This year has been a whirlwind. It’s felt so insanely fast, and yet so incredibly slow. Our highs have let us soar, and our lows have felt defeating. Our world was shaky, our plans were uncertain, and our church has faced changes, too.
When I joined the staff in May, I spent the first few weeks listening and learning. I wanted to know about both the beauty and brokenness this church has seen. During that time, there were a few things I heard over and over:
- Willow has a rich history of creatively reaching people far from God and pursuing compassion and justice—and we want to carry that into our future.
- Our campuses have a strong presence in their communities where they provide hope as local churches, but there is little connection among campuses.
- Our staff and congregation have experienced significant pain and trauma, causing a breach of trust with leadership, and we need to heal.
These themes were key as we planned for the future. We recognized there were incredible parts of Willow’s past that were vital to carry with us, and there were some things we must leave behind in order to experience a fresh story.
While the last few months have been a challenge, I’m incredibly hopeful. I’ve seen our staff and church family seek God, ask hard questions, have courageous conversations, and extend trust when it had previously been broken. I’ve seen different campuses and teams come together to dream and build. And, even when change was hard, I’ve seen people approach opportunities with openhandedness, faith, and trust in God’s leading.
That being said, here are a few updates I’d love to share with you:
God is on the Move
We have always been a local church committed to serving those who are often unseen, and that is not changing.
In the midst of a pandemic, our seven campuses rallied to assemble “prison packs”, providing Christmas gifts to every incarcerated person in Illinois. Not only that, the vision is spreading, and prison packs are being assembled and sent to seven other states. God is on the move!
In addition, during a time of incredible isolation, we saw a rise in the number of people meeting in small groups. One virtual group even includes people from three different continents. I don’t know if that would have ever happened pre-COVID. God is using this time to bring His people together to seek Him and grow.
In July, we told you we were delaying all large indoor gatherings until 2021. That was an incredibly difficult decision. But through the support of campus pastors and staff, our safety team, and local officials, we found safe ways to be together, both indoors and outdoors, to worship. Those moments were such gifts to me. There is such power in the church.
We are Building Toward the Future
I believe we are better together, and we are continuing to shift the way our church operates in order to increase unity—not uniformity—across our campuses and ministries. This framework is all about collaboration and support, and with us emerging from a time when abuses of power occurred, this model increases accountability on every level. The framework will empower our campus staff to pastor, serve, and shepherd while removing redundant and administrative tasks. It will create bigger tables for brainstorming and conversation by pulling together similar positions from all campuses. And it will allow us to multiply teams and churches more efficiently and effectively.
Part of this shift is building six core teams that will support and collaborate with all campuses. In July, we hired Chris Hahn as our executive pastor of ministries to lead these teams. Each core team is led by a director who sits on our executive team, widening that group of leaders to 18 people. This team includes the senior pastor, executive director of the office of the senior pastor, executive pastor, or XP, of operations, XP of campuses, XP of ministries, six core directors, and seven campus pastors. We are still in the process of hiring a core pastor to lead our adult and discipleship ministries. Here’s a bit about our new teammates:
- NextGen Core Pastor Megan Bagnall grew up attending Willow and is joining us from Saddleback Church in California, where she served as the student ministries multisite director and provided support and oversight for 16 campuses.
- Digital Engagement Core Director Denis Beausejour moves into this role from Willow’s Group Life team and from the marketplace with O.C. Tanner, which focuses on workplace culture and employee recognition. Denis has big and wide ideas, so pray for clarity and effectiveness as he dives into propelling our church’s digital offerings.
- Arts & Worship Core Pastor Sherita Harkness ran her own experiential design company in Atlanta before joining our team. She is a gifted artist, producer, and creative who’s passionate about bringing ideas out in others.
- Compassion & Justice Pastor Robin Riley led the compassion efforts at Mariners Church in Irvine, California, for several years. After years as an executive in the telecommunications industry, Robin brings a heart for outreach, visionary ideas, and a gift for strategy and systems.
- Marketing & Communications Director Liz Schauer moves from leading Willow’s website and app efforts while serving on the communications team into this core role. She’s bringing the experience she has from her time at Willow in the last several years to help us communicate well, create intentionally, and remove barriers our wider world may have to hearing a message of hope.
We also welcomed Ed Ollie Jr. as our North Shore campus pastor and part of our teaching team. He is a phenomenal pastor and gifted leader who is passionate about building bridges and pursuing unity in a way that transforms communities. He’s a gift to us already!
I’m incredibly thankful for the team God is assembling on all levels here. The history and knowledge of longtime staff and attendees paired with the fresh eyes and ideas from Willow’s newcomers is going to pave a beautiful path forward.
We are Learning Along the Way
I’d be lying if I said this job was easy. Each day, I ask God to give me what I need to serve and lead well, and each day, I learn something new. I realized I underestimated the amount of information that would be helpful for you to know as we walk through these changes, and I’m sorry for that. When you come out of a season in which trust was broken, more information is always helpful. Our team is committed to getting better at providing updates and information through appropriate channels at appropriate times.
We are also learning how to work together in new ways. In the past, our campuses and ministries have often been stuck in silos. Those silos actually served some parts of our church well when we were in the midst of chaos, but it is time to come together, to rally around the same mission and vision, and to begin to see what can happen through the strength of our entire church because we are stronger together.
Our staff has also been on a learning journey with regard to racism and injustice through a partnership with World Vision’s May We Be One program. We know we have a lot to learn about structural racism and particularly how churches throughout history have played a part in perpetuating it. Two justice leaders, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah and Rev. Sandra Maria Van Opstal, have led our staff in sessions to deepen our learning and help us become better prepared to lead and pastor. They’re helping us look at every area of our ministries to see if and how we are inadvertently contributing to inequities. We are only two months into a 13-month learning journey, and we are already so grateful for what we’ve learned.
We Still Have a Calling
No matter what we’ve walked through—as individuals or as a church—God is not done. He is a God of grace and mercy. He always has a purpose and a plan. So let’s lean into our calling: to be the hands and feet of Jesus where we live, work, and play. Our world is more divided than ever, but we have an opportunity to be agents of reconciliation and hope.
In the coming days and weeks, look around. Who is hurting? Who is in need? Who needs hope? Go there. Show up. Listen. Build a bridge. Open a door. Send an invitation. And see what God might do. Christmas is coming up, and it’s a perfect time to embody the hope of Jesus and share His love.
Together as a church, we'll lean into what’s NEXT by being irrationally generous, unapologetically missional, and inexplicably innovative.
Let’s trust Jesus to lead us into the best yet,