Hey, friends, seriously, wait, before you sit down, the true founder of this church is in the house with us. Dr. B is with us, and so...
Alright. You can have a seat.
And he’s a 187 years old. So. It’s a miracle, every year that he shows up for another anniversary.
Hey, you’re all familiar with the passage in Ecclesiastes 3 that says there is a season... in life... for everything. It says there’s a season for every purpose under heaven. Six and a half years ago, the Elders came to me, and they said, “We’re wondering...” and they said this very courteously, very respectfully. They said, “We’re wondering if you have any idea how long your season should be as Senior Pastor of this church.” And even I know there was kind of... a question behind that question.
And so I said, “Really, I haven’t given it any thought.” And in that meeting, we chatted about a little bit, and we said, “Well, you know, someday my season, surely, is gonna have to come to an end as the Senior Pastor. And because Willow is an influential church and a church of some scale and impact around the world, we would probably... serve God and help our church if we would do a thoughtful, prayerful transition process over time... to see if we could find new leaders who could take us into the future.
And so, after many months of prayer around this, we decided, “Let’s start that faith journey.” Six and a half years ago.
The Elders asked me to do the initial vetting process. To find some... some leaders who could take us into the future. And then... they would make the final decision... on who would take us into the future. I do the vetting; they do the final deciding. And that’s as it should be, biblically, and I was more than willing to do my part.
When I was just sitting down to decide how to do this vetting process, I felt I had to have some values that I could do some vetting by. And so my first one was that I wanted the Holy Spirit to guide this process. When I was reading through the Old and New Testament, there were many baton passes... and when the Holy Spirit seemed to be a part of the baton pass, they seemed to go pretty well. When the Holy Spirit was left out of the equation, it got a little ugly. In fact, some baton passes wound up with people killing each other over this stuff. And I thought, let’s have as little bloodshed as possible... in this transition. So let’s let the Holy Spirit guide it.
Secondly, and this was just a leadership decision I made, I said, “I want my executive team, the leadership team of the church, and all the lead pastors of all our congregations—I want them in on the vetting process from the very beginning.”
We have an incredibly talented and committed... humble, servant-oriented leadership team and lead pastors. And I thought to myself, If I don’t engage them, and, then, at the end of the process, I announce, maybe, who the leaders are gonna be in the future, and it comes as a surprise, and they’re not all on board, we could... that could be a hardship on some people that we really need to, you know, be on the same page. So, from day one, I invited all of those people into the process.
Next is I wanted the process to be transparent. No smoke-filled rooms. No side deals. I wanted to be honest with the people who put their name in the hat. If they weren’t gonna make it, I wanted to tell them honestly why I wasn’t going to further their candidacy. And I wanted to tell them so that they could either grow or so that I could affirm the fact that they are in the right place at the right time. And so I wanted to make it transparent.
Next is I wanted it to start internally. All the leadership research shows if you can find internal candidates, well, they’re probably gonna do... it’ll probably be a smoother transition than if it’s external. So I started with an internal focus. But because of my relationship with the Willow Creek Association and the Global Summit, we’re in 130 countries. So right when I started looking for who could be the leaders that would take us into the future, on every trip I’ve been on—every culture, every country—domestically and internationally, I would be saying, “Holy Spirit, show me somebody.” And there’s some very, very interesting leaders and communicators on the international front.
And in some countries that you wouldn’t except, I mean, there are people who can lead and preach... in a very impressive way. And so... when I would run across these people over the years, I would arrange to have a special dinner with them and find out what God was doing in their life—if they were interested in becoming a part of our story. And, at one point, I said to the Elders, “Now, I do have the freedom to... use the whole world as a canvas for selection, right? I mean, like, you’d be okay if God brings an international person? Someone from a different culture? A different ethnicity? A different skin color?”
And they were like, “We’re trusting God to guide you in the vetting process, and we’ll make the final decision. So search the world.”
And I did.
One of the big revelations that came my way fairly early in the process as I was searching all over the place... was that there are some people who can really lead and can teach to set a pulpit on fire. You know, I mean, really exciting. But I was to learn... that some of them, as capable as they were, don’t really share the values of our church. What makes Willow, Willow? It’s not a cool building. It’s not just that we use the arts and so. It’s our values.
We ache over people... who are far from God. It’s like a major, front-of-mind concern for us every day around here. If you go out into our lobby right now, you’ll see those banners that have the stickers on it of all the people that we’re praying for that they will come to faith in Christ soon. And I stood in front of it yesterday... prayed there for two or three minutes... and some of you said, “I’m praying for my dad.” Some of you wanted the whole church to pray for your neighbor, your boss, your... coworker, and so. And so much of what drives our church is the belief that people far from God matter to God... and they ought to matter to us.
Another value of ours is that our hearts break over the plight of the poor. I mean, we built the Care Center during the worst recession of our lifetime. We do Celebration of Hope every year. We had a job fair here this week—hundreds of people who have not been able to find employment streamed into our lobby, and employers came, many of whom run businesses in our church, and we tried to match people up cause... people who have fallen on hard times need jobs. And we do this joyfully.
We love diversity in this church. There are some churches that aren’t very interested in having the richness of diversity that we enjoy. And we’ve gone from 2% to 38% diversity, and we really believe the words of Jesus... when He said that “My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations.” We have a hundred nations represented in this church. And that’s a value of ours.
Next is we actually believe that women ought to be able to use their full spiritual giftedness in the ministry of the church along with men.
Here’s another one that’s fairly odd, if you think about it. We serve other churches. Now, you think about this for a second. We serve other churches. We decided some twenty-some years ago to start this thing called the Willow Creek Association, where we would put a serving towel over our arms and we would render assistance and coaching and mentoring and resources to any church anywhere that needed our help. And that’s a little different.
We care for prisoners. We care for prisoners. That’s not every church’s deep concern, but we do here.
And... we have a special heart toward a ministry called “Special Friends,” that takes care of our disabled kids here. That’s a very important value.
And... we fight for peace in a world of conflict. We’ve sent over three hundred of our senior leaders to the Middle East to understand the complicated narrative of the Israelis and the complicated narrative of the Palestinians. And we’ve been training people in peacemaking efforts so that maybe they can push the peace agenda up field in addition to what the politicians are trying to do. But we believe Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
So I could go on and on about our values. But... I would find a fantastic leader... in some part of the world or in our country or even in our congregation, and I would find that they would hold some of our values but not all of them. And I started to realize that’s gonna be a deal breaker. And I had dinners with pastors of great churches, and they would never let a woman lead anything significant in their church. Or... they... teach God’s Word, but they’re not too interested in people who are outside of their church who are... pre-Christian. They mainly wanna preach to the already convinced and so.
And I started to realize... it’s gonna be very complicated... to find someone who’s capable and gifted and who shares the values that make our church unique. So that really narrowed the field.
Now, a further complication several years into this process was... we brought a consultant in from outside the church. We had many... Christ-following consultants along the way. One we brought in... who doesn’t know Willow very well and is really not a person of faith yet. But we wanted his fresh eyes on our transition process. Sometimes, you know, people who aren’t real familiar with you can see things that we can’t see, cause we’re blinded by what’s in front of us.
So our executive team met with this guy in Michigan. And he said, “So I know you brought me in to help you with this transition process. If you’re trying to replace Bill, let’s ask the question, ‘What does Bill do around here?’”
And my team said, “We don’t know what Bill does around here. We don’t. I mean, we cover his backside. He’s gone half the time, and...”
So the guy goes, “No, I’m semiserious. I have to understand what he does.”
And so we told him mainly what I do is I spend my time teaching and then leading. So the consultant said, “Uh, how many hours?” He looked right at me, and he said, “I don’t know about these things. How many hours does it take you to put a decent sermon together?”
And I said, “Well, I’ve never actually delivered a decent sermon... but I put in a lot of hours trying.”
He said, “How many hours for the average sermon?”
And I said, “Well, minimally twenty-five hours a week. And if it’s a tough passage on a tough subject matter, that can bump up to thirty-five hours a week.”
And he goes, “Okay. Do you do holiday services? Do you do funerals and weddings?”
And I said, “Yeah, I do some of those.”
And he said, “How many actual times do you deliver these messages over the course of a weekend?”
And I said, “Three.”
And he said, “Do you greet people?”
And I said, “Yeah.”
And he goes, “Well, by my calculations, you’re over forty hours a week with just the teaching.”
I said, “I... it could be. I don’t keep track.”
And he said, “Now, let’s talk about the leadership side. What does it take to lead this organization?” He said, “How many staff?”
I said, “Well, four hundred or so.”
“How many campuses?”
“What’s the budget?”
He goes, “That’s a big leadership challenge. How many hours does that take?”
I said, “That’s, that’s probably forty of forty-five.”
So he writes that down. And then he puts eight-five hours, and he circles it. Was a little moment of truth.
And someone around the table said, “Who would we wish this job on?”
And when he left, he made a tremendous contribution to us. Really not even knowing... what a breakthrough it was for him to bring this into sharp relief. And we prayed on our knees after that as an executive team and said, “We maybe have to put an improved leadership model in place. Not for every church but for our church at this time in our history. And maybe... maybe we need to do away with the Senior Pastor model when my tenure is done, and maybe we ought to replace that Senior Pastor title with two titles, two positions. One being called the Lead Pastor, who will do that leadership job that needs to be done, and another title called the Lead Teaching Pastor, who would focus on teaching and being with the congregation and raising up other teachers and so.”
And I called the Elders right after that retreat. I said, “I think... that... not only am I gonna bring some names to you about who can lead us into the future; I think I’m gonna present a new model of leadership for our church. Again, not every church.”
And they said, “We’re all ears. Come to the next meeting and explain it to us.”
So I did. And, within just a couple of hours, they were like, “We see this, too. And we think, we think you’re on the right track here.”
So I proceeded.
Well, now that I know that I’m looking for people who have the right gifts and who have our values, it got really intense. And by God’s grace, with this new two senior leadership positions open, I found two people... that I felt fit those roles. And I quickly brought back in my executive team, leadership team, and all the lead pastors, and I said, “I’m getting real, real serious now on these positions and these people.” They agreed 100 percent with that—with the decision that I was about to present to the Elders.
So when that was all done, and we were all on the same page, then I went to the Elders. And I said, “Here’s the leadership model, and here are the people who I think can fit these positions beautifully.”
Now, put yourself fin the shoes of our Elders. These are people who have full-time jobs. These are people—many of whom have, you know, full family schedules and so. They’re volunteers. And they put in hundreds of hours just normally doing Elder stuff. And, on top of all that, during their tenure, they wind up having to make this... quite large decision. And so... they told me, and we had pre-agreed on this, that when I gave them my recommendation, then I had to step out of the process... so that they could do a true independent process. Because maybe the thought would be that the Elders would simply rubber stamp my recommendation. And then they would have to stand before you and say, “Yeah, we didn’t, you know, we just went with whatever Bill wanted.”
And they’re pretty independent people anyway and are very strong Christ followers... and I knew it was the right thing to step out of... that process. So for thirteen months... without my involvement... they vetted my recommendations. And they prayed on their knees about the leadership model and all that. And... eventually came to the same conclusion that I had come to about the personnel and about the model.
Now, we hit one little speedbump right near the end. And that was because of the way our governance works as a church, I, as the Senior Pastor, have been the connecting person with the Elders. The Elders do not wander around our church and advise staff how to do their job. We don’t have that kind of model. We have a very disciplined, board model where the board concerns itself with vision and values and the future of the organization, and then if they have concerns, they communicate them to me as the Senior Pastor, and then I communicate to the staff. And that’s... we keep their purview and the staff purview quite differentiated. And it works really, really well. We’ve been in that model for seven or eight years. But now we have two senior positions. How’s that gonna work out?
And it took an additional month or so for us to wrestle this down, but we said, “We should defer to the giftedness here. The person with the strongest leadership gifts should be the one who reports up into the Elders and from the Elders down, back into the staff and so. And so we said that the Lead Pastor would be that connect with the Elders. And then the Lead Teaching Pastor would attend Elder meetings but not as a voting member. Give input and all the rest. But we would stay clean with a single Lead Pastor communication link between the Elders and the staff. And so, when we got that done, that sort of completed the process.
Now, along the way, I had an experience with God that I want to spend just a moment telling you about. I could take you back, believe it or not, I could take you back to where it was, what day it was, what I was doing... when I felt very strongly called to start this church.
And it was one of those... callings, you know? When God stirs in your heart, and He gives you—I’ve never heard the audible voice of God—but He gave me such a strong impression. Dr. B had been saying, “Somebody needs to try to start an Acts 2 church in our day.” And that was... reverberating inside of me. And then there came that day when God said, “Bill, I want you... to leave your family business, and I want you to do this.”
And I went to Tim VandenBos and... Scott Pederson and Joel Jager, my closest friends, and I said, “Will you leave what you’re doing... and will you help me with this?”
And they said, “Yes.”
And so we all just said, “Here we go.”
Well, I’ve been running on that calling, that energy, for all these years. And then I was on a solitude retreat in... on a little island in the Atlantic. And God came as... as personally and powerfully to me on that day as He did on the day He called me to start this church, and I heard Him say through an impression by His Holy Spirit, “I am now releasing you... from your role. Not releasing you from being passionate and loving and being a part of the church. But I’m releasing you from your role as Senior Pastor. It was only ever intended to be a season. And you’ve completed the season that I wanted you to complete. I have other things that maybe you can do. But... this season is coming to an end.”
And it was so real that I... called the Elders right away. And the cell coverage was terrible. I had to call back two or three times. And I said, I told them what happened, and I said, “I’m not going to be a problem child in this... transition. Because I feel released from this role.” And they were pretty glad to hear that, actually.
And we confirmed that my end date... my end date in my Senior Pastor position as it’s comprised right now will be one year from this weekend—it’ll be October of 2018. Where I will cycle off the staff of the church. And from what I can tell now, the one certain thing I think God wants me to do... is pay more attention to the building of the Global Leadership Summit all around the world, and, for some strange reason that I don’t fully understand... I feel a special calling within that calling to bring the Summit to the poorest countries of the world, to the countries where no one ever comes to do leadership development—to the countries that are filled with corruption and conflict and all of that. So...
During my last year here, I will do my absolute best to coach and develop and to mentor the senior staff of this church. And I’ll be giving them increased responsibilities. I’ll be moving out of my infamous third-floor office and locate somewhere else—I’m thinking about the pole barn or maybe the CARS ministry area. Some place a little different.
This will still be my home church. I’ll still worship here and be a part of things, but I’ll be in a different... will not be in this role. And, finally, I decided, in this last year, I’m gonna start giving hugs. Yeah. Huh. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
And I’m lying to you right now.
But anyway, don’t worry about me and my family. We’re great. We’ve seen God’s hand in all of this, and we’re in a terrific place. And I’m gonna be around for another year or so—there’s nothing abrupt that’s gonna happen. But now, I have the awesome privilege, on behalf of the Elders, to introduce our new Lead Pastor to you—it’s Heather Larson—and our new Lead Teaching Pastor, Steve Carter. So, guys, come up.
Alright, have a seat.
I wanna tell you a little bit of, kind of, the behind-the-scenes rationale of why I chose these people and why I believe the Elders affirmed them as soundly as they did. I wanna talk about Steve first. I’ve known Steve for fifteen years. And I’ve followed his ministry in two other churches. And I followed it because... he is uniquely gifted, and I felt God had His hand on Steve’s life. And so we’ve stayed in touch for over fifteen years. Then... a little over five years ago, when we needed some teaching help, when I did anyway, I hired Steve... and I was to learn, over the course of the last five years, Steve has an incredibly strong, pure New-Testament gift of teaching. And what that means is... that Steve, when he opens his Bible, the Holy Spirit... illuminates... the Word of God to him. And while it’s... while at the same time it’s being illuminated, God is already giving him ideas of how to communicate. Illuminate and communicate at the same time. It’s a really cool... manifestation of the pure spiritual gift of teaching, and he has it.
Another thing is that Steve has an insatiable appetite to get better. He just, he loves to be coached. And every time he gives a message, he’ll come to Heather and me and others in the back room, and he’ll go, “I think I can do better than that... tell me what point needs to be stronger. Tell me if that illustration worked, because I have two more shots. And I’d like to do better and give God more glory and help people more next time around.” Just wants to get better.
This is probably my favorite part of his teaching gift. And I get emotional because this is so rare—if you only knew... how rare this is. Steve is a servant teacher. He comes into my office, and he goes, “Where do you want me to teach the next thirty days? Five people, fifty people, fifteen th- doesn’t matter. You want me to teach in Elevate? You want me to teach Student Impact?” He is a pure servant teacher with no ego. And wants to use this gift with a serving towel over his arm. Very rare.
Another thing... another thing that’s very unusual is to have someone with the pure gift of teaching at the level he has it whose second gift is the gift of evangelism. And I’m not proud of what I’m gonna say next, but—and it’s an observation, not a judgment. Some of the best Bible teachers that I know... are motivated mainly to preach the Bible to the already convinced. And if you say, “Well, what about the people who aren’t convinced yet?”
They go, “Well, you know... I’m not so interested in them. I want to teach people how to do a deeper walk,” which is a beautiful thing. But this church was born... to reach our friends. And if I was gonna put someone in the role to be our primary teacher and the teaching was all gonna be focused on the already convinced with not much thought for those who are not yet a part of our church... that would be a violation of one of our fundamental values.
Steve’s second gift is evangelism. And Steve... Steve builds relationships with people far from God when he’s not on the church clock. He just believes that everyone he meets would be better off if God were at the center of their story. Which is a beautiful thing.
Many of you know that his first book was called The Invitational Life. How do you live your faith out in front of your family and friends that would be inviting to them to check out the story God could write for their life? So that’s a powerful thing. Steve loves to be with people in our congregation. It’s embarrassing for me to walk around the campus with Steve, cause he knows more people than I know. And they all run up and, you know, go, “Yeah, hey, Bill... Hey, Steve!” You know? I don’t walk around with him much anymore.
Steve owns all of our values and would take a bullet for them. I have never had to say, “Hey, can... can you... pump up yourself a little bit to help our congregation care more for the plight of the poor?” Steve owns every value that we hold dear... and is passionate about them without input needed from me or anyone else.
Team... he’s team oriented. You know, every third illustration, have you noticed? Every third illustration is athletics that he uses. Keep track some time. I’m rarely off on this. But... it is really... his athletic background has served us well. Because he’s utterly team oriented. When we’re in planning meetings and so, I mean, he wants to know, what are the other team members think? And when we do something that works, he always is like, “I wanna spread all the credit to the people on the team.” Staff people love working with Steve because he is so team oriented.
In addition, this is another very rare thing about a gifted teacher... a lot of people can teach... and if you ask them how they do it, they don’t know. It’s just a gift. Steve has reflected on it enough, and I think from his athletic and coaching background, Steve is uniquely capable and fired up about raising up other teachers. He has a class with seventy emerging communicators in it from all over our campuses to raise up new teachers. It’s a very rare thing.
And... because Steve... over the course of this transition is gonna become what we call Teacher One, we’ve already had this conversation. In that class of seventy emerging teachers that he’s building into, he’s gonna have to find a Teacher Two. So that he can take a breather once in a while and go on a family vacation. And he’s totally committed to raising up Teacher Two and Three and Four, and we have some interesting people who are getting pretty close to being ready.
Steve has a fantastic family. He has a fabulous marriage with Sarah. Two incredible kids. And it mattered to me... that he’s a great husband and a great dad. It really mattered a lot to me. So...
In summary, what I wanna say is, I did feel the freedom from the Elders... to look all over planet Earth... for our Lead Teaching Pastor. And I chose this guy, and the Elders affirmed it, and we are very glad that he said yes.
Now... hang on. Now... I wanna say a few words about Heather here. Heather is a twenty-year veteran of our staff. Now, you think about it. She’s been on our staff for twenty years. I hired her when she was in the seventh grade. Just... kidding. But she... she has the Willow DNA. She... she understands our culture. She understands... our history. And she knows a lot of the veterans around our church. And... and that really... is important to me.
She has the pure Romans 12:8 gift of leadership. And many of you have it, too, and God entrusted that to me as well. And when you have that as your lead gift, as it is in my life, you can spot... who else has that gift because your mind thinks similar kinds of leadership thoughts. And I’ve known for over a decade that her top spiritual gift was leadership. And I’ve been trying to mentor her along those lines because I knew, someday, you know, she would, she would play an increasingly important role.
Another thing that I’ve done over the last twenty years is I’ve put Heather in five or six different positions on the staff just to see how that leadership gift would emerge and so... she exceeded our expectations every single time in every one of these positions. A couple of things that you wouldn’t know. And this is embarrassing for her. But I’m gonna tell you anyway cause I think you need to know.
When people ask, “Who’s the founder of the Global Leadership Summit?” that would probably be me. If I were to ask people around Willow, “Who’s the founder of Celebration of Hope?” you wouldn’t know. But the founder, the person who God put the dream of Celebration of Hope into is Heather Larson. And she has built that for over a decade.
She was also the chairman of the building committee for the construction of our Care center. Brought that to completion on time, within budget. So I could see a little bit where her life was taking her. And... a couple years ago, I said, “Alright, here’s another test. You have to lead the budgeting process for our entire organization, for a season.” And... she doesn’t have... a degree in accounting. But I had to figure out if she could get her head around the numbers, if she’s gonna be the Lead Pastor, can she understand the budgets? Can she... figure out the right economic model and divide the resources properly and raise money and all this kind of stuff. She passed that test with flying colors. She gets it.
Here’s something a little... her style is just... one lane over from mine, you might say. She leads a little bit more collaboratively than I do. You know what I’m saying? She actually listens to people. Which I don’t quite understand. I’d rather just say, “Let’s go!” She actually says, “Come into my office, and I’d like to hear where you wanna go first.” Terrible waste of time in my view. But... when staff feel heard, then whatever the decision is, they can buy in because they were listened to. And Heather is a fabulous listener. And she gets input from all the people that she needs input from. And then... she makes the executive decision that has to be made. And we move on.
All the Lead Pastors... she’s been in all my meetings with the Lead Pastors of all of our regional congregations. They voted for her unanimously. Heather knows that one of her first jobs is gonna be to replace the position that she just vacated. She’s been an incredible Executive Pastor for five years. But now, as she becomes Lead Pastor, she has to back fill that position; she understands that.
Heather has boundless energy. I suspect she consumes massive quantities of Red Bull... every day. I don’t know what it is. But... I mean, she has a lot of energy. And one of the phrases that best describes her, we were talking about this in the back room the other day... Heather, wherever I am in the world, she’ll email me, and she’ll say, “I don’t know what country you’re in or what time zone you’re on right now. Here’s what I’m moving ahead today back at church.” And that little phrase—“We’re moving things ahead”—she hates the status quo. And comes in every day saying, “I’m gonna move these two things ahead. I’m gonna meet with these departments, these ministries, with this regional campus. And we are gonna move something ahead for God’s glory today.” I love that sense of energy and drive.
Heather has a fantastic family. Her husband, Dan, has been on the staff for almost as long as she has. And he does all the cool lights—all that you see here every weekend? Her husband does that for us. Which is really cool. And... she has two precious daughters—Teegan and Avery. And so she’s a terrific mom and a terrific wife. And, in summary... well, I guess there’s one more thing I should say.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed. We forget once in a while. She’s a woman. Okay? Did I say that right? And...
So... when it came time to say, okay, is this the person that I’m actually... going to recommend to the Elders to be our Lead Pastor... I said, I wonder if her, the fact that she’s a woman is gonna be all right with our church. And because this is a deeply held value of our church, I just said, “Our church is gonna celebrate that a woman gets to be in this role.” So... there we are.
So, in summary, I searched the whole world. And when it came right down to it, the recommendation I made to the Elders and that was affirmed by the Elders is that Heather Larson would be my first choice and our first choice to be our Lead Pastor.
So... anyway, I wanna ask these guys a couple questions real quick. I’m tired of talking. And... you’re tired of listening to me. Steve, Pam Orr—the chair of our Elder Board—called you a couple months ago and said, “We are gonna ask you to be the Lead Teaching Pastor of the church.” How did that phone call go?
Steve: Yeah, when she called and told me the news, it... I mean, in one sense, you are profoundly humbled at this opportunity and honored... and then there’s this... surge of excitement. To be able to do this. And what got me so excited is... they crafted a role that is exactly true to how God has wired me. Friends, I win. I don’t have to go to meetings like Heather does. Unbelievable. Don’t tell anybody, okay? But I... for them to see how God has made me and said, “Steve, we want you to teach. We feel that you were put on the planet to open God’s Word,” and it’s something I love to do.
And I still have room to grow, and I wanna keep getting better and better at teaching. But to have the chance to teach at this congregation... of people that I love so dearly... it’s just incredible. And not just teach but to also coach emerging teachers. I mean, from Promiseland to Elevate to Impact, people at all of our regionals—we have some incredible communicators. And I want every stage at Willow to have the best communicators to teach our kids, our students, and our congregation. It matters to me. So, for me, being able to teach, to coach, and then, they said, “Steve, you are a pastor. And we want you to be present with our community.” I love having the chance to sit with you at Dr. B’s. To hear your story. To pray with you. To open God’s Word with you. To help you in seasons of trouble and celebrate seasons of joy. It’s amazing.
And, they said, “We want you to be a local pastor.” And we’ve, you’ve heard it so many times. We say it all the time. The local church is the hope of the world. And for them to say, “We want you to be a local pastor. Keep living in the community and inviting people into what God’s doing.” I mean... our values. To partner with Heather who does... I mean, she moves things forward. I have the utmost trust in her. To have a coach like I do in Bill. To have the executive team, leadership team, Lead Pastors, our staff... it’s amazing. And the only way I know how to describe it is... through a sport’s analogy. So...
But, many of you know my dad... isn’t doing too well health wise. And a couple weeks ago, the University of Michigan invited my dad and I to go to a football practice. Now, it was an incredible experience. You see Harbaugh’s got his kakis on. And he’s got a bullhorn, and he’s walking around the practice and... he’s barking out plays over the bullhorn. And then, a couple times during the practice, he just stopped. And in that bullhorn, he just screamed out, “Who’s got it better than us?!”
And for a 115, 120 players, who felt honored, blessed, to have the privilege to play at the University of Michigan, to wear the maize and blue, they stopped what they were doing and all screamed out together, “Nobody!”
And when I think about our church... I think about the history and the legacy. When I think about the values of this place. When I think about the opportunity that God has put before me... here... I just think about that question: “Who’s got it better than me?” Nobody. Nobody. Nobody.
Bill: And... Heather, I think the same night, you got a phone call from Pam as well, and how did that call go for you?
Heather: Well, I resonate with Steve that it was incredibly humbling. I would say it was overwhelming for me in... the best of ways. This is not something I expected. Or something that I plotted out. But as I look back, I see how God planted some seeds in my heart almost twenty years ago. I was working on staff for the American Red Cross, and I started attending here at Willow. And, at that time, for the very first time, I heard this vision of the local church. And Bill’s words around that. And I started diving into Acts chapter 2. And God cemented in my heart that I want my life to be about building the church. And it’s when I came on staff here.
But then fast forward to just a little while ago. I was in a CEO program at Kellogg. And I felt like God was nudging me that He wanted me to step up my leadership. I called my husband, I said, “I don’t know what God’s prompting me to do.”
And as I was talking with him about it, he said, “It’s very clear to me that you are going to be leading something somewhere someday. I can’t imagine anything our family would wanna be a part of other than building this church that we love.” And now, we get to be part of doing that! And I get to be part of it with Steve. And God has such a unique anointing on Steve’s life and his incredible gift of teaching. And when Steve comes down from that stage after giving a great message, I’m like, “Yes! You did it! And I’m so glad I don’t have to do your job! So glad you’re in the role that you’re in.”
But it’s not just the two of us. We have a fantastic team of leaders. Our exec team. Our Lead Pastors. Our leadership team. And we have all linked arms. And we said, “We are committed to the future of this church.” We’ve started doing some vision meetings together, just dreaming about what is next. We’ve met with every single staff team. With regionals. With each of our Elders. Just hearing what God is stirring in each person.
And I would say one thing we know absolutely for certain is that God is not done with this church. And... and we are committed in the future of holding strong to the biblical values that have been part of our church since the very beginning. We wanna passionately pursue our friends who are far from God. We wanna spur one another on to grow deeper in our faith. And we wanna find ways to courageously show God’s love to our neighbors in need and to the world around us.
There is a whole lot that we have to figure out, but our team is ready. We are fired up. And we cannot wait to see what God’s gonna do.
Bill: So... lot of Red Bull there.
One thing, this is just a little irony. When I first started that vetting process, there were several, lots of people who threw their hat in the ring. Steve was pretty new with us at the time, and he didn’t throw his hat in the ring. And so I tracked him down one day, and I said, “Steve, you gotta throw your hat in the ring—go through this vetting process.”
And he said, “Bill, I, I’m too new. I don’t understand the culture yet. I’m probably too young. And so I would feel more comfortable staying on the sidelines.”
And I said, “Look, you know, I’m mentoring you, I’m coaching you, I’m asking you to go through this process if for no other reason that I think it’ll be developmental for you. If you don’t make it through the vetting process, you’ll know what you have to work on.”
And he said, “Well, if it’s developmental...”
And I said, “Yeah.”
And he threw his hat in the ring.
Heather was not on anybody’s radar at that point. And so I had her on my side of the table as we were vetting the other candidates. And here, six and a half years later, he winds up in this role, and she winds up in that role. It’s another Only God... kind of story.
Steve: You know, if you think about the history of our church, and right in my sight line is Dr. B. This story of this, of Willow, is Dr. B pouring into Bill. And... it’s been so beautiful how Bill has poured into Heather and me. And I have to tell you this—I’ve got a number of friends who are my age, who are in a succession process. And I’ll talk to them on the phone—“Hey, how’s it going?”—and sometimes, they’ll leak and just say, “I can’t wait for that per- our Senior Pastor to go.” And there’s something inside me that breaks. Cause I don’t want that. We don’t want that. And what gets me really excited is to have Bill come back and to teach. Now, it’s gotta be under forty minutes, but I want him to come back and teach, you know? And what’s gonna be so beautiful... is just that coaching that we’re gonna be able to get. And I just, I just need to say this. He has led. He has taught us. And... he took on a full-time job, another one, to do this succession process. And do it right. Bill, we owe you so much. Thank you for what you’ve done.
Heather: One of our team mantras through this is that we wanna fight through the funk of succession. We know this is hard. It’s hard in any organization or corporation that goes through a transition. But we are determined to have good, healthy conversations with each other to figure it out. We know there are some people on one extreme who would say, “Oh! The younger people are just coming in and pushing out the older people!” Okay, well, that is not true. Then you have people on another extreme who would say, “Oh, Bill’s really not going anywhere. He’s just behind the curtain. He’s just pulling the strings.” Well that is not true either.
We are determined to be able to be responsible for the roles and the gifts that God has given us and to continue to lean into the wisdom that Bill has. You know, Bill is traveling all over the world coaching pastors. And I know two pastors who are in line wanting that same coaching. And that’s the two of us in that regard, too. And one thing that’s really convenient—the three of us actually like each other. And we have a ton of respect for each other. And just really grateful that we get to do this together.
Bill: Yep. It’s all true.
Okay. Let me... let me predict, we’re almost to the end here, and let me predict what’s gonna happen after we do a closing prayer. You’re gonna get into your car... and the conversation in the car is gonna—you’re gonna go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Is this actually gonna work?” Cause that’s what everyone wonders: “Is this gonna work?” Okay?
Can I give you a couple steps that will greatly increase the likelihood of this transition working? First, commit to praying for Steve and Heather every single day. Rearrange your prayer list. These guys are stepping into massive new roles. I grew up with my role. They’re stepping into huge new responsibilities. Pray for them. If you catch them doing anything right, email them, encourage them, stop them around the campus and bless them.
If they get a couple things wrong, give ‘em a grace period. Just... you know... they’re in new roles. There could be a mistake here or there. Have grace. This is a grace-filled church. Am I right? We are. Okay.
And finally... continue to serve in your ministries. Serve. Do your volunteering. Do your absolute best in your current role around our church. Continue to serve. Continue to give your full tithes and offerings so we can stay financially strong through this era. If you do all of that stuff, and these guys work hard, I think God’s gonna honor this. And I remind you of one last theological truth. God birthed this church. Think about that now. So... we were not spun off by a denomination that wanted a franchise in Palatine. It was just four guys that wanted to reach their friends. Because God had prompted us to try to start an Acts 2 church after Dr. B just... got us all fired up about that vision.
God birthed this church. God grew this church. You all know the Scriptures... that unless the Lord builds the house, you labor in vain. We know who built this church, Who grew this church. God has protected this church. He’s sustained this church. And the way I describe it to some of my friends is I think God is fond of Willow for some strange reason. Just fond of it. And... I think... He sees how tricky this transition period could be. And I think He will turn His face of favor and fondness toward us if we do our parts.
And I think we’ll come out of the other side of this just marveling again at another Only God story. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Okay?
Now, Pam and the Elders, would you please come up? Just stay seated—we’re gonna do a closing prayer here, and then we’re gonna sing the Doxology. While they’re coming up here, I would also like Dr. B to come up. And someone’s gonna have to help him up the stairs. And... yeah. Hold him up. Again, he’s ancient. Wait till you see him.
Anyway... Pam is the chairman of our Board of Elders, and she’s gonna say a closing prayer.
Pam: This is an incredible weekend for our church. And as much as it pains me to lean into a Michigan illustration, when I look at these three and I consider the last forty-two years, I would look at you, Willow, and say, “Who’s got it better than us? Nobody.” Let’s pray.
Father God, we are awed by Your goodness to our church over the last forty-two years. You have provided for and protected us in ways we have witnessed with our eyes and in ways unseen. Thank You for the inspiration of Dr. B in Bill’s life. And the faith of Bill, Lynne, and the other founders to courageously step into this journey. Thank You for Bill’s faithfulness over the past 42 years to love and serve Willow as our Senior Pastor. We are all humbled that You have chosen each of us to be a part of this incredible expression of the local church. Thank You for answering our prayers and for providing exactly who we need to lead Willow into its next season. Father, anoint and equip Heather and Steve to lead and shepherd with humility, love, and wisdom. Fix their eyes and their hearts on You. Empower Heather to lead our church into its best days ahead. And anoint Steve to pastor our congregation into a deeper walk with You, Father. We ask you to continue to pour out Your blessing, guidance, and protection on Willow. We believe that the local church is the hope of the world. Multiply our efforts and help us to continue to be a thriving Acts 2 church where more people come to know You, Jesus. Use us increasingly to be Your hands of hope and restoration to a world that so desperately needs it. We lift all of this up in Your strong name, Jesus. Amen.
Bill: Thanks, Pam. Thank you very much. Would you stand now? You know, the song we sing at milestone events around the church is the Doxology, which Christ followers have been singing for a long, long time. This is a pretty good time to sing it. I ask you to sing it in full voice. Thanking God for what he’s done. So, Matt...