Happy 40th, Bill Hybels—and Thank You!

Seventeen!
Seventeen!

Bill and I had just started dating, and this photo was taken on my first visit to his parents’ home. Apparently, his dad spent a lot of time in Africa and bought a lot of “rugs.” We were seventeen. Babies!

Over a period of five years, we dated, broke up, got engaged, broke our engagement, vowed never to see one another again—ever—and then got back together and got married. It was 1974 and Bill was a youth pastor. One year later, we started Willow Creek Community Church in a rented movie theater.

Sometimes, October 12, 1975—the day Willow held its first service—seems like yesterday; other times, it seems like a lifetime ago. We were both twenty-three. We had very little wisdom, but a great deal of passion. Bill had the heart of an evangelist and believed the local church should reach out to people who were far from God. I had the heart (and education) of a social worker and believed the local church should be a refuge for the marginalized. Together, we had a pretty holistic dream for what church could and should be.

But having a dream and bringing it to life are two different things. The decades to come were far more challenging than we’d anticipated--and we were far more flawed than we’d realized. Over and over again, we were forced to our knees in brokenness and confession, humbled by our ministry mistakes and failures. But God was gracious to forgive and the congregation was patient to let us grow up. And forty years later, here we are—still grateful for the opportunity each day brings to live out our callings in the local church.

This Sunday evening, October 18, our entire congregation will gather at the United Center in downtown Chicago to celebrate God’s faithfulness and work in our midst over the last four decades. I will be there, loving the stories and undoubtedly shedding a tear or two along the way. But before the celebration begins, I want do something only I can do: say a public thank-you to my husband.

Thank you, Bill, for having the holy boldness to grab hold of a dream that echoed the dream in my own heart. At twenty-three, I was a dreamer, just like you. But I wasn’t bold. I had neither the life skills nor the personality to lean into the unknown, to blaze a trail. But I knew you could do that, and I chose to join you.

Along the way, you helped me discover and develop boldness I didn’t know I had—and I wasn’t the only one. There were thousands of women at Willow and beyond who needed to hear a pastor say, “You are an image-bearer of God. You have gifts and passions and dreams that matter. The church—and the world—needs you to show up and offer the fullness of who you are.” Many of us still need to hear a pastor say that. I’m so grateful you’ve never stopped saying it.

Thank you, Bill, for persevering in our marriage. During one of our many dating break-ups, my mother said, “I don’t understand you two. You can’t seem to live with each other. But you can’t seem to live without each other either.” To be clear, she didn’t mean “live with” literally—we weren’t cohabitating. But she was definitely onto something. Though we didn’t seem to be a match made in heaven, we could never walk away from each other for long. There was a shared something that kept drawing us back together. An energy for life. A passion for meaning. A dream that never grew old.

Or maybe we were both just really stubborn and refused to give up, to let go, to move on. Perhaps we both were—are!—just insanely tenacious. If so, I am exceedingly grateful for tenacity. It has served us well.

Thank you, Bill, for loving our kids enough to listen—and be broken—when a three-year-old asked, “Daddy, why are you gone all the time?” At that point, we decided together that we would choose to disappoint people in our congregation (if necessary) rather than disappoint our kids. Despite your growing commitment to Willow and your increasing levels of responsibility, you never wavered on that. Our kids did not grow up with an absentee dad. You were present, you were affectionate, and you never passed up an opportunity to say, “I love you.” That’s probably why, when the public celebration ends on Sunday evening, we’ll hop in a car with the kids and head for our private family celebration at home—complete with the hugs and “I love you’s” that mark every family gathering.

And the greatest blessing is that this tender tradition is now playing out with our grandkids. “We love you, Henry! We love you, Mac!” I know you agree that Nana and Papa are the best roles we’ve ever had the privilege of playing!

Thank you, Bill, for surrounding yourself with wise people and putting yourself under the authority of a board of elders, godly women and men who care about the church and care about us. The plurality of leadership that has always existed at Willow has guaranteed a broad sense of ownership and a healthy accountability. The patience required to lead at Willow—with its sometimes cumbersome system of checks and balances—didn’t come naturally to you, but you’ve honored it, and it has served our family and the greater Willow community so very well. It protected us from the financial mismanagement, leadership crises, and character scandals that have undermined so many really good organizations. And it allowed younger leaders to offer their gifts along the way, acquiring experience and maturity over time. Now, as we celebrate the past, we also get to celebrate a young leadership core that has the gifts, passions, and wisdom to lead Willow into the future—on the same solid foundation of mature oversight our board of elders provided for us.

Thank you, Bill, for embracing the messiness of my spiritual journey, even when it was so different from yours. We are opposites in so many ways; it figures our spiritual pathways would diverge a bit. But seriously? There we were, entering the decade of our forties, living very public ministry lives—and I basically lost my faith! (Not an exaggeration.) It was obvious the Christianity of my childhood was inadequate for my adult life, but the journey beyond my childish faith was not easy. It led me through much uncertainty and many doubts and questions. It was frightening. And did I mention, messy?

I made that journey quietly, but you knew what was going on. Yet you never said, “Get over this, Lynne. Move on. I can’t afford to have a spiritually messy wife.” On the contrary, you said, “I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in you since we were seventeen. I think we can trust the Holy Sprit with this. Don’t shortcut this journey. Don’t move back to what seems spiritually safe. Move forward into an authentic pursuit of God.”

You even told the elder board I might not be around Willow for a while, but that it was okay. “She’s working with a wise spiritual mentor,” you explained, “and she just needs a little space.” This freedom allowed me to move authentically toward the words and way of Jesus—and to discover a Christianity I could truly believe in. I tell this story often to pastors and their wives, and they are always shocked. Your response to my spiritual messiness was so brave and so loving. I will be forever grateful.

Thank you, Bill, for your deep kindness to my parents. It’s no secret that you and my dad went through a rocky patch in the early stages of your relationship. You were a slightly (!) cocky seventeen-year-old and he was a slightly (!) overprotective father. Yikes! Being caught between the two of you was not fun, and it took more than a few years for you to work out your differences. But the emails you send back and forth now—whether you’re bantering about cars and boats or probing matters of faith—are clear marks of genuine love and respect.

And what can I say about how you loved my mom? You’ve always said that after getting to know her you could never tell a mother-in-law joke; similarly, she never had anything but good to say about her son-in-law. You two created your own little mutual admiration society!

And of course, there’s this: When either of my parents was ill, you did whatever it took to make it easy for me to be in Michigan with them. When my mom passed away last summer, I was so grateful for the days, weeks, and months I’d shared with her in recent years. Thank you for wholeheartedly supporting me as I did that.

Thank you, Bill, for supporting my increasing global engagement. You married an introverted homebody and ended up with a globetrotting activist with a passion for issues both expensive (think global poverty) and controversial (think peacemaking). Repeatedly, you’ve defended me to critics who sometimes wonder if I’m leading you and Willow too deeply into the complicated issues of the larger world.

Beyond that, you’ve been generous in underwriting my “activities.” Since I’ve chosen to be a freelance volunteer, my services are generally much appreciated, but also generally unpaid. My need for underwriting is not likely to change anytime soon; in fact, it will probably increase. The farther I travel (to places like Congo, Jordan, Iraq), the more expensive those airline tickets get—and the more organizations I discover that "we just have to support.”

What was true when we were twenty-three is still true at sixty-three: I can realize my dreams most fully when I enjoy the supportive benefit of your gifts, skills, and experiences.

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In the early days of Willow, there were many in the Christian community who considered us the black sheep of the family. Smart and devout people wondered if anything good could come from a bunch of kids who had drums on stage and sang choruses from an overhead projector. Some years later things changed and overnight, it seemed, we became darlings rather than black sheep. But we learned that neither designation—black sheep nor darlings—lasts. In the public ratings, we’ve been up and down, good and bad, imitated and ignored, inordinately praised and unfairly criticized.

But here’s the thing I keep coming back to. After all these years, after all the ups and downs, you and I are still in this together, Bill Hybels. And I still love our dream and respect your leadership the way I did on October 12, 1975.

Happy 40th, Bill!

I can’t wait to see how the adventure continues in the years ahead.