Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Jesus CEO: Training Christian Leaders, Willow Creek Style | Righting America

by Zach Spidel

Zach Spidel is a minister with the Brethren in Christ Church and is currently serving as the pastor of two congregations in Dayton, Ohio, including The Shepherd’s Table – a church he led in planting on the city’s struggling east end. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a matriculating student in the University of Dayton’s Ph.D. program in theology, Zach is an eclectic and ecumenical Anabaptist who aims in ministry and in scholarship to simply follow Jesus. 

Four times I have attended the Global Leadership Summit, a two-day Christian leadership training event hosted by Willow Creek Community, Bill Hybels’ suburban Chicago evangelical megachurch.  When I had to decline this year’s invitation due to an overpacked calendar, I was deeply relieved. This influential conference claims “to help Christians grow their leadership to maximize their Kingdom impact.” Instead, it is misshaping Christian leaders through its reliance upon certain tragically mistaken missiological assumptions. In this post I will describe my experience at the event and, in a subsequent post, I will offer a constructive critique of the event’s working missiology.

Each time I have attended the Summit, I have done so at a large evangelical church in my area – one of over 500 satellite sites around the world to which the conference is telecast. After checking in and partaking of the complementary snacks in the cavernous lobby, my companions and I are shepherded into a specially prepared multipurpose sanctuary/gymnasium. Most of the hundreds of people in attendance are pastors or lay leaders from local churches, but there is also a significant minority of Christian business people.

Up front stands a massive screen. Shots of the main stage at Willow Creek, intermixed with promos and information, flash across that screen while lively music is piped in. Then there is a pre-event video (with pulsating electronic beat) designed to get us excited; one year there was a highlight reel from the presentations of past members of the Summit’s “world class faculty,” including CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (Jack Welch!), major politicians (Bill Clinton!), “thought leaders,” authors, and megachurch pastors.

After a countdown, the event starts with worship – led by the onscreen band. I do my best to sing along to the rock-worship anthems displayed on the massive glowing rectangle above my head.

After worship the sessions begin, typically in 90-minute chunks. The presenters are each introduced with a summary of their impressive accomplishments and credentials. They address topics designed to help us be better Christian leaders, topics such as: “Assessing an organization’s growth potential”; “Creating an innovative culture”; “Streamlining process to boost execution”; “Reimagining performance management.”

At least one or two sessions are reserved for content that seems specifically Christian, during which God talk features prominently. But the bulk of the sessions refer seldom to God, and even more rarely to Jesus.

One year I listened to a famous megachurch pastor instruct us on how to hire and fire staff members – a topic to which I, as a bi-vocational church planting pastor in a beleaguered urban neighborhood, found it hard to relate. This pastor shares a story about a time when he had to “let someone go.” The man in question had helped to found the now-very-large church and had served for years with the senior pastor on the ministry team. He was a moral and spiritually healthy minister, but he had to be let go because he “didn’t have the capacity” to keep up with the growing church and its organizational needs. This pastor talked about how hard but how important it had been to help his fellow pastor “transition” out of his ministry position.

Throughout the sessions, I hear about the importance of leadership. Good leaders are God’s gift to the church. Good leaders are efficient in their use of resources. Good leaders know how to get things done!

On breaks between sessions or during lunch, I mill about the massive lobby or sprawling parking lot outside, contemplating the messages of these famous and successful people. I speak to my fellow pastors, all of whom (from my group) pastor small churches. Sometimes we admit to one another that, for some strange reason, we’re beginning to feel a bit discouraged amidst all the encouragement.

Coming back in for the last session, I see Bill Hybels ascend to the podium, his passion for this project palpable even through the screen. He expresses amazement at the quality of this year’s presentations, interviews, and panels, and he sends us forth, after two days of watching these “great leaders” on our massive television screen, to be the leaders which the world so desperately needs. Or, at least, that is what he tells us.