LAKE FOREST, Calif. (AP) — On a recent Sunday morning, in the sanctuary of Saddleback Church, Lead Pastor Andy Wood opened with a shout-out to the congregation’s newest female teaching pastor – his wife Stacie Wood.

It has been about a month since Andy Wood, 41, succeeded Pastor Rick Warren, author of the blockbuster bestseller “The Purpose Driven Life” and one of the most renowned figures in evangelical Christianity, who founded Saddleback in California’s Orange County nearly 43 years ago – before Wood was born. Today, it’s a multi-site ministry reaching about 40,000 people worldwide. Despite the difference in age and experience, what Warren and Wood have in common is their commitment to a global church and nurturing female pastors.

Speaking with The Associated Press, Wood outlined his grand vision to build on Warren’s legacy and take Saddleback to the biggest cities in the U.S. and the world. He said he’ll encourage men and women to preach — an approach at odds with the male-leadership policies of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with which Saddleback has been aligned since its inception.

Wood has also had to deal with allegations of authoritarian leadership and hostile church mergers in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he led Echo Church, a 3,000-strong multi-site congregation, for the past 14 years. He has denied those allegations and was cleared by the search firm that Saddleback retained for the hiring process.

The SBC was one of Echo Church’s supporters, which now adds to the awkwardness of Saddleback’s position on female pastors.

In 2021, Warren ordained three women as pastors, prompting the denomination to consider expelling the megachurch — the second largest in its fold. Warren made an emotional speech in June at the Southern Baptists’ annual convention in Anaheim standing by his ordination of women. He told delegates who debated the issue, “We have to decide if we will treat each other as allies or adversaries.”

Wood told the AP that the Bible “teaches that men and women were given spiritual gifts by God.”

“The church should be a place where both men and women can exercise those spiritual gifts,” he said. “My wife has the spiritual gift of teaching and she is really good. People often tell me she’s better than me when it comes to preaching, and I’m really glad to hear that.”

Wood expressed gratitude for the SBC’s partnership at Saddleback and Echo and hopes that it would continue. He wants to ensure that on his watch, Saddleback “is empowered for men and women to lead.”

“I’m not looking to engage in denominational battles,” he said. “I’d really like to be a unifier of people – to help, love and support pastors in the SBC.”

Wood’s interest in honoring Warren’s legacy is a positive sign, said Scott Thumma, professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace who has studied megachurches.

“Following some of the patterns at other megachurches like having multiple sites and embracing diversity are good steps,” he said. “The key here is to probably not make too many waves right away, but allow the people of Saddleback to know him as a human being.”

He said Saddleback’s relationship with the SBC has been “tenuous at best” because Warren didn’t take an active role in denominational politics.

“I don’t see that changing under the new pastor,” Thumma said. “If anything, SBC needs Saddleback because the denomination has been recording declines for the last 12 years.”

Wood’s easy, welcoming manner and bright smile during sermons are reminiscent of Warren’s iconic preaching style. The new pastor typically sports a goatee, casual clothes and sneakers as he takes the stage.

During a recent 40-minute sermon about courage, Wood seamlessly wove in personal stories, Biblical tales and plenty of humor. He talked about his CrossFit workout with a former Marine. He told the emotional story of how a neighbor first introduced his family to church.

His vision of how to be a pastor, Wood said, comes from how he found faith during a time of family strife – at age 10 when his parents had separated and he was living in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit, with his brother and father, who ran a plumbing business. He began to dream about a church where his friends could go – and be welcomed rather than judged.

In 2004, a year after they married, Andy and Stacie Wood founded Breakthrough Church – their first congregation — on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington. It was there that Wood says he got a feel for “what an ethnically diverse church looks and feels like.”

The couple moved to the Bay Area in 2008 and the next year started the South Bay Church, which later became Echo Church.

At 25, while leading Breakthrough Church, Wood wrote down his plan for a global church that would operate “across continents and metropolitan areas of the world” – cities like Singapore and Dubai. In the U.S., he envisions satellite campuses outside the Bible Belt – from New York and Boston to Seattle, Chicago, Washington and Miami. He sees that plan as a blueprint for Saddleback.

When he passes the baton to his successor in 25 years, Wood wants to see Saddleback represented in at least 15 cities around the world. Wood, who said he was influenced by Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Church,” also wants to build a prayer center and leadership college that will train future pastors.

Philip Pattison, who came to Echo Church in 2015 after his struggling church, Twin Oaks, merged with Echo, described Wood as a man with a grand vision who is “driven and laser-focused.”

“There was also a real tenderness, sincerity and humility to his leadership,” he said.

Pattison, who works for a child-welfare nonprofit affiliated with Echo Church, said he was surprised by allegations about Wood’s authoritarian leadership style and hostile church takeovers. Wood exuded “drive and strength” and expected those around him to share his passion to grow and learn, Pattison said,

But Lance Hough, whose church, Crossroads, began a merger with Echo in early 2020, said Wood was overbearing and didn’t respect the smaller church’s culture and traditions. Hough was a creative arts pastor at Crossroads, which incorporated dance, drama, painting and original videos into its worship.

“When Echo took over, they made it clear there was no desire to do any of that,” Hough said, asserting that the merger destroyed what made his church special. He resigned from Echo in September 2020, citing an unhealthy work environment.

Lori Adams-Brown, a former associate pastor at Echo Church’s Sunnyvale campus, said she felt “belittled, bullied and intimidated” by Wood. She said she and her husband, Jason Adams-Brown, a missions and church planting pastor, were fired last year from Echo Church in retaliation for “calling out (Wood’s) spiritual abuse.”

”He has a persona where he tried to portray he is confident and strong,” she said. “But he loses that confidence if you question him.”

Wood denies these allegations, saying he is “saddened” to hear them. His longstanding goal has been to ensure communities don’t lose their churches. Sometimes, Wood said, that required adjustments so they can survive. He says he has never forced any church into a merger, suggesting that would be akin to forcing someone into a bad relationship.

Saddleback members have been enthusiastic in welcoming Wood. Dan and Marilyn Dunn, who followed Warren’s ministry for 17 years, said Wood is “a breath of fresh air” and a “dynamic” teacher.

“Ours is a multi-generational church,” Dan Dunn said. “And he is a great choice to lead us into the future.”

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.