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Amid protests and pandemic, Dave Dummitt steps in as senior pastor of Willow Creek

Dave Dummitt is Willow Creek’s first full-time senior pastor since founding pastor Bill Hybels retired early and his successors resigned over the church’s handling of the allegations against him.

The sun sets during a drive-in prayer vigil for Black lives in the parking lot of Willow Creek Community Church’s main campus in South Barrington, Illinois, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

CHICAGO (RNS) — Dave Dummitt said “no” to Willow Creek Community Church twice.

When the Chicago-area megachurch first reached out to him about stepping into the role of the senior pastor, Dummitt worried it was “not an environment that I felt like I could serve very well.”

The church hadn’t had a full-time senior pastor in nearly two years, ever since founding pastor Bill Hybels resigned amid allegations of abusing power and sexual misconduct. Though Hybels has denied those allegations, an independent group of Christian leaders found them credible.

Hybels’ successors and Willow Creek’s entire elder board later resigned over the church’s handling of the allegations.

RELATED: Willow Creek names Michigan pastor David Dummitt as new leader

Dummitt thought the new elder board might try to micromanage the next senior pastor.

He thought the church might need a “shepherding, relational leader,” which isn’t what he called his “unique gift.”

In the end, he said, the people of Willow Creek, based in South Barrington, Illinois, drew him to the church.

“Once you get to know the people of Willow Creek, it’s hard not to love the people of Willow Creek,” he told Religion News Service in a recent interview. 

Dummitt, who recently preached his first message online as senior pastor of Willow Creek, talked to Religion News Service last week about stepping into his new role amid pandemic and protests, rebuilding trust at Willow Creek and his vision for the church.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you step in as pastor and lead in a moment like this when you’re not able to be with the congregation in person?

Well, I don’t think there’s ever anything that’s going to be as good as in-person, sitting down over a cup of coffee or grabbing a meal together, that sort of thing. While we’re socially distanced, we still practice distant socializing, making sure we’re not isolating ourselves.

But these video meetings have been helpful. We’ve basically spent the last three weeks on Zoom calls listening to our staff and just trying to understand the story of Willow — where has Willow come from and where is it now and where does it want to go? 

Pastor Dave Dummitt. Video screengrab

You said recently, “I don’t know of a pastor or leader in America that has not in some way been shaped by the ministry of Willow Creek.” How do you feel like it has shaped you? 

I’m 46 years old, so I grew up going to a pretty traditional church where music didn’t sound like the music that you had on the radio. There wasn’t a lot of creative elements. There wasn’t a lot of storytelling. It was a pretty fixed order of service.

Tradition often trumped, well, a lot of things.

I think one of the things Willow did was come and say, “you know what, we’re going to try and think outside the box to reach people that are far from God.” They were willing to experiment and try new creative things. That was something that I think had a ripple effect on almost every church that I see in the U.S.

I do church planting, church coaching and consulting, and even some of the most conservative churches, their music has changed a little bit in the last 10, 15, 20 years. They’ve been OK adding some creative elements, and Willow was right on the leading edge of that.

From what I can tell, you took a similar approach at 2|42 Community Church, the church you led in Michigan before coming to Willow Creek — trying to make the church service feel familiar to newcomers.

There are probably two reasons for that. One is because we recognize that that weekend service or any place online, those are the most public environments that we have. We’re going to get a lot of guests showing up many times. That’s the first place that we’re going to see them. So we want to do the best we can to communicate in a language and a culture that they’ll understand.

But there is a second reason that we have church in the style that we have church and have the culture that we have — because we live in that culture. We like that music. So we play it. We like things a little more relaxed.

I’m a church kid. I survived it. When I was growing up, man, it was my clip-on tie every weekend. I could not wait to get into Sunday school so I could rip that thing off and just relax a little bit. I don’t really want to wear a suit and tie to church, so it’s just who we are now.

You’ve talked about the environment you imagined at Willow Creek. What is the environment you’ve found, and how do you see your gifts fitting into that?

There are a majority of the people here — and when I say people, I mean, staff leaders, volunteers, the people here at Willow — who I feel are ready for a fresh vision. They’re ready to recapture this sort of external focus where we’re out in the community, loving our neighbors and trying to share Christ with our neighbors.

I see people that want to be devoted to prayer and God’s word. I see people that want an environment where there’s trust again.

This is a place where trust has broken down over time. And I think everybody here wants to be able to believe in each other again. And I think that’s happening. Slowly, but surely, I think trust is being rebuilt.

That’s not to say a lot of great things haven’t happened here in the last few years. There are lives that have changed. Neighbors in need — those needs have been met. We’ve had marriages turned around. We’ve had people be baptized and come to Christ. So, I mean, there’s a lot of amazing things that God was able to do.

Jesus begins his ministry in Matthew 4, right when his cousin, John the Baptist, is incarcerated. You’ve still got Rome that is oppressing the Israelites. You still have racism that is running rampant. You have poverty that is a big deal. And yet Jesus comes and says, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” He doesn’t say it’s a future reality, he says it is at hand.

I think what he’s saying there is: Guess what? You can change because of Jesus. That’s why there’s a hopeful message. Even though we kind of sometimes associate “repent” as this sort of judgmental, condemnation kind of word, Jesus is saying, you know what? You can be different. Things can be different because the kingdom is here. I think that’s what we’re spotting all over Willow is that even though there have been challenges, the kingdom is still a present reality here in the midst of the chaos.

You mentioned this idea of rebuilding trust. How do you think that you can help Willow Creek to do that?

Well, I asked our team that. Trust is one of those things that is built slowly and is torn down quickly. It only takes one phrase, one misstep, one, you know, scandal, and, and trust is broken. It takes time to build it, but it’s worth the time.

So when we came here, I asked folks, “What do you think we need to do to build trust?” And they said, “Listen.”

So we spent 30-plus hours in listening sessions, which is difficult when you’re a preacher; you like to say a bunch of stuff. But what we tried to do was just keep our mouth shut and try to listen to where people are at. And we listened to all types of people from different levels in the organization, different volunteers, different staff teams, just as many people as we can listen to. And I think that builds trust.

Another thing is we need to be a people where authenticity trumps excellence.

Image management has been a big part of the culture here. And I think we’re finding that authenticity is a much better way to win credibility with people. So somebody said this to me, and I think it was a compliment — I’m going to receive it that way — but they told me, “Dave, you’re scoring points by just being normal.”

And that’s it. We just want to be normal people that are chasing after Jesus, following him the best we can and teaching the Bible and loving our neighbor.

As part of those listening sessions, have you reached out to the women who accused the former pastor and the church of misconduct? What would you say to them?

Our elders have been working with those women and are still in process with a goal of not just listening, but reconciling. They’re the elders. They’re the board that I report to. My participation with that has been to say, “Hey, where are we at on that? And how’s it going? And how can I serve that process?” Because when you come to a place like this, you inherit the history. You have to own that. I can’t come in and say, “Well, that was before me, so let’s start today and move on.” We have to own that. And so that’s in process right now, and our goal is reconciliation, not just listening.

People attend a drive-in prayer vigil for Black lives in the parking lot of Willow Creek Community Church’s main campus in South Barrington, Illinois, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

In the past week, Willow has hosted a conversation on racism and a prayer vigil for Black lives. In that conversation, you and Pastor Albert Tate talked about your desire for Willow Creek to be a “multiethnic church.” Do you know what the demographics of the church are right now and what steps are you taking toward that?

So the first week we were here, one of the things we did was get a demographic study of our cities and then look at the demographics of our staff. I don’t know what the win looks like in certain corporations or even in churches, but, in my mind, it makes a lot of sense that your staff ought to mirror the community that you live in.

And so we’ve seen a gap — it’s not huge, but a gap — in that. And that was one of the things that we started to begin to dream about is: What would it look like to close that gap?

So three weeks in, those are the conversations we’re having right now. We have a very diverse board, we have fairly diverse staff in regards to gender. But there is a gap, I think, when it comes to ethnic diversity.

What’s your vision for Willow Creek? What are some things that you want to continue and build on, and then what are some things that you would want to change?

I think before we start talking about a vision for the future, we are going to try to do our listening, not just with the people, but also listening to God and saying, “Who do you want us to be?”

I think one of the things with 2|42 is that we had a pretty diverse leadership. It wasn’t really something we set out to do. It was our heart, and they were the qualified, amazing leaders that God brought to us.

I think one of the things that I would love for Willow, I would love for racial reconciliation conversations they have in the future to be celebrations of joy, of victory, not lament and frustration and pain. So I’d love to, in the future, be able to look back and go, “Look how far we’ve come.”

At 2|42, we were one church in multiple locations. And I think Willow could play a little better as a team. We have very autonomous campuses. I think we could support each other better and work together as a team. So I think that’s one of the places where we’ll see next steps taken.

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