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Saddleback Church appealing its ouster from the Southern Baptists on issue of women pastors

Saddleback Church, the Southern California megachurch founded by best-selling author Rick Warren, is appealing its ouster from the Southern Baptist Convention for having women pastors on staff, according to the denomination.

Saddleback is asking the annual meeting of the SBC, which convenes next month in New Orleans, to overturn a February decision by the denomination's Executive Committee to expel it.

The committee said Saddleback “has a faith and practice that does not closely identify with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith, as demonstrated by the church having a female teaching pastor functioning in the office of pastor.” That was an allusion to Stacie Wood, wife of Lead Pastor Andy Wood, who holds the role of teaching pastor.

The appeal extends the standoff between the nation's largest Protestant denomination and one of its largest, most successful churches.

Saddleback was one of five congregations that the committee ousted over the issue of women as pastors. One of those congregations, Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, is also appealing its dismissal.

Under SBC bylaws, churches can appeal a dismissal by the Executive Committee to the full SBC annual meeting. Monday was the deadline for filing appeals.

The SBC’s statement of faith says that men should be in authority in families and churches. “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture,” the statement says. The SBC is not a hierarchy and can’t tell a member congregation what to do, but it can deem a church to be “not in friendly cooperation with the Convention,” the verbal formulation for ouster.

Saddleback, with multiple campuses across Southern California, had 54,000 members as of 2021, according to its annual membership report to the SBC. It averaged attendance of 28,000.

The standoff began in 2021 when Saddleback announced it was ordaining three women as pastors. After founding pastor Warren retired in 2022, he was succeeded as lead pastor by Andy Wood, whose wife, Stacie Wood, then assumed a role as teaching pastor.

And earlier in May, Saddleback announced that Katie Edwards, one of the three women ordained in 2021, would assume the role of pastor of its flagship Lake Forest campus.

Saddleback did not issue a statement on the appeal this week.

But in a video statement released in March after the Executive Committee vote, Andy Wood said that the church's leaders do interpret the Bible to say that men should be in authority over a church — but that they can authorize women to be pastors. All of the elders at Saddleback are men, he said.

“A man who is an elder can empower women and mobilize women to use their spiritual gifts in the local church,” he said, saying there are examples of this occurring in the Bible.

Fern Creek Baptist Church also sent formal notice to the SBC that it is appealing the decision to oust it. The Rev. Linda Barnes Popham has served as Fern Creek’s pastor since 1993.

“We obviously interpret scripture referring to women in ministry differently than some others in Baptist life,” the church said in an earlier response to the SBC's Credentials Committee, which reviews churches' qualifications and can recommend their dismissal to the Executive Committee. “We are happy to meet with you to further discuss how we feel Jesus has led us to this interpretation.”

Fern Creek said the question of women in ministry should be a “second or third tier issue” on which Baptists can disagree.

Other churches that were ousted in February, and which are not appealing, said they would continue to operate with women as pastors. They include Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi; New Faith Mission Ministry in Griffin, Georgia; and St. Timothy’s Christian Baptist Church in Baltimore.

Also appealing its dismissal on a separate issue is Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Florida. It is disputing the Executive Committee's decision to dismiss it “based on a lack of intent to cooperate in resolving concerns regarding a sexual abuse allegation.” The denomination has been roiled by allegations in recent years of sexual abusers remaining in ministry, prompting the convention to vote for stricter policies.

Freedom Church, in an earlier letter to national, state and local Southern Baptist entities, disputed any allegation of abuse and asked for additional information about the decision.

Warren, author of the widely successful “The Purpose Driven Life,” started Saddleback Church with his wife, Kay Warren, more than four decades ago. With Warren's charisma and easy, informal preaching style, Saddleback eventually attracted tens of thousands and fostered an ambitious plan to expand the church’s reach across Southern California as well as globally — a vision his successor has promised to continue.

David Sons, chairman of the Executive Committee, said this will be the first time any churches have ever appealed their dismissals to the Southern Baptists’ annual meeting. He urged representatives attending the meeting “to be prepared and informed about the process.”

Ed Stetzer, a church-growth expert and professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, said Saddleback succeeded in connecting with the contemporary, casual culture of its surroundings while holding firm to its core beliefs.

“It’ll be the choice of the convention” whether Saddleback still holds essential Southern Baptist beliefs, as it claims to, said Stetzer, a former director of the SBC-affiliated Lifeway.

But if the convention upholds the church's ouster, “it will lose something that Saddleback has brought to the SBC for decades — a vibrancy, a new way of thinking.”

The SBC has been in membership decline for nearly two decades. In statistics released earlier this month by Lifeway Research, the denomination fell to 13.2 million members in 2022. That is the lowest level since the late 1970s, which marked the start of years of doctrinal battles that led to a strong rightward shift in the convention.

Southern Baptists' rate of baptisms — seen by many as a better sign of spiritual vitality than membership — are also in long-term decline despite a small post-pandemic bounce in 2022.

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Reporter Deepa Bharath contributed to this report

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