The Global Leadership Summit, which began as a project of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and its founding pastor, Bill Hybels, more than 25 years ago, was held last week without Hybels.
For several years now, the Willow Creek Association, a spinoff organization and a loose network of churches, has produced the summit, but Hybels has been its driving force.
Attended by thousands at the church facility in South Barrington and broadcast to thousands more at satellite locations, the annual meeting brings together not only evangelical leaders but also outstanding speakers from business, charitable organizations and politics.
For the first time, Hybels did not appear due to allegations of sexual impropriety brought against him over the past year by former employees, staff members and business associates. He has already left the church and resigned from the board of the association.
I have attended at least half of these meetings over the years – once onsite and at other times at satellite locations in my area.
For the first time last year, a church only a 10-minute drive from my house served as a satellite location.
In talking with a staff member of the church in May, I discovered that they had joined more than 100 churches across the network who declined to participate as hosts this year. I found myself driving about 30 minutes to another community to attend.
The Global Leadership Summit is always a big event for me. The meeting provides an opportunity to hear thought leaders from around the world.
The summit lineup is always diverse with a strong representation of women consultants and practitioners as well as ethnic and international speakers.
I have involved seminary students on various occasions and taught a class in connection with the meetings.
At other times, I have attended with colleagues with whom I have reflected, debriefed and applied insights learned.
Several key speakers withdrew due to the Hybels scandal, one just a few days before the meeting.
Summit favorites – including Craig Groeschel, senior pastor of Life.Church; John Maxwell, leadership coach and author; and Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter’s House – stepped in and assumed added responsibilities.
Groeschel, especially, became the face of the meeting. In the keynote presentation, he acknowledged the “elephant in the room.”
He clearly addressed the charges about Hybels that have rocked the Willow Creek Church and the association.
“Any abuse of power is sinful, it is hurtful, and it is reprehensible,” Groeschel said.
The power went off at the site I was attending, so I missed part of Groeschel’s opening presentation.
According to a Chicago Tribune article, he went on to say that “as the father of four daughters and the brother of a woman who was sexually assaulted, he supports the women who have accused Hybels and will work with the association to bring healing for everyone.”
As usual, there were great speakers. In addition to Groeschel and Jakes, restaurateur Danny Meyer presented challenging observations on hospitality, researcher David Livermore addressed the need for cultural intelligence for leaders, consultant Shelia Heen talked about having difficult conversations with co-workers and family members, and speaker Simon Sinek presented strategies for making maximum impact in one’s organization.
It was worth my investment in attending.
Why did I participate in the summit despite the problems associated with Hybels?
- The summit introduces me to people who are addressing important issues like culture awareness, social entrepreneurship, relationships and organizational development.
For a long time, secular leaders have been more proactive than religious leaders in engaging these issues, which are vitally important for the future of our churches.
- I am exposed to a part of the Christian family that many moderates disdain – the evangelical churches, often megachurches, which are willing to try things that are new and risky.
- Although I may have theological differences with some speakers or participants, I love their enthusiasm and attitude.
- I don’t drop friends, even those I know only marginally, when they are having problems.
What’s the future for the Willow Creek Association and the Global Leadership Summit without Hybels?
I don’t know, but this may be the defining moment for leadership to decide if the Willow Creek Association is just an organization or truly a movement of churches who want to encourage and learn from one another.
This may be an opportunity rather than an obstacle for the association.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.