Saddleback Church has operated differently than a typical Southern Baptist church from the beginning, and that tradition continues in the selection of a successor to founding pastor Rick Warren.
The Southern California megachurch — the largest congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention — announced July 2 that Andy Wood will succeed Warren as senior pastor in September.
Wood and his wife, Stacie, were chosen by Warren and his wife, Kay, and that decision was affirmed by Saddleback’s elders, the announcement explained.
While typical Baptist churches appoint pastor search committees and work through congregational processes, that never has been Saddleback’s style. And Warren has made it clear in his writing and speaking that ditching traditional forms of governance has been one ingredient in the church’s success.
Saddleback was one of the first “seeker” churches that came to national attention in the 1990s, launching a nationwide movement that took the word “Baptist” out of church names and led to a wholesale rethinking of church programming and worship styles. Saddleback and Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago became the foremost models of this innovative style of church growth.
In a video message to the Saddleback congregation, Warren said he and his wife, Kay, have chosen the Woods as their successors.
Andy Wood currently serves as lead pastor of Echo.Church in the San Francisco Bay Area, a congregation he and his wife founded in 2008. That congregation now has three physical campuses across the San Francisco Bay area. The church’s website lists Stacie Wood as a teaching pastor. There was no indication about what teaching role, if any, she will carry at Saddleback.
Saddleback already raised the hackles of the most conservative wing of the SBC last year by ordaining three female staff members as pastors. Strict complementarians among conservative evangelicals believe women may not serve as pastors and should not preach or teach in worship.
Echo.Church also has been in the crosshairs of SBC complementarians because of allowing women to preach. The San Francisco congregation has been a church planting residency hub for the SBC’s North American Mission Board.
Throughout the publicity about the Saddleback transition, both the Woods and the Warrens are mentioned as couples. In the video, Rick Warren says they all lead as couples.
“Kay and I believe so much in this couple,” Rick Warren said. “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. We truly, deeply, confidently and unreservedly endorse this couple to take our church to the next level of growth and impact.”
Andy Wood earned a master’s degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, the same SBC seminary Rick Warren attended. And much like the story of Rick and Kay Warren, Andy and Stacie Wood left seminary to become church planters on the West Coast, in what is considered one of the most difficult places to start a church. Also like the Warrens, they succeeded beyond expectation, growing a large and vibrant congregation.
Rick and Kay Warren founded Saddleback in January 1980 with six people meeting in the living room of a small apartment. Today the church counts 40,000 members attending 19 campuses on four different continents.
According to church publicity, Saddleback has baptized more than 56,000 new believers, sent 26,869 members to serve in 197 nations, and given more than $1 billion to Christian causes. The church is well-known not only for evangelism but also for a wide array of social ministries.
The Woods’ final Sunday at Echo.Church will be June 26. They will move to Orange County in July and attend Saddleback in August during Rick Warren’s final preaching series. Saddleback will celebrate the Warrens’ 43 years of service at Saddleback on the weekend of Sept. 3-4, and then on the next weekend Andy and Stacie Wood will be commissioned into their new roles.
Successful pastoral transitions in American megachurches have been rare, often due to the outsized personality of the founding pastor or the pastor who grew the church to megachurch status.
The Woods will step into the shadow of one of America’s best-known pastoral couples, but they do so with Rick and Kay Warren’s full blessing.