Saddleback Church has announced that a final report from a third-party investigation has cleared Andy Wood, Rick Warren’s announced successor, of allegations of fostering “an abusive staff culture.”
However, two former high-level staff at Wood’s former church challenged the investigation, saying victims’ voices were minimized to protect a powerful pastor.
The investigation was conducted by Vanderbloemen Group, a Christian executive search firm, which had conducted a background check on Wood before Wood was announced as Warren’s successor in June. After allegations of abuse concerning Wood surfaced on social media, Saddleback re-engaged Vanderbloemen to investigate the allegations.
According to Kristin Cole, president of A. Larry Ross Communications, which represents Saddleback, the church will not share the full report with the public “out of respect for those who contributed to it.” However, Cole released a July 11 statement by Saddleback’s elders para El Informe Roys (TRR).
“The team at Vanderbloemen interviewed former employees, former volunteers, peers, and current employees to ask them about their experiences with Andy,” the statement said. “The sample can be said to be thorough. After our work, we concluded there is no systemic or pattern of abuse under Andy’s leadership, nor was there an individual that we felt was abused.”
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However, a couple who served as pastors at Echo Church—the San Jose, California, megachurch Wood co-founded in 2009—say they’re skeptical of Vanderbloemen’s findings.
Jason and Lori Adams-Brown, former pastors on Echo’s Strategic Leadership Team, say they know of 15 to 20 former Echo volunteers, members, and staff—including themselves—who spoke with Vanderbloemen with concerns about Wood. In an exclusive interview with TRR, the couple said they’re disheartened these concerns weren’t taken more seriously.
“We went to Saddleback (through Vanderbloemen), at great personal risk to ourselves, to tell our story because we cared about our brothers and sisters at Saddleback and wanted to warn them about what we believe is a wolf that has a history of devouring sheep behind the curtains,” said Lori Adams-Brown, former assistant campus pastor at Echo’s Sunnyvale location.
She added, “It’s very, very easy in a situation like this—with the power dynamics and the image management, and the PR firms and big organizations that have been brought into the situation . . . for one voice to be centered way more than the other. But if you’re trying to get to the truth, and over 20 people have spoken about concerns, that in itself is a red flag that I wish had been taken more seriously.”
“Despite the fact that this key term in undefined, Saddleback nonetheless embraces the conclusions from the third parties that state, ‘…nor was there an individual that we felt was abused’ and ‘…there was no pattern of abuse towards an individual.’ How can anyone place merit behind such conclusions without first defining ‘abuse’?”
According to the Adams-Browns, many former Echo employees have been silenced by non-disclosure agreements (NDA). The Adams-Browns said Echo tried to get them to sign an NDA when they left the church, but the couple refused.
Several former high-level employees confirmed with TRR that they signed NDAs when they left Echo. These include Archie Jackson, one of the original three co-founding pastors of Echo; former Sunnyvale Campus Pastor Darren Allarde; former Communications Pastor J.C. Navarro; former Guest Experience Pastor Nick Copland and his wife, former Echo Worship Pastor Shannan Copland.
Copland and Navarro told TRR they did not participate in Vanderbloemen’s investigation. And because of their NDAs, they said they also could not speak with TRR about their experience at Echo.
Cuándo TRR texted Copland last week, he texted back, “This is the first time anybody’s contacted me trying to genuinely learn more.”
Copland added, “When I think back and look back at the last three or five years of Echo Church, I probably should have been the number one person to be contacted (by Vanderbloemen) due to my position at Echo. I was one of the campus pastors. The only position higher than that is the executive pastor and the lead pastor.”
Archie Jackson, however, said Vanderbloemen invited him to participate in its investigation, so he did. He added that he’s heard “through the grapevine” that former Echo employees were released from their NDAs, but no one from Echo has confirmed that, so he could not speak on the record with TRR.
TRR contacted Echo and asked specifically about releasing former employees from NDAs, but Echo did not respond.
Only one former pastor under an NDA, Darren Allarde, spoke with TRR about his experience. Allarde said he also participated in Vanderbloemen’s investigation.
TRR reached out to Gail Mayes, Vanderbloemen director of people and culture, who conducted the firm’s investigation of Wood, with specific questions about the investigation. Mayes told TRR she could not comment.
Sin embargo, TRR spoke with Bob Sutton, who worked at Vanderbloemen as vice president of candidate relations before leaving in 2019.
According to Sutton, Vanderbloemen normally runs social media and criminal background checks on those it recommends for positions, as well as checks references.
Though Sutton said the person conducting the background checks is “very thorough,” he said Vanderbloemen is a search firm and not designed to do independent investigations.
Saddleback elders said in their statement that the church recruited an independent third-party firm, Middlebrook & Goodspeed, to evaluate Vanderbloemen’s investigation process and findings. (Middlebrook & Goodspeed is the same firm that initially defended The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, against a 2019 lawsuit alleging the church was negligent in responding to child sex abuse.)
The elders’ statement said Middlebrook & Goodspeed concluded that “the investigation was objective, thorough, transparent, and truthful” and also protected the identity of the witnesses, “which is essential to obtaining the truth.”
Middlebrook & Goodspeed also reportedly found that a conflict of interest did not exist in the investigation and that “Vanderbloemen’s team followed all the leads provided to seek the truth. Further, there was nothing in the materials and interviews we reviewed that would lead us to contradict Vanderbloemen’s finding that there was no pattern of abuse nor abuse towards an individual.”
As a result of the findings from both Vanderbloemen and Miller and Goodspeed, the Saddleback elders stated, “(W)e can now say with complete confidence that the investigations have CLEARED (emphasis by Saddleback) Pastor Andy Wood of the accusations made by a former employee.”
Tweet prompts investigation
According to Saddleback’s statement, the church commissioned Vanderbloemen’s investigation after “a former Echo Church staff member posted an accusation online claiming abusive staff culture under Andy’s leadership.”
That employee is likely Lori Adams-Brown.
On June 2, the day Saddleback announced Wood as Warren’s successor, Adams-Brown tweeted, “When a pastor with many allegations of abuse against him from over more than a decade gets hired to be the pastor of one of the largest churches in America, and none of the survivors that you know were ever reached out to by the elder board that unanimously approved him…#sbc”
When a pastor with many allegations of abuse against him from over more than a decade gets hired to be the pastor of one of the largest churches in America, and none of the survivors that you know were ever reached out to by the elder board that unanimously approved him… #sbc
— Lori Adams-Brown (@loriadbr) June 3, 2022
Similarly, on June 4, Adams-Brown tweeted, “NDAs have no place in the church. If a pastor claims there have been no allegations of abuse against him, but he has gotten many former staff to sign NDAs (even if he gaslit staff by not calling them NDAs), this is cause for deep investigation into all former employees with care.”
NDAs have no place in the church. If a pastor claims there have been no allegations of abuse against him, but he has gotten many former staff to sign NDAs (even if he gaslit staff by not calling them NDAs), this is cause for deep investigation into all former employees with care
— Lori Adams-Brown (@loriadbr) June 4, 2022
TRR tried to confirm that Adams-Brown is the employee who prompted the investigation. Kristin Cole replied that she didn’t know any of the “Echo details.”
TRR contacted Echo directly, asking about the employee’s identity, but Echo did not respond to our inquiry.
According to a statement from Saddleback on June 12, Wood mentioned accusations by a former staff member against him during his interview process with Saddleback.
Then, after the allegations went public, Saddleback “re-engaged” Vanderbloemen to “do new interviews with all involved parties to see if there was any evidence or third-party corroboration by others of the accusation,” the June statement said. The Saddleback elders also reportedly “launched a second series of interviews of our own.”
Within days, Vanderbloemen produced a “preliminary” report, “clearing Pastor Wood of the allegations.” According to Saddleback’s statement, the basis of the preliminary finding was “an exhaustive report” conducted by Echo Church, “which included video footage, email and text records, and interviews.” Vanderbloemen also reportedly interviewed more Echo staff and board members.
However, at the time of the preliminary report, Vanderbloemen had not spoken with Lori Adams-Brown. And though Saddleback’s statement said Vanderbloemen had reached out to the former employee, Adams-Brown gave TRR a text showing that Vanderbloemen’s first contact with her was June 15—three days after the results of the preliminary report were published.
TRR has asked both Vanderbloemen and Echo if they’d release the videos, emails, and text records from Echo’s “exhaustive report.”
Vanderbloemen did not respond.
But Echo Director of Marketing and Communications Grace Tan replied, “Regarding the materials requested, those are employment documents intended for Vanderbloemen’s independent evaluation and cannot be shared with media.”
Adams-Brown said she’s heard that videos of her meetings with Wood exist but has never seen the alleged footage.
According to former Sunnyvale campus pastor, Darren Allarde, Echo has “cameras all over the building” and a camera in Wood’s office. Allarde said he believes the camera in Wood’s office does not have a microphone, so the footage would likely be video only.
TRR reached out to Wood through Kristin Cole for an interview. Cole responded that Wood is taking the month off to spend time with his family and not doing interviews.
TRR also contacted Echo for comment regarding the allegations. Echo responded last week with una declaración from the Echo.Church Board of Trustees and Board of Overseers.
“For personnel matters of which we are aware, we want to assure you that due diligence was taken to appropriately inspect the allegations when initially raised,” Echo’s statement said. “This included reviewing a California general release document, multiple carefully conducted interviews, and a more recent review through a third-party premier church staffing firm.
“Findings consistently showed that Pastor Andy is none of the things described in the allegations. Rather, he has been found to be very much the opposite: a healthy leader who genuinely loves God and people.”
However, the Adams-Browns questioned whether Echo Church leadership knows what “healthy” looks like. Both noted that Echo and Wood hosted a leadership conference in May 2021, featuring marca driscoll, whose bullying, intimidation, and unhealthy leadership is well-documented.
Alleged abuse of power
According to Lori and Jason Adams-Brown, Andy Wood led Echo Church in a dictatorial manner that punished anyone who dared question him.
Lori Adams-Brown told TRR that in 2020, she innocently asked Wood a question about the logistics of Wood’s plan to reopen Echo during COVID. This led to a series of interrogations by Wood, she said, and an “abusive” meeting between her, Wood, and now-Acting Lead Pastor Filipe Santos.
Jason Adams-Brown, former Echo pastor of church planting and missions, told TRR that when he objected to his wife’s treatment, Echo fired both of them. (Both Lori and Jason Adams-Brown told TRR their full story, which will be released shortly.)
Similarly, Lance Hough, former creative arts pastor at Echo’s Fremont campus who said he participated in Vanderbloemen’s investigation, told TRR that the culture at Echo was “toxic and unhealthy.”
Hough had been a pastor at Crossroads Church, which in 2020 merged with Echo. According to Hough, the merger was supposed to be a “matrimonio” that blended the best aspects of both organizations. But Hough said that whenever he’d ask why Echo does something a certain way, or suggested a different way that Crossroads had tried, he was rebuffed.
“(Echo leadership) didn’t want to have those questions,” Hough said. “And it was very much of like, ‘Well, no, this is the Echo culture. This is what we do . . . And it just felt very disingenuous. Like, if this was going to be an acquisition, then just say, so. Why did you feel the need to lie to us?”
Hough said he also observed a “culture of leader worship” at Echo, which felt “very culty.” Hough said that whatever Wood said was “gospel—like, you do it.”
Hough said on a few occasions, he asked Wood clarifying questions about projects Wood had suggested. “All the heads in the room would turn to me, people just staring daggers at me, like, ‘What are you doing? Don’t ask questions!’” Hough said. “After the meeting, I was pulled aside and told, ‘We don’t do that! We don’t ask questions like that. If (Wood) says that’s what we’re going to do . . . we just make it happen.”
Hough said he and other Echo lower-level staff were expected to work extremely long hours, but executive staff did not. Hough said his lightest week at Echo consisted of 48 to 50 hours of work and his heaviest was around 70 hours.
Former Sunnyvale campus pastor, Darren Allarde, a technologist who formerly worked in the gaming industry, had a different perspective. He said the culture at Echo simply reflected the culture of Silicon Valley: “fast and aggressive” with employees who were “high capacity.”
Allarde told TRR that he was “burned out” when he left Echo but said he doesn’t see Wood as an abusive leader like Mark Driscoll.
“If you’re on a project that was kind of distant from (Wood), you had all the flexibility in the world,” Allarde said. “But if you had a project that was closer to him that he cared about, well, you had less flexibility. But is that a problem?”
Saddleback proceeds with Wood
In its latest statement, Saddleback said it “will now resume moving forward with the process of installing Andy Wood as the next Senior Pastor of Saddleback Church in September.”
The church said it would also focus on planning a celebration of the “unprecedented 43-year ministry” of founding pastor, Rick Warren, and his wife, Kay Warren.
“This would be the end of the story for many organizations,” the statement said. “But it’s not the end for us at Saddleback.”
The elders added, “(W)e will never stop praying for, and seeking, personal reconciliation where there has been conflict or misunderstanding. . . . In our broken world, there will always be conflict, disagreements, and disappointments, so recovery and reconciliation in relationships will always be needed.”
However, Lori Adams-Brown expressed disappointment that none of the Saddleback elders have reached out to her or other alleged victims of Wood’s abuse.
“It’s disappointing that we’ve not had any communication back from the Saddleback elders, about how they’re even handling our stories or to show us any form of care in any way,” she said. “Even if Saddleback didn’t believe abuse took place, clearly we are people in the church . . . that have been very minimum hurt by the situation and are expressing our concerns.”