Blessing Willow Creek

Jeff Vanderstelt May 31, 2013

Recently, I was interviewed by Ed Stetzer as part of a panel of Missional thinkers and practitioners at Exponential Conference. Ed, of course, knows that what makes an interesting panel is when there is some tension between the panel members, which forces them to clarify their convictions and positions. John Burke, founder of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, was one of the members on the panel. Ed postured John as the leader that came from Willow Creek Community Church and leads a large seeker-type church that has been exploring ways to lead their church toward increased missional living. I spoke up and stated that John wasn’t the only Willow guy on the stage. I shared that I had also served at Willow Creek. To which Ed responded saying something like, “Yes, but you are the anti-Willow guy.” At that moment, I knew I had failed. I have become known as the guy who is “anti” not “pro.” The perception is that I am against, and not for, other churches with different methodologies.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe there are things we need to stand against – false gospel; heresy; rebellion toward God. However, I know Willow Creek is certainly not one of those that I should stand against. And, I don’t.

I believe I have made the mistake that many do. In becoming such a huge advocate of missional communities, I have come across as arrogantly opposed to other forms which the Church takes on to accomplish the mission of God in this world. I resolved early in the start-up phase of Soma to avoid defining ourselves by what we were not. I determined I would say what we were and what we were for. However, in the process I stopped affirming the other parts of the body of Christ that are different.

I am sorry. It is arrogance and pride to believe our way is THE way. A few years ago I, along with our elders, repented of this pride at one of our gatherings. This pride showed up in methodolatry. We repented of it. However, it seems that it didn’t go out far enough. There is still a perception that we stand with an arrogant posture regarding our convictions.

Please forgive me for my pride.

I won’t lie to you and tell you my years at Willow were the best of my ministry years, but that had less to do with Willow Creek and more to do with me and what God was doing in my life during those years. He was revealing my people-pleasing idolatry and refining my devotion to the Lord. It was painful. He made it abundantly clear that I am not a manager, which was the kind of leader Willow needed.

That’s hard to embrace because it feels like failure. And this failure gets noticed by a lot of people. I guess that was God’s plan to really root out my pride in the area of people-pleasing. Why not boast in my failure?

I want those of you reading this to know that I am very grateful for Willow Creek and, in particular, for Bill Hybels. God blessed me at Willow. I would like now to bless Bill Hybels and Willow Creek.

My passion for reaching the lost was stoked during my time at Willow Creek. Bill is the real deal. He is a true evangelist who doesn’t just do it from the stage. He lives it out in the daily stuff. He is full of integrity because he does what he says. I always respected that about him – still do. My love for the lost grew there more than any other place because of my time around Bill and Willow Creek. I am an evangelist, but with a much smaller gifting than Bill. God used him to grow me up more in this area and to fan that gift into flame.

I also grew in leadership. I’ve told many people that my leadership gift was challenged and ignited just by being near Bill. There is a mysterious charisma in his gifting; the culture of leadership at Willow will sharpen any leader just by being in the middle of it. Some of those who had the greatest impact in the area of leadership development in my life at Willow Creek were Greg Hawkins, Sheryl Flescher, Russ Robinson and Nancy Ortberg. Greg taught me about team-building and organizational leadership. He also reminded me to have fun, which I was not great at while there. Sheryl went after my heart. If there was anyone who helped me see that it is out of the abundance of my heart that my mouth speaks and my leadership works, it was Sheryl. Russ was a great encourager for me. He called me to be and do what others had not before. He believed in me and what God could do through me. And Nancy provided some of the most direct, straightforward counsel on how to deal with very complex and difficult situations or people without fear. I am still applying the lessons of leadership that I learned from each of them presently at Soma.

There are so many things I learned while there. I learned how to cast vision in a compelling way. I grew in how to say old things in new ways (one of the key lessons about teaching Bill gave me). I understood the importance of team and the trust that must be maintained and protected. I also learned how damaging it is to lose the team’s trust (one of my failures at Willow). I saw the power of valuing those who serve in ministry. Willow is one of the best examples I know of in this area (I’m still working on doing this one better). I discovered that there are unlimited ways to apply creativity to problem-solving if given the time and diversity of perspective. And I saw that thousands of different people can be led in the same direction together if the mission is worthy of giving one’s life to.

In all of this, I saw in Bill a father who dearly loves his children and values their uniqueness greatly. I watched a husband who is devoted to his wife. I saw a man who serves his family, his church and his Lord with his whole heart, wildly devoted, passionately engaged and fully given over to the mission of Jesus.

Thank you Bill for your leadership in my life and your example!

Thank you Greg, Russ, Sheryl and Nancy and the rest of the Willow family for investing in me and shaping me, even if it was painful at times.

And thank you, Father, for your discipline. It’s not pleasant (true discipline usually isn’t!) but it does produce a harvest of righteousness and peace.

The righteousness has been showing up more and more in my leadership and our work at Soma.

I trust this post is also part of the peace.