For his first 10 years of leading Echo Church, a multisite megachurch in San Jose, California, Pastor Andy Wood—the incoming pastor of Saddleback Church—expressed no interest in joining the Great Commission Association of Southern Baptist Churches (GCA). If anything, he saw them as an impediment.
Wood was building Echo into one of the “fastest growing churches in the most unchurched areas of the United States.” And as previously reported in The Roys Report (TRR), GCA blocked Echo’s attempt to acquire a $10- to $12-million church property in nearby Campbell, California, in 2013.
But in 2018, Wood’s disposition toward GCA changed. And Echo applied for membership in the Baptist organization.
Yet once again, Wood had his sights on acquiring another church property worth about $15 million, GCA Executive Director of Missions Mike Stewart told TRR.
And 11 months later, when the small church—Oak Grove Baptist Church in San Jose—rebuffed Echo’s advances, Echo abruptly quit GCA.
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In an email to Stewart on November 11, 2019, Echo’s then-Executive Pastor Filipe Santos explained why. Top among his reasons was Echo’s unmet expectation that GCA “would help broker relationships between existing churches that are ‘dying’ (decreasing in attendance and health) and churches/planters who are effectively reaching the community but in need of facilities.”
Stewart said Wood and Santos then retaliated against GCA by contacting local churches and disparaging GCA. The situation became so serious the GCA board wrote a letter rebutting Echo’s allegations, which it sent to Echo and GCA’s member churches and ministries, Stewart said.
GCA’s experience with Echo over six years raises questions about Wood, who’s about to succeed Rick Warren at Saddleback Church—the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) with an average attendance around 28,000 and 20 campuses worldwide.
According to Stewart, Wood does not care about small churches or the people in them, but instead displays a naked pragmatism that values only assets and attendance.
“It was obvious that the only reason (Echo) joined the association was to acquire (Oak Grove’s) property,” Stewart said. “And once the property was not going to be quickly acquired, remaining in the association had no financial benefit to them. . . . Helping all the other churches in the association—the other 103 congregations—with resourcing and assistance wasn’t their thing.”
Stewart said Wood’s pattern of lashing out in anger also raises concern. Plus, during Echo’s application process, Stewart said GCA learned that Echo provided no accountability for Wood. Though GCA required Echo to rewrite its bylaws to add oversight for Wood, Echo staff who recently left the church say Wood ran Echo in a “dictatorial manner” and abused his power.
TRR reached out to Wood for comment through his PR agent, Kristin Cole of A. Larry Ross Communications, but Cole did not respond.
TRR also reached out to Echo Church and Filipe Santos for comment, but no one responded.
Christian real estate developer expresses concerns
Also expressing concerns about Wood is Christian real estate broker and developer Dominic Dutra.
Dutra, author of Closing Costs: Reimagining Church Real Estate for Missional Purposes, told TRR that in March 2022, he received an email from Wood. This was shortly after Dutra was quoted in a Religion News Service article about repurposing empty church buildings.
After suggesting that he and Dutra should “talk sometime soon,” Wood wrote, “I wanted to let you know that if you are able to find any church mergers that result in real estate we would be willing to compensate you for that.”
“I was just kind of taken aback,” Dutra told TRR. “I think it was the qualifier, ‘Hey, if you can find churches with real estate.’ That was a big red flag for me. It wasn’t, ‘If you can find churches that help me propagate the gospel and bless communities.’ That would have been encouraging. And then the follow up to that was . . . ‘We’re happy to pay you, compensate you.’ . . . So those two things just concerned me.”
As a result of his concerns, Dutra said he decided not to work with Echo.
As TRR reported last week, both Stewart and a colleague said Wood angrily confronted Stewart in 2013, claiming God would judge Stewart for blocking Echo’s attempt to acquire First Baptist Church Campbell.
A similar pattern was repeated in 2019 when Wood disparaged GCA to local churches and ministries, Stewart said.
GCA’s board responded with a detailed letter in December 2019 rebutting allegations by Echo, which were contained in Santos’ November 11 email. GCA’s letter was then copied to the organization’s member churches and ministries.
Concerning Echo’s allegation that GCA failed to “broker relationships” with “dying” churches, GCA wrote: “GCA is not a broker of church properties, and it never made commitments to be one during the Echo application process.” GCA added that the congregation pursued by Echo chose “autonomously” to continue as an independent church.
Echo also alleged in Santos’ email that GCA’s Hearts and Hands Christian Preschool ministry was curbing church planting.
According to Stewart, Hearts and Hands is a successful GCA ministry that’s helped numerous churches generate additional income and bless their communities.
But Echo alleged that the preschools hurt church planting by keeping “dying churches alive” and pointed to Oak Grove Baptist Church as an example.
“This is very unfortunate in our opinion,” Santos wrote, “because these facilities could be used for church planters and growing churches to reach those far from God. Oakgrove Baptist in (sic) an example of how a small group of people have held hostage a building that could be used to advance the Gospel.”
In its response, GCA wrote, “We are concerned about Echo’s perception of a GCA member church holding its own building ‘hostage’ from church planters (emphasis in original document). . . It grieves us that there has been evil intent ascribed to a sister church . . . We are also concerned that other church planters in our region are being influenced to think in this manner about their sister churches.”
Echo also alleged in Santos’ email that “church planters we spoke with” communicated that GCA “tries to ‘control’ them more than ‘support’ them.”
In response, GCA said it contacted all nine of its current church planters and only one expressed any issues with GCA. Others provided statements refuting Echo’s claim.
“I’ve never felt that way about GCA,” a church planter in San Jose reportedly wrote. “. . . GCA as given full support and kept the autonomy of the church and supported the church to make their decisions.”
Echo’s remaining complaint against GCA concerned the organization’s requirement for member churches to give 3% of their income to GCA. “For us to give that amount of money we would need to be in better alignment with the association and its goals,” Santos wrote.
GCA responded that these contributions by member churches was how GCA supported church planters and other ministries.
Stewart also noted that Echo had committed to a graduated giving plan in its application for membership in 2018. The plan called for Echo to give 1% of its income to GCA in its first year; 2% in its second year; and 3% in all following years.
Despite these commitments, Echo gave only $6,000 (about a tenth of a percent of its income) to GCA in its first 11 months as a GCA member, according to an email from Stewart to Echo in September 2019. Given its annual budget of about $5 million, Echo should have given $50,000 its first year, the email stated.
Stewart confronted Echo about its lack of giving in his September email to Wood and Santos. When Wood and Santos did not respond, Stewart sent an email on November 7, 2019, informing Wood and Santos that GCA would be reviewing Echo’s “probationary” membership at a meeting on November 16.
Santos sent his letter withdrawing from GCA four days after receiving Stewart’s email.
After the GCA board sent its response to Echo’s allegations, Santos sent an email to GCA, challenging Stewart’s claim that Echo failed to fulfill its financial commitment to GCA. Santos claimed Echo agreed to give $1,000/month in 2019 and 1% in 2020. As evidence, Santos copied and pasted a quote by Stewart from a previous email.
Stewart said the quote contained a typo. But in Echo’s application to GCA, Echo clearly committed to paying 1% in its first year, which was 2019.
Santos did not respond to the other issues discussed in GCA’s letter, including the alleged disparagement. But Santos wrote “we have no grudges” and offered to collaborate on GCA’s “efforts to transform the Bay Area, including conferences, assessments, etc.”
Lack of accountability
According to Stewart, another red flag concerning Wood surfaced during Echo’s application process in 2018: Echo provided no accountability for Wood.
As part of its application, Echo (formerly South Bay Church) was required to submit its bylaws, which have been obtained by TRR. The bylaws gave the directors on Echo’s board “final authority” for all business matters.
But according to Stewart, all Echo’s directors were high-profile Christian leaders who lived in other parts of the country.
“They were the only people who had any authority over Andy,” Stewart said. “But they were never there to see anything that he did. That’s dangerous.”
This kind of external church governance is common among churches within the Association of Related Churches (ARC)—a large church planting organization rocked by sexual and financial scandal to which Echo belongs.
However, external governing boards are almost unheard of in the SBC, to which Echo (and GCA) also belong. The SBC holds that congregations should be governed by a “democratic process.”
To be admitted as a member, GCA required Echo to rewrite its bylaws and add a local board. The new bylaws, obtained by TRR, call for Echo to have trustees in addition to its external “Board of Overseers.” Trustees must be selected from the church body, the bylaws state.
Despite these reforms, several Echo staff pastors who left Echo in the past couple years say Wood ran Echo in a dictatorial manner and abused his power. Former Echo Pastor Jason Adams-Brown said when he worked at Echo, the church didn’t post the elders’ names on its website and few people knew who they were.
Jason’s wife, former Echo associate campus pastor Lori Adams-Brown, also said Wood’s willingness to partner simultaneously with ARC and SBC was an outgrowth of Wood’s pragmatism.
“He said he was like NASCAR—that’s how he would describe it,” Adams-Brown said. “He would take stickers from anybody. So, if you’re ARC and you want to support him, great. If you’re Southern Baptist and want to support him, great.”
Echo reportedly has received funds from both ARC and the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB).
Under ARC’s model, ARC matches dollar-for-dollar the first $50,000 raised for church plants.
Similarly, in his prospectus for the launch of South Bay (now Echo), Wood notes $50,000 of “Denominational Support” from NAMB, CSBC (California Southern Baptist Association), and “Associational Giving.”
When asked for comment about Wood’s actions, especially concerning church mergers and attempted mergers, NAMB Executive Director of Public Relations Mike Ebert responded: “NAMB does not speak for local churches. Since your questions mainly concern how Echo Church and its leadership operated, we would refer you to them.”
Call for action
A group called “Echo Survivors” is pushing for change and accountability regarding Wood and Echo Church.
On Monday, the group launched a petition urging Echo to release all former employees from non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements, which “can act as silencers on victims of abuse.”
The petition has more than 450 signatures.
Wood is slated to succeed Saddleback founding Pastor Rick Warren as senior pastor on September 12.