The CE Interview: Heather Larson | Executive Pastor | Willow Creek Community Church | South Barrington, IL
By Rez Gopez-Sindac
The No. 2 chair at the 24,000-strong Willow Creek Community Church belongs to Heather Larson, a 39-year-old church builder who started out as a volunteer just wanting to serve and make a difference. Fresh from college, Larson moved to Chicago to start a professional career — and ended up living out her true calling at Willow.
In 2013, after 16 years of serving on staff in various roles of expanding responsibilities, Larson was appointed executive pastor by senior pastor Bill Hybels. To become the church’s second in command was never a part of Larson’s plan. She just wanted to help build a better church and earn the trust of her peers. And it helps, she says, that gender is never a barrier to achieving one’s full potential at Willow. Referring to her executive-level position — a job often offered to men — Larson points out, “It’s not an anomaly at Willow.”
In what capacities have you served at Willow?
Shortly after I started attending the church, I got connected with Axis, a brand-new ministry for 20-somethings. After a couple of years, the role I was in as a volunteer turned into a staff role and I worked in that ministry for seven years. Then, Willow launched a new initiative responding to AIDS in Africa. I was asked to transition to our global ministry to help get that up and going. I eventually started leading our global ministry, and then I merged together our local and global outreach ministries into one department called Compassion & Justice. I worked with our Compassion & Justice ministries for eight years. In the couple of years before I became executive pastor, Bill continued to expand my role and influence. I provided oversight for our Kids & Student Ministries, our Family Life ministries, and Casa de Luz, our Spanish-speaking ministry. Over time, Bill kept adding new challenges and new areas to my plate. Besides overseeing multiple ministries, Bill also gave me a couple of key projects to lead, such as our churchwide budget and the building of our new Care Center.
How do you feel about the opportunity to serve the church in a role typically given to men?
I’m thrilled to be able to serve the church I love in a way that I can use my gifts. It just happens that the title is executive pastor, and it just happens that I’m a woman. This is just how my story at Willow unfolded as one opportunity led to the next. I knew that I was ready for my next leadership challenge, and I’m so grateful that my gender was not a hindrance in me taking that next role.
What are your biggest challenges as executive pastor?
My top challenge is to provide strong senior leadership that goes across the full organization. Bill clearly told me that he was looking for the strongest leader / manager that can help provide executive-level leadership across the entire staff and all of our campuses. That frees him up to address his increasing teaching and leadership demands. I carry that mantle, and I come to work every day asking myself questions like, “What are we moving forward? What are we making better?
How can I improve our staff culture?” I ask God to help me lead well and love well so that we can live out who God is calling us to be as the church.
Another challenge is to meet the unique needs of the senior pastor. I think the role of the executive pastor is to balance out the leadership and gifts of the senior pastor.
That will look different in every church. Before I stepped into this role, there was a great man, Greg Hawkins, who had been in the role of executive pastor at Willow for almost 20 years. He did phenomenal work at Willow, and he impacted other churches all over the world with the Reveal research. His job description looked very different than mine does today. Greg moved away to take another position in another state. We were all sad to see him go, and at that time Bill knew he needed to reimagine the executive pastor role for the next run. The outcome of that exercise was my job description and me moving into the position. I knew taking it, though, that it would morph over time, depending on what is most needed in the church. I think the greatest challenge for any executive pastor is to stay relevant for what is most needed by the senior pastor and the church in that season.
Another great challenge is the natural tension that comes along with being a leader in the No. 2 seat. I have to balance carefully establishing my own voice and rapport while also representing my boss. I realized quickly in this role that I wear three hats: leader, representative of Bill, and a team member with the rest of the executive team. It’s my job to step up and lead as needed. Even though I’m leading them, in many ways they each mentor and influence me in their own unique way.
It’s very clear to me that my role is only as effective as the team around me. They respect and support me in my role, but my desire is to see each of them thriving in their roles and living out their full potential.
What does it entail to run the Willow Creek Care Center?
When I stand in the middle of our Care Center, with people bustling about and multiple languages being spoken, I can’t help but think “Now this is church!” We have a staff team of 12 FTEs (full-time equivalents), but they’re mobilizing an army of 2,000 volunteers who serve on a regular basis. I love to see people connecting deeply with each other, people getting practical needs met, and people using their gifts to serve. It’s like walls come down in that place and we’re all just trying to live out Acts 2:45 — “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”
What should churches considering a similar humanitarian outreach be wary of in terms of financial costs, leadership and day-to-day operation?
I think the most important thing for churches to be wary of in their outreach is moving too quickly and not developing relationships in the community. Over the past year, we’ve had pastors walk into the Care Center and say, “I have to build one of these at my church!” I cringe and say, “Please, no. Don’t just duplicate this!” We spent years developing relationships in our community and understanding the unique needs of our demographic. Every service area that we have came out of many hours of research and conversation. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel or put a nonprofit out of business because we simply started duplicating their efforts.
That took many conversations and lots of time. We want to be a hub of great resources in our community, and we want to be a catalyst to help all different sectors working together to lift up the community. I would love to see every church spending the time and developing the relationships to understand the unique role that God is calling them to play in their community.
What is it like to work with and be mentored by Bill Hybels?
As I started taking on more leadership at the church, Bill was very direct with me to say that he didn’t want a “Yes” person; he wanted a peer. He challenged me to really think about whether or not I could step up to that level of leadership. 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.
He’s very strategic about being developmental with me and our entire team of leaders. It’s no secret that in several years, Bill is hoping to transition out of his role, and I know that each of us on our team will look back with great fondness at this era of ministry. We cherish the time and the season that we have as a team, and we’re praying that God will work in miraculous ways. We believe the best days at Willow are yet to come.
Willow Creek community church
Year Established: 1975
Lead Pastor: Bill Hybels (Each regional site also has a lead pastor.)
Locations/Campuses: Six sites plus Casa de Luz for Spanish-speaking people. Casa meets at the central campus.
Combined weekly services attendance: More than 24,000
Full-time Equivalent Staff: 350
Annual Revenue: Approximately $70 million