New pastor Saddleback sees women clergy in the future of the church
In the sanctuary of Saddleback Church on a recent Sunday morning, lead pastor Andy Wood opened the door to welcome the congregation’s new female pastor, his wife, Stacey Wood.
It’s been about a month since 41-year-old Andy Wood hit it big Pastor Rick Warren, the bestselling author of The Purpose Driven Life and one of the most prominent figures in evangelical Christianity, founded Saddleback in Orange County, California, nearly 43 years ago—before Wood was even born. Today, it is a multi-site ministry that reaches about 40,000 people worldwide. Despite their differences in age and experience, what Warren and Wood share is their commitment to the global church and nurturing women pastors.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Wood laid out his grand vision to build on Warren’s legacy and bring Saddleback to the biggest cities in the U.S. and around the world. He said he would encourage men and women to preach, a controversial approach the politics of male leadership The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, which Saddleback joined from the start.
Voodoo has also faced allegations of authoritarian leadership and hostile church mergers in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has led Echo Church, a congregation of 3,000, for the past 14 years. He denied the allegations and was cleared by the search firm that Saddleback had brought in to hire him.
The SBC was one of Echo Church’s supporters, which now adds to the awkwardness of Saddleback’s stance on women pastors.
Warren ordained three women pastors in 2021, prompting the denomination to consider expelling the megachurch, its second largest. Warren gave an emotional speech in June on Southern Baptist Annual Convention in Anaheim maintaining his ordination of women. He told delegates debating the issue: “We must decide whether we will treat each other as allies or as adversaries.”
Wood told the AP that the Bible “teaches that men and women have received spiritual gifts from God.”
“The church should be a place where both men and women can use these spiritual gifts,” he said. “My wife has a spiritual gift of teaching and she is really good. People often tell me that she is better than me when it comes to preaching, and I am very glad to hear that.’
Wood expressed his appreciation for SBC’s partnership with Saddleback and Echo and hopes it continues. He wants to be sure that on his watch, Saddleback “has the authority for men and women to rule.”
“I’m not going to get involved in sectarian battles,” he said. “I would really like to be a uniter of people – to help, love and support pastors in the SBC.”
Wood’s interest in honoring Warren’s legacy is a positive sign, said Scott Tuma, a professor of sociology of religion at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace who has studied megachurches.
“Following some of the models of other megachurches, such as having multiple sites and embracing diversity, are good steps,” he said. “The main thing here is probably not to make too many waves at once, but to let the people of Saddleback know him as a person.”
He said Saddleback’s relationship with the SBC was “tenuous at best” because Warren did not take an active role in denominational politics.
“I don’t see that changing under the new pastor,” Tuma said. “If anything, the SBC needs Saddleback because the denomination has been in decline for the past 12 years.”
Wood’s easygoing, welcoming manner and bright smile during his sermons are reminiscent of Warren’s iconic preaching style. The new pastor usually takes the stage wearing a goatee, casual clothes and sneakers.
During a recent 40-minute sermon on courage, Wood seamlessly wove personal stories, biblical stories and plenty of humor. He talked about his CrossFit training with a former Marine. He told an emotional story about how a neighbor brought his family to church for the first time.
Wood said his vision of being a pastor came from finding faith during a time of family conflict — at the age of 10, when his parents separated and he was living in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit, with his brother and father. , who was engaged in plumbing. He began to dream of a church where his friends could go – and be welcomed, not condemned.
In 2004, a year after their marriage, Andy and Stacey Wood founded Breakthrough Church—their first congregation—on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington. It was there that Wood says he experienced “what an ethnically diverse church looks and feels like.”
The couple moved to the Bay Area in 2008 and the following year founded South Bay Church, which later became Echo Church.
At the age of 25, leading the Breakthrough Church, Wood wrote his plan for a global church that would operate “on the continents and in the metropolises of the world”—cities like Singapore and Dubai. In the US, he envisions satellite campuses outside the Bible Belt – from New York and Boston to Seattle, Chicago, Washington and Miami. He sees the plan as a blueprint for Saddleback.
When he passes the baton to his successor in 25 years, Wood wants Saddleback to be present in at least 15 cities around the world. Wood, who said he was influenced by Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Church, also wants to build a prayer center and leadership college that will train future pastors.
Phillip Pattison, who came to Echo Church in 2015 after his struggling Twin Oaks church merged with Echo, described Wood as someone with a big vision who is “driven and laser-focused.”
“There was also real tenderness, sincerity and humility in his leadership,” he said.
Pattison, who works for a child welfare nonprofit affiliated with Echo Church, said he was surprised by the allegations of Wood’s authoritarian leadership style and hostile takeover of the church. Wood exuded “drive and strength” and expected those around him to share his desire to grow and learn, Pattison said.
But Lance Huff, whose Crossroads church began merging with Echo in early 2020, said Wood was overbearing and disrespectful of the smaller church’s culture and traditions. Hough was the creative arts pastor at Crossroads who incorporated dance, drama, painting and original videos into his worship.
“When the Echo took over, they made it clear they didn’t want to do any of that,” Hough said, arguing the merger destroyed what makes his church special. He resigned from Echo in September 2020, citing an unhealthy work environment.
Laurie Adams-Brown, a former associate pastor at Echo Church’s Sunnyvale campus, said Wood felt “humiliated, bullied and intimidated.” She said she and her husband, Jason Adams-Brown, a missions and church planting pastor, were fired last year from the Echo Church in retaliation for “calling (Wood) spiritual abuse.”
“He has a personality that he tried to portray as confident and strong,” she said. “But he loses that confidence when you question him.”
Wood has denied the allegations, saying he was “saddened” to hear them. His long-standing goal was to make sure communities didn’t lose their churches. Sometimes, Wood said, it required adjustments for them to survive. He says he has never forced any church to merge, believing it would be like forcing someone into a bad relationship.
Saddleback members gave Wood an enthusiastic welcome. Dan and Marilyn Dunn, who have followed Warren’s ministry for 17 years, said Wood is a “breath of fresh air” and a “dynamic” teacher.
“Our church is multi-generational,” Dan Dunn said. “And he’s an excellent choice to lead us into the future.”
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