Who should lead Willow Creek next? Plenty of tips come from its leadership summit
There may have been a silver lining to the timing of last week's upheaval at Willow Creek Community Church, as it surfaced on the eve of the 23rd annual Global Leadership Summit.
The two-day event hosted at the South Barrington megachurch by the separate Willow Creek Assocation became an inbox for suggestions on the type of people who should be sought to fill leadership positions in the wake of widening sexual misconduct allegations against founder Bill Hybels.
Some speakers and attendees had ideas that could be good for Willow Creek. Finding leaders who would ensure the good of the church comes first or viewing the controversy as a good time to reboot for the future are a couple of suggestions that were floated.
Life.Church co-founder and Senior Pastor Craig Groeschel addressed the Hybels allegations, saying it's "sinful" to abuse power as a leader. Groeschel, who heads a megachurch based in suburban Oklahoma City that has locations in 10 states, plans to help Willow Creek recover from the controversy.
Groeschel said good leaders should have courage, passion and integrity.
"You don't try to convince everyone you know what you're doing," said Groeschel, who replaced Hybels as the first speaker at the summit that ran Thursday and Friday. " ... You just stand up as a centered leader and say, 'This is what I believe I was called to do and if I don't get it right, we're going to try again, but if we do get it right, we can celebrate.'"
Any celebration of success by someone in charge should be done as a group and not focused on an individual, he added.
Already reeling from Hybels' departure six months before his planned retirement, Willow Creek last week found itself needing replacements for the two leaders who took over for him.
Lead Teaching Pastor Steve Carter announced his resignation Aug. 12. Carter's resignation came after he said he was "horrified" by a fresh round of allegations against Hybels in a New York Times story. The allegations, which Hybels has denied, were made by Hybels' former executive assistant, Pat Baranowski, who claimed he repeatedly groped her in the 1980s.
Carter's departure soon was followed by a bombshell Wednesday when Lead Pastor Heather Larson said she was stepping down and the entire elder board will depart by year's end. Steve Gillen, lead pastor of Willow Creek's North Shore branch in Glenview, was selected to step in as interim lead pastor to help assemble the church's new executive team.
Gillen, speaking at the first regular weekend Willow Creek service Saturday evening in South Barrington since he took over as interim lead pastor, suggested he took even the interim role reluctantly.
"Last Tuesday when they asked me if I wanted to lead the church, I said, 'not really,' to be honest," Gillen told the congregation.
He said he would have preferred to stay at the North Shore branch but he knew how much pain the main church in South Barrington was going through. He said he had been in ministry for 25 years but had never experienced a week like the one Willow Creek was experiencing.
"I don't think our difficult days are done," Gillen said. "I think we need to show our character and our faith through this whole thing."
Willow Creek member Immanuel Umenei said during a Global Leadership Summit break that church officials should make sure the leadership roles are filled by people who understand they are needed and "humble enough to be used by God."
"And to do their best to look at the best interests for the church every single time, for every decision made, for every step that is taken," he said. "And just to be able to continuously bring people to Christ as much as possible."
Speaker Danielle Strickland said it's important to seek leaders who want to achieve a better balance of women in high positions in the workplace. Strickland is a pastor, author and justice advocate who spent 20 years as an officer in The Salvation Army.
"It's not rocket science, people. But if you find yourself in a boardroom with people who look and act and think exactly like you, it's time to start listening to some other voices," she told the estimated 10,000 people at the South Barrington church and another 150,000 viewing remotely across the United States. "It's time to start getting curious and learn from other people doing things differently."
Without naming Willow Creek, Bishop T.D. Jakes provided inspiration for places fighting problems. Jakes is senior pastor of the 30,000-member The Potter's House church in Dallas.
"It is the things you learn through the things you failed in that set you up for the place you're getting ready to fly in," Jakes said. "So never, never, never count your failures as wasted time, because there always is a residual of something that you learned out of it that is going to cause you to grow from that."
Willow Creek member Vivian Umenei, who joined her brother at the South Barrington campus where they attend services, said the church has an opportunity to become better with new leadership.
"It's the fabric of any organization that things are going to happen," she said. "I was just telling (my brother) that sometimes it takes a fire for new growth to happen. So, like we do controlled burns all the time. It's necessary.
"Sometimes the whole house has to be cleaned for you to see. ... I just hope the person that comes, whoever the new leadership team turns out to be, are God-driven and increase the ministry."