this story. We’ll see how it plays out over the next days and weeks.  

Other coverage: See Christianity Today.

Update: A Chicago Daily Herald report on the 2-hour congregational meeting which took place Friday night at Willow. And the Chicago Tribune itself, where this week’s bombshell was dropped, also sent a reporter to the congregational meeting.

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)


February 27, 2016

The Chair Time Concept

Bill Hybels - Chair TimeSometimes when you visit another church — either in person or online — you become of aware of certain terms or phrases that are unique to their congregation. After a few years of being away, I’ve returned to making Willow Creek in Chicago part of my weekly online travels, and I’ve been introduced to “Chair time,” which is what other Evangelicals might call “devotions.”

I decided to go to Google to see what people are saying about it.

First, Bill Hybels himself, speaking at a 2014 Hillsong conference:

…No doubt you’ve seen a picture of Michelangelo’s most famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, “The Creation of Adam,” in which he portrays God and Adam with their hands outstretched toward one another. God is leaning and straining toward Adam, and his fingertip almost touches Adam’s hand, which is more relaxed, not nearly as intent on its mission.

The very hand of heaven reaching for the hand of man.

Now, imagine Adam’s hand reaching out another six inches, grabbing firmly ahold of God’s hand, and hanging on to it tightly. That image captures the single biggest bucket-filler in my life: being firmly hand-in-hand with God…

…If you’re not in the daily habit of reaching for God’s hand and listening for his agenda, let me offer you a challenge: Find a spot in your home—for me, it’s a wooden rocking chair by the fireplace—and sit there for fifteen minutes a day, connecting with God. Read his Word, open up your life to him, and listen for his whispers. When you’re in that chair and you’re in a right relationship with God, it secures your identity. It simplifies your agenda. You won’t be so tempted to run out and do all the other stuff that doesn’t matter a hill of beans to God.

So, chair time. Start there.

At the blog Crown of Compassion, Dave Henning summarizes Hybels’ definition in the book Simplify:

To feel closer to God or hear from Him through His Word, Pastor Hybels notes, we need to allocate purposeful time with God every day.  A chair is any place where we can sit uninterrupted and meet God.  Bill explains:

“Your chair time . . . should be purposeful and slow and protected from distraction, at a time of day that works best for you.”

From a busy mom who is a member of Willow Creek:

…The first thing I thought of was I need a vacation!!!! Why don’t stay-at-home moms have built in vacation days?!   We don’t and that’s okay, but I have a choice to make the most of the game of life and that may mean taking a timeout. It makes sense why our lead pastor at Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, often rehashes the importance of “chair time”, spending 15 minutes a day with your Bible. It’s like a timeout from this crazy life to be with God … just you and Him.  Or why in sports, timeouts are so important to teams.  It gives the team the ability to rest, readjust, and prepare for the remainder of the competition…

A book excerpt from Simplify reads:

..Because you are reading a book about simplifying your life, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you are in a season of throwing away clutter. You are throwing away commitments on your calendar that don’t fit your values. You’re throwing away the financial habit of living beyond your means. You’re tossing some shallow or harmful relationships in favor of deeper, more life-giving relationships in Christian community. Through the hard work of self-evaluation, you are in a season of clearing out and clarifying.

Or perhaps you’re in a season of keeping — keeping new commitments to make time for your family; keeping your daily chair time and prayer time with God holy and set apart; keeping your alignments at work — passion, culture, challenge and compensation. There’s a time for one and a time for the other…  (p. 19)

…Your chair time doesn’t have to be an in-depth Bible study or an hour-long meditation exercise. But it should be purposeful and slow, and protected from distraction, at a time of day that works best for you. More important, it should be daily… (p. 44)

Phil Owen on the difference between devotions and chair time:

…As someone who faith has been a part of my story in one form another for a long time, I’ve known the value of what we call ‘devotions’ or ‘quiet time’ or any other verbiage we’ve given to it over the years.  It’s huge.  It’s great.  But the truth is, I’ve struggled with consistency time and time again.  I have gone through seasons where I’m strong, and seasons where I’m spotty. At best.

Since looking at it SLIGHTLY differently through the lens of ‘chair time’- that’s seemed to be helpful for me.  For whatever reason.

I think that reason has more to do with location than anything else.  ‘I have to’s’ are never any good for any of us.  I fail at ‘I have to’s’.  That’s not entirely true- but an ‘I have to’ in my time of solitude seems obligatory, and is not driven by desire.  This should be a time driven by desire.  And usually it is (though I wouldn’t be truthful if I said there’s never a time where I do it simply because I know I need to…and that’s not all bad either…though that’s another blog for another day).  So for some reason- focusing on location seems like more pressure and seems more familial…

Finally, at the blog, Church of the Servant:

Maybe your chair time is at a coffee shop, your breakfast table, living room coach, your office, or during your commute. It could be morning, afternoon or evening. Your chair time will change your life and help you gain perspective. What do you say…will you find a chair?

January 17, 2016

Martin Luther King Weekend at Willow Creek

Bill Hybels described how later in his ministry he vowed not to let MLK Weekend go by without it being a central part of their Sunday service.

This weekend, instead of a sermon, the church listened to an interview he did with Rev. Dr. James Meeks. To listen, click this link: [Note; beyond this week the sermon will be found in the archives for January 17th.]

The words below are Bill’s:


June 11, 2012

Church Governance Issues: Succession Plans

On the weekend I linked to the stories concerning the impeding departure of Darren Whitehead from Willow Creek in northwest Chicago and Shane Hipps from Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids.

When the subject of pastoral succession comes up, I usually dodge the question and instead discuss my personal pet peeve: Transition times.  I believe that churches of all sizes suffer greatly during the time between the moment the senior pastor leaves and his (it’s usually a ‘he’) replacement arrives; which can be a span of months or even years.

At the time I concluded,

Something; anything, has got to be better than the status quo way of doing things.

This time around I want to again somewhat dodge the question and look beyond the relatively simple  — or seemingly simple — task of choosing a successor to the present pastor; and look at the underlying cause of problems instead of the symptom.

My guess, and this is complete speculation on my point, is that somewhere in the back of his mind Rob Bell knew that some restlessness was stirring in his spirit when he invited Shane Hipps to join the staff.  Shane’s letter to his church family indicated that he inherited a role that was in part, customized to shape Rob Bell’s unique giftings and outside ministry to the larger Christian community. But when the church decided to retrench and return the pastoral role to something more traditional — albeit absent the actual sense of control that many pastors enjoy — Shane decided that this wasn’t the trip he signed up for.

Less speculative is that Bill Hybels — possibly the number one American pastor on the subject of leadership issues — had a clear sense of succession in mind when Gene Appel was hired as teaching pastor. But that didn’t quite work out. Then, out of the land down under, came Darren Whitehead.  I listened to podcasts of both men, and enjoyed the teaching ministry of both. But now Bill and the Creekers are back to square one where the role of teaching pastor — which is really one step away from being senior pastor — is concerned.

While I don’t know all the nuances of Mars Hill, I do know that Willow is not going to miss a beat as long as Bill Hybels keeps showing up for work on Monday morning. (Actually, he says he does his best writing in a nearby coffee shop.) He’s still there. There are lots of good people on staff. There are probably dozens of people in the church’s ‘farm team,’ (the Willow Creek Associates ministry network) that they are aware of. There are good men leading the satellite campuses.  And they — and to a similar extent Mars Hill — can call up just about anybody to speak on Sunday morning; people who would be thrilled to honor the invitation.

But what does your church do when there is no heir apparent?

Here’s how I would armchair quarterback this:

First, most of our local churches are far too personality oriented. We want to see the back corner church office — the one with the extra window and the larger desk — occupied. We need to get past the idea that church life revolves around a single individual. And I include myself in this; I need to think of North Point as North Point, not “Andy Stanley’s church;” I need to refer to Saddleback as Saddleback, not as “Rick Warren’s church.”

Second, we need to see succession as an ongoing process; not something that surfaces in urgency at the moment a resignation letter is issued. I alluded to the ‘farm team’ earlier, and certainly any professional sports team is always scanning the horizon to see who is upcoming through the ranks and who is setting records on other teams. So also local church leadership needs to have in view the people who God is using.

Third, especially in medium and smaller churches, we need to empower the laity.  I don’t care how small your church is; right now there’s a layperson in your church who is capable of doing a sermon next Sunday, and it would actually be a pretty good sermon, too.  This means that a pastoral vacancy, when it happens, is just that, a vacancy, not a crisis of national emergency proportions.

Fourth, we need to periodically do some teaching ministry cross-pollination among our churches. The notion of a “pulpit exchange” has become all but antiquated, but we need to allow congregations — from the largest megachurches to the smallest chapels — the privilege of hearing different voices.  Many pastors are afraid to surrender their pulpit on Sunday morning; instead, the exchange notion should be ritualized; and I hold up  the 5th Sunday of every third month as a possible day for it to take place.

Finally, we need to look at our own scriptures and borrow a chapter or two from Israel’s history and consider the possibility of co-regency.  Many of our Bible timelines are messed up, and our apparent “Bible contradictions” exist because of a failure to understand how some of the Jewish nation’s kings actually ruled as co-regents.  The idea of a “senior pastor,” “teaching pastor,” and “executive pastor,” is an attempt to divide the pastoral role in a larger church so that the absence of a single individual doesn’t cause a collapse of sustained ministry or future visioning.

Too many churches are weakened by not having a vision of what the church is going to look like in two years; in five years; in a decade. These are critical times for the church in the western world, and we do ourselves and God’s Kingdom a great disservice when we don’t bring our best to the church leadership table.

Personnel will change; God will call people to new fields; we need to allow the same Holy Spirit that is leading pastors to also lead local church leaders.

December 22, 2010

Wednesday Link List

Twas the night before the night before the night before Christmas, and all through the blogs…

  • Here’s a series of four television commercials produced by an online counseling ministry, Groundwire.   And here’s the page containing hundreds of mostly 60-second radio spots.   The spots encourage you to go to a website where you speak with a “spiritual coach.”   If anyone knows more about the doctrinal affiliation of this org., I’d love to learn more beyond what’s on the webpage.   The voice of Groundwire is Sean Dunn, but you can learn more at Daniel White’s blog.
  • With another Narnia movie on the big screen, the CNN Belief Blog notes that C. S. Lewis is more popular than ever.
  • At a deeper level, here’s an excellent piece by Jared Wilson at The Thinklings indicating clearly that Lewis did not regard The Chronicles as allegory.
  • With people lined up at airports across western Europe for the holidays, and children lined up to see Santa; it’s a good time to join Royal Ferris in asking, Where is the Line to see Jesus?
  • So is religion good or bad?   Depends who, and more accurately where you ask apparently, as this ipsos survey found out:

  • And while we’re running charts, here’s an interesting one.   While getting bogged down in a read of Revelation, Daniel Jepsen notes, “I know that ‘all scripture is profitable’ but that doesn’t mean it is all equally profitable. ”   Uh, okay.   So here’s his Bible Book Matrix graphing both his take on the importance of each Bible book with its level of difficulty.   Do you agree with his positioning of your favorite book?

  • Apparently there’s no extra charge for the extra white space.   And since we’re now on a chart roll, it’s time to flash back to the famous “I’ve got a thing for charts” edition of the Wednesday Link List, the “Millenium Matrix.”

  • Here’s a link to a blog called the SexRev blog.    Hey, we like to link on the edge here.    This is a post about a cool new acronym the youth guys at Willow Creek thought up to teach their kids how to pray.
  • And speaking of kids — well, younger ones — who says the present generation is Biblically illiterate?  The kids in this video, seem to have the basics — well, some of them — of the Christmas story.  (Major high speed internet connection; or lots of patience required.)
  • Some of this blog’s best work happens on the weekend, when some of you are away.  So here’s a reminder to visit Saturday’s When ‘OMG’ and ‘WTF’ Come to Church.
  • Canadian readers:  Only a couple of days left to respond to our Salvation Army ikettle.
  • Our cartoon this week needs no introduction… [HT: Trevin Wax]

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