How does a church carry on without its founder?
When any organization loses its founder, changes abound. Even more so when that founder created a spiritual mission.
Willow Creek Community Church had a succession plan in place when Senior Pastor Bill Hybels moved up his retirement and stepped down Tuesday amid misconduct allegations. Longtime staff member Heather Larson, who immediately was tapped as his replacement, has been slated to take over since last fall.
Still, the South Barrington megachurch likely won't be immune to the challenges associated with a change in leadership. Regardless of the circumstances, experts say the transition is often more difficult -- and more emotional -- when it involves a founding pastor like Hybels, who has built up a large following in the last four decades.
"You've got a whole lot of people who have bought into that mission, and now you have a new person taking over the helm," said William Vanderbloemen, co-author of "Next: Pastoral Succession That Works."
"That takes some getting used to."
Willow Creek is among a handful of suburban churches, such as Quentin Road Bible Baptist Church in Lake Zurich, that enter uncharted territory after their founders leave. As a rule of thumb, Vanderbloemen said, an institution's level of preparedness directly correlates with the smoothness of its transition.
Stepping into the senior pastor position at Quentin Road was relatively seamless for the Rev. Jim Scudder Jr., thanks to thorough pre-retirement planning by his father, who founded the church.
Scudder served as co-pastor for several years before taking the reins in 2016. By then, Scudder said, his greatest challenge was getting used to tasks such as managing the budget.
"I knew the church very well," he said. "I knew all the people, I knew the leadership. The transition, I think, was as good as a transition can ever be."
Willow Creek didn't have a 10-year plan like Quentin Road did, but the church's earlier announcement of Hybels' upcoming retirement might have lessened the blow when he stepped down sooner than expected. Creating a succession plan well in advance makes it easier to manage unforeseen circumstances and gives the congregation time to prepare, Vanderbloemen said.
Hybels, 66, founded the nondenominational, evangelical Christian church 43 years ago in Palatine. He announced last October that he planned to retire this fall.
His decision to leave early came nearly three weeks after the Chicago Tribune published a story detailing misconduct allegations involving women in his congregation, some of which he called misleading and false. Hybels announced his decision at a church meeting Tuesday, saying the controversy has been a "distraction that is hindering our elders and church staff."
Willow Creek is one of the nation's largest churches, with roughly 25,000 members attending eight locations in the Chicago area each week.
Vanderbloemen said the size of the congregation also factors into the transition process when a senior pastor steps aside. The bigger the church, he said, the more difficult it is for new pastors to get to know the parishioners and understand how best to serve them.
"Unlike the corporate world, the relationship between a congregation and a pastor isn't like an employer and an employee or a CEO and a stockholder," Vanderbloemen said. "It's more like family."
Every church undergoes leadership changes at some point, Vanderbloemen said, noting additional adjustments and a flux in attendance are bound to follow. But most congregations are able to maintain the heart of their missions.
"When a founder sets the DNA of an organization, and when they're not there anymore, you have to figure out a new way," he said. "If the mission has been clearly stated, passed on and coded into the fabric of the church, it's hard for that to get lost."