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?

Ted Haggard. Click image to expand.
Ted Haggard

At the height of his powers in 2005-06, Ted Haggard was a poster child for Christian conservatism and an object of liberal fascination. His political power was profiled by Harper's and featured in a string of documentaries— Jesus Camp, Friends of God, and the United Kingdom's The Root of All Evil? But in November 2006, Haggard lost his posts as president of the National Association of Evangelicals and senior pastor of Colorado Springs' New Life Church when a male escort claimed he had known the minister for three years as "Art," a drug user and sex-for-cash client. Haggard admitted to "sexual immorality" and was said to be entering a process of restoration guided by other well-known ministers.

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Two years have gone by with little more than occasional peeps from Haggard, and now he's back in The Trials of Ted Haggard, an HBO film directed by Alexandra Pelosi, a sort of sequel to her Friends of God, that documents Haggard's dreary life in exile—no job, no home, no friends, no ministry. Earlier this week, when CNN's Anderson Cooper interviewed Pelosi, he tried to open with a question about the fallen minister's "spiritual restoration." Pelosi interrupted Cooper before he could finish the question, saying she couldn't speak to Haggard's mental or spiritual condition. Fair enough. But Cooper's question is the right one—for journalists, for Haggard, for his former church, and for countless other congregations that have suffered similar betrayals.

I was Haggard's writer and editor for eight years. When he called me the weekend he was exposed, he sounded like a broken man. He was grateful for a chance to come clean and stop his downward spiral. In those early days, those of us who knew Haggard figured we would come to know the depth of his duplicity—that he'd fess up completely now that he had nothing to lose. In a confession letter, he promised us that he'd be guided "through a program with the goal of healing and restoration for my life, my marriage, and my family."

But Haggard never really came clean. A Colorado Springs TV station reported last week that he had at least one other inappropriate relationship while ministering—this time with a young man who had been an intern at the church. Mike Jones, the male-escort-turned- author, recently posted a YouTube video claiming to know of still "others" who were sexually involved with Haggard. And Haggard certainly hasn't been restored. In February 2007, the Denver Post reported that Haggard "emerged from three weeks of intensive counseling convinced he is 'completely heterosexual.' " Haggard denied making that claim—it was uttered by a New Life Church overseer—but his therapy never went beyond those three weeks at an Arizona treatment center. A year later, after Haggard caused a stir by sending a fundraising e-mail, his former church rebuked him publicly and officially released him from any restoration program without describing the nature of the program or how much Haggard had completed.

And now Haggard is back, telling Oprah Winfrey and Larry King that he's confused about his sexuality and accusing his former church of telling him to "go to hell." In his interviews, Haggard has ranged from humility and self-deprecation to wondering aloud how Christians can be so mean and claiming that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, mother of Trials of Ted Haggard director Alexandra, sent him words of encouragement during his time in exile. (Pelosi's office denied that claim.)

Haggard has complained to some of his old friends, including me, that if he had been a CEO instead of the senior pastor of a church, he would have been back at work in one month. New Life Church needed to protect itself and had to shun one of its own in order not to expose itself to financial ruin in the form of fleeing members. Haggard has complained, and now has Alexandra Pelosi complaining for him, that New Life Church refused to do the main thing churches are designed to do: forgive.