Two years ago, Heather Larson stepped into the executive pastor role at Willow Creek—what Bill Hybels describes as the number two position in the church. But the truth is she’d been leading and building the church alongside Hybels long before she ever got the matching title. As executive pastor, Larson leads the executive team and leadership team of the church that draws more than 24,000 people to their 6 sites each weekend. Lest you think that she stays behind the scenes, though, Larson was front and center as she hosted the 2015 Global Leadership Summit.
To find out more about her unique role, I connected with Heather over the phone. She’s not new to leading in the church, and I’m thankful for the hard-earned wisdom she shared.
Amy Jackson: How did you move into your role as executive pastor?
Heather Larson: I’ve been here 17 years. I started off working with Axis, our next-gen ministry at the time. I oversaw the group life for that age group. Then I moved into our global department here as the director of new outreach into Africa and then moved into the global director position. In total, I was focused on global ministry for about five years. After that I stepped into a role on our executive team as the head of compassion and justice, which is where all our local and global community outreach falls.
Along the way I started overseeing all of our next-gen ministries and our Spanish speaking service among other things. Bill was testing my bandwidth by putting me in these situations and projects. One particular project was overseeing the building campaign of our ten million dollar care center. The thought was: Let's throw you in and see how you do in resourcefulness and working with the team around you. By the time I moved into my current role, I was already doing a lot of the work.
What is the biggest lesson you’re learning right now?
I was given a lot of opportunities that were based more on influence than position. They required me to figure out how to work through collaboration rather than just through power, and that’s one of the best gifts Bill and our executive team gave me. It's easy to lean on the power of our positions to get things done, but I was forced to lead through influence. I had to think: How do I rally people around something that needs to be done yet they have no positional obligation to fulfill?
Leading by influence builds collaboration and teamwork and brings out the best gifts of everybody around the table. I love pulling together diverse teams of people to solve problems, figuring out how we can do our best to build the church together. The beauty of what God does with a team of people surrendered to him is such a joy to be a part of. What comes out of it is always greater than anything we could do ourselves, and it shows God's hand at work.
What’s your favorite part of your role?
It brings me great joy to watch people take on more responsibility, spread their wings, and succeed. So we are really intentional with our staff development—how we're building up the people that God has brought onto our staff. Coaching and development is very much a part of our culture. We do 1- and 2-day retreats with small groups of people at an off-site location. We offer coaching and building in and special speakers that come. It’s really great because people are able to connect and learn in an environment outside of the office.
There is also more informal development. I do breakfast meetings regularly with a group of women leaders here at the church that I just want to continue to connect with. Development is part of our culture, but it looks different depending on the circles you’re involved in.
What has been your experience as a woman in church leadership?
A lot of times when people think about women in leadership they think they have to choose. But at Willow, I have been strongly encouraged that if I'm not winning on the home front, I won’t be able to win in ministry either—it will hurt my ministry rather than help move things forward. I have felt completely encouraged by Bill and the elders to be the best wife and mom that I can be. To be working in a place and with a team of people who value me not just for what I bring to work but who I am as a wife and a mom has been extremely important to me. My girls are now 10 and 11, and I will always be grateful to Willow Creek for the amount of time I am able to be with them and invest in them while still using my gifts within the church.
Parenthood is always shifting. What our families need from us is always shifting. So it's not about coming up with one model that then becomes your norm for every person. It's about helping people navigate where they can really be engaged both on the home front and in ministry. What has been important is setting up the values, and then having the conversations along the way to figure out what it looks like in this season for me and the people on my team.
Being a woman in this position is a much bigger deal outside of Willow than it is inside of Willow. Because it has been so much a part of the DNA of Willow, I get a lot of encouragement from women and men in the church who say they’re so excited to see how I’m leading and guiding the church.
But outside of Willow I get a lot of more shock. That has been good for me to keep in mind how different Willow is from a lot of other churches. I’ve never wanted to be on a soapbox about the role of women. I would rather build influence and lead where God has placed me, and let that speak for itself.
Heather Larson is Executive Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.