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EC removes six churches from cooperation including Saddleback Church

NASHVILLE (BP) — In its meeting Tuesday (Feb. 21), the SBC Executive Committee deemed six churches to be not in friendly cooperation—five of whom 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. Freedom Church denied the charge to Baptist Press, pointing to a matter investigated and resolved by the Anglican Church of North America.

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. Fern Creek has already stated its intent to appeal the decision.

“We do plan to appeal this decision,” Fern Creek Baptist Church senior pastor Linda Popham told Baptist Press. “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.”

Fern Creek Baptist Church

Popham has pastored Fern Creek Baptist Church since 1993. 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 on its website, with average attendance of 98.

Saddleback Church

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 of the church, but had announced days before the 2022 Annual Meeting his intent to retire.

Warren and his wife Kay founded Saddleback in 1980 and has 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 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, but does not report its annual undesignated financial receipts.

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, one of 16 U.S. Saddleback sites.

Freedom Church

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 allegation.

“I’m not actually familiar with anyone specifically making any allegations, but any allegations would be false,” Demsick told Baptist Press. “There’s been no sexual abuse, as well as it’s a false accusation that we haven’t been more than ready and willing to cooperate with the Convention, that has been unwilling to actually hear the truth, or find out, or know anything about the details.”

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.

“We cannot state this strongly enough, those allegations are entirely false. Pastor Demsick is not, nor has he ever been a predator or sexual abuser. No one in Pastor Demsick’s ministry has ever accused him or filed any such complaint or allegation against him,” reads the letter signed by Freedom Church’s Board of Elders including Demsick.

Freedom Church has “communicated how open we are,” Demsick told Baptist Press, “and we are a church that is cooperating with all the Convention policies and following all of the Convention’s practices, and have always been so.”

While the Executive Committee did not name the alleged abuser in its decision, the Florida Baptist Convention listed the senior pastor in its decision to disfellowship the church in April 2022. The FBC’s 2021-2022 Guidebook, available online states “the board voted to remove Freedom Church of Vero Beach from fellowship with the Florida Baptist State Convention on the grounds that they have called an individual to the senior pastor role who, after confirming information, was found to be biblically disqualified from ministry as a Southern Baptist pastor. Additionally, at the time, Freedom Church’s local association, the Treasure Coast Baptist Association, was moving forward with disfellowshipping the church.”

New Faith Mission Ministry

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 since the church began reporting in 2014, according to Annual Church Profile data.

St. Timothy’s Christian Baptist Church

St. Timothy’s Christian 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.

Calvary Baptist Church

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. Baptist Press was unable to reach her for comment before publication.