Willow Creek Wheaton Lead Pastor Resigns, Citing Intense “Drive” That Hurt Staff

By Julie Roys

The lead pastor of Willow Creek Wheaton, one of Willow Creek Community Church‘s eight campuses in the Chicago area, announced yesterday that he’s resigning due to an intense drive for results, which was negatively impacting his staff.

According to Willow Creek spokesperson, Katie Franzen, Willow Wheaton Pastor Reece Whitehead announced his resignation to his congregation on Sunday, after engaging in a six-month process to correct his leadership issues with executive coaches, external leadership experts, and church staff.

Whitehead’s resignation comes during a time of turmoil for Willow Creek. Last year, founder Bill Hybels resigned early after several women accused him of inappropriate sexual conduct. The elder board and two lead pastors also resigned and apologized for initially backing Hybels against the women’s accusations. On Friday, the new elder board released its “last statement” about the events of 2018,  charging Hybels with “unchecked sin and intimidating behavior” and stating that they found the women’s allegations credible.

In a statement from Whitehead I obtained, and Franzen authenticated, Whitehead said he decided to resign after the Holy Spirit convicted him about “the intensity through which I seek results.” Whitehead added that he too often associated “my identity in the fruit of my labor (results), rather than resting in the truth that I am God’s child.” He said this led him to be “results-driven” to a fault and caused him to develop a “blind spot” in his leadership, which impacted others. “This is not who I want to be or how I want people to feel.”

“I have too often associated my identity in the fruit of my labor (results), rather than resting in the truth that I am God’s child.”

Whitehead served at Willow Wheaton for eight years. He said he is “uncertain” what is next for him.

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Reece Whitehead’s letter to his congregation:

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11 thoughts on “Willow Creek Wheaton Lead Pastor Resigns, Citing Intense “Drive” That Hurt Staff”

  1. I think you meant “blind spot” instead of “bind spot.”

    Regarding this pastors statement: Phil. 2:3, ” Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” I am glad this man saw a problem and tried to do something about it which eventually led him to resign. We have far too many leaders with way too much selfish ambition. These men end up hurting people trying to force their will upon them, in order to build a kingdom, nor for Jesus in any way at all, but for themselves. This is why the churches look the way that they do with so much pride and unbridled contention between them going on. Jesus never asked anyone to build anything big, but to build it well. Those like Hybels who work so hard to make things big with lots of Mammon, are doing it for themselves. They could not give a damn about the real Jesus. He is just something to leverage to make Hybels great! It is no wonder that Hybels hired other men just like him to try to make the satellites big. Jesus is about the quality of character. Jesus worked on 12 men not 12,000 and He does not change. We are just so out of touch with Jesus that we do not have a clue all too often…

    1. Steve Swihart

      I think your words are wise, Mr. Jesperson. Whenever I hear a pastor or Christian celebrity emphasize leadership roles, relevancy and legacy, I’m no longer engaged. Jesus, as you say, has become someone to leverage to make themselves great.

  2. Laura Mullenix

    The model of Willow Creek and what has happened there has had far reaching affects. When my husband was in pulpit ministry (he was for 40 years)…especially when Willow Creek was at its height, elders in more than one church pressured my husband to be like WC. To adopt their way of doing things, so to speak, so as to have a big church. That was the goal. My husband didn’t last because he couldn’t bring himself to do that, and to follow the big church model. A lot of pastors suffered in those days for the exact same reason. Pressure from their elders for not being like Billy Hybels and WC.

    1. Laura – I have been in pastoral ministry for almost 30 years. I know of what you speak. It is the mantra. Grow! Now, I love to see real growth in the church as people genuinely come to faith, but far too often methods are adapted in order to bring the people in. But into what? “You win them to what you win them with.”

  3. grateful Christ follower

    I just want to take a quick moment and say ‘Thank you Reece’ for everything you have done to serve Christ. Thank you for being willing to self examine and walk through your moral inventory with outside counsel etc… also, thank you for being honest and humble about what you are realizing. You are delighted in by the King of Kings and He has a great place for you to continue serving Him. Perhaps it will be on the mission field of corporate America? Again, thank you for your beautiful, humble, Christlike example of how to love people well.

  4. My experience with all the churches grew up in, NEVER learned anything. Got stories, but had to read my Bible on own to really get the entire Book rather the verses they give you to keep $ (money) in the coffers and for their lifestyles period. Reading this, is sad it’s like it’s all cookie cutter christianity and dead methods and dead programs and dead formula’s. I’m very sorry to say this, but see all churches as smarmy B.S. pyramid schemes and Businesses. God didn’t get any money and when the 2008 crunch of economics happened people found out as lost Jobs, Homes NO help in the church as you built their empires with your time and money. People will find out if and when wake up when 70, 80, 90’s when need help it was “exploiting the need to belong” by Stephen Parsons and “coming out alive” by Beth Cavete and “losing my religion” by William Lobdell and “don’t call me brother” by Austin Miles, “the fleecing of christianity by Jackie Alnor and “10 lies the church tells women/lies men believe by J. Lee Grady, “pagan christianity (green cover) by frank viola and “salvation for sale” by Straub, “christian brainwashing” by Dick Sutphen.
    Over 60 years later no help to the fatherless, widow, orphan, poor, single parents and their children, homeless you will find out that your time (time you cannot get back) and your money built their regime, movement and dynasty. As my 30ish, 40ish, 50ish, 60-90ish year old friends found out NO HELP IN THE CHURCH WHEN NEEDED AT ALL, you don’t even learn any life skills or preparedness for sitting your derriere in the seat all the years to be entertained. “frog in the kettle” by george barna. SORRY TO SAY, WASTED MY LIFE AND TIME IN THE FALSE INANE INEPT Foursquare, assassins of their god, calvary chapel, vineyard, etc., YOU WILL FIND OUT eventually that it’s “a country club that carries Bible” and you supported and celebrated liars that cover up sin. These hucksers, con-artist/men/women, charlatans, false teachers, false shepherds, wolves don’t know God of the Bible for themselves or his LOVE or they would be servants and giving and providing and building shelters and taking care of poor, fatherless, homeless, widow, orphan etc., How can they love the people when they don’t love themselves, how can they be a true shepherd when we really don’t the Father Heart of God for ourselves let alone Holiness, Righteousness, Repentance, Prayer rather than these leaders preying on the people?
    Wonder what Willow Creek owns and worth in land, money, property, ranches, business, $ in bank accounts and overseas in entirety since they have been in Business and what they did with the money in regards to helping people and their lifestyles of the people who gave thinking their $ was going to God’s work.
    Found people who truly live the gospel and help they are the true church, NOT dead buildings no one can live in and or eat, don’t know who you are and nor do they care otherwise they would repent and CHANGE, repentance is to change. So, many people mourning and grieving of wasted years building men’s (per the bible, flesh, carnal=witchcraft Galatians 3:all and NOT living Matthew 25:31-end or James 1:27.
    Learned more from reading Books “cheap education” than any Church sat in or Friends/Family that lived Jesus Christ in the highways and bi-ways and market place.

  5. Jessica Hockett

    I defer to Willow Wheaton Congregants with regard to fully understanding the context for & subtext of this resignation. From the outsider’s view, I don’t hear Mr. Whitehead confessing to sins per se (e.g., his reference to treatment of Willow staff uses the benign verb “impacted”). And while says the Holy Spirit has convicted him about “the intensity with which he seeks results,” and that he has “not led with the fruits of the spirit” as much as he should have, it appears he is avoiding naming actual offenses. Perhaps he has resolved those more privately, with individuals, in repentance.

    Still, I’m left with the impression (perhaps inaccurate) that this isn’t as much self-initiated step or gracious act of humility as it is a compelled resignation….possibly the culmination of a series of painful attempts to get Mr. Whitehead to acknowledge & own his treatment of others. Admittedly, my reading of this letter could be influenced by many others that I’ve read from my former church, Harvest Bible Chapel.

    This sentence also captured my attention: “Willow has been very generous in providing for my family financially as I step away from my role here.” I take this to mean that Mr. Whitehead has received some kind of severance package. This is another reason that the resignation feels like something he was asked or “volun-told” to do.

    To reiterate, I could very much be wrong in my interpretations.

    Finally, for anyone who is interested in the beginnings of Willow and how the culture & result-driven priorities developed and evolved up through the mid-90s, I recommend “Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church” by G.A. Pritchard.

    Disclosure: I attended Willow for 2-3 years (~1989-1991, if memory serves) when it was a single-campus church. My parents decided to leave when it became apparent that Jim Dethmer (who later resigned) was a false teacher–although they had other concerns about the seeker orientation.

  6. Julie D Burgess

    Grew up in the evangelical church. Disillusioned, and even embarassed, at 40, and at peace (although forlornly) at 60 with all having been a crock, despite those many moments of “knowing” it was real. This stuff provides more relief. There were signs of the bogus nonsense, but having been raised in it, you just “know what you know.” I realized at 40 it was bogus. But I still believe the church and other religious institutions cause people to do good things, so I’ll never have an argument with the church in that regard.

  7. I am so sorry to see Reese go. All though only a parishioner I see him as a responsanle leader that I thought was extremely caring and very humble. I feel he was a great leader and certainly very Christian and caring. I have been going to Willow for 20 years or so not involved just there to praise God and have always been most comfortable in the Wheaton location. And really felt Reese was a very young leader working his way . Never did I think he was over powering or and way seemed to try a be bigger than what we are or he is . I’m so disappointed and feel he is needed there.

  8. Julie, we miss you on WMBI!

    Anyway, Reece might be a COWARD, because he chose to Not grow together within his present congregation (of supportive local Body members) without “the title” and responsibility. So, instead of trusting The Lord’s ability to work THROUGH the issues, he’s running away like a COWARD!
    I can’t help but think that a martyr like Polycarp in his “final” example of not renouncing his “position” might be beneficially instructive.
    Certainly Reece is not giving away his time on Earth by leaving leadership at Wheaton, but his “departure” will NOT FIX his problems.

    So…, what…? Is he going to look for another paying job at another church without GROWING UP???
    The LORD Jesus’ Body has been gifted to HELP people — even ex-lead pastors. . . : :
    What!? Is he going to LEAVE God’s “fireplace” and become a cooling “ember” ALL “ALONE”??!!
    If so, he IS a DISOBEDIENT COWARDLY CHILD who wants to just RUN AWAY from the uniquely crafted challenges The LORD Jesus can see him through!

    And, he sets ANOTHER bad example of pastors who simply give up — and take their problems WITH them… Where else can he bloom except “where he’s planted” …and has put down roots?

    Now I suppose he’s going to drag his family through
    this SEPARATION, too ? …forcing his wife and children to learn how to RUN AWAY —
    …very different from Polycarp, Peter, and Paul and other ACTUAL martyrs for The Faith!!!

    Our church family will begin praying for him to reconsider leaving his locale and supportive Church family.

    Julie we thank you for YOUR EXAMPLE of not giving up — especially given what you’ve been brought through AND OVERCOME with The Graces provided directly from The LORD Jesus Christ.
    (kinda makes me reflect on the lyrics “…it wasn’t nails that held Jesus to the cross. It was His LOVE FOR US that made Him pay the cost…!

    We each carry our own cross . . .
    but Jesus never runs away

    This man should learn from His Saviour (and mine).

    The one and only Pete Tumas
    from Bolingbrook

    1. He’s not a coward… this article leaves out the part of the story where a group of WHITE, RICH 40 something’s at the church decided what was best for everyone. The rest of the congregation was left out of the clique and has no say in what happens. Where are then elders? Who keeps everyone accountable. He did not want to leave. Willow is a mess and continues to be shrouded in secrecy. NDAs and “oh I can’t say, but it was bad.” Talk. Only continued division and sin will occur until everything is brought to light. I wish him and His family only the best.

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