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3 Ways that the Willow Creek Leadership Transition will Impact the Church

Steve Carter and Heather Larson

This past weekend Bill Hybels, the influential senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, announced his retirement and succession plan that will take place over the next year. Hybels announced that current Executive Pastor Heather Larson will assume the role of Lead Pastor over all of Willow Creek and Pastor Steve Carter will become the Lead Teaching Pastor.

In a video address to his congregation Hybels acknowledged that Willow Creek is venturing into a new leadership model. One that he believes is necessary for Willow Creek based on the size of the church and the demands of the organization.

Hybels stated that the preaching and teaching demands mixed with the leadership demands of a larger church require efforts and energies that cannot be effectively carried out by one person in the traditional single senior pastor model.

Larson and Carter will transition into these roles over the next year with Hybels officially stepping down from his role in October 2018.

Hybels believes that the new leadership model is going to be effective and that the staff and congregation at Willow Creek will thrive under this duo-leadership.

“At the end of the day,” Hybels stated, “Steve and Heather are fantastic people.”


I believe that this leadership move is significant and will have impact beyond the realm of Willow Creek Church. Whenever an influential church makes a landmark decision the ripple effects can be felt throughout the Church at large, and in a time when many churches are either in the process or nearing the time for leadership transition to the next generation, church leaders are watching churches like Willow Creek to gain insight on how they might transition into the future.

It is not my intention in this article to argue as to whether this transition by Willow Creek is good or bad. In another article I will focus on the leadership model and critique it from a Biblical perspective. In this article, my intention is to briefly suggest three ways that I feel this leadership transition decision at Willow Creek will impact the Evangelical Christian Church.


Church Leadership Models will be Challenged

This transition will challenge the previously held paradigm’s for church leadership models. The duo-leadership structure that Willow Creek has adopted is uncommon in most Evangelical churches. One example is the multi-campus North Coast Church in Vista, California. Pastor’s Larry Osborne and Chris Brown both carry the titles of senior pastor and teaching pastor. Aside from this example, few churches have a model where the lead pastor and the lead teacher are different individuals.

I believe that this will change. Willow Creek has pioneered a leadership model that is likely to emerge in more churches who will adopt similar models in the future.

Women in Positions of Leadership Will Increase

Willow Creek might be the most prominent church in history to name a woman as the senior leader. This move will embolden other leaders to make similar moves and the number of women in key leadership positions in the church will increase. The debate over the Biblical allowance or disallowance of women in leadership positions in the church will certainly continue, but this move by Willow Creek will have a unique impact the discussion.

The Mega-Church Model will be Scrutinized

The leadership model adopted by Willow Creek was based on the demands that are unique to larger mega-churches. According to Bill Hybels, during his tenure as both senior leader and main teaching pastor the demands required of both roles was extremely challenging, and it kept him from being as fully engaged in both as he wished he could have been.

The nature of a mega-church with over 25,000 members, $77 million in annual revenue, hundreds of staff, and thousands of square feet of property require unique leadership oversight and decision making not to mention the issues of preaching, discipleship, and the care of the congregation.

Does the corporate side of church ministry distract from the main purpose of the church? How can mega-church pastors ensure that they are focusing without distraction on the important issues of teaching and discipleship?

These questions and more will come as a result of this leadership change.


Willow Creek Church is a pioneer and has influenced the Church in significant ways. At the same time, Willow Creek has not shied away from methods or decisions that might be controversial or unpopular.

Time will tell whether this unique approach will stand the test of time. In the meantime, the Evangelical Church will have much to discuss and debate in the coming months. In all of this, however, the hope is that the Evangelical Christian Church remains civil in disagreement, unified in purpose, and faithful to the cause of Christ’s Church - the entity that Bill Hybels calls, "The greatest hope in the world.”

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