Willow Creek Community Church Pastor Bill Hybels, speaking during the opening session of a global leadership summit, took the occasion on Thursday to say that he and his church elders were formally engaged in a succession process.
"The elders at Willow Creek are quite aware that I turned 60 this last year … They know my family history of heart disease. They know that I travel into high risk areas so they brought the subject matter of succession several times in recent years," Hybels explained to several thousand in attendance at his church in South Barrington, Ill., and a huge online audience watching the Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit.
"They finally asked me if I would be willing to enter more formal conversations about my potential transition out of this church. They assigned one elder that I know well and that I trust deeply and I said sure, why not."
Hybels, who founded the association and created the global summit, introduced the topic of his succession about half way through his talk on leadership to help other pastors and churches understand the process, he said.
The elders at Willow Creek Church chose someone who is personally close to Hybels to begin having the important conversations as to how the transition would occur.
"Our early conversations were a little awkward. We both knew what we were supposed to be talking about, but my leaving Willow is not the easiest subject matter," Hybels said. "But Mike (did not give full name) was extremely sensitive to my feelings to over the course of a full year as we talked about the future."
Hybels described four different phases of succession that were planned for Willow Creek and said the first phase that was the planning phase, which took about a year, had already been completed.
"Now, I'm a stoic Dutch guy and can take pretty difficult conversations, but had Mike tried to rush these conversations it would have been very hard for me," he said. "The first phase has been pretty well worked out."
Hybels and the church elders decided that during phase two, the phase that they are in now, they are going to try and find someone within the church to be his successor. They have "afforded a certain time frame" to find that person and if they are unable to they will search for an "external candidate."
"The last phase, the actual transition itself is where after we have found someone I gradually increase their responsibility and decrease mine," Hybels said. "We're hoping that that would take no more than 18 months or so.
"After that, I'm gently placed on an ice flow and pushed out to sea," he said, followed by much laughter.
"I am extremely proud of our board and how they did the process. In my view, they put on a clinic in doing this right. Beyond that, Willow's future feels more secure to me now that we have this kind of plan," he explained.
However, after the final meeting between the elders' board and himself, Hybels said that as he drove out though the church property he became nostalgic, remembering the church property when it was still a farm with corn fields. Then he remembered all the ground breaking ceremonies, fundraising campaigns, and baptisms.
"It was a very emotional night driving out of that meeting," he said. "It's been way tougher than I thought it would be, but I have many years of more exciting work to do here at Willow so I can only imagine how tough it's going to be the closer I get to the end."
Hybels encouraged church board members to understand how deep feelings run in the lives and hearts of senior pastors.
"Don't assign a person with low emotional intelligence to have these conversations with your pastor," he said.
Addressing senior pastors, Hybels said, "Some of you attempt to hang on too long. Do the right thing for your church. When you get to your late 50s and on to your 60s make sure that your greatest legacy is going to be to make sure that your church is well led after you leave it."
Concluding his portion of the message on succession, he said, "I'm in high trust mode that God is going to guide us through this exercise of this phase of the journey as He has for every other portion of Willow's journey. If we are the leaders that we all claim to be, I think we should turn over heaven and earth to make sure our churches are set up to be stronger after we leave them then when we started them and led them ourselves."
The two-day conference is being hosted and broadcast at more than 200 sites in the U.S. and in more than 260 cities worldwide in 85 countries.
Founded by Hybels in 1975, Willow Creek Community Church has grown to be one of the largest churches in the country, drawing more than 20,000 people every weekend.