The beginning of the end of senior pastor Bill Hybels' tenure as the leader of the Willow Creek Community Church began with an announcement during a service Saturday evening at the South Barrington campus that two senior Willow Creek pastors will succeed him.
When Hybels retires in October 2018, the senior pastor title retires with him.
Instead his role will be filled by two members of his executive team. Executive pastor Heather Larson, a 20-year Willow Creek veteran who has managed the church's day-to-day operations for several years, will take over as lead pastor. Teaching pastor Steve Carter will be the lead teaching pastor.
Naming a woman to a key leadership role is not unusual for the nondenominational, evangelical Christian church that Hybels, his wife Lynne and some friends founded 42 years ago in Palatine. Rooted in the desire to serve people "far from God," assist the impoverished and to promote peace, Willow Creek also has made inclusivity and diversity its mission.
"We're not banner-waving," Hybels said. Church elders did what they've always done, he said, which is to recognize an individual's skill and talent and promote him or her accordingly.
"It's no surprise to ask a leader to lead and a teacher to teach," he said.
While Larson's appointment will be "incredibly welcome news to some parts of the Christian community around the world," Hybels acknowledged that some segments may be slower to accept a woman as a co-leader of the megachurch that averages 25,000 attendees each week at eight locations, making it one of the nation's largest churches.
During the service, Hybels praised Carter as "one of the most gifted teachers I have ever known." He saluted Larson -- who he said possesses "the Willow DNA" -- for her collaborative leadership and boundless energy.
"Who's got it better than me right now?" said Carter, adding he was humbled and honored by the appointment.
"It's overwhelming in the best possible way," Larson said.
Launched on October 12, 1975, the church held its first service in the rented Willow Creek Theatre in Palatine -- from which it derived its name. The congregation grew and, in 1977, Willow Creek purchased 155 acres in South Barrington.
"In my final year I'm going to give hugs indiscriminately," joked Hybels, who stepped on stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
He told parishioners he intends to devote himself to the Willow Creek Association and the annual Global Leadership Summit after he steps down. He established Willow Creek Association in 1992 to help train and develop pastors and faith leaders. Three years later, Hybels convened the Global Leadership Summit, a two-day leadership-building workshop featuring secular and faith-based speakers. Since its establishment, more than 400,000 leaders from 130 countries have participated in the summit at hundreds of locations around the world.
The new leaders say they are eager to embark on their new path and grateful for Hybels' continued mentorship.
"Heather and I are excited to get to work," said Carter.
"No one person can replace Bill," Larson said. Instead, she says she and Carter will build on the foundation he laid.
"God is not done with this church," she said as the crowd cheered.