Bill Hybels credits his father with helping develop his leadership gifts by giving him extraordinary responsibility at an early age. "When I was a sophomore in high school, he made me foreman of a group of migrant workers at one of the family-owned farms. I had to organize the work efforts of 120 people who spoke only Spanish. I had to figure out how to get them to work diligently and how to do the payroll when it was hard to figure out who was part of which family.
"Sometimes people would stand in line three times to get a check, and I'd wind up about 10 paychecks short. He'd say, 'Find a way to fix it and don't let it happen again.'"
Yet as Hybels and his wife, Lynne, recount in their book Rediscovering Church, his early style of leadership almost killed them and the church. It showed up in a workaholic pace and unrealistic expectations of staff. The consequences took years to undo.
"The only way to get wiser is to make it through your errors of stupidity," a more mellow Hybels says today. "People forgive you. You say you're sorry, and then you get a little smarter and wiser over time. My mistakes have proven Romans 8:28 to be true."
Jerry Kehe, a businessman and member of the Willow Creek Association board of directors, agrees: "Bill has learned a lot from his mistakes. In a recent board meeting he gave someone the business and, within minutes, stopped the meeting, went back to the incident and asked for forgiveness in front of everyone. Years ago he might have taken a shot and not worried about it. Today, he's a model of servant leadership. It shows real growth."
Hybels is still intense in many ways. He awakens at 5:15 a.m. without an alarm and arrives in his office 30 minutes later for personal devotions. For 45 minutes he practices a variety of spiritual disciplines, writing out his prayers to keep his mind focused.
His "best hours" from 6:30 to 10:30 are reserved for sermon preparation, yet he admits, "Sermons come very hard for me." The reason, he says, is the challenge of presenting biblical truth in a fresh compelling way to people who have a bias that the Bible has nothing to say to them.
Back-to-back meetings begin at 10:30 and continue through working lunches until 2:30 p.m., when he turns to correspondence and phone calls. Routine administrative tasks rank among his least favorite activities, but staffers say he still takes time to write personal notes of thanks or encouragement to people at all levels of the organization.
By 4:30 p.m. he is out running with a longtime friend, Greg Ferguson, a Willow Creek singer and composer.
"Discipline is probably the most valuable tool in my toolbox," Hybels says. "When I get home I'd much rather go for a ride on my Harley-Davidson than run. But 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says your body is not your own but a temple of the Holy Spirit. Those are marching orders from God. For me, it means I've got to exercise."
The joy of pastoring
What drives this discipline? Among other things, the joy of pastoring. "My absolute favorite activity is watching God slowly transform a human life," Hybels says. "It's the fuel I run on. Last night a couple stopped me in the parking lot. Both of them threw their arms around me and said, 'We committed ourselves to Christ two weeks ago at the weekend service, and we delayed starting our vacation so we could be here tonight at New Community to celebrate Communion for the first time.' "
Hybels has heard thousands of similar stories in his 25 years at Willow, yet he says, "It never gets old for me."
Hybels is equally in love with the local church.
"There isn't another institution on the planet that can do what the local church can do when it's working right," he says. "Once a church gets hitting on all cylinders—evangelism, discipleship, building community, serving—you get the fever. You want to give more of yourself to it."
While his enthusiasm is undiminished, he works hard to keep his life balanced. His favorite form of relaxation when he's not traveling involves slipping off with his family to their cottage in South Haven, Michigan, and to a 35-foot sailboat, Windquest, on loan to him from a Christian businessman. (Eight years ago he assembled a crew of unbelievers and began sailing competitively. Now half the crew members are Christians.)
"When I'm out of the spotlight, I can unhook from the spiritual dangers attendant to being senior pastor of a large church. I feel loved and valued by God," Hybels says.
"I realize this is a stewardship God has called me to. I need to handle it responsibly but hold it loosely."
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