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Willow Creek announces major layoffs amid post-COVID struggle

Willow Creek Community Church, a Chicago megachurch that was one of the largest and most highly regarded congregations in the nation, will lay off 30% of its staff due to post-COVID-19 declines in attendance and giving.

The main campus of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Willow Creek Community Church

(RNS) — Willow Creek Community Church, a Chicago megachurch that was one of the largest and most highly regarded congregations in the nation, will lay off 30% of its staff due to post-COVID-19 declines in attendance and giving.

“Willow is about half of the size we were before COVID, which is right in line with churches across the country,” Dave Dummitt, Willow Creek Community Church senior pastor, told his congregation in a video announcing the cuts. “But as you can see, and as you can imagine, that has fiscal impactions.”

Founded in the mid-1970s, Willow Creek grew from a start-up congregation meeting in a movie theater to one of the most influential Protestant congregations in the United States, drawing more than 25,000 worshippers weekly by 2017, according to Outreach Magazine.

But the church has struggled in recent years after the resignation of co-founder Bill Hybels, who was accused of sexual harassment and abuse of power. The co-pastors who succeeded Hybels also resigned not long afterward, followed by the entire church elder board.

Hybels has denied any wrongdoing. A 2019 investigation by a group of outside Christian leaders found the allegation against him credible.

Before the layoffs, staff costs made up about 72% of the church budget, according to an update released by the church earlier this month. The layoffs will save $6.5 million, bringing staff costs closer to half of the current budget.

“These changes are difficult on staff members whom we love who will no longer have a staff role — some of them have been with us for many years,” the church said in the update. “We are providing generous financial care for each of these individuals, ranging between three months and one year based on tenure.”

A recent study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace found that about a third of churches saw a major decline of 25% or more from 2019 to 2021.

At the end of 2021, attendance at Willow Creek was down by 57% from 2019, with giving down as well. Willow’s leaders say that decline is on par with declines at other megachurches.

“In our informal network with other large churches, we know of only two churches experiencing attendance and engagement beyond 60% of their pre-Covid numbers, with many around 50%,” the church said in its announcement.

Willow also laid off staff in 2019 and 2020.

Dummitt’s tenure at Willow began in June 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national protests that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Dummitt was not able to meet with staff or church members for months.

Last fall, the church announced plans to rally around a theme: Love God, Love People, Change the World.

During the pandemic, Willow Creek, like many other megachurches, applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. That loan, for $5.63 million, was forgiven in 2021, according to data from the Small Business Administration.

While announcing the layoffs, Dummitt said that the church is starting to turn the corner and has seen some positive developments. Still, he said, this is a difficult time.

“I’d like to ask you to join me in praying for our entire staff in the coming days and weeks,” he said. “We’re trusting God to lead and guide each of us as we take next steps with him.”

This story has been updated. Dummitt started as pastor of Willow in 2020. 

by Bob Smietana, Religion News Service

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