Saddleback Church Backs Rick Warren Successor Despite Allegations

By Bob Smietana
andy wood rick warren successor
From left: Stacie Wood, Rick Warren, Andy Wood and Kay Warren. (Photo courtesy of A. Larry Ross)

Leaders at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church say a preliminary investigation has cleared Andy Wood, Warren’s recently announced successor, of allegations made by a former staff member.

After announcing plans to retire in September, Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life” and one of the most influential voices in evangelical Christianity, named San Francisco pastor Andy Wood to follow him at Saddleback, a Southern California congregation Warren founded that draws 25,000 people to worship services. Wood, 40, is currently the lead pastor of Echo Church, a multi-site congregation based in San Jose, California.

After the public announcement, a former Echo Church staffer made comments about issues with Wood’s leadership on social media.

According to a statement issued by Saddleback Sunday night, Wood had told the church’s elders about the allegations made by the former staffer during his interview process and offered to show them videos of his meetings with the former staffer. The church asked Vanderbloemen Search Group, which did the initial background check on Wood, to do a follow-up review.

“Our elders have now received a preliminary second report from The Vanderbloemen Search Group, clearing Pastor Wood from all allegations,” the church said in a letter to the congregation Sunday, which was also sent to media.

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The search company was provided video footage, emails, text records and interviews that Echo gathered in its own review of Wood’s actions. Echo had conducted its own interviews, as well, according to Saddleback’s letter. “Finally, they tried to reach out to the former staff member and have yet to receive communication back,” the church said.

Church leaders said they sent the letter out because “we felt it was important that you hear the facts on this from us now, rather than in the news or on social media.” 

“Please stop a moment and pray right now,” church leaders asked the congregation. “Pray for clarity of the truth and for wisdom.”

Wood, in a statement to media, said that Echo “would be happy for any current or former staff members to share their working experience at Echo with Vanderbloemen as a part of their investigation, adding, “We want to do everything we can to help the truth about these allegations come to light.”

According to a transition plan announced by the church, Wood and his wife, Stacie, will be interviewed by Warren and his wife, Kay, during services at Saddleback June 19. Wood will step down at Echo Church at the end of June, as will his wife, Stacie, a teaching pastor at Echo. The Woods would begin in equivalent roles at Saddleback on Sept. 12.

Scot McKnight, co-author of “A Church Called Tov,” which advocates for building healthy church leadership, said the culture of large churches can create celebrity pastors who lead in problematic ways. McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, has advocated for whistleblowers who have spoken up about abusive church leaders such as former Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels.

McKnight said he has heard concerning things about Wood’s leadership. “Big churches attract big egos,” he said.

Founded in 2008 as South Bay Church, Echo now has four campuses and draws about 3,000 people to weekly services. The church has grown in part through merging with smaller, struggling congregations to create what’s known as a multi-site church.

“Church mergers have become one of the most effective strategies for struggling churches to thrive again, for growing churches to amplify their reach, and for church facilities to be better utilized to advance the Gospel in a region,” according to a section of the Echo Church website.

As The Roys Report previously noted, Wood also runs an annual leadership conference, which last year included Mark Driscoll, the disgraced pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Driscoll resigned in 2014 after a series of controversies involving allegations of bullying, plagiarism and abuse of power and now pastors a church in Arizona.

Lance Hough, a former staff member at Echo’s Fremont campus, left the church last year citing an “unhealthy culture” in which, he alleged, Wood demanded unswerving loyalty. Hough had been part of the leadership team at Crossroads Church in Freemont when it merged with Echo.

That merger is billed as a “marriage merger” on Echo’s website, where “two growing churches realign with each other under a unified vision and new leadership.” The merger was supposed to be a partnership, said Hough, but became more of a takeover.

“And as soon as our organization started to functionally merge, they started systematically killing off everything that made our church unique,” Hough said, while adding that the Crossroads pastor remained on staff and disagreed with his critiques.

Hough said Wood was personable and friendly as a leader but dismissed out of hand any questioning of the Echo way of operating. He worried that Wood may use the goodwill created by Saddleback and Warren to impose his own approach to ministry, which Hough believes is inherently unhealthy.

A graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wood planted a congregation known as Breakthrough Church while in seminary before moving to the San Francisco Bay area, according to a 2009 prospectus for Echo, initially known as South Bay Church. Among the founding values of the church were healthy relationships and character-driven leadership, according to that prospectus.

“We believe that God is glorified in our midst when we make his love complete by showing sacrificial kindness to one another,” the prospectus states. “We believe the gospel calls us to place the goals and interests of others above our own.”

In announcing Wood as his successor, Warren said he looked at about 100 potential candidates. He cited Wood’s experience in church planting, saying he had “already built a church in a very difficult place” and had the skills to manage a complex megachurch like Saddleback, which holds services in about a dozen locations.

Warren also said that character mattered in a new pastor, citing a list of character traits for leaders found in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to Timothy and his letter to Titus, from the New Testament.

“If you’re going to lead a church, those qualities are non-negotiable,” said Warren in a video introducing Wood. “And if you don’t have those qualities in your life, you’re automatically disqualified from pastoring and leading a church family.”

Warren founded Saddleback in 1980 using principles he laid out in his 1995 book, “The Purpose Driven Church.” In his video announcing Wood, Warren said that more than a million pastors worldwide had been trained in those methods. Warren became a household name in 2002 with the publication of “The Purpose Driven Life,” which expanded his ideas to personal values.

In May 2021, Saddleback made headlines after ordaining three female staffers as pastors — a controversial step for churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, Saddleback’s denomination, which limits the office of pastor “to men as qualified by Scripture.” (Southern Baptists disagree as to whether the limit applies only to a church’s senior pastor or anyone with the title of pastor. They also disagree over whether women can preach in a Sunday service.)

At the SBC’s annual meeting, Saddleback was reported to the Credentials Committee, which is charged with deciding whether or not a church is in “friendly cooperation” with the denomination. Though some churches have left the SBC after naming women as pastors, the denomination has never officially removed any church for having a woman pastor. 

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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17 thoughts on “Saddleback Church Backs Rick Warren Successor Despite Allegations”

  1. Is the loyal readership of TRR *still* going to slavishly back St. Richard after this, too? So long as you’re sufficiently woke (or in Warren’s case, pro-Obama) your misdeeds are automatically absolved ahead of time.

    1. Marin Heiskell

      Brian –

      Woke doesn’t mean what you think it means – not in the way you are using it (some generic label to slap on anything “left” with the goal of being condescending or stoking fear). And I fail to see what Obama has to do with this investigation. Can you please connect the dots so I can better understand?

      I thought what’s most important is how thorough and transparent the investigation has been, that all sides have been fairly heard, and that there has been resolution rooted in scripture. But apparently I’m missing something about Obama?

      1. Mark, I also saw no reason for the commenter to mention President Obama. I do not think his name was used to praise him. I usually think when someone brings up President Obama or President Biden in a forum like this it is to let readers know they stand on the “RIGHT” side.

    1. Noel, how many other “he’s” have planted churches. Seems to me you were just looking for something to be critical of Warren.

      1. Mark Gunderson

        Noel actually got the quote wrong:

        “He cited Wood’s experience in church planting, saying he had ‘already built a church in a very difficult place'”

        It’s “building” a church, not “planting” it that sounds a odd. I don’t draw any conclusions about it, other than it opens you up to criticism. Even pastors that emphasize how God “built” or “grew” a church can be using it to silence dissent, e.g., “God is behind this leadership, so you best not rock the boat.”

      2. Brian Patrick

        Tom Parker,

        You don’t have much leg to stand on on being “critical”. I have seen you ruthlessly attack anyone and everyone who dares call for moderation in any way when the person in question is on the political/theological right (one person who recently caught your ire for a fairly moderate statement was Colin Bowman).

        1. Brian, thank you for your comment. I will own my being “critical”. But you know unless someone tells me I do not know their political affiliation. If you want to defend the indefensible I will be “critical” of “you.” BTW, I was not the only one critical of Mr. Bowman’s indefensible comment.

          1. Brian Patrick

            Tom Parker,

            I read the exact comment in question from Colin Bowman and didn’t find it “indefensible”. It was sort of a “both sides” type of a comment. He didn’t make much of a stance one way or another. He may have been wrong, he may have been right, but you totally flipped out. Now you call for moderation–because the target is someone you personally like.

        2. Brian, I hope you can see I am not going to change my mind about Mr. Bowman or anyone else who trys to defend the indefensible.. I gave my opinion and you gave yours.

          1. Tom Parker,

            What is “indefensible”–giving a moderate, “balanced” type of a take on something, or always taking the knee-jerk defense of everything leftist and excoriation of everything on the right?

            Explain to me what was so evil about Colin’s post, and I’ll listen.

  2. Beth Ann Swinson

    Mr. Smietana, I can’t get past, “In announcing Wood as his successor, Warren said he looked at about 100 potential candidates.” Was there no committee from the congregation charged with finding a new pastor?

    1. Mark Gunderson

      Ugh. The levels of disappointment:
      1) Keeping authority/prestige/teaching consolidated in a single person/couple rather than delegating to a board
      2) Selection of another megachurch pastor (couple)
      3) That megachurch is an ARC church
      4) Apparent (?) unilateral decision on Warren’s part on whom to select

      The allegations should be pretty straightforward to corroborate, since they involve public behavior, rather than private.

      What I would publicly call for, were I a Saddleback member, is for Wood and Echo to release all current or past staff from any NDAs.

      And, seriously: Driscoll?

      1. The part of picking your own successor seems like you don’t trust your Board to have God’s heart? Lead with humility and recommendations that are brought to the church? Did Moses pick Joshua?

  3. “… Wood also runs an annual leadership conference, which last year included Mark Driscoll, the disgraced pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.”

    This is THE red flag! Any pastor who, at this point, would platform Mark Driscoll is telling you exactly how he views leadership.

    Are we going to get another podcast from CT entitled, “The Rise and Fall of Saddleback” in 10 years…??

  4. “the denomination has never officially removed any church for having a woman pastor” and “Saddleback remains So. Baptist for Now” article. Does Saddleback and any type of Baptist Church have to pay percentage to like the Mother/Home Office Church and any other entities in Baptist Movement? Is that one of the reasons why didn’t remove Saddleback for endorsing women Leadership Roles due to money?

    Handbook of Denominations-Frank Mead; Craig Atwood has many different sects of the Baptist Regime.

    Driscoll, needs to be mentioned for horrific behavior; lack of accountability and those who have him in their pulpit and for what reason: “birds of a feather flock together”? Would be interesting that money trail and why, also; all family/friends in ministry causing nepotism, thought!

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