Dave Dummitt Steps in as Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Amid Protests and Pandemic

Pastor Dave Dummitt. Video screengrab

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.

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?

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.

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Source: Religion News Service