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Saddleback Successor Cleared of Allegations of Overbearing Leadership

Search firm Vanderbloemen reviewed texts, emails, and videos but did not talk to former staffer who made accusations against Andy Wood.
Saddleback Successor Cleared of Allegations of Overbearing Leadership
Image: Screengrab / Saddleback Church

Leaders at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church say a preliminary investigation has cleared Warren’s recently announced successor, Andy Wood, of allegations of an authoritarian leadership style that demands unquestioning loyalty.

Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and one of the most influential voices in evangelical Christianity, is planning to retire in September. He named San Francisco–area pastor Andy Wood as his successor at Saddleback, a Southern California congregation that draws 25,000 people to worship services. Wood, 40, is currently the lead pastor of Echo Church, a multisite congregation based in San Jose.

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

The allegations did not come as a surprise to Saddleback leaders.

According to Saddleback’s statement on Sunday night, Wood had told the church’s elders about the former staffer’s claims 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 on Sunday, which was also sent to Religion New Service (RNS).

The search company was provided video, email, and text records, and interviews that Echo gathered in its review of Wood’s actions. It also conducted one additional interview, according to Saddleback’s letter.

“They tried to reach out to the former staff member and have yet to receive communication back,” the church said.

Saddleback 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 RNS, 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 the 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. The Woods will step down at Echo Church at the end of June and begin leading Saddleback on September 12.

Scot McKnight, coauthor of A Church Called Tov, which critiques toxic church cultures, said large churches can create celebrity pastors who lead in problematic ways. He does not have firsthand knowledge of problems with Wood’s leadership, but expressed concerns about what he’s heard. “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 multisite 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.

Wood also runs an annual leadership conference, which last year included Mark Driscoll, the disgraced pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle who resigned in 2014 after a series of controversies involving allegations of bullying, plagiarism, and abuse of power. Driscoll 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. He note that Crossroads’ pastor remained on staff and disagreed with his critiques.

Hough said Wood was personable and friendly as a leader, but dismissed any questioning of the Echo way of operating out of hand. 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. 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.”

When he announced Wood as his successor, Warren said he looked at about 100 potential candidates. He cited Wood’s experience in church planting as a plus, 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 matters in a new pastor, mentioning the list of traits required for leaders in 1 Timothy 3.

“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.”

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