What can we learn from Pastor Rick Warren’s succession process?

Yesterday (June 2nd, 2002) was a historic day for Saddleback Church and Pastor Rick Warren, as he announced his successor to lead Saddleback Church for the next season, someone named Pastor Andy Wood from Echo Church in San Jose, California. Andy recently spoke at Saddleback Church in March 2022.

There’s a lot of media coverage in the mainstream news outlets, with the help of a professional press release and marketing/ communications staffers, and many words of congratulations on the news, but not a lot of commentary on what all this means or what we can learn. That’ll come soon enough.

In this post, I’m making note of the major things that happened in the pastoral search process that was visible, because a lot of it was not visible in the public eye. Here’s what we do know about what happened from public communications at Saddleback Church over the past year:

Pastor Rick announced his intention for retirement on June 5th, 2021, and asked for the congregation to pray for this pastoral search process.

As a member at Saddleback Church myself, I don’t recall many updates or news about this search process. Some churches have a pastoral search committee with regular updates given during a congregational meeting, or something like that. Some churches have an internal process of leadership development, where pastors are grown from within its existing organizational structure, so that someone who’s already been trained and experienced inside of the organizational culture, would be ready one day to be the successor.

The process at Saddleback wasn’t either of those, and that’s okay. Different churches do things in (very) different ways. I think what we can learn from what Pastor Rick and Saddleback did, is noted in how important he believed succession was:

“[since] no lasting success happens without a successor, I don’t want Saddleback to be a one generation church, like most churches end up being. I believe our best days will always always be in the future if we have the right leadership.. [and] top leaders must be hired based on performance not potential.. because, literally, everybody has potential, everybody that God created has potential, but the leading position needs to be somebody who’s already proven they can do it…”

What was the Saddleback way? I read somewhere that Pastor Rick said that it was his job to find his successor, and the elders’ job was to get the church ready for the successor. And according to this Christian Post article, Pastor Rick was involved in researching about his successor—

He said he “studied, read about, talked with and considered nearly 100 possible candidates for the pastor of Saddleback Church,” before deciding Wood is the right man to lead his high-profile church.

During Easter weekend in April 2022, Pastor Rick announced it was going to be his last Easter message and there would be a successor before the end of the year. (I don’t recall precisely if that was a declaration of faith, or a signal that something was already in motion and he knew something that wasn’t yet ready for public consumption.)

On June 2nd, an emotional Warren announced his selection – church elders confirmed the choice of Wood – during a more than hour-long, all-staff meeting at Saddleback Church Thursday afternoon.

Then the big announcement of the successor was made public. Within a few hours, it had circulated far and wide, in the church email newsletter first, then press releases, news articles, and social media posts. In this situation, the news did not break on Twitter first. A pre-recorded video announcement had comments from Pastor Rick & Kay Warren along with Pastor Andy & Stacie Wood.

What’s next?

More details about the transition and timeline will be shared on this coming weekend’s message on June 4-5. On Father’s Day weekend, June 18-19, Pastors Rick and Andy will have a discussion about the transition timeline. And then—

The couple will attend Saddleback in August during Warren’s final preaching series. Saddleback Church is then expected to celebrate the Warrens’ 43 years of service at Saddleback on the weekend of Sept. 3-4. On the weekend of Sept. 10-11, Wood and his wife will be commissioned into their new roles. Wood’s first official day as the new Senior Pastor of Saddleback will be Sept. 12.

No announcement if there would be a purpose-driven pastoral succession book to be authored. But many will be watching and learning.