How Willow Creek Is Leading Evangelicals by Learning From the Business World

Willow Creek, one of the nation’s largest and most powerful megachurches, leads evangelicals by learning from the business world’s best.

How Willow Creek Is Leading Evangelicals by Learning From the Business World
Ready to Learn: Some 7,000 pastors and laypeople filled the Willow Creek sanctuary for its Global Leadership Summit in August. | Photograph by Saverio Truglia Ready to Learn: Some 7,000 pastors and laypeople filled the Willow Creek sanctuary for its Global Leadership Summit in August. | Photograph by Saverio Truglia

Jack Welch called the other day. He wanted to talk about his friend Bill. Forget the notion that the ex-GE chief is a curmudgeon — the guy just gushed. Bill “is a man with enormous capability, a man who can rally a team around a vision.” Bill runs a fast-growing organization based just outside Chicago that today has affiliates on every continent except Antarctica. “I have my four Es,” Welch says, referring to the four leadership qualities he looks for in executives: Someone who has energy; who energizes others; who has edge (“someone who can say yes or no decisively”); and who can execute. “Bill has them all, along with a strong P: passion. He’s a winner. He could be running a company — or a country.”


He could be, but he is not. Instead, Bill Hybels runs a church. Willow Creek, the congregation that he founded 35 years ago, has grown into one of America’s largest — on a typical Sunday, 23,000 people attend services. And each year since 1995, Hybels and his team have done something unprecedented: They run what amounts to a pop-up business school called the Global Leadership Summit, bringing a stellar faculty, including Jim Collins, Colin Powell, and Jack Welch, to the Willow Creek campus in South Barrington, Illinois, to teach pastors and laypeople leadership and management.

“Willow Creek offers a deep set of lessons about organizational life that I have not been able to learn anywhere else,” says Babson College president and former Limited Brands COO Len Schlesinger, who has studied the church for nearly two decades, though he himself is Jewish. This year, he took several of his Babson colleagues to the summit, which has also attracted delegations from Best Buy, Chick-fil-A, and Toms Shoes. “The quality of the teaching is extraordinary,” Schlesinger says. “The fact that Willow Creek is a church and the fact that it is evangelical mean that some people may have a great deal of difficulty with it, but they skip it at their loss.”

Hybels’s primary targets are not secular execs like Schlesinger; he’s aiming for church leaders. “I think the local church is the most important institution on the planet because of its transformative potential, so why should we limit the learning that pastors and faith-based leaders are exposed to?” Hybels says. “We try to find the people with the most thoughtful ideas about leadership, and we ask them to take their expertise and learning and spread it out over our audience.”


That audience is enormous. This year, pastors from more than 70 countries were among the 7,000-strong crowd at Willow Creek, including the leaders of 4 of the 10 largest congregations in America: Hybels; Craig Groeschel of in Edmond, Oklahoma (27,000 weekly attendees); Andy Stanley of Atlanta’s North Point Community Church (23,000); and T.D. Jakes of the Potter’s House in Dallas (17,000). The summit is simulcast by satellite to more than 130 locations, where 62,000 more people across the U.S. and Canada watch. It is also taped and translated into 31 languages — this year, Albanian, Khmer, and Congolese French were added — and by the end of January, an additional 65,000 people from Argentina to Zimbabwe will have attended local video-based Global Leadership Summits.

Evangelical Christianity proudly has no pope, and given its predilection for splintering, it can hardly be considered a single church. But if evangelicalism does have a global power center, it would have to be Willow Creek, thanks largely to the summit. According to cable-TV pioneer and venture philanthropist Bob Buford, who played a key role in the summit’s development, “Willow Creek is the most influential Protestant church in the world — one might even say the most influential church in the world save for the Vatican.”

Among arborists, the willow is known as a particularly aggressive, versatile tree. In ancient times, medicine men harvested its bark and leaves, which are full of salicylic acid, a natural precursor to aspirin that soothes aches and pains. The willow’s hardy, enterprising roots spread widely and rapidly to find the water that it needs to grow. Most varieties can thrive in poor soil.


All of this makes the willow a perfect, if unintended, metaphor and namesake for this congregation and its ambitions for the summit. (Willow Creek was named after neither a tree nor a babbling brook; it started meeting in 1975 in a movie theater called the Willow Creek, in Palatine, Illinois.) The summit sprang from Hybels’s conviction that church leaders lacked leadership training. “I’d been trying to help churches train pastors, and I kept asking myself, Why do some churches flourish and others languish? Is it location? Denomination? Urban versus rural? Rich versus poor?” Hybels says. “I could think of an exception to every theory, until I realized that every thriving church was not just well fed but also well led. It was a potent combination of great teaching and great leadership.”

A dinner conversation with management guru Peter Drucker in the mid-1980s helped crystallize Hybels’s vision. Drucker, a committed Christian, had been writing about the importance of America’s social sector, including charities and churches, since the 1930s, and as megachurches rose to prominence in the U.S., he began working with leaders like Hybels. “He asked me, ‘Bill, what is your unique contribution to Willow Creek?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m the pastor,’ ” Hybels recalls. “He said, ‘I didn’t ask you what your title was. What is the unique contribution God is asking you to make?’ I said, ‘Maybe you should order another glass of wine and let me think about it.’ “

Hybels decided that one of his unique contributions could be to create a resource for pastors who didn’t have firsthand access to thinkers like Drucker. The need was clear. A 1993 survey of evangelical pastors by seven seminaries found that while they said their education had prepped them well in church history and theology, they felt undertrained in administration, management, and strategic planning. “In the 1950s, a pastor preached on Sundays, did weddings and funerals, and visited the sick,” says Dennis Baril, senior pastor of the Community Covenant Church in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, which hosts a satellite summit site every year. “I have almost 50 ministries that need to be put together, scheduled, organized, and led. It’s a different skill set.”


Church conferences did little to address that need. “Most of them are pastors learning from pastors,” says Jim Mellado, who wrote a 1991 Harvard Business School case study on Willow Creek. “If you only hear preaching from the choir, you’re never stretched. You never see things from another perspective.”

In 1992, Hybels hired Mellado to inject that perspective as vice president of a loose alliance of evangelical churches called the Willow Creek Association. Two years later, Mellado was named president and charged with staging a leadership summit. The first one was held in August 1995, with speakers including Ken Blanchard (The One-Minute Manager) and Pat MacMillan (The Performance Factor). Some 2,200 people nearly filled what was then Willow Creek’s main sanctuary.

Today, the Global Leadership Summit is a full-scale multimedia production with live music and drama, short films, and a slate of 13 speakers. Willow Creek’s 7,000-capacity auditorium — built as part of a $75 million expansion in 2004 — boasts two balconies, cushy seats, numerous video screens, and free Wi-Fi. (For portions of this year’s summit, the hashtag #wcagls made it to No. 2 on Twitter’s trending topics, though it never could top Naomi Campbell and her blood diamonds.) And ticket prices are low: just $349, with deep discounts for association members and those who book early.


The two-day summit schedule is carefully choreographed to balance secular voices with those of pastors. “If we filled all our sessions with the Jim Collinses and Jack Welches and did not have the faith leaders, the summit would go away in a year or two,” Hybels says. “What has made this thing last is the mix: It’s the blend of high-impact, God-honoring messages with savvy, street-smart, don’t-spiritualize-everything lessons from business.”

So on the first morning, before Good to Great author Collins took the stage, a team of Willow musicians led an ebullient set of contemporary Christian praise songs (“Hear the holy roar of God resound/ Watch the waters part before us now”), and Hybels gave his opening lecture. After Collins — who talked about the five stages of organizational decline, from his book How the Mighty Fall — came Australian evangelist Christine Caine, who transformed the sanctuary from a sedate biz-school lecture hall into a modern church-revival meeting. An activist who runs a campaign to combat trafficking of women, Caine roused the crowd, citing Ephesians 5:14 (“It is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’ “).

After lunch, Super Bowl-winning football coach Tony Dungy got a thunderous ovation, discussing mentoring, team building, and work-life balance. (“Don’t mistake hours for productivity!”) Then Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, spoke about the need for leaders to guard against temptations such as sexual impropriety — not the stuff of Davos.


The summit taps speakers from a wide range of fields: experienced executives like Welch and W.L. Gore CEO Terri Kelly; management theorists such as Collins and Marcus Buckingham (First, Break All the Rules); politicians including Tony Blair and Jimmy Carter; cultural leaders turned do-gooders like Bono and Four Weddings and a Funeral screenwriter Richard Curtis; and sports figures such as Tennessee Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt.

The speakers, many of whom are not paid, agree to come for a variety of reasons. Dungy heard about the summit in church circles. Harvard professor Ashish Nanda taught the Willow case study in his classes, and after Hybels visited as a guest speaker, Nanda recalls, “He said to me, ‘Would you be willing to return the favor?’ ” Collins, who has appeared four times, more than any other speaker, says he does the summit “for a simple reason: If we only have great for-profit business corporations, then we will only be a prosperous nation, not a great nation. We need superb leadership in all sectors of society.” (Several speakers, including Welch and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, testify to the spiritual rewards of working with Hybels. “I do not like to talk publicly about my spirituality,” says Welch, “but I am on a journey, and Bill has helped me immensely.”)

For Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, who spoke this year about his company’s “conscious capitalism,” the summit was also a learning experience. The highlight for him was Hybels’s interview with Welch. “Welch talked about the dangers of the ‘meeting after the meeting.’ That was happening at Toms, and it’s not anymore,” Mycoskie says, citing a new daily senior-leadership meeting implemented in direct response to Welch’s summit message.


“Bill Hybels talked about recruiting fantastic people and being bummed when they quit,” Mycoskie continues. “That has affected our hiring process. Before, we were hiring as fast as possible. I’ve since told my HR director to take the extra month to make sure we’re getting the right people.”

Mellado’s wish list for future speakers gives a sense of the kind of leadership he wants featured at the summit: Nelson Mandela; Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks (“one of the best examples of a company that got a little fuzzy about its ‘why,’ ” says Mellado, “and then he makes a tremendous comeback”); Cisco’s John Chambers (“We haven’t really made a strong play in technology”); and Anne Mulcahy and Ursula Burns of Xerox (“They really turned that company around”).

If you ask organizers and attendees why corporate types, especially non-Christians, have any business telling church folks how to run their organizations, they repeatedly cite a popular paraphrase of John Calvin — “all truth is God’s truth.” (Reading Calvin’s actual words in his seminal Institutes, you can see why they paraphrase: “If we believe the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we shall neither reject nor despise the truth itself wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to insult the Spirit of God.”) “The church has been closed to the world for too long,” says Caine. “Jesus learned from everything and everyone. He says in John 17, ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.’ We need to dialogue with those who are not of our faith, and bring our brains to the table.”


Occasionally, some attendees feel stretched too far beyond their comfort zones. In 2000, Hybels invited President Bill Clinton to appear at the summit and, in his interview with Clinton, skirted controversial issues, including abortion and the Monica Lewinsky affair. That, Hybels joked onstage this year, “nearly got me fired.”

At least Clinton is a Baptist. Willow’s openness to leaders from outside Christianity — whether Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, or atheist — attracts consistent criticism from some conservative Christians. “What they bring is knowledge of organizations that do not have biblical truth as their driving force,” says David F. Wells, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston. “Willow Creek has confused what leadership is in a company and what it must be in a church. We’re in a very different orbit from the corporate world. Our objective is night-and-day different.”

“No smart person would characterize the church as being the same as a business,” Hybels responds. “But when you have gained leadership expertise in one arena, there are insights to be gleaned for other arenas. We’re not asking a non-Christian to come teach theology.”


To borrow a non-Christian concept, the Willow summit balances the secular yin with the Christ-centered yang. This careful calibration reflects Hybels himself, who, as a teen, began working after school for his father’s produce company, which he expected to run. But in college, he felt the pull to ministry and switched his major from business to biblical studies. Thoughtful and geeky, he chooses his words carefully, punctuating a conversation with both long pauses and disarming self-deprecation. “I’m not offended if people don’t come along,” he says of his leadership. “I’m surprised by how many do come along. I’m not always sure I’d follow me either.”

For Hybels, studying management alongside his Bible and theology “is a discipline.” At the summit, he implored his fellow pastors to read books on business principles, so when we speak a couple of months later, I ask what he’s been reading. The Truth About Leadership, by James Kouzes and Santa Clara University professor Barry Posner, he says. He read it on a flight back to Chicago after giving a talk in New York. When I ask if this was fun for him, he sighs: “You sound like my wife.” Then he says, “It’s like asking, Do you like running 3 or 4 miles each day? It’s fun when it’s done. For reasons known only to God — I think it’s his sense of humor — I’ve been put in a position of influence, and reading is one of the most economical ways to get better at it. Would I rather have watched a movie? I cannot lie. But I had an hour and a half, and I had a book. I felt it was the responsible thing to do to make use of that time.”

He pauses momentarily before adding, “Sometimes I watch the movie.”


Willow Creek, like many megachurches, looks less like a traditional steeple-and-people structure than a spiritual mini mall. It has a food court, a coffee shop that’s clearly a Starbucks knockoff (complete with your choice of tall, grande, and venti), and a slate of ministries, events, and services comprehensive enough for a Christ-centered cruise ship. All of this telegraphs the message that the church is trying to meet present-day wants and needs. And it reflects the pragmatism that infuses the leadership summit, which Hybels says is meant “to mess with people’s minds a little.”

In spite of the stereotype of evangelicals as rigidly conservative, says Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay, “they have long been some of the earliest adopters of technologies and strategies,” from fire-and-brimstone evangelists on the radio in the 1920s to Pat Robertson on satellite TV to megachurch-friendly PowerPoint displays replacing hymnals. Willow Creek’s embrace of business strategy “is a 21st-century version of that. They know that churches have to change with the market shifts going on around them. If they don’t, they die,” Lindsay says. “Relevance is fundamental for their message to be legitimate.”


One such market shift is globalization, which presents both challenges and opportunities for evangelical Christianity. The world’s largest Protestant congregation, Yoido Full Gospel Church, in Seoul, South Korea, claims nearly 1 million members. Some 53% of the Willow Creek Association’s nearly 9,000 congregations are now overseas. In response, Willow has aggressively expanded the summit by video to serve emerging markets. In 2005, the first year that translated DVDs of the summit were available, just nine countries hosted meetings built around them. This year, 70 countries will have their own mini summits, at a cost to the association of $4.6 million. Twenty-five countries are on a waiting list. Occasionally, to speed the spread of the summit, a country will be “adopted” by a U.S. church that pays the staging costs, which run from $25,000 to nearly $100,000; Dennis Baril’s Massachusetts congregation, for instance, sponsors Haiti.

Internationalizing the summit has opened the Willow Creek team’s eyes to all sorts of demographic quirks and cultural challenges. Scandinavians, for instance, shy away from more flamboyant Pentecostal-style preachers, while Eastern Europeans tend to resist including messages by female speakers in their summit DVDs. In keeping with Hybels’s stated mission of messing with people’s minds, Willow Creek does push back. “It’s a high value to us that leadership gifts are given regardless of gender,” says Gary Schwammlein, who heads the international expansion effort. “The first year, we may start out and say, ‘Okay, it’s fine [not to feature women speakers],’ but then in the second and third year, we have to say, ‘How about now?’ “

The summit hasn’t worked everywhere. Two years ago, the association quit India; the cost of putting on an event there — from renting professional-grade projection equipment to subsidizing travel for local pastors and lay leaders — was prohibitive. Nations with poorly educated populations have also been challenging, forcing the association to reconsider its position that anyone can benefit from its leadership training. “We do say, ‘Lead where you are. Fathers and mothers lead a family. Boy Scouts lead their troop.’ But we like to have influencers — in church, school, government, whatever — who can run with what we have,” Schwammlein says. In one country he declines to name, he recalls, “The organizers went out to the highways and byways and just brought people in to fill the seats. If there’s a guy with an IQ of 50 and he has little leadership capacity, for him it’s all hocus-pocus. And if you have 90% low-level leaders, you could say that would be discouraging.”


I first attended a service at Christ Presbyterian Church, in Edina, Minnesota, one Sunday early in the summer of 2009. The message that morning was on the unusual power of music, and to illustrate that, the worship leaders had put together a special medley including the theme song to Gilligan’s Island and — jarringly, for a relatively conservative church — “YMCA.” Yes, that “YMCA.”

That the church would find a way to deploy the Village People in the service of the Lord isn’t surprising once you meet its eclectically minded, erudite senior pastor, John Crosby, a veteran of 14 Global Leadership Summits. In one conversation, he cites motivational author M. Scott Peck, Presbyterian history, and a trio of JCs — Jesus Christ, Jim Collins, and John Calvin. “Truth is found in a variety of voices and places,” Crosby says. “We don’t just have the option to learn; we have the obligation to learn.”

On the first evening of this year’s summit, he gathered his 55-member delegation at a house in the Chicago suburbs for fellowship and contemplation. As they feasted on deep-dish pizza and mosquitoes feasted on them, the group — about one-third church staff, two-thirds laypeople — rattled off example after example of lessons they’ve taken home from Willow Creek: admonitions to be more thoughtful in management, smarter in HR, and bolder in ministry.

Progress from the summit “has been iterative — like small drops of water,” Crosby says. “The net result is that this church is not the church we were 14 years ago when we started to come.” The summit has even changed the language used to communicate within the church’s offices. One year, Hybels spoke about needing to create honesty and candor among the staff. To do that, he said, “you have to offer umbrellas of grace” — reassurance that candor won’t be punished. “Now, when one of us asks for an umbrella of grace, we know exactly what that means,” Crosby says. “We would not have had that as a cultural insight if not for the summit.”

The summit’s lessons have rippled past the church’s walls into the rest of Edina and beyond. For the past seven years, CPC has partnered with Feed My Starving Children, a charity that recruits volunteers to package meals for the poor in developing countries. CPC packaged about a million meals in a week in 2008. But at the summit that year, speakers talked about the world’s needy, the church’s wealth, and the gaping disconnect between the two. John Mitchell, a longtime CPC lay leader, recalled Jim Collins’s talk at an earlier summit about setting “big, hairy audacious goals.” That night, Mitchell chided the CPC contingent — and himself — in unusually blunt terms: “Let’s face it, you guys. Our goal is chicken shit.”

So the church organized a community-wide event last May called One Community, One Day, One Purpose: Feed Haiti. They rented a disused Mervyn’s department store and recruited help from schools, businesses, and other churches. In the end, 5,500 volunteers put together 1.7 million meals — in just 24 hours.

In August, as they finished their pizza and turned to mulling the day’s lessons, the members of this year’s delegation began talking about how they could — and should — do even more. One man said that what really resonated with him was Collins’s anecdote about a professor who once told him that instead of spending so much time trying to be interesting, he should try to be interested. Several people commented on pastor Andy Stanley’s talk about managing tension rather than trying to “solve” it. “I like to problem-solve,” one woman said. “It’s a huge thing to acknowledge that I can’t always do that.” Another woman recalled a story that Christine Caine shared, about a conversation with a sex slave who had been freed from a Greek brothel: “Her words stuck with me: ‘Why didn’t you come sooner?’ “

The evening closed with prayer. “Thank you for all the things we have learned today,” said Max Fitzgerald, a medical student. “Help us to put them in practice, and transform us for your purpose and your glory.” Then Crosby added: “And all God’s people said …”



About the author

Jeff Chu writes on international affairs, social issues, and design for Fast Company. His first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was published by HarperCollins in April 2013.


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