Bill Hybels shares leadership strategy after hit by 'rogue' economic wave

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WHITTIER, Calif. — At the end of last year, one of the most generous members of Willow Creek Community Church pulled Pastor Bill Hybels aside and told him he just lost his job, was close to losing his home, and would not be able to make his annual gift to the church—traditionally in the six-figure range.

Whipsawed by declining revenue and growing needs for assistance within the church, Hybels and his team faced hard choices.

"After the rogue wave hit us, we had to decide if we still believe God is the hope of the world," Hybels told Christians assembled for Willow Creek's Leadership Summit. Held annually since 1995, the summit has featured prominent leaders, including Bono and former Prime Minister Tony Blair sharing their strategic insights.

The Leadership Summit, held this year on Aug. 6 and 7, was broadcast via satellite from Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago to more than 140 locations across North America, including Whittier Area Community Church where more than 500 attended.

"We wanted to give our church the opportunity to be exposed to a higher level of thinking about church leadership," said Bill Ankerberg, pastor of the Whittier congregation. "This will help us get to the next level of strategic ministry."

In keeping with the summit's goal of leadership strategy, Hybels shared how his administration refocused its attention in light of decreased giving and congregants with shattered dreams. Convinced more than ever that God is bigger than the economic downtown, the Willow Creek team decided to live out "the Acts 2 dream" with the Lord's help. Hybels embarked on a teaching series titled: "What we can learn in a downturn." He asked those who needed assistance to humble themselves, and let the church lend a hand in their hour of need.

He challenged others who retained good jobs to step up their giving. "There is nothing like the local church when the local church is working right," he said.

Hybels' ministry team began to offer elongated prayer sessions and other spiritual counseling at the end of their services.

"We are blurring the end of our services," he said. "No one is coming to church anymore looking for a mild dose of God."

The church wanted to offer more help to those in need, yet faced a decline in giving.

"The math made no sense from a human perspective," Hybels admitted. "Planning became more like guesswork."


Looking inward
The senior pastor also said he paid close attention to his own spiritual condition, especially after enduring a bout of pastoral burnout several years ago.

"The pace at which I was doing the work of God was destroying God's work in me," he realized, adding that during the past six months, Hybels recognized the same danger signs.

"I was slowly falling into a depleted condition," he confessed.

Hybels' day usually began in his church office at 6 a.m., when he started reading his Bible, followed by sermon preparation. However, stacks of papers surrounding him on his desk cried out for attention—something he found difficult to ignore. He found the economic crisis and its impact on the church slowly strangled his devotional time with God.

"My temptation as a pastor is to work 24/7," he said.

To fight that tendency, and to refill his own spiritual "bucket," he decided to make a radical change in his work schedule.

"I set up a room in my house where I could start the day more gently," Hybels said. "I read God's Word more slowly. I listened to God more slowly."

After his quiet time of communion with God, he arrived at church at 9 a.m.—later than ever before.

"Leaders," Hybels intoned, "the best thing you can bring to your people is a filled-up bucket."

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