Heather Larson has resigned her position as lead pastor with the Willow Creek megachurch in South Barrington, Illinois, north west of Chicago. Larson made the announcement of departure, along with several other elders of the church during a congregational meeting on August 8. The Arlington Heights Daily Herald quotes Larson has telling her flock, “In recent days and weeks it’s become clear to me that this church needs a fresh start. The staff, the staff that I dearly love, they also need a clean running lane to heal, to build, to dream… The timing of my transition is now right. I have carried what God has asked me to carry.”
The above video shows some members of the church audibly groaning as Larson announces her resignation. Larson appointed Steve Gillen, the leader of the Willow Creek North Shore branch, to replace her. Allegations of sexual misconduct against church founder Bill Hybels first appeared in the Chicago Tribune in March 2018. According Willow Creek’s official website, leadership at the megachurch oversees 350 staff and a budget of $77 million.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Larson Described Willow Creek as Her ‘World’ & Credit God as Giving Her ‘Clarity & Peace’ Leading to Her Resignation
Larson also published a lengthy statement on Willow Creek’s official website. Larson says the church has “been my world for the past 20 years.” Larson explains her resignation saying, “I have spent a lot of time seeking God and asking him for guidance. He has given me clarity and peace. I am stepping down from my role as lead pastor.” Larson continues, “Trust has been broken by leadership, and it doesn’t return quickly. There is urgency to move in a better direction. It is the job of a leader to define reality, and it is the job of a leader to put the team and the organization first, and I am committed to doing that.” That statement closes with the words, “So, I ask you not to give up on it either. The Chicagoland area needs Jesus, and our world needs Jesus. They desperately need people who will live and act like the Jesus we have taught about for the past 43 years. May it be true of us a hundred years from now too. I love you, Willow Creek!”
2. Larson’s Mother’s Health Problems Led to Her Deciding to Dedicate Her Life to God
On her now-deleted bio on Willow Creek’s website, Larson’s says she grew up as the daughter of a pastor. Larson says her mother’s health problems led to Larson deciding to dedicate her life to God. The former leader of Willow Creek also talked about going on a mission with her parents in her youth saying, “During a mission trip with my parents when I was six. I was struck by the fact that my new friends in that remote village lived in homes that didn’t look like mine. No bathrooms, no running water. And I was the only kid who wore shoes. I knew this wasn’t right—and as I grew older, I wondered how I might make a difference.” Larson continues, “In working with the Red Cross. I loved providing tangible help to people in need and I thought my life and career would be all about non-profit organizations and foreign countries. But being on the ground at scenes of natural disasters, I noticed that on the heels of catastrophe, it’s the local church that stays for the long haul and brings the help and hope of Christ to its community.”
3. Larson Met Her Husband, Dan, Through Working at Willow Creek
In 1998, Larson says she came to Chicago to work for the American Red Cross. On the same day of her move, a friend invited Larson to Willow Creek. It was there that Larson met Dan, a lighting director at the church. Her bio describes Dan as being the “most eligible bachelor” at the church. The couple was married in 2001 and have two daughters, Teagan and Avery.
On her Twitter page, Larson describes herself as, “Mom, wife, executive pastor @WillowCreekcc & an activist for hope in our world.” When asked about balancing work and her family life in an interview with Christianity Today, Larson said, “To be working in a place and with a team of people who value me not just for what I bring to work but who I am as a wife and a mom has been extremely important to me. My girls are now 10 and 11, and i will always be grateful to Willow Creek for the amount of time I am able to be with them and invest in them while still using my gifts within the church.”
4. Larson Graduated as Student Body President of Taylor University in 1996
Larson graduated from Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, as student body president in 1996. In 2016, Larson returned to speak at Spiritual Renewal Week at the school. Larson was congratulated for her elevated role within in Willow Creek in a post on the school’s Facebook page in October 2017.
5. Larson Once Said Bill Hybels ‘Brings Out the Best’ in Her
Larson told Church Executive in an October 2014 interview about what it was like working with Bill Hybels, “He brings out the best in me and encourages me to take on new challenges. He doesn’t ever hold back his feedback or coaching, and I value that immensely. There’s no dancing around an issue, and we have candid dialog about problems we’re trying to solve.”
In March 2018, the Chicago Tribune became the first outlet to report on a series of sexual misconduct allegations against Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels. Among the allegations was that Hybels had conducted an extra-marital affair, though the woman involved in the allegation later withdrew her claim. Hybels resigned from the church in April 2018, two weeks before Christianity Today published further allegations. Those allegations led a major investigation by the church’s elders into the handling of the misconduct claims. The latest allegations were published by the New York Times in August 2018, three days before Larson’s resignation. The Times spoke to a woman who said she worked for Hybels during the 1980s during which time he allegedly fondled her breasts and she performed oral sex on him. On August 7, Steve Carter, one of those slated to replace Hybels, resigned. Carter said that his position in the church was “untenable” following the mishandling of the allegations against Hybels.
A statement that directly addresses the allegations against Hybels on the church’s website reads in part, “While Bill Hybels was our founder and pastor, he was human, broken, and self-admittedly sinful. We believe that his sins were beyond what he previously admitted on stage, and certainly we believe that his actions with these women were sinful. We believe he did not receive feedback as well as he gave it, and he resisted the accountability structures we all need.”