Saddleback Church stands firmly behind female pastors after SBC expulsion

LAKE FOREST, CA - MARCH 20: A general view of atmosphere during 'The Bible: SON OF GOD Tour 2014' Kick-Off with Mark Burnett, Roma Downey, and Rick Warren at Saddleback Church on March 20, 2014 in Lake Forest, California. (Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/G

The woman pastor at the center of the Southern Baptist Convention's decision to oust Saddleback Church — the California megachurch founded by pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren — says she will continue to serve as a ministry leader despite her longstanding ties to the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

Saddleback has yet to say if it will appeal its expulsion. But at least one other church — a Kentucky congregation ousted the same day for having a woman pastor — plans to do so, guaranteeing Southern Baptists will weigh the issue at their annual meeting in June in New Orleans.

Stacie Wood, teaching pastor at Saddleback and wife of lead pastor Andy Wood, wrote an Instagram post about her church’s ousting. She credited her Southern Baptist upbringing for shaping her faith, but stood firm on heeding her calling despite being "at the center of the discussion."

"I’m serving Jesus under the authority and in alignment with my spiritual leaders," Wood wrote. "We believe that women can be gifted and empowered as teachers and as pastors."

RELATED: 'I walk with God': Mayor Adams dismisses separation of church and state

Her husband told the congregation during weekend services about his plan to release a video explaining the church's position on women pastors. Wood told The Associated Press last year that the Bible "teaches that men and women were given spiritual gifts by God."

"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," he said.

The SBC's statement of faith says that women should not be pastors. 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.

On Feb. 21, the convention’s Executive Committee voted to expel Saddleback, the SBC's second largest congregation, alluding to Stacie Wood "functioning in the office of pastor." It was one of five congregations kicked out for the same issue.

RELTATED: Popeyes brings back seafood classics for Lent observers

One of them, Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, plans to appeal, said the Rev. Linda Barnes Popham, who has served as Fern Creek's pastor since 1993.

She said the congregation wants to continue working with the SBC, regularly uses its religious-education curriculum and supports its missionaries and other causes. At the same time, it believes the larger body of Southern Baptists — not just the Executive Committee — should decide whether to maintain fellowship with churches with women pastors.

"We feel like the average Southern Baptist would have no problem with this," she said. "The other reason is to be a change agent for women in the Southern Baptist Convention — for all those young girls, for all those young people God is calling into ministry."

The other three churches also said they planned to continue with women's leadership but did not indicate they would appeal.

An elder for New Faith Mission Ministry of Griffin, Georgia, said it is nondenominational and never had an affiliation with the SBC, though the convention says its records showed one.

Pastor Minnie R. Washington of St. Timothy’s Christian Baptist in Baltimore said her church has had "no interaction" with the SBC and said it was an honor to be named alongside the other ousted churches.

"Is it possible that the Executive Committee of SBC believes it can tell God who to call to lead His people?" she said via email.

Pastor Linda Smith of Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, a former Southern Baptist missionary, said her church doesn't expect to appeal. "We’re going to press on and do what God calls us to do," focusing on ministry in a needy neighborhood, she said.

Saddleback did not respond to requests for comment regarding a possible appeal.

In an email, Andy Wood told the congregation he would soon release a belief statement about women as pastors.

"God intends for both men and women to exercise their spiritual gifts of shepherding and teaching the church." He also asked them not to speak publicly against the denomination’s decision.

"Though we are disappointed by their decision, we are not offended. We love and have valued our relationship with the SBC and its faithful churches. We will engage and respond through the proper channels at the appropriate time," the email stated.

The Saddleback controversy began in 2021, when Warren ordained three women as pastors, prompting discussions within the SBC about possibly expelling the megachurch. Warren, who retired last year after more than 42 years at Saddleback, made an emotional speech in June 2022 at the Southern Baptists’ annual convention in Anaheim, saying: "We have to decide if we will treat each other as allies or adversaries."

The denomination’s statement of faith was revised in 2000 to state: "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

But opinions have varied on whether this is a litmus test for a church’s alignment with the SBC. The SBC’s constitution allows for the expulsion of churches whose "faith and practice" don’t align with it, though it doesn't specifically name women pastors as cause for removal.

In her Feb. 23 post, Stacie Wood called herself "a Southern Baptist girl born and bred" and expressed gratitude for how those roots shaped her faith. She remains impressed with the SBC's passion for Bible study and missions.

But, in her adult years in ministry, she said, "denominational affiliations haven’t felt like a central component to what we’ve been called to do" including the time when the Woods started and ran Echo Church, a nondenominational church in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"We partnered with Southern Baptists who helped us get started, but we’ve also been delighted to partner with many different church leaders from a variety of denominations to advance the Gospel," she said.

She has received an outpouring of support.

Her husband, replying to her Instagram post, said he was proud of her: "I’m grateful that I get to be part of a generation of leaders who propel sons and daughters forward in the Kingdom!"

Kay Warren, her predecessor and wife of Pastor Rick Warren, also responded supportively: "I love you Stacie! … It’s a privilege to run this race side by side with you!"

Many congregants are backing her, too.

"When Stacie came on board, I remember thinking, ‘Finally, we have a woman pastor,‘" said Charity Hurt, a Saddleback member for seven years. "If that’s what you’re called to do, you should be able to do it."

Hurt said it does not really matter to her whether Saddleback remains in the SBC or not.

"I’m just so happy with the direction in which (the Woods) are taking us," she said, adding that she is not sure if many in Saddleback even know that their church is part of the SBC.

Some are approaching the issue with caution. Kimberly Lattimore, a congregant for 33 years, said she "supports Saddleback 100%," but is eager to hear Andy Wood's reasoning in favor of women pastors and do her own research.

"I have no problem with women being pastors and teaching other women," she said. "But, the question I have is whether women should be teaching men. I'm going to look carefully to see what Bible says."

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.