Willow Creek Community Church made headlines in the church world with its recent succession announcement. After several years of prayerful planning, the church announced that Bill Hybels will retire in October 2018 and that Heather Larson and Steve Carter will take the leadership reins as co-pastors.
Most of the news coverage has focused on Larson’s gender and the fact that Willow has chosen two people (rather than one) to share the first chair. While I agree that both of these are noteworthy, I think another aspect of the new model is just as significant. Larson will be the “lead pastor” and Carter will be the “lead teaching pastor.” In ministry, most people find it difficult to imagine “lead” not being connecting to “teaching” (or preaching). We assume that the person in the first chair must be the primary preacher, so what happens when only one of these leaders has that kind of out front, public responsibility?
Only time will tell about the wisdom of this decision, but let me point to four key factors that can lead to continued fruitfulness for Willow:
- Larson and Carter have worked together at Willow for several years. That means that they know each other’s styles. They recognize strengths and weaknesses. They’ve built trust. Presumably they, and the elders at Willow, have seen a positive chemistry and genuinely believe that they can be more like a two-edged sword than a two-headed monster.
- Providing directional leadership for the staff is a huge responsibility in a church as large as Willow. So is the role of being the primary preacher. Larson and Carter will need to collaborate closely on the big decisions (along with other key leaders), and then they’ll both be thankful that they don’t have to do the other’s job.
- Internal succession tends to preserve and build upon a church’s DNA. That doesn’t mean that Willow won’t make changes in the future, but it does mean that Larson and Carter are starting from a shared culture and vision.
- Humility (or lack of) is the essential but invisible success factor. If Larson and Carter put their egos aside and focus on what God wants, great things can lie ahead for Willow.
It’s unlikely that you’re facing a leadership transition like the one at Willow. You may not be facing a transition at all. But wherever you lead, you will be more effective if you share the responsibility with one or more peers, build on a clear and healthy DNA, and humbly submit your ego to God.
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