Willow Creek announces staff cuts as pandemic ravages giving, church attendance

Worshipers fill the 7,000-seat Willow Creek Community church during a Sunday service in South Barrington, Illinois.
Worshipers fill the 7,000-seat Willow Creek Community church during a Sunday service in South Barrington, Illinois. | (PHOTO: REUTERS)

Nearly three months after offering his congregants a money-back guarantee if they tithed 10% of their income for a year and are not satisfied, Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor David Dummitt recently admitted the "hard reality" that the suburban Chicago megachurch has been forced to cut its staff due to the pandemic's impact on giving.

In a video shared on YouTube earlier this month, Dummitt said that as giving and attendance continued to fall during the COVID-19 pandemic, the multi-campus church evaluated its spending habits to identify ways to save.

"Willow is about half of the size we were before COVID, which is right in line with the churches across the country. But as you can see, and as you can imagine, that has fiscal impactions," Dummitt said.

"The rule of thumb for healthy churches is to maintain staffing costs at or below about 50% of your total operating budget. Currently, our staffing comprises 72% of our operating budget. So the hard reality is that we are in the process of rightsizing our staff, which unfortunately means some reductions," he continued. "We know this impacts individuals and families greatly, and we're committed to walking through this in as honoring a way as possible."

Dummitt, hired by Willow Creek shortly after the pandemic began in March 2020, said the church will also be looking at "innovative ways to leverage our facilities for income-generating, community-building opportunities."

On Wednesday, Willow Creek posted a statement on its website stating that the staff cuts will create about $6.5 million in savings and reduce staff expenses to 52% of the church's overall budget in 2023. At the end of 2021, the church was averaging 43% of its 2019 weekly average attendance and saw a decrease in contributions, the statement explains. 

"These changes are difficult on staff members whom we love who will no longer have a staff role — some of them have been with us for many years," the statement reads. "We are providing generous financial care for each of these individuals, ranging between three months and one year based on tenure. Those on our healthcare plan will also see their insurance benefits extended. We care deeply for our staff, both those staying and those leaving, and are committed to walking alongside everyone well during this season."

The announcement comes after Dummit made headlines in February when he announced a money-back guarantee on tithes, which could be seen as an attempt to improve the church's struggling finances.

Texas Pastor Robert Morris first pitched the idea. He told Willow Creek congregants that he had been offering the same guarantee to his nearly 40,000-member Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, for 22 years, and no one ever asked for their money back.

"I don't want to exaggerate, but I'm sure thousands and thousands of people, and I'm sure it's multiplied, that have told me some way over the years through email, letters, whatever, 'this changed my life,'" Morris noted in a YouTube clip from his message on tithing the first 10% of one's income.

Morris urged Willow Creek members to take on the challenge.

"You know what? I'm so confident, I'll say it here. You tithe for one year, if you're not fully satisfied, Dave will give you your money back," he said with a chuckle.

Dummitt is shown awkwardly accepting the challenge.

"I'll just go ahead and say, yes. Just like the Lord said, test me in this. I think I'll go ahead and be bold and say if you do this for the year and you are not fully satisfied, we'll give the money back. I like that challenge," he said.

The Christian Post reached out to Willow Creek about the challenge at the time. While Dummitt was not immediately available for an interview, Willow Creek's Marketing and Communications Director Liz Schauer noted in an email that "Our team is still exploring the potential program."

Willow Creek's announcement comes as many churches, including megachurches, have been forced to close, merge with other congregations or get creative to survive the impact of COVID-19.

In January, the Potter's House of Denver announced the intent to sell its $12.2 million, 137,000-square-foot megachurch in Arapahoe County, Colorado, and go completely virtual.

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