Willow Creek Chooses Co-Ed Pastors to Succeed Bill Hybels

Megachurch becomes biggest in America to appoint a female lead pastor.

“When we saw this shaping up, we had to ask ourselves, ‘Can our congregation have a lead pastor that’s a woman?,’” said Hybels, speaking from Willow Creek’s central campus in South Barrington, Illinois, one of seven locations in the Chicago region that draw a collective total of 25,000 worshippers each weekend. “And because this is a deeply held value in our church, we said, ‘No problem.’”

 

Since “no one person can replace” Willow Creek Community Church founder Bill Hybels, the influential megachurch has named two people: its current executive pastor Heather Larson and teaching pastor Steve Carter.

Hybels announced on Saturday that the pair will succeed him as lead pastors when he steps down in October 2018.

The historic transition will make Willow Creek one of the largest churches in America with a woman in the lead pastor position, as well as the only major evangelical megachurch with male-female lead pastors who aren’t married.

“When we saw this shaping up, we had to ask ourselves, ‘Can our congregation have a lead pastor that’s a woman?,’” said Hybels, speaking from Willow Creek’s central campus in South Barrington, Illinois, one of seven locations in the Chicago region that draw a collective total of 25,000 worshippers each weekend. “And because this is a deeply held value in our church, we said, ‘No problem.’”

Larson will be lead pastor, overseeing Willow Creek’s 400-person staff and $77 million budget, and Carter will be lead teaching pastor, continuing to preach most weeks.

The news comes amid Willow Creek’s six-year succession plan for the megachurch, which was founded in 1975 and has grown to rank among the 10 biggest in America. The 65-year-old pastor joins a wave of greying leaders who have opted to go public with their leadership transition, as Hybels first disclosed at the church’s 2012 Global Leadership Summit.

“We know that no one person can replace Bill,” Larson said in an interview on the Unseminary podcast last year. “That has led Willow to talk about moving to more of a team approach in leading the church in the future and what that might look like.”

Larson, 42, has worked at Willow Creek for 20 years and has served as Hybels’s No. 2 since she became executive pastor in 2013.

“There is clearly a growing tendency to see shared senior leadership in larger churches, to do ministry as a team,” said Warren Bird, who consults on megachurch succession and co-authored the book Next: Pastoral Succession that Works. “Many are experimenting with titles and roles like ‘directional leader’ and ‘chief visionary,’ and giving the No. 2 person a greater role. Willow is leading another wave of experimentation in role combinations.”

After an outside consultant recommended splitting the senior pastor duties, the two leaders were selected by Hybels and approved by the church’s elders.

“The shared leadership dynamic is a wise move for an organization with the size, scale, and history of Willow,” said Jenni Catron, a church leadership coach.

Around 5 percent of megachurches are led by a husband-wife co-pastor team (think Joel and Victoria Osteen at Lakewood, or Todd and Julie Mullins at Christ Fellowship Palm Beach Gardens), but none have an unmarried pair named as lead pastors, according to Bird.

Historically, “there have been a tiny number of female leaders in the top spot­—Aimee Semple McPherson being the most prominent, at one point leading the nation’s largest-attendance church,” he said, noting that for a time, widows Sharon Daugherty at Victory Tulsa, Betty Peebles at Jericho City of Praise, and Anne Gimenez at Rock Church International also had lead pastor roles.

“This is a significant move for not only Willow Creek Church, but also for the greater evangelical movement,” said Tara Beth Leach, who became the first female senior pastor at First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena last year. “Bill Hybels and Willow Creek have made a move that no church of its size has done before, and I hope that moves like this will have a ripple effect across all of evangelicalism.”

The number of female pastors overall has tripled in the past 25 years, to about 9 percent of all Protestant pastors in the country, according to Barna’s 2017 State of Pastors report. But the numbers are just a fraction of that for women in lead pastor roles and at megachurches, since female pastors tend to lead smaller congregations. Only about a third of nondenominational churches welcome women into senior or preaching pastor roles.

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