In its February meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee deemed six churches to be “not in friendly cooperation” — five for having a female functioning in the office of pastor — including one of the largest churches in the convention, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.
Saddleback hired Andy Wood and his wife, Stacie, as “Pastors Andy and Stacie Wood,” according to the church website, in 2022 as the megachurch’s founding pastor Rick Warren retired.
The SBC Executive Committee did not name the Woods in its decision to deem the church to be not in friendly cooperation.
The recommendation from the SBC Credentials Committee came “on the basis that the church 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.”
Four other churches with women senior pastors were deemed to be not in friendly cooperation by the Executive Committee, in addition to a church that failed to cooperate with the Credentials Committee regarding a sexual abuse allegation against its senior pastor. New Faith Mission Ministry in Griffin, Ga.; St. Timothy’s Christian Church in Baltimore, Md.; Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss.; and Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., were deemed to be not in friendly cooperation because of female senior pastors.
Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Fla., was deemed to be not in friendly cooperation because the church failed to cooperate in resolving concerns regarding an abuse allegation.
Women pastors are contrary to the SBC’s statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. “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 BFM states in Article VI.
Regarding sexual abuse, the SBC Constitution, as amended in 2021, specifies sexual abuse as grounds for a church to be deemed not in friendly cooperation. While the EC mentioned no one at Freedom Church being convicted of the crime, the church was deemed to be not in friendly cooperation for a failure to cooperate with the Credentials Committee’s inquiry.
All six churches have the opportunity to appeal the decision at the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans on June 13-14.
The removal of Saddleback comes nearly a year after the Credentials Committee postponed any action at the 2022 SBC annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., after the church ordained three women as pastors, none of them senior nor campus pastors. Committee Chair Linda Cooper said in Anaheim the committee would defer its recommendation “until clarity is provided regarding the use of the title ‘pastor’ for staff positions with different responsibility and authority than that of the lead pastor.” At that time, Warren was still senior pastor, but had announced his intent to retire.
Warren and his wife, Kay, founded Saddleback in 1980 and have enjoyed widespread success in ministry, including the Celebrate Recovery addiction recovery program in use at numerous Southern Baptist churches, and the Purpose-Driven Life discipleship book and related materials Warren authored. Saddleback had a pre-COVID-19 worship attendance averaging more than 28,000, with 54,365 members at 16 U.S. locations and four international campuses, according to the Annual Church Profile. Saddleback has consistently given $100,000 annually to the SBC Cooperative Program since 2016.
Other women holding the title of pastor at Saddleback are Liz Puffer, pastor of pastoral care; Cynthia Petty, NextGen ministries pastor; and Katie Edwards, student ministries pastor for Saddleback’s Lake Forest campus.
Fern Creek has already stated its intent to appeal the decision. “We do plan to appeal this decision,” said Linda Popham, who has been senior pastor since 1993. “We feel like we are a true Southern Baptist church following the teachings of Jesus. We are saddened by this decision. We as a church have faithfully followed Jesus all these years as a partner with the Southern Baptist Convention.” The church reported undesignated receipts of $467,678 in 2021, and a Cooperative Program contribution of $11,370, according to the Annual Church Profile. Fern Creek lists an affiliation with the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Louisville Regional Baptist Association, with average attendance of 98.
Richard Demsick, appointed lead pastor of Freedom Church in late 2021 or early 2022, told Baptist Press he has cooperated with the SBC and is not aware of any sexual abuse allegations. Demsick described the EC’s action as “disheartening and discouraging,” saying the church was not given due process. He emailed to Baptist Press a Feb. 17 letter addressed to the SBC, the Florida Baptist Convention and the Treasure Coast Baptist Association, stating that allegations the Florida Baptist Convention referenced from the Anglican Church of North America were false.
New Faith Mission Ministry, pastored by Gwennette B. Watson, describes itself as a nondenominational congregation founded in 1999. However, the Annual Church Profile lists scant data on the church as having been founded in 2014. Watson became senior pastor of the congregation after the death of the founding pastor — her husband, Anthony L. Watson Sr. — in April 2018. The church reported an average worship attendance of 60 in 2020, but has not listed a contribution to the Cooperative Program.
St. Timothy’s Christian Baptist Church, pastored by Minnie R. Magee Washington, was in dual cooperation with the SBC and the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland, based on information on the church website and the Annual Church Profile. Washington began leading the church after the death of her husband in July 2020. The church has not reported to the Annual Church Profile since 2006, when it reported 400 members and an average attendance of 275.
Linda Smith became the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in June 2013, according to the church website, and served previously as a youth minister at First Baptist Church of Summit, Miss., and First Baptist Church of Canton, Miss. Smith is a former International Mission Board missionary, according to the church. Calvary reported an average attendance of 110 in 2020, and a Cooperative Program contribution of $2,400 in 2021.
— Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.