Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, has been in the process of ensuring his megachurch will be able to survive his leaving the pastorate for several years now. On October 14, 2017, the seasoned pastor announced the church has identified two people—a man and a woman—to take his place.
“When we saw this shaping up, we had to ask ourselves, ‘Can our congregation have a lead pastor that’s a woman?,’” said Hybels. The answer, said Hybels, speaking at Willow Creek’s central campus in South Barrington, Illinois, was “No problem.” Hybels cited the church’s “deeply held value” to encourage people to pursue leadership based on their character and gifting rather than their gender.
Meet Heather and Steve
According to Christianity Today, Heather Larson will step into the role of lead pastor and Steve Carter will take on the lead teaching pastor role. Larson will oversee the 400-person staff that constitutes the hands and feet of Willow Creek, as well as oversee its $77 million budget. Carter will preach most weekends.
Larson has worked at Willow Creek for 20 years, taking on various roles before she became Hybel’s right hand in 2013 when she became the executive pastor. Carter is somewhat of a newcomer—joining the staff of Willow Creek five years ago. Prior to this, Carter served at Rock Harbor Church in California and Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan.
Willow Creek’s Emphasis on Men and Women Serving Together
While male-female co-pastors are not a new phenomenon in the church world, typically these couples are married, like Joel and Victoria Osteen of Lakewood Church in Texas. Larson and Carter represent the first non-married couple to share the role of executive pastor at a church the size of Willow Creek.
“It is a model of leadership that is deeply scriptural, built not on personality nor an individual’s personal charisma, but on partnership,” says Halee Gray Scott, a researcher dedicated to the topic of women in leadership in the evangelical world. “It is a model that reflects the fullness of humankind, both male and female.”
Willow Creek has a long history of appointing women to leadership positions, which is in line with the church’s official position on the topic. The church’s policy outlines their reasoning behind this stance, taken from Scripture. “We believe that, when the Bible is interpreted comprehensively, it teaches the full equality of men and women in status, giftedness, and opportunity for ministry,” the statement reads. Further, “old divisions and hierarchies between genders and races are not to be tolerated in the church, where all are ‘one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28).”
However, Larson is not likely to argue with those who may disagree with Willow Creek’s stance. “I’ve never wanted to be on a soapbox about the role of women. I would rather build influence and lead where God has placed me, and let that speak for itself,” she told Christianity Today in 2015.
On Splitting the Position into Two Roles
But even more than this decision being significant for its egalitarian implications, it is also a step toward a different kind of leadership structure for the church. “For the last 150 years or so, the leadership structure in the local church has been oriented around basically one senior pastor,” Hybels shares In a video released to the church. By splitting Hybel’s role into two positions, Willow Creek is doing something Hybels feels will increase the quality of executive leadership and preaching the church is capable of giving.
Hybels explains that over the years, “the demands of preaching quality…have gone way, way up, and usually it takes a minimum of 30 hours a week to put a decent sermon together. Then add rehearsals, and actual service times, and greeting people and praying for people after services, and then add to that weddings that need to happen and funerals and baptism and membership classes, holiday services, and so. Pretty soon, somebody who’s just preaching can easily put in 40 to 45 hours a week. It’s very demanding work.” He then goes on to explain the demands on a senior pastor “on the leadership side of the equation,” which involves leading a staff and making ministry programs happen within the confines of a finite budget. This role ends up taking 40 to 45 hours a week as well. Added together and you have a job that is too big for one person to manage.
Looking to the future
Speaking of his two successors, Hybels says “[Carter is] one of the most gifted, pure teachers that I’ve ever known. Better than that, he is coachable and has an insatiable desire to get better.” And speaking of Larson, Hybels says “she owns the values of this church all the way down to her toes. She has the pure Romans 12:8 gift of leadership.”
This announcement is the latest step in the broader transition plan that Hybels announced was in the works during the 2012 Global Leadership Summit (GLS) that the church organizes and hosts yearly. Hybels will transition out of his current role of Founding and Senior Pastor in October 2018. After this transition period, he will maintain his Founding Pastor role and continue to have a role in the Willow Creek Association and the GLS.
The church made the announcement during its 42-anniversary celebration services on October 14 and 15, 2017.