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.

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.

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?

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.

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