Door Holder: Nancy Beach

I first visited Willow Creek Community Church around 15 years ago. My brother, Eric, was leading worship there, and when we visited Chicago in August of 1999, the timing couldn’t have been better. The Leadership Summit was in session, and I had my first glimpse of a group of leaders and a movement that would profoundly impact my life in ways I could not have imagined during that hot August, clutching a three-month old David in my arms.

To be honest, I snuck into the Summit that year. I didn’t see a lot of it; I remember meeting Matt Redman during a sound check, playing piano a bit while the band jammed. I was in awe of the church and the excitement pulsing through the halls.

I returned to Chicago a few years later, a new resident of Ohio and a volunteer at Fellowship Bible Church. I attended the Arts Conference, a now-defunct yearly meeting designed to encourage and equip artists in the church. I heard Bill Hybels speak life and vision to artists. I saw incredible workshops with inspiring leaders. I experienced powerful dramas and brilliant music. I met some cool people.

And I heard Nancy Beach.

Photo credit: Mark Beeson

Nancy was the leader of the Arts Ministry at Willow Creek. Part of the church since its beginning, she had grown up and into an influential role as a speaker, teaching pastor and leader. She appeared to be the creative, artistic partner to the senior pastor’s pragmatic, level-headed persona; but she stood in a unique place of influence and empowerment that was hers alone.

I was drawn to her teaching, her understanding of her influence, and her calm, settled presence on the teaching platform. Her passion for artists and a matching vision for how the local church could and should nurture their souls as they leveraged their offerings – it was contagious.

Ironically, she wrote a beautiful post about folks who held the door open for her just a week before I started this series. Another influence, well-timed.

I heard Nancy teach at the Arts Conference several times. She hosted and shared messages at the Global Leadership Summit until she left her position at Willow Creek and moved into other venues. She wrote a book that opened my eyes to the restoration available to me as a woman, gifted in areas of leadership, coming out of a patriarchal, complementarian religious system.

And a few years into my work at PCC, I had an opportunity to connect personally with Nancy. I can’t remember exactly how it happened – possibly through networking at the Arts Conference – but we calendared a phone appointment. She made herself available to me for a few questions about leading and managing the growth we were experiencing at PCC on our arts team.

I knew very little about anything I was doing that went beyond playing the piano and leading worship; my education and background were in teaching. I knew nothing about management and leading a team of adult volunteers.

But I knew Jesus, and I knew the depth of my passion. The pump was primed. I asked Nancy a few questions about building our teams and taking our musicians and artists to the next level – for their sakes, and for the mission of our church. She spoke into several different areas, but she made one comment that drilled deep into my heart. I asked just how to empower people, how to help them become great leaders. I have never forgotten her words.

You have to be willing to let them fail.

For a woman who flirted with codependency, had control issues and struggled with perfectionism, this was a hard concept. But – because of all those descriptors I just mentioned – it was my blind spot, and it was absolutely essential that I learn to do just that – something that seemed antithecal to what I believed leadership (and “good Christianity”) to be about. It was not about failure, per se; it was about my willingness to let somebody fail.

She’s a wise woman, that Nancy Beach. She held the door open for me as a woman leader, through her example, her writing, her teaching. Her influence, though her work, was powerful. But in that brief conversation – one I doubt she even remembers – she grabbed the doorknob and coaxed me through with one simple statement, into a place that challenged me to deal with my own junk in order to honor the leadership influence given to me.

It changed me.

From the beginning of my work at PCC, I told my boss / senior pastor, “I want to be your Nancy Beach.” Her influence was that great; my aspirations and vocational drive grew out of my admiration and respect for her leadership. Thankful for her continued influence through writing and coaching, I’m still nurturing those aspirations and passion to be better.

But I’m no Nancy Beach; I’m just the best version of me that I can be. That calling became uniquely personal; I own it, and I get to live it.

Nancy set a great example. I’m glad she opened that door, for me and so many other women in leadership. May God bless her continued influence.

(And I sure wish she’d return to the Leadership Summit….)

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