Leith Anderson, senior pastor at Eden Prairie's Wooddale Church, whose nearly 5,000 members include Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, announced Wednesday he's retiring after nearly 35 years.

Anderson, 66, said he does not plan to participate in Pawlenty's campaign but will "retain a friendship and perhaps a pastoral role" with the former Minnesota governor. "I'm not going to have a political role or relationship," he said.

"It just seems like the right time [to retire]," he said "I've reached a typical retirement age. Everything is really good at Wooddale Church. It's been a great experience for three and half decades. I'm excited and hopeful for the future of the church. And, I have plenty to do."

Anderson, who will take the title of pastor emeritus, said he will continue to serve as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an influential group that represents more than 45,000 churches with close to 30 million members. His current term with the group ends in 2013.

Anderson, who was appointed earlier this year to President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, also will continue in that role, he said.

He began serving as senior pastor at Wooddale in 1977, when it had about 1,000 members, and helped build it into one of the most prominent megachurches in the country. In addition to its sprawling Eden Prairie campus, Wooddale has a campus in Edina and has established nine more congregations around the Twin Cities and in Nisswa, Minn.

And Anderson extended his own ministry beyond the church with daily radio and television programs, by writing more than a dozen books and teaching in numerous seminaries and by keeping an extensive national and international speaking schedule.

Ties to Pawlenty

But it might be his role as Pawlenty's pastor for nearly 30 years that's brought him the most attention. The former governor wrote in his memoir about growing up in a Catholic family in South St. Paul but later embracing the evangelical faith of his wife, Mary, and of attending Wooddale.

Anderson said he met Pawlenty when he was in law school and officiated at the couple's wedding almost 25 years ago. Pawlenty and his wife still attend Wooddale, "more so than I would have guessed, considering he does so many Sunday morning news shows," he said.

As a man of faith, Anderson said, he's tried to remain politically neutral and has not sought to leverage his position with Pawlenty, although some conservatives have wondered whether Anderson's more moderate stances on such issues as immigration and the environment could turn out to be problematic for Pawlenty.

"I don't want to be a hindrance to him or anybody else," Anderson said. "I certainly have friendly and pastoral relations with the Pawlentys, but I'm also an adviser to President Obama."

The timing of his retirement has nothing to do with Pawlenty's run for the presidency, Anderson said, adding that he decided about a year ago that he would step down as senior pastor at the end of this year.

"I don't have any role in the Pawlenty campaign, and I don't foresee having any role in the campaign," he said.

Finding Anderson's replacement at Wooddale could take as long as two years, he said, adding that he hopes to maintain "an ongoing pastoral relationship at the future invitation of Wooddale elders and the next senior pastor."

Forging ties near and far

Carl Nelson, president of the Greater Minnesota Association of Evangelicals and a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, said Wooddale has thrived under Anderson because he's a "disciplined" leader and charismatic preacher who's mentored countless pastors. Anderson also has a degree in sociology, which Nelson believes has helped him forge close relationships with congregants.

"Leith Anderson's impact, not only on churches in the Twin Cities, but across the nation and throughout the evangelical association, has been tremendous," Nelson said. "He clearly has a very good understanding of people and society and how people think, what they're feeling ... and he's able to apply scripture to modern-day society and make it meaningful and life-giving."

Rose French • 612-673-4352