Willow Creek has been through a lot. Founding and senior pastor Bill Hybels resigned earlier than expected after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced.
To fill the leadership void, Heather Larson took over as lead pastor and Steve Carter filled the role of teaching pastor. Then more allegations against Hybels arose.
It wasn’t long before Larson and Carter, along with the church’s elder board, resigned.
For a church that had become a mainstay on the evangelical scene and perhaps had more influence on the idea of church in America than any church in the last three decades, this was a nightmare.
It seemed to me like they were entering one of those seasons a sports fan dreads: a rebuilding season when a team is dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up in hopes that it will be stronger on the other side.
That’s why I was surprised that the job description from their senior pastor search looks the way it does; namely, that it looks just like the role Hybels filled.
It seems odd to me that you wouldn’t seek to break the mold that resulted in toxic leadership. To think it was just the man and not the environment is to grossly misunderstand what happened at Willow Creek.
Scot McKnight, a professor at Northern Seminary, notes a similar concern:
Willow Creek’s job description is little more than a repetition of the reshaped pastoral role as defined by and embodied in Bill Hybels. A culture was formed during his years leading Willow — and it is clear to those of us who care about the colossal influence of Willow Creek that the DNA of Willow Creek has not changed since the resignation of Hybels.
McKnight’s concerns center on the job description’s emphasis on Willow Creek as a brand and not on the historical, biblical qualifications of a pastor.
The role of pastor, biblically speaking, is outlined in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9. You should read those yourself, but the gist of the passages is that a pastor should be:
- Above reproach in his life and conduct
- Married to one woman
- Able to teach sound doctrine and rebuke false teaching
- A good and loving husband and father who manages his household well
- Thought well of by outsiders
And they should not be:
- Given to drunkenness
- A lover of money
- A recent convert
The only thing I could find in the description that seemed to mirror these qualifications was one bullet point: “Exemplify a life of walking closely with Jesus, including strong spiritual leadership in the home.” That’s headed in the right direction, at least.
McKnight goes on:
The absence of these features as the central terms, ideas and categories for a pastor’s qualifications reveals a culture at Willow that does not perceive these as important and therefore one that does not relate well to such terms. This can only happen because of a dismissal of the foundational importance of biblical teachings about bishop/elder qualifications and their importance in the entire history of the church.
Why is that important?
When we shift our central terms from pastors and priests and elders to leaders and entrepreneurs and managers, we leave the biblical images and reconfigure pastors with models designed for something else entirely.
I think that’s right. Pastors and CEOs are not the same things. The primary imagery used for pastors in the scriptures is a shepherd. CEOs are decidedly not shepherds, and necessarily so. So when you ask for one over the other, or someone functioning as both, you get something altogether different.
Willow will get what it wants but what it wants is not what the Bible wants. You won’t find Willow’s favorite terms in any word cloud about Jesus’ pastoral life, or Peter’s pastoral life, or Paul’s pastoral life — or, truth be told — about the pastoral role throughout the history of the church.
Willow Creek’s influence cannot be overstated. Therefore, whatever happens there matters, both to the local congregation that needs to be shepherded and to the world beyond.
Like McKnight, I know that “To change a church culture like Willow’s — and those it has influenced — requires a conversion so penetrating that everything is born again.”
I’m praying that happens, and that the church finds a pastor who will feed God’s sheep.