Can a fallen pastor ever redeem himself?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Jan. 28 2009 3:40 PM

The Ted Haggard Dilemma

Can a fallen pastor ever redeem himself?

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The searing pain of a minister's betrayal is not an uncommon experience. Haggard won't be the last high-profile pastor, and certainly not the last evangelical minister, to fall from grace in our era. Those sorry future pastors will probably also be encouraged to be spiritually restored. But what will that mean for them? What does a spiritual restoration process look like? More complicatedly, what does it look like for a pastor of Haggard's stature—someone who, at his height, could claim to speak for 30 million evangelicals? We're short of models. For 1980s disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, it was a prison stint, a long confessional book, and a slow return to a modest TV ministry. In Haggard's case, it initially seemed to involve nothing more than tapping recognizable Christian ministers and what he has called "secular" therapy. What else did the church have in mind? What should Haggard, his family, and his former church members have expected?

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One place to look is outside religious ministry and inside British politics, to the famous Profumo Affair. When popular politician John Profumo was caught with a prostitute in 1963, he resigned and withdrew completely from public life. For the rest of his days—he lived until 2006—he did the work of atonement, cleaning toilets, washing dishes, and working with alcoholics in London's East End. Profumo never published a memoir or even granted so much as an interview, even though he once acknowledged "deeply distressing inaccuracies" in reports of his affair.

Before his fall, Haggard always claimed he'd do the same. From time to time over the years, from his pulpit, Haggard would say that if anything ever incapacitated his ability to minister, he hoped he'd just continue to come as a member and volunteer at the church—clean floors, scrub bathrooms. Unfortunately, given allegations of inappropriate behavior between Haggard and a church member, he couldn't be allowed within his church at all. But there were plenty of other options. Every town has an East End.

The problem for people like Ted Haggard—the problem that John Profumo intuited—is that he was in a position of public trust. Once fully lost, that trust can never be fully restored. Robert Downey Jr. can become an A-list actor, ruin himself with drugs, sober up, and become an A-list actor all over again. A businessman, a scholar, or a parent can do something similar. Why can't Haggard? Because his very public career was based on the antithesis of his failures. Downey wants only to be a damn fine actor, and he can be that no matter the content of his character. Haggard wanted to be a minister, a position that makes claims on his behavior—claims that Haggard professed to be equal to. Haggard didn't have to be a big supporter of President Bush, or outspoken against homosexuality, or any of the things that charged his public life. But he did have to have character that was consistent with the values that he so loudly espoused. His life did have to be consistent with what he preached, because preaching is based on public trust within the preacher's community of followers. Integrity is the deal-maker, hypocrisy the deal-breaker.

Most people who fail need only redeem themselves with their most immediate friends and family. They can ask forgiveness of every person they've wounded. How could Haggard ask forgiveness of 30 million—or even the 14,000 members of his former church? Sitting across from Oprah is no substitute for sitting across from those you've hurt. But he can go away quietly, do the work of atonement, and let tales of his renewed life spring up naturally, Profumo-style.

Haggard can't enter a pulpit, and he shouldn't seek to be a spiritual leader, at least not for eons. He can enter a congregation somewhere, and if he wants to do that, he should, as a fellow traveler with other seekers. And that congregation should embrace him. That's what his spiritual restoration would look like.

Patton Dodd is a doctoral candidate in religion and literature at Boston University and author of My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion.