Each summer the Willow Creek Association convenes its Global Leadership Summit with one goal: to stir up, call out, and equip church leaders around the world. In 2012, the event will reach an estimated 155,000 church and secular leaders from its epicenter in South Barrington - a number that grows exponentially each year. Willow Creek Community Church founder Bill Hybels says that he believes - and always has - in the transformative power of the local church. An inspirational tour de force, the Summit offers leaders an annual infusion of vision, insight, and energy that in turn transforms the people and communities they serve. Their voices resonate throughout the world, sending a message filled with confident hope.
Condoleezza Rice. Jimmy Carter. Michelle Rhee. Jim Collins. Carly Fiorina. Bono. For most, these are household names and instantly recognizable faces. Cultural icons, even. As thought leaders, they’re shaping the political, educational, business and musical landscapes of our time. They’re also among an illustrious faculty of speakers at the Global Leadership Summit, held annually at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington. And they’re getting evangelical about leadership.
Willow Creek founder and Senior Pastor Bill Hybels believes in the transformative power of the local church—believes it to his core. Beginning in the early 1980s, he travelled internationally to mentor the leaders of the local churches. He began to question why, within the same denomination, drawing from the same population, some churches prevailed while others failed. He realized that the common denominator in all successful churches was strong, healthy, inspired leadership. And while many of the church leaders he met were gifted theologians, relatively few had any significant leadership training. “I realized that the best churches are those that are well led and well fed,” Hybels says. “The leaders who are well taught—they will prevail, whether they’re in a bowling alley, or under a tree.”
In response, Hybels created the Willow Creek Association (WCA), which exists to inspire and educate church leaders. In 1992, he chose Jim Mellado, a Harvard MBA and former Olympic decathlete, to lead the charge as WCA President. Mellado, who met Hybels while writing a Harvard business case on Willow Creek, set to work developing tools to invigorate churches. Resources ranged from spiritual transformation and arts integration programs to financial and leadership development. As WCA membership grew to 7,000 churches of varying denominations, all with access to these tools, it seemed the message was being delivered. But Bill Hybels saw an opportunity to use the reach of the WCA to transform the concept of church leadership.
As the leader of one of the largest churches in the United States, with an average weekend attendance of 24,000, Hybels knows something about leadership. And he tends to think big. So when he and Jim started brainstorming ways to disseminate leadership knowledge to church leaders around the globe, Willow’s staff sensed something substantial was on the horizon.
Global Leadership Summit Executive Producer Corinne Ferguson knew it from the start. “When Bill first approached us with the idea, he said ‘It doesn’t have to be big; just a gathering of pastors with some folks who can teach them leadership skills’,” Ferguson says. “We knew better.” It turned out those “folks” were the likes of bestselling author and leadership expert John Maxwell, megachurch pastor Rick Warren, Good to Great author Jim Collins, and football great Mike Singletary.
In 1995, the Global Leadership Summit’s (GLS) first year, 2,000 gathered at Willow Creek Community Church to hear Hybels and business author and consultant Pat MacMillan talk about leadership. The energy in the room told Hybels they’d struck a chord. He said, “By noon the first day, I thought, ‘This is going to be unbelievable—everybody’s going to win!’” Pastors left equipped to lead their organizations; leaders of secular organizations returned to work with a renewed sense of purpose. By 1998, the event was selling out a year in advance.
So why do church and lay leaders go out of their way to attend the once-yearly GLS when training is readily available elsewhere? Google returns nearly 26 million results for “leadership training,” and one click buys any of Amazon’s 75,169 leadership books. Yet the same leaders allocate time and resources to return to the GLS each year, bringing increasingly large groups—and often entire organizations.
Many come for the interdisciplinary approach: an MBA with soul. The Summit’s faculty of high-caliber religious and secular leaders, each delivering a compelling message in the context of a world-class production, forms the core of the GLS. Yet Willow has come under fire from those who believe business leaders have no place teaching pastors how to run their churches. “But if we can just humble ourselves to learn from one another, everyone benefits,” Hybels says. “We’re not inviting the business leaders here to teach theology—if Jack Welch or Ashish Nanda has a theology, I’m sure not aware of it.” What they do have is proven leadership knowledge, and a desire to communicate it to the GLS’s receptive audience.
Willow Creek Community Church knows how to produce an event that appeals to a wide population. It has rebranded Christianity, making services relatable for a modern congregation. Nancy Beach, who worked as Willow’s Programming Director for 20 years before transitioning into the role of WCA’s Executive Vice President for the Arts, was one of the instrumental visionaries in integrating the arts into Willow’s services. “There are different pathways to God,” Beach says. “Truth can be communicated through music and drama. I like to surprise people and take them on a journey.” Beach, who wrote An Hour on Sunday: Creating Moments of Transformation and Wonder, delights in choreographing soulful moments that are deeply affecting—even for those who don’t identify themselves as spiritual.
Corinne Ferguson, the Executive Director/Executive Producer of the TGLS, led a team of dedicated artists in fleshing out that hour for decades of Sundays. She and her husband Greg Ferguson, the GLS’s Co-Executive Producer/Writer/Experience Designer, draw upon their experiences producing weekend services and special events at Willow, and leadership events around the world, to produce an inspired Summit.
They spend their days researching future faculty members (to whom invitations are extended on a rolling basis), and working with speakers to ensure their content is on-message and free from cultural and time-sensitive references that won’t translate well to the International Summit. They find world-class musicians whose message and style complement the Summit’s feel; partner with Dave Schwarz’s Prolifik Films to produce short films that deepen attendees’ experiences (like “A Thousand Questions,” with Sharon Irving Carlson); and orchestrate the event’s myriad transitions.
But ultimately many of the GLS’s most affecting moments aren’t planned. In 2011, Mama Maggie Gobran—founder of Stephen’s Children, which serves impoverished children from the garbage slums of Cairo to rural Upper Egypt—was introduced with a video detailing her work. As the video played, Mama Maggie stood backstage holding Technical Arts Director Todd Elliott’s hand. “She was so nervous—I just held her hand and prayed for her,” Elliott says. “I usually point people in the right direction and they go, but Mama Maggie just kept holding my hand.” This was unsettling for a guy dressed all in black, sporting a headset.
Elliott guided her onstage, expecting her to let go as she approached the podium. “She didn’t, though, so I took off my headset, walked out with her, and held her hand until she was ready.” Instead of rushing backstage, Elliott sat in the front row to show his support. Mama Maggie received a standing ovation that lasted more than five minutes—very powerful in the room, but perhaps less so for those watching via satellite. “Our ‘room’ is the studio audience, which accounts for only 1 percent of the total audience,” says Elliott.
Given the nature of the event, speakers will run long, and the number of transitions rival an awards show. “When the unexpected happens, which it will, what really matters is how you respond. I see people panicking, and sometimes I think I’d like to panic also—but panic usually breeds more panic. Five minutes solves most things.”
The event’s producers are committed to creating an event that changes lives. “We have such a limited time to touch people’s hearts and minds,” says Ferguson. “We want the presentation to be so grounded, so soulful, so well-rehearsed that nothing detracts from the message.” The event’s popularity is testament to their skill and commitment to their mission. “We’re not doing this to be cool or entertaining—we’re out to transform people, and deliver a message of spirit-led leadership throughout the world.”
The event’s audience is growing exponentially, and as a result the GLS is taking on a life of its own. There is an undeniable global thirst for the GLS leadership elixir: the 2012 Summit will reach more than 155,000 leaders worldwide. Following a $74 million renovation completed in 2004, South Barrington’s main auditorium accommodates 7,200—and there’s not a bad seat in the house. An additional 58,000 will experience the Summit via simulcast at one of the church’s seven campuses or at one of over 200 premiere host sites throughout the United States.
Immediately following the U.S. Summit, international leaders meet to select material for inclusion in the GLS DVDs that will be distributed to host sites worldwide. It will then be translated into 39 languages. Between September, 2012, and January, 2013, the GLS will be videocast in over 260 cities, reaching an additional 90,000 people. Impressive numbers, even for evangelists.
The WCA’s mission, “to inspire and equip Christian leaders to lead transformation-minded churches,” knows no borders. The Summit has generated tremendous global attention. “Great leaders are incurable learners—across disciplines, across oceans,” Hybels says. In 2012, the WCA hopes to expand the GLS to include Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, The Gambia, Senegal and the newly independent Southern Sudan. They partner with Compassion International, a faith-based nonprofit working to lift children out of poverty, and seek funding from private donors and organizations interested in disseminating their leadership message.
For many U.S. residents, a decision to attend the Summit rides on finances and vacation time. The $249 individual ticket price is a commitment, but costs less than most plane tickets or a university course. Abroad, the ticket prices are decided by the host church or organization, but the stakes are far higher. In many developing countries, and in those where Christians are persecuted for their beliefs, a decision to attend the Summit can be a decision to risk one’s life.
Gary Schwammlein, Executive Vice-President of International Ministry for the Willow Creek Association, tells stories of people walking for days to attend Summits where, if found, they could face imprisonment. And of when, following a Summit in Africa, attendees gathered outside to hitchhike home. Of watching Summit attendees devour the lunch included as part of the event, and realizing it was their only meal of the day. Of Summits where the risk to attendees was so great, they had to remain cloistered in a hotel for the duration of the event. And of ad-hoc, micro-Summits so far off the grid they consisted of a blanket spread on the ground, a bootlegged copy of a GLS DVD, and several people gathered around a tiny generator-powered DVD player. A message with truly universal appeal, and a mandate that the GLS continue.
These stories hearten and humble WCA president Jim Mellado, committing him further to the mission of the GLS. Mellado, who is as likely to cite the Bible as the teachings of Peter Drucker or Everett Rogers, likens the WCA and the GLS to a diffusion network: “If you can change a leader, you can change a church. If you can change a church, you can change a community. Change a community, and you change a region. Repeat this enough times, and you can change the world,” Mellado says. “By amplifying our reach, we’re greasing the skids of change and communication.” So, from Barrington to Burkina Faso: Lead where you are.
At the center of the Global Leadership Summit’s message is the truth that everyone—from stay-at-home parents to CEOs—has both the ability and the responsibility to use their God-given gifts to affect positive change. Out of this message came the event’s tagline: Lead where you are. It’s part exhortation, part encouragement. Get out there, it says. You have the tools; what are you waiting for? Here are the stories of four Barrington residents who have answered the call.
Lake Barrington resident Jerry Kehe’s father started his food distribution company in the basement of his Palatine home. Frustrated that his small grocery store couldn’t keep Spice Islands products in stock, he decided to distribute them himself. That was in 1952; today KeHE Distributors works with more than 3500 manufacturers to supply global food retailers.
After graduating from Bradley University in 1968, Jerry joined his father’s growing company. His responsibilities grew with the organization, and he took on leadership roles at work and at church. “But I didn’t even understand what leadership was all about until I attended the GLS,” he says.
As a 25-year Willow Creek member, and founding Willow Creek Association board member, Jerry has attended nearly every Summit. “I had to be there to continue to develop my leadership,” he says. He’s been “blown away” by several GLS speakers, including TOMS Shoes Founder and Chief Shoe Giver, Blake Mycoskie. “Here’s this young guy with a business model based on giving product away [one pair donated for each pair sold]. And people are buying the product. I love the concept of business as ministry.”
Jerry was deeply affected when Ugandan businessman Andrew Rugasira took the GLS stage in 2009. “Here was this African man making a plea for ‘Trade not Aid,’ for his country,” Jerry says. Andrew recounted stories of coffee farmers who couldn’t make ends meet selling their beans to others for packaging and distribution at unfathomably low prices.
In an auditorium of 7,200, Jerry felt Andrew was speaking directly to him. When a WCA employee asked Jerry to show Andrew and his wife Jackie around Chicago, he accepted immediately. He brought Andrew to the KeHE facility and the two talked for hours about distribution channels. Jerry and his wife, Jan, dined with Andrew and his wife, Jackie, at the Hancock Center’s Signature Room restaurant. Ultimately, Jerry was able to open the United States market to Andrew’s company, Good African coffee, via KeHE’s Peters Imports division.
Jerry retired as KeHE’s President and CEO five years ago, and is now Chairman of the Board. Before retiring, he ensured that the company would remain privately held as an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). KeHE also tithes, donating 10 percent of its annual pre-tax profits to the less fortunate through its KeHE Cares program.
“If, at the end of the day, we were a company that moved 100,000 boxes, it wouldn’t have been worth anyone’s time. I wanted KeHE to be a place where we did more than just move boxes.” Every year at the Christmas party, in the early days of KeHE, Jerry’s father would stand and say that he gave God the glory and the honor for all he did. “That message stayed with me.”
Deer Park resident Melissa McMahon, a senior talent acquisition executive for a leading IT solutions company, has attended Willow Creek Community Church for over 12 years, and the GLS for the past three years. “It’s where I’m fed spiritually. I have a constant appetite for continuing to evolve, to be the best me that God designed me to be.”
Melissa feels the GLS addresses her as a whole person. “As a professional, I need to meet aggressive growth goals and deal with challenging management situations,” she says. “But I also need to focus on who I am when I show up. The GLS serves both needs—there is no separation between the personal and professional.”
Considering the size and reach of the GLS, it remains unknown to many. “Relatively few people realize that these well-respected business leaders are speaking so close to home,” Melissa says. “When I tell my colleagues that I heard Jim Collins speak in South Barrington, they couldn’t believe it.”
Melissa has translated the GLS’s message into a leadership framework for her company. “It’s not just words on the wall. As a company, we spend a lot of time in reflection, making sure that we’re pursuing employees’ best interests, helping them fulfill their passions and use their gifts,” she says. “Every year, I leave the Summit with practical solutions of how to serve, engage, and lead my team.”
Willow has recognized Melissa’s leadership gifts, and has engaged her in a mentorship program. “Now they’re asking me to teach some of the people from whom I’ve learned so much. It’s humbling, and I get far more out of it than I’ve given.”
Colin Wickstrom first noticed Willow Creek on his drive from Bloomingdale to what was then his parents’ Ford dealership in Barrington. He was always curious about what went on there, and ended up attending with a friend. Shortly thereafter he met his wife Diane, an alumna of Wheaton College, and the couple became active in the creation of Willow’s Axis ministry. Colin and his family moved to Barrington in 1991, the same year he joined the staff of his parents’ dealership.
In 1995, Colin attended the first Summit at Bill Hybels’ recommendation. He’s only missed one since—the year Bill Clinton spoke. Now a co-owner of the Wickstrom Auto Group, he takes a group of his 130-plus employees to the GLS each year. “I’d take them all if I could,” he says. “Everyone who attends is fed professionally, personally, and spiritually. For me, it’s a can’t-miss. I would encourage everyone in Barrington to go and see the caliber of the speakers.”
Colin credits GLS speakers Jim Collins, Patrick Lencioni, and Marcus Buckingham for inspiring the dealership’s expansion. “Due in part to their influence, we ended up hiring a consultant to help us formalize our dealership’s core values,” says Colin. These values informed their purchase of Nigri McCue Lincoln Mercury in 2003, and Champion Chrysler Jeep Dodge in 2008—resulting in today’s 20-acre auto mall on Northwest Highway.
Wickstrom Auto Group has been a key supporter of Willow’s C.A.R.S. ministry, which repairs donated vehicles and provides them, free of charge, to single moms in the church who are in need of transportation. In support of this ministry, Colin also served on one of Willow’s governing boards from 2003-2010.
Colin extends an invitation to certain friends each year, encouraging them to attend the GLS. One year, he brought his friend Sean Wolfington along. Wolfington, a Catholic entrepreneur-turned-filmmaker (he financed and produced the 2007 film Bella, which won top honors at Toronto’s International Film Festival), was so impressed by the message that he helped found a Catholic leadership forum. “So here’s this Catholic inspired by a Protestant church,” Colin says. “The message knows no boundaries.”
Doris Romans is a nurse midwife by training, and a faith community leader by calling. She was working at Hinsdale Hospital and living in Clarendon Hills when she met her husband Ted. He had recently purchased a home in Inverness to be closer to Willow Creek. Doris and Ted were married in 2006, and had their first child, a daughter, in 2007.
Doris began searching for a community of mothers who prioritized their faith, but didn’t find one. This amplified Doris’s feeling of isolation—a loneliness experienced by many new mothers. “My mother was a godly woman who raised us with a deep faith. I wanted to do the same for my children,” Doris says.
In 2008, Doris attended her first Summit. “It was so powerful to hear leaders from throughout the world, who God has empowered,” Doris says. She had her second child, a son, in 2009. The next year, she began leading a small group of mothers in a regular discussion group. “The Summit gave me the tools and equipped me to initiate this community of mothers of faith. Now we are doing life together as godly mothers, and our children are building spiritual friendships.”
Doris attributes her leadership gift to God, but she appreciates that the GLS gave her strength to realize her goal. “I really value female friendships, and have a strong desire to see other women grow in their faith in Christ,” she says. “At the end of the day, what’s most important to me is to glorify God.” Doris now attends the GLS with her husband, and is assisting with the development of moms’ and couples’ ministries at Willow Creek.
Bill Hybels didn’t want to take Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian’s New Testament course. As a 20 year-old transfer student catching up on credits, he only had a few openings in his schedule. The Trinity College student figured it didn’t bode well that he couldn’t pronounce the professor’s Armenian name. But Hybels needed the course, so he signed up. The lack of enthusiasm was mutual: “Dr. B’s favorite line is to say that he remembers me as utterly unremarkable,” says Hybels.
Bilezikian, affectionately coined Dr. B, was passionately committed to teaching the biblical concept of community. As a seeker in his 20s, the Paris-born-and-raised Dr. B watched with incredulity as churchgoers “punched in, recited prayers on autopilot, and punched out,” detached from the message and from one another. In an attempt to understand, Dr. B began reading the Bible from the beginning. “Genesis shows us that the divinity is triune; plural, but in one,” he says. “Those three persons [the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] are one plurality, showing that the foundation of all is community: God creates community that is infinitely expandable.” From the moment that knowledge crystallized, Dr. B knew he was called to live out this idea of community.
For a long time, his message fell on deaf ears. “I felt like a voice in the wilderness. It was discouraging.” Dr. B vividly recalls the day he taught Acts 2 to his class, reading aloud verses 42-47. “My post-hippie students were yawning, looking out the window, passing love notes … but Bill Hybels, with his long blond hair on his shoulders, bell bottoms, and thick heels, was listening.” The words described a community of believers who lived in service to God by serving one another.
Acts 2:42-47, The Fellowship of the Believers
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Hybels asked Dr. B if he knew of any churches like that. When Dr. B replied that he didn’t, Hybels was visibly stirred. “I thought that building a faith community like that would be a pretty good way for someone to spend their life,” Hybels says. He began seeking out Dr. B’s mentorship, and Dr. B was unwaveringly generous with his time and teachings. As Bill Hybels began to implement what he’d learned, the youth group he led grew too large for its facility.
In May of 1975, Bill roared his Harley-Davidson motorcycle into Dr. B’s driveway. The two walked around to Dr. B’s backyard, stood beneath a maple tree (the church’s namesake is actually the Palatine movie theatre where they started—not the weeping tree), and started a church. “You’re not going to get me into this, are you?” Dr. B asked Hybels. “He said he needed my credibility and guidance.” The two set to work building a church true to the Acts 2 concept of community.
It was the start of a mentorship that would transform the way tens of thousands “do” church. The result of their collaboration is Willow Creek Community Church, which has the fourth-largest attendance in the United States—but that’s not what Dr. B finds most successful about their relationship. “We’ve been sincere, authentic, mutually respectful, and appreciative of one another,” he says. “Our vision has been realized in a dynamic way—as there was no model for it, we had to keep finding out how to concretize, crystallize the Acts 2 community.”
While their vision is clear, it is also evolving: “We don’t consider anything static except the biblical principles that are behind them,” Dr. B says. “The church has to adapt to the demographics where it is planted. You have to respect peoples’ culture and speak to them within it.” But change is difficult for an organization of Willow’s size. “It’s difficult to steer a large boat. It takes a great team and a lot of foresight to avoid the icebergs.“Luckily, Bill Hybels is an excellent captain. “He knows how to weave a network of available leadership into a dynamic team that gets results.”
Dr. Bilezikian played an instrumental role in Willow Creek’s development, while teaching at Wheaton College for 20 years. He authored The Liberated Gospel (1977), Beyond Sex Roles (1985), Christianity 101 (1993) and Community 101 (1997), which have gone into multiple printings and been translated into several languages. In French translation, Community 101 was awarded the Prix Littéraire Evangélique, an award similar to an American Book of the Year award.
At 84, Dr. B is still Bill Hybels’ primary spiritual mentor. “We call and email every week,” Bill says. “He’s a phenomenal man.”