Newly obtained financials for Willow Creek Community Church show giving has fallen drastically in recent years—even as people filled the offering plates at other megachurches.
Cash giving at the Chicago-area multi-site church plunged 45% from 2018-2021, according to Willow Creek’s audited 2021 financials and historical figures reported by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).
The drop followed a major sex abuse scandal surrounding Willow Creek’s founder, Bill Hybels. He was publicly accused of misconduct in 2018, and the allegations were found credible the following year. A cofounder was later accused of sexual misconduct, too.
The Roys Report (TRR) obtained the 2021 financials this week. They show the church received about $35.4 million in cash donations last year. Adjusted for inflation, that’s just over half of what the church received in 2018.
The church received nearly $60 million in 2018 (about $64.3 million when adjusted for inflation); $53.2 million in 2019; and $42 million in 2020, according to figures compiled by the ECFA.
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Willow Creek Executive Pastor Tim Stevens declined to comment for this story.
Willow Creek didn’t publicly state then just how much giving had dropped. TRR reported in May that Willow Creek’s budget for this year was down to about half its actual 2019 revenue.
The church launched a major giving campaign early this year, TRR reported at the time. But its weekly giving report shows giving is still about 15% under budget. Stevens previously told TRR that a bigger portion of the church’s giving comes at the end of the year.
This spring, Willow Creek leaders blamed COVID for the shrinking attendance and giving. But one researcher believes the pandemic is just part of the story.
Ryan Burge, whose work focuses on how religion and politics interact, told TRR that churches actually did pretty well financially during the pandemic. That’s particularly true of megachurches: cash giving at its largest member churches grew from 2019-2020, Burge noted.
Burge believes that people gave more to churches in 2020 because they couldn’t travel or eat out as much. More normal behaviors in 2021 may have meant church giving dropped back down some, he suggested.
“But, obviously at Willow it was not just that,” Burge added. “Totally botching the leadership transition is what did them in.”
Willow rolled out a controversial centralization plan in 2020, which coincided with the resignation of several campus pastors. The church cut 92 jobs across eight campuses in 2020, then laid off close to a third of remaining staff earlier this year.
At least eight Willow Creek campus pastors have resigned in the past three years. Two resigned in 2019. And six have resigned since Pastor Dave Dummit took over as Willow Creek senior pastor in April 2020. The latest to step down is Scott Reed, who announced in May he’ll be leaving Willow Creek’s Wheaton campus late this summer.
Burge said that in the past, Willow Creek was “a beacon of growth and innovation.” But now, he said, other nondenominational churches are doing that even better, and “without all the baggage and scandal.”
Sarah Einselen is an award-winning writer and editor based in Texas.