At the opening session of the recently concluded Global Leadership Summit, Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, gave a big shout-out to Willow’s executive pastor, Heather Larson.
I attended the Summit at a church in Austin, TX, and I can tell you all the women in that room felt 10 feet taller. Larson is yet another excellent example that in the church world, gender isn’t always a barrier to living out one’s calling. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it shouldn’t. But it takes a courageous, developmental and humble leadership to create a culture that celebrates and pursues diversity at the top.
But, just to be clear: Larson served her way up to the top. She wasn’t even eyeing the top. She just wanted to make a difference and remain faithful over the long haul. Along the way, she built trust, credibility and influence. And from one task to another, she exercised the traits that make women great leaders — compassion, excellent communication skills, high emotional intelligence, initiative and business acumen. (By the way, several studies have shown that having women in senior management enhances a company’s financial performance. For example, a Harvard Business Review study showed that firms with more women on their boards have 42-percent higher sales returns, 66-percent higher return on invested capital, and 53-percent higher return on equity. An analysis of large U.S. and Canadian companies found that companies operating in complex environments generated significant returns, amounting to a robust 6-percent overall return over a three-year period, when they had a high proportion of women officers, compared to companies with low representation of women officers.)
So, last year when Hybels was looking for a new executive pastor — the next largest role other than his role — he narrowed his selection to a young, tried-and-tested woman. “I really wanted to get this appointment right,” Hybels said in his Summit speech.
To discern if Larson was ready for the big role, Hybels offered her two critical tasks. First, he put her in charge of the entire budgeting process all across Willow for one season. Hybels said it involved a lot of money and a lot of staff who had definite plans for how that money ought to be spent. And Larson figured that out — with no bloodshed.
The second task was to oversee the completion of Willow’s Care Center, which was an $11.5-million project. Larson built a great team, solved a hundred problems, and got it done on time, under budget. She figured that out, too. As a result, everyone cheered her on when she was appointed executive pastor.
I’m singling out Willow in this letter, but I’m aware of many churches that believe the local church is the hope of the world only when it passionately embraces, develops and promotes the leadership gifts of both women and men from different cultures and generations.
Can we all agree it’s the way it should be?