Willow Creek - Serving a Church That Has Served So Many
By: Meredith Mohr July 3, 2019
Just a few hours before the initial launch meetings for Willow Creek Community Church’s new Senior Pastor search begin, Vanderbloemen founder and CEO William Vanderbloemen arrives a bit early with some time to himself. Wandering around the darkened and quiet halls in search of a spot for a phone call, ironically, providentially, he found himself back in the “old” Lakeside auditorium. The lights in the sanctuary are dark - but even in the dark, there is a light that seems to radiate throughout the expansive auditorium. This is a sacred space of ministry, of work, of hearts changing, of God joining a group of people right in their midst.
There is something about this place. God is present here.
As he drops into a faded seat to reflect on all God has done here and all He will do in the future, it is this particular seat where William sat 22 years ago as a young pastor when “God used a church to turn on a light inside my soul and change my work as a pastor forever.”
“I can tell you exactly where I was sitting when that light turned on inside me,” William says. “I had been an entrepreneur as a teenager. Then I was a prodigal son in college. Then, a convert and a pastor. And I thought pastoring meant the entrepreneur in me had to be shelved. That being a pastor meant ‘no more building, just tend the sheep.’ God used Willow Creek to open my eyes to an entrepreneurial vision for the church - a vision and mission to overpopulate Heaven. My work after that time at Willow was never the same.”
This is a familiar place, even if just by name - Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago has been a hub of ministry and teaching for decades. For some, it’s recognizable simply because of the name, or the sermon content, or the caliber of leaders that have preached from its pulpit. But for others, the familiarity goes a bit deeper. On the staff of Vanderbloemen, nearly every consultant has a story about how Willow Creek Community Church has served them well over the years - taught them, changed them, opened their eyes, encouraged them, equipped them, and then sent them back out into their ministry worlds, never to be the same again. These are things they bring every day into their work as consultants, even though most of them are no longer serving in a pastoral capacity.
To say it’s our honor to serve Willow Creek in this season, to return just a fraction of the service and heart they’ve given us over the years, is only to scrape the surface on what a place like this means to the Vanderbloemen staff and what it means to be walking alongside them in their search for a new leader, a new Senior Pastor.
“Even now, maybe especially now, in the years following my time as a pastor, I count Willow as the instrument God used to awaken my calling. I’m still an entrepreneur. I’m still on a mission to overpopulate heaven. And none of that would be true if it weren’t for how God used Willow Creek Community Church,” William says. “It’s an honor to now be someone serving this great church, and I’m believing that the best days for Willow are yet to come.”
Executive Search Consultant Dan Knuff described a time when he was working at a small church in Western Pennsylvania, a church that was sitting right next to a cow pasture and miles away from the influence of big city megachurches. And still - God met him where he was, right there in Willow Creek, at a conference he attended for youth pastors.
“In 1998 I attended a Youth Pastor's Conference at Willow. I was 24 years old, working at a small church. It was my first time at Willow and I couldn't believe my eyes when I got there. Coming from a small church in the country, Willow seemed larger than life,” Dan says.
“The facility was unbelievable and I saw how everything was done with such excellence. I got to observe their youth ministry and I saw hundreds of students filling up their auditorium. It was at this moment that God really challenged me to have a heart to reach lost students with the Gospel. My heart broke for a generation that seemed to be drifting so far from God.
Dan walked away from that conference with a dream in his heart to do what he saw happening at Willow.
“I left that conference knowing that I wanted to reach hundreds of kids someday in the near future. I started reading all the books and listening to all the leadership tapes (yes cassette tapes) that Willow was putting out,” Dan remembers. “I also started attending the Willow Creek Leadership Summit to grow in my leadership skills. It was three years later while working at a different church, that I saw that dream that was birthed at Willow come to fruition in Boca Raton, Florida. Taking some of the principles I learned at Willow and putting them into practice, we were able to see our youth group grow from 30 kids to over 300. We saw so many lives changed with the Gospel. I still hear from many of these students now twenty years later. Entire family's destinies have been altered because what I saw and experienced at Willow Creek. I'm grateful for all that I have learned from Willow over the years and for the impact they have had on so many churches all over the world.”
Executive Search Consultant Eric Albert has a similar story, remembering how the Promiseland Curriculum for children, written and designed by Willow Creek leadership, was transformative for his ministry.
“The way that Willow Creek was doing Children’s Ministry was cutting edge,” Eric says. “As the new Children’s Pastor at The Woodlands United Methodist Church in 2005, we found that this curriculum was spot on for all ages of our children’s ministry to make it fun, biblical, and understandable. Now as a consultant at Vanderbloemen, I get to see the fruit of that labor, as students that I taught are now moving into ministry to continue serving the church as the next generation of church leaders.”
The transformative methods and cutting edge ideas Willow brought to the table is a common theme echoed by the Vanderbloemen staff - each one who went to Willow in search of a new way to do ministry, or an answer to one of their ministry obstacles walked away with a fresh perspective, encouragement and a way to do ministry that they’ve carried with them for the full span of their ministry careers, and beyond.
“In the early 1990's I attended a Willow Creek Student Ministry Conference as a volunteer youth leader with our Student Ministry team, “Executive Search Consultant Jennifer Winge says.
“We had an epiphany moment of how to make ministry culturally relevant and applicable in a way we had never seen. We quit doing student ministry just for Christians and started using methods that would attract students far from God."
"That Student Ministry team eventually planted a church -- the church I was on staff with for 10 years. Today that church is reaching people who are far from God with a methodology that started with some seeds planted at a Willow Creek Student Ministry Conference. In some small way, I feel, as a part of the Vanderbloemen team partnering with Willow Creek for this search, I get to be part of giving back to a place that had a large influence on my personal ministry philosophy formation.”
Willow Creek hasn’t just been influential as an example to others in the way they do ministry or through the curriculum they’ve developed. They also have served as a thorough resource on leadership, particularly in the Global Leadership Summit, as well as leadership seminars and simulcasts. For Executive Search Consultant Brian Jensen, who has a background in working at Christian schools and universities, he says that even outside of a church setting, Willow Creek was an impactful influence on his work.
“During the mid-2000s I was serving at North Central University. As a young professional, I was looking for ways to develop my own leadership skills. I had the opportunity to attend a simulcast of the Global Leadership Summit, “ Brian says. “Those two days not only sharpened my practical leadership skills but also broadened my view of what faithful leadership meant and how it could make a difference in Kingdom service. Fast-forward 15 years, I never would have imagined the opportunity I now have - working as a consultant at Vanderbloemen with the honor of serving a church that has such an incredible impact in the world.”
Executive Search Consultant Brian Dunks echoed that story - for him, hearing John Ortburg speak on spiritual formation and the issues of character and motivation in the life of a leader at the Willow Creek Summit in 2007, was an experience he has reflected on and used many times over in his ministry and work as a consultant.
“Right after accepting the call as Senior Pastor of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in Waco, Texas I was able to attend the Willow Creek Summit. As I was about to step into a large church setting with extensive ministries and staff supervision, I remember listening to former Secretary of State, Collin Powell talk about leadership lessons he learned along the journey, as well as our 39th President Jimmy Carter speak on the importance of leadership morality, “ Brian Dunks remembers.
“John Ortberg was also on the faculty that year speaking about spiritual formation and the issues of character and motivation in the life of a leader. I've carried some of those teachings for years, throughout my ministry and into my work at Vanderbloemen Search Group."
"Now having the privilege to serve Willow in helping them find their next pastor; it's amazing to me how things can come full circle."
There are times and seasons in every pastor’s or ministry leader’s ministry that are catalytic. These may be times that refresh, challenge, inspire you to dig deeper, lead stronger, and press in with greater passion.
On a snowy day in Illinois in the mid-1990s, Executive Search Consultant Tim Gocha was doing his graduate work at a university just south of Chicago. He decided to leave class early, braving the weather to attend Willow’s New Community Service.
That short trip - and just one service - changed his ministry life forever.
“I experienced church in a way that resonated deep inside me,” Tim says. “While I sat and soaked in the service, I knew that what I was experiencing was real, it was genuine, and it was transformational. Since that day and through the years, Willow Community Church remained a constant source of inspiration and encouragement to me and to my church. I know the same could be said by hundreds, even thousands of other pastors, leaders, and churches.”
The ways of how Willow Creek has influenced, transformed, and taught ministry leaders, and especially the Vanderbloemen staff as they reflect on their experiences at Willow while on the cusp of assisting on their search for a new Senior Pastor, is something they could recount for pages of stories. What we find significant today, though, is how the pressing in and labor of this search is carried and supported by these stories and experiences -
Willow has been there for us, and we’re incredibly honored to return the favor today (and every day as we serve hundreds of churches no matter the size) and as things come full circle.
“We are better because of Willow's influence, example and ministry,” Tim says. “Today, as an executive consultant at Vanderbloemen, I am grateful and honored to be part of a team that can give back to a church that has been an example and resource to so many pastors and churches. May Willow Creek Community Church always be a prevailing New Testament church.”