Heather Larson has been named the incoming Lead Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church.
Hear Heather Larson share her faith story, from her childhood as a pastor’s daughter in Florida to stepping into her latest role as lead pastor of Willow Creek.
Stepping into the role of incoming Lead Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church didn’t happen overnight for Heather Larson. It’s a journey that began in her earliest memories.
Heather’s heart for God began at a young age. Her dad was a pastor, and her parents modeled a life centered around Christ. Health challenges for her mom impacted Heather’s entire family, and Heather realized she needed to lean on God through a faith that was her own. While in middle school she committed her life to serving God, but had no idea what God would hold for her future.
Heather began developing her leadership gift early on. Whether serving at church or school, she jumped in wherever she saw a need. She was given leadership roles throughout middle school and high school, and served as Student Body President at Taylor University, where she graduated in 1996. She then moved to Chicago for a job with the American Red Cross—a role that fit a lifelong passion.
“During a mission trip with my parents when I was six,” she recalls, “I was struck by the fact that my new friends in that remote village lived in homes that didn’t look like mine. No bathrooms, no running water. And I was the only kid who wore shoes. I knew this wasn’t right—and as I grew older, I wondered how I might make a difference.”
“In working with the Red Cross, I loved providing tangible help to people in need,” she recalls, “and I thought my life and career would be all about non-profit organizations and foreign countries. But being on the ground at scenes of natural disasters, I noticed that on the heels of catastrophe, it’s the local church that stays for the long haul and brings the help and hope of Christ to its community.”
On the day Heather moved to Chicago for her Red Cross job, a friend invited her to Willow Creek. She loved the church immediately, and jumped into volunteer roles. Before long, she was offered a job. In 1998, Heather joined Willow’s staff, overseeing small groups and leading compassion initiatives in AXIS, Willow’s young-adult community.
In those early days at Willow, Heather met a fellow staff member who caught her eye. “My friends described Dan as the ‘most eligible bachelor’ at Willow—and I thoroughly agreed.” Dan serves as Lighting Director on Willow’s production team, overseeing lighting for weekend services, holiday services, and major events. He and Heather were married in 2001. They have two daughters, Teagan and Avery.
In 2005, Heather was asked to launch Willow Creek’s global ministries in Africa—and then to help formulate Willow’s church-wide strategy for compassion and justice. Through her leadership and vision, Willow launched Celebration of Hope, the annual global compassion initiative that mobilizes more than 20,000 volunteers each spring. A catalytic event for Willow, Celebration of Hope raises awareness and funds for Willow partner churches fighting poverty in 13 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Her inspired leadership then helped raise $10M to build the 75,000-square-foot Care Center, which now serves 17,000 under-resourced families locally each year through its full-choice food pantry—the largest in Chicagoland—children’s clothing store, car repairs (and in some cases, free cars), dental and vision services, job training, legal aid, ESL classes, and more.
Wherever Heather has served, her leadership has risen to the top. “Throughout my life—and through today—I have been blessed with strong mentors,” she says, “and their coaching developed me as a leader. As I look back on the leadership opportunities I’ve been given along the way, I’ve never been someone to walk in and push for a role. Each time, I gained influence over time, and just tried to be faithful to what God was asking me to do in each situation. I’ve been more focused on the mission or the cause, not on my specific role.”
Which is exactly how she came to be invited into her current role of Executive Pastor at Willow Creek, where she has served alongside Senior Pastor Bill Hybels for the past five years—overseeing Willow’s $77M annual revenue, dozens of ministries, and 350 staff members.
As Willow’s Elders prayerfully sought to discern who should provide senior leadership for the church into the next era, Heather’s track record of stellar leadership at every level of Willow Creek made her the clear and natural choice.
And so once again, people are asking Heather to lead. “There’s no other organization on earth I’d rather be part of than the local church,” she says. “Willow Creek is my home church, and I’m humbled to be part of a team that’s helping Willow thrive as a place where people come to know Jesus, grow in their faith, and show radical love to those around them. I want to lead well and love well as I bring the best hours of my week to this new role and move our church into the next era.”
Heather, Dan, and their two daughters realize Heather’s new role will be an adventure that affects their whole family—and they’re excited to jump into this new season together.
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