Founding and Senior Pastor Bill Hybels, along with Willow Creek’s Elders, made a notable announcement during the October 14/15 weekend services marking Willow Creek’s 42nd anniversary: they detailed the completion of a multi-year succession plan—naming not one, but two seasoned leaders known and loved by the congregation. 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.
The decision to divide the senior pastor position into two roles became clear as Bill and the Elders began working to craft a job description that was both effective and sustainable. They realized the needs of large churches have changed dramatically since Bill took on the role of senior pastor back in 1975—and a new model of dual leadership, in which each leader can function within their strongest area of giftedness, makes sense for Willow Creek in this new day.
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.
“We’re welcoming two tested, respected leaders who embrace our values to assume roles that fit their unique gifts and talents,” Bill says. “The staff and congregation have been enthusiastic about their leadership, and I have every confidence that this new model—with these specific people at the helm—will help Willow continue to thrive as we move forward.”
Heather Larson has been taking on greater leadership roles throughout her 20 years on staff at Willow Creek. In 1998, Heather joined Willow’s staff, overseeing small groups and leading compassion initiatives in AXIS, Willow’s young-adult community. Next, she brought leadership and direction to Willow’s global efforts—and created the annual Compassion & Justice campaign, Celebration of Hope, which inspires more than 20,000 volunteers to raise awareness and funds for Willow’s partners fighting poverty in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Heather was then asked to provide leadership for Willow’s local compassion efforts, and point-led the $10M Care Center project, inspiring the creation of a facility and ministry unlike any in the country, which serves 17,000 under-resourced families each year.
Five years ago, Bill asked Heather to step into the executive pastor role, overseeing Willow’s $77M annual revenue, dozens of ministry teams, and 350 employees. “Heather has flourished in every leadership role I’ve given her,” he says. “Her impeccable character and significant leadership abilities make her one of the best church leaders I’ve ever known. In this new role as Lead Pastor over all Willow Creek locations, I have no doubt she will continue to lead our church into a fantastic future, following where God wants us to go.”
Steve Carter joined Willow’s teaching team five years ago, following a 15-year mentoring relationship with Bill. He brought significant experience from Rock Harbor Fullerton in California and two churches in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“The greatest attributes Steve brings to this new role at Willow are his pure, genuine teaching gift and his deep love for people,” Bill says. “He’s one of the most gifted communicators I’ve ever worked with, and he gets our church’s values. His passion for Scripture and his desire to pour into people will provide our church with an accessible lead teacher—something that has been extremely challenging under the existing model of having one senior pastor.”
So the countdown has begun. Bill has served as Willow’s founding and senior pastor since the church first opened its doors in a movie theater in 1975. “It’s been the thrill of a lifetime to serve God and serve the church I love for all these 42 years,” Bill says. “And this past spring, while on an island in the Atlantic, I felt truly released from my current role. In this final year, I plan to do my very best to develop, mentor, coach, and inspire our staff—especially Steve and Heather in their new roles. I want to help Willow flourish for the glory of God. And when this year is done, I’ll be able to look back and know I’ve given God my very best, because he’s only ever given his absolute best to me.”
In October 2018—Willow’s 43rd anniversary—Bill will step down from his senior pastor role at Willow Creek Community Church. He’s excited to expand his work with Willow Creek Association (WCA) and The Global Leadership Summit, a movement of 400,000 leaders in 130 countries, which he launched in 1995.
“I plan to invest myself more fully into training and coaching church leaders around the world through WCA,” Bill says, “and I feel a lot of energy for taking The Global Leadership Summit to some of the most under-resourced, oppressed countries in the world, where pastors and leaders are hungry to be developed. My wife, Lynne, and I plan to remain part of the Willow Creek congregation. I plan to use my gifts to serve the God I love, just as I’ve challenged each person in our church to use their gifts. I look forward to spending even more time with Lynne, our kids, and our grandkids—and I see a few sailing adventures on the horizon as well. It’s my deepest desire to live every day of my one and only life for the glory of God.”