CHICAGO, IL – The search for a successor for Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) has ended, and the church will have a pastor of each gender.
Willow Creek is one of the 10 largest churches in America, averaging 25,000 attendees each week at its eight locations in the Chicago area.
Heather Larson will serve as lead pastor and Steve Carter as lead teaching pastor following the completion of a multiyear succession plan. The church’s elders made the announcement on Oct. 14.
Senior pastor Bill Hybels, who founded the church in 1975, will continue coaching and developing the leaders until he transitions off the church staff in October 2018.
A statement from the church acknowledged that the co-pastor approach will be a new leadership structure for WCCC that replaces the role of senior pastor with two new roles, one focused on leadership and the other on teaching. Larson, 42, will be stepping into the role of lead pastor. She formerly served as executive pastor of the church and its eight Chicago-area locations. Assuming the title of lead teaching pastor will be Steve Carter, 38, who has been Hybels’ teaching associate for the last five years.
According to the Willow Creek Association website, there are 29 “member churches” in Georgia, of which 8 – or nearly a third – are affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention. The website lists those as Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, CrossPoint City Church in Cartersville, Crossroads Baptist Church in Newnan, Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula, Ingleside Baptist Church in Macon, New Morning Baptist Church in Conley, West Ridge Church in Dallas, and Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta.
The succession planning process has been led for the past several years by Willow Creek’s elders – including Hybels, who will turn 66 in December.
“Questions about succession are among the top three questions I’m asked when I meet with leaders,” he told the church’s Global Leadership Summit audience in August. “We began our planning process well in advance of my transition, because I wanted Willow Creek to be an even stronger church in the future.”
Through the succession planning process, Hybels and the elders came to see the advantages of a new model for Willow Creek, which allows one person to focus on leadership and another person to focus on teaching, according to the church. The approach “will set up the church to thrive with two leaders functioning in their areas of giftedness,” it noted.
Pam Orr, chair of the elder board, said on the elders’ behalf, “I am deeply grateful to Bill, the staff and the entire congregation at Willow for the ways they have navigated this succession process. Six years ago we asked God to provide us with new leaders for the future of our church, and He did.”
Heather Larson has been on staff at Willow Creek for 19 years. She has served as executive pastor for five years, effectively overseeing the church with 350 employees and annual revenue of $77 million.
“Heather has flourished in every leadership role I’ve given her,” Hybels said. “Her impeccable character and significant leadership abilities make her one of the best church leaders I’ve ever known.”
Larson recently told a Willow Creek audience, “There’s no other organization on earth I would rather be part of than the local church. This is my home church, and I want to give my best to see Willow thriving in all areas, extending love to our community and our world.”
Steve Carter has been mentored by Hybels for 15 years and has been a teaching pastor at Willow Creek for the past five. Carter’s primary focus has been teaching at weekend and midweek services.
Hybels called Carter “One of the most gifted communicators I’ve ever worked with.” Hybels also said, “Steve doesn’t just love to teach – he has a passion for the Bible and he has a heart for reaching people far from God. That’s ultimately the mission of Willow Creek.”
Carter has been carrying a significant part of the teaching responsibilities this year, and said, “I love our church! I’m honored to serve alongside Heather and focus on preaching the Bible to our church family and raising up other gifted communicators all across Willow.”
Hybels will continue to work closely with Larson and Carter before they fully assume their new roles. Hybels will remain on the church staff until October 2018, at which point he will devote more attention to the Willow Creek Association and the annual Global Leadership Summit, a movement of 400,000 leaders in 130 countries that Hybels launched in 1995.
Hybels is the founding and senior pastor, and serves as chair of the board for the Willow Creek Association, which was created in 1992 to serve pastors and leaders through leadership experiences and resources.
For more information on Willow Creek, please visit willowcreek.org.