Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren to Retire in September, Names Andy Wood as Successor

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

After more than four decades, the pastor of one of the nation’s largest and most influential churches is ready to step down.

And he has named a young couple to take his place.

“This afternoon, at our all-staff meeting held at the Lake Forest campus, I was finally able to publicly announce that we have found God’s couple to lead our congregation, and that they have agreed to come!” Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren told his Orange County, California, congregation in an email on Thursday.

The email included a link to a video featuring Warren and his wife, Kay, along with Andy and Stacie Wood of Echo Church in San Jose, California. Andy Wood, 40, is currently Echo’s lead pastor, while Stacie Wood is a teaching pastor. They will have the same roles at Saddleback.

Founded in 2008 as South Bay Church, Echo now has four campuses and draws about 3,000 people to weekly services. Like Saddleback, Echo has ties to the Southern Baptist Convention, though neither church uses the word Baptist in its name.

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Echo is also a member of the Association of Related Churches (ARC), which has been plagued with scandals over the past several years. Echo annually hosts leadership conferences. And last year, the church featured disgraced pastor Mark Driscoll as a speaker at the Echo Leadership Conference, along with Andy and Stacie Wood and Chad Veach, pastor of an ARC member church in Los Angeles, California.

Driscoll conference Echo
In May 2021, Mark Driscoll spoke at a leadership conference hosted by Echo Church in San Jose, California which is affiliated with the Association of Related Churches. (Screengrab via website)

A graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Andy Wood has also worked with church planters through the SBC’s North American Mission Board.

“Kay and I believe so much in this couple,” Warren said in a statement announcing the transition. “We love them so much, and we are confident that God has prepared and chosen them to take up the baton and run the next leg of the Saddleback marathon.”

The search for a new pastor began last summer, in part because of ongoing health problems for Warren. He told the church last year that he has spinal myoclonus, which causes tremors and blurred vision, and that it has worsened in recent years.

Saddleback leaders spoke with about 100 potential candidates before settling on Wood, who preached at the church earlier this year.

Wood plans to step down as pastor of Echo Church at the end of June and will move to Orange County to begin the transition. The first step will be a conversation between the Warrens and the Woods over Father’s Day weekend. In August, the couple will begin attending Saddleback.

The church will celebrate Warren’s ministry during the first few weekends in September. Wood’s first official day as pastor will be Sept. 12.

“For decades, we have admired and respected Pastor Rick and Kay Warren and their work through the Purpose Driven Church model has been critical,” Wood said in a statement. ”We’ve been so blessed by their friendship, and after months of prayer and seeking counsel from others, we believe that God has called us together to step into serving at Saddleback Church,”

In the email to the Saddleback congregation, Warren said he and Kay were filled with love and gratitude for the church and quoted a New Testament verse about fighting the good fight and finishing the race.

Rick Warren Saddleback
Pastor Rick Warren during a panel discussion in Baltimore in June 2014. (RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks)

“Now it is time for us to pass the torch on to a new generation who will love, lead, and pastor our church family in the decades ahead,” he wrote.

Filling Warren’s shoes will be a challenging task, as the current Saddleback pastor has long been one of the most influential Christian leaders in the country, shaping everything from how pastors dress to how they organize and start new churches.

Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University, said megachurch transitions are often a challenge. The higher a megachurch pastor’s profile, the more difficult it is to replace them.

While megachurches can continue after a founding pastor leaves, it’s not an easy transition.

“It will not be the same place without Warren,” Thumma said.

Andy Wood Saddleback
Pastor Andy Wood. (© Andrew Jo via Echo Church)

Wood’s success, he said, will depend in part on whether Warren can let go of the church and allow a new pastor to take over and chart his own course. But Thumma observed that Warren has taken steps in the past to allow others to lead at Saddleback. He does not preach every Sunday and has ben what Thumma called “a thoughtful leader.”

Thumma said the Warrens have been a positive model of what pastors can be during what is a difficult time for church leaders. They’ve avoided scandal and have been honest about their struggles. For the most part, they’ve avoided the culture wars and partisan feuds that have caused many to lose faith in religious leaders.

Warren’s retirement will mark the end of a remarkable career in ministry.

After graduating from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in December 1979, Warren and his wife, Kay, along with a four-month old baby, packed up their belongings and moved to the Saddleback Valley in Orange County, California, then one of the fastest-growing communities in the United States.

In his 1995 book, Purpose Driven Church, Warren described pouring over demographic and census data in the summer of 1979, searching out the right place to start a new church —stopping only to call his wife a few times a day to see if she had gone into labor.

One day, Warren said he had a revelation after seeing the data on Saddleback Valley, saying God spoke to him and told him to plant a church there.

“It didn’t matter that I had no money, no members, and had never even seen the place,” he wrote. “From that moment on, our destination was a settled issue. God had shown me where he was going to make some waves, and I was going to have the ride of a lifetime.”

The church launched on Easter Sunday 1980, with a crowd of about 200 people in a rented space at the Laguna Hills High School in Orange County and never looked back.

By 1992, the church had grown to 6,000 and bought a 74-acre site the church still calls home. The church is now one of the largest congregations in the country, drawing more than 23,000 worshipers, meeting in more than a dozen locations.

The church, though Southern Baptist, downplayed culture war battles and eschewed traditional church culture for a more casual, come as you are approach to worship, one newcomers could easily embrace. In the early days, Warren was known for preaching in a Hawaiian shirt — prompting a new fashion trend among pastors.

Saddleback also was the birthplace of Celebrate Recovery, a Christian 12-step inspired program to help people deal with their “hurts, hang-ups and habits.” The program has been adopted by tens of thousands of churches around the country.

Rick Warren Saddleback
Pastor Rick Warren preaches at Saddleback Church in California. (Photo courtesy of A. Larry Ross)

Warren became a household name in 2002 with the publication of The Purpose Driven Life, a runaway bestseller. The success of the book allowed him to “reverse tithe” by giving away most of his income. In the mid-2000s, prompted in large part by Kay, Warren and the church became active in responding to the global AIDS pandemic and to addressing poverty overseas, in particular in war-torn Rwanda. He later also wrote a popular diet book called The Daniel Plan, prompted by his own weight loss.

Though conservative, Warren has avoided some of the partisanship associated with evangelical pastors. In 2008, Warren hosted a presidential candidate forum with Barack Obama and John McCain, then rivals for the presidency, and later gave the invocation at Obama’s first inauguration.

In 2013, Warren’s youngest son, Matthew died at 27 after years of struggle with mental illness. The family shared openly about their loss and, in the years following Matthew’s death, have become advocates for addressing mental health and ministering to those affected by suicide.

From his early days of starting Saddleback, Warren hoped to spend his entire ministry at the church. One of his heroes as a young pastor was W.A. Criswell, who spent 5 decades as pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and he hoped to emulate Criswell’s tenure.

“It was my promise to God, and to you God’s people,” Warren said last summer. “It was my way of saying: ‘you don’t need to worry about me leaving when times get tough for you. I’m here for the duration. I’m going to give my life to this church. I’m going to stick with you,’ and I kept the promise.”

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

Julie Roys contributed to this report.

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26 thoughts on “Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren to Retire in September, Names Andy Wood as Successor”

  1. Salvatore Spina

    Who cares what the Southern Baptist Convention has to say about Saddleback. They’ve got no room to point fingers.

    1. Brian pastor Rick is no way like the horrible godless evangelicals industrial complex such as olsteen or Copeland or their ilk. Before moving, I attended saddleback for years. He and his wife are the real deal. Shame on you for your uninformed statement. His entire self is one of giving and sacrifice.

    2. Salvatore Spina

      Mega churches, maybe. But in all the years Saddleback has been in existence I have not heard of any scandals of any kind. That says something to me.

    3. Mark Gunderson

      Brian, I dislike megachurches too. I think they lack community and accountability for both the members and leaders.

      But: does your (presumably small) church have a 12-step recovery program? Does it provide that resource to other churches? Does your church have regular grief and mental health support groups?

      And you’re being wildly unfair to compare Warren to a prosperity gospel preacher. The highest compliment I can pay Warren is that he’s the most bland, boring megachurch pastor I’m aware of. He doesn’t speak in superlatives, you’d never, ever, pick him out of a crowd, and he doesn’t put his name on everything. And most importantly, he just doesn’t preach a prosperity gospel.

    4. For people like Brian, Warren’s sin isn’t really anything to do with being the leader of a megachurch, it’s that he’s seen as an “apostate of conservatism” for having the temerity to lead the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration. Many conservative evangelicals have never forgiven him for doing that.

      1. Mark Gunderson

        I’m sure there is a lot behind Brian’s condemnation of Warren he left unsaid. But I’d rather he clarify than we speculate.

        1. Constantly offended—that’s what people are who claim to be Christians. The pride that makes people think they can actually have the righteous anger of Christ is amusing. Once you see it, you can never unsee it. Take a look at your anger folks. Do you really think in your evil flesh that you can attain RIGHTEOUS anger?

  2. If the SBC told saddleback members they can’t be part of the SBC ya know what most of us would say? Whose the SBC? We’re part of a Baptist organization? I thought we were Christians?

  3. A very well written story. It doesn’t matter theologically if folks agree or not. You did a great job on writing this and pulling it all together. Thanx. Jim.

    1. I’m glad you pointed out that it is a very well-written article. One strong point about Rick Warren that wasn’t mentioned is that Warren didn’t have his congregation pay him for peddling the Word but buyers of his books did!

      It’s too bad that that many mega-churches and many smaller churches don’t follow the advice of Dan Wallace given in:

      https://bible.org/article/who-should-run-church-case-plurality-elders

      Is Rick going to keep coming back like a bad penny so a new broom can’t sweep clean??

      A prominent and good pastor here in Lincoln, just retired and it appears that he going to do retirement right and let the new leadership lead!

      https://www.faithbiblelincoln.org/sermons/sermon/2022-04-24/29-years-of-amazing-grace

      1. Regardless of who it is, I’ve always objected to the idea that a pastor who earns millions through his books deserves praise for refusing direct compensation from his church.

        First of all, the only reason why Warren can sell as many books as he does is because of his position as the longtime pastor of Saddleback megachurch. He owes everything to Saddleback (and I’m sure he’d agree). Obviously, in Warren’s case, if he is giving 90% of those profits to charity, he’s doing the right thing, which leads me on to…

        Second, the easiest way for a multimillionaire megachurch pastor or televangelist to deflect criticism of their exorbitant lifestyle is to do what Warren did — take no income from their church/organization. Joel Osteen doesn’t take a salary, and nor does Pat Robertson, I believe. But the fact that virtually every broadcast of theirs includes direct promotion of materials (books, videos, course, etc.) for which they are directly compensated means it’s a distinction without a difference. It’s nothing but a smoke screen.

        In the secular world, CEOs and company presidents with tarnished reputations do exactly the same thing.

        So I’m fine with Warren’s lack of a salary not being included in the article. On it’s own, it doesn’t mean anything, and isn’t worthy of any praise if the millions you earn every year were only possible because of the church/organization you run/own.

        1. Mike:

          I should point out that I have not bought any of those books by those authors including Rick Warren. So, like their congregations I haven’t financially supported either by personal contributions, or more importantly, by purchasing any of their books.

          The latest religious material that I have purchased supports no individual pastor. Those areThe NET Bible with full notes andThe Moody Bible, Bible Commentary. I can recommend both of those books!

          I can say one thing positive about The Rick Warren Institution that seems to be confirmed by some of the comments on this thread, and by an article that I read years ago,that Saddleback Church did preach the fundamentals of the gospel.

  4. Cynthia Wright

    In the photo, Stacie Wood has panicked eyes, and she doesn’t like Rick Warren’s hand on her arm.

    1. Arthur Fhardy

      That was my first thought too. Kind of an all-around odd photograph in the way the Warrens and Woods are jumbled up.

      1. Andrew Thomas

        Tom, compare the grip Rick has on her arm, to the grip he has on her husbands arm, there is a difference in how he physically handling them and she does not appear to like it.

  5. I was on staff with Andy at Echo church and he is the definition of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.Fake YouTube views, inflated baptism and membership numbers, and countless broken hearts due to Andy and Stacy’s surface level “care” gives you an idea of who these people are. I challenge you to reach out to previous staff members and you’ll see the truth. That is of course if they didn’t have to sign a NDA.Truth about Andy: https://i.imgur.com/3THJMoQ.jpg Echo Church had a name change. It used to be called South Bay Church.

    1. Jill, thanks for sharing. I’m so sorry. Makes sense now, why I had a concern as I looked into Andy. God help us! God forgive us! God have mercy!

  6. Terence Emmanuel

    My only remark is that is too bad that a megachurch needs to look for another megachurch pastor to fill the senior position. You would believe that inside the church there could be a worthy assistant or teaching pastor to takeover. Regarding his affiliation with ARC we can’t disqualify him for that reason, not all ARC pastors are bad.

  7. Marin P Heiskell

    I can say that I was really blessed by Purpose Driven Life, and I was part of a small church that was really blessed by Purpose Driven Church. Took my walk with God to another level and laid the foundation for more impactful discipleship groups and relationships in my church.
    I will pray for the Warrens as Rick battles his condition and they prepare for the next chapter in what has already been a very fruitful life. I also pray that Saddleback is able to continue remaining scandal free under new leadership.

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