American minister’s church wrestles with his fall

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado: Long before the first tissue boxes were passed down the aisles for mopping tears, and before the first guitar chords were struck to begin the worship, many of the thousands of people who gathered on Sunday morning at the New Life Church here knew that it would be a service unlike any other in their lives.

Some were curious outsiders, drawn by the moment and the sense of history. Even church leaders were not fully sure what to expect.

“We’re living this in real time,” said Rob Brendle, an associate pastor, as he bustled through the 14,000-member evangelical church making last-minute preparations for the 9 a.m. service.

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By then, the news was less than 24 hours old that the church’s founder and senior pastor, Ted Haggard, a prominent author and national evangelical Christian leader, had been dismissed by the church’s Board of Overseers for “sexually immoral conduct.”

A male prostitute in Denver said in a radio interview on Wednesday that Haggard had been a monthly customer and a buyer of methamphetamines. Haggard issued denials, but by Saturday the brief, explosive standoff was over. The board members had heard enough – mostly from Haggard himself, they said at Sunday’s service – to justify his removal.

What was left for Sunday was to begin sorting the tangled skein of spiritual and political implications, betrayal, anguish, anger and sadness that the episode left behind in the church and across the evangelical world. Speakers urged the church’s members to find a way forward without recrimination or bitterness; a letter from Haggard was read from the 8,000-seat auditorium’s center stage.

Haggard’s letter said that people should forgive the Denver man who broke the story, Michael Jones, in particular – though Jones was not referred to by name.

“He is revealing the deception and sensuality that was in my life,” Haggard wrote. “Those sins, and others, need to be dealt with harshly. So forgive him, and actually, thank God for him.”

Neither Haggard in his letter, nor the board members who spoke in the service, specified precisely what Haggard’s transgressions had been.

“The accusations that have been leveled against me are not all true,” Haggard wrote, “but enough of them are true that I have been appropriately and lovingly removed from ministry. I am so embarrassed and ashamed. I caused this and I have no excuse. I am a sinner. I have fallen.”

Many church members interviewed after the service praised the board for acting so quickly and decisively. Others said the service left them with a new understanding of why many of Haggard’s sermons had been so powerful: his talk of temptation, sin and guilt were not just idle words.

“He struggled with the same issues he preached about,” said Basil Marotta, who said he ran his own Christian ministry in the Colorado Springs area with his wife.

It was not until a letter was read from Haggard’s wife, Gayle, that the tissue boxes were really needed. Haggard was deeply involved with the various women’s groups and classes at New Life Church. She wrote that she loved her husband, with whom she has five children, and would stick with him.

And what Haggard wrote next received a big and wrenching laugh from the crowd:

“For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties, know that this will never again be the case,” she wrote.

One woman who came to a New Life service for the first time on Sunday said she was drawn by what she believed would be a positive discussion in the church, going forward from here, about sexual addiction. The woman, who asked that she be identified only as Margaret, said that her husband and father were sex addicts who had shattered their families with affairs. She said she hoped that the church’s healing from Haggard’s plight would make it a place of healing for people like her.

“I’ll be back, definitely,” she said.

New Life’s interim senior pastor, Ross Parsley, told the church members that for all the difficulty that lay ahead of them and any despair they might feel right now, they should remember that Haggard’s departure had also cleared out a cloud that, in retrospect, had been hanging over the church because of the pastor’s secrets.

Haggard, in addition to his prominent role in Colorado, was also the president of the National Association of Evangelicals until his resignation last week. The group announced on Sunday that Leith Anderson, a well-known author and senior pastor of the Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn., had been named interim president.

“We all feel worse today than we did a week ago,” Parsley said, “but we were worse off a week ago. Pastor Ted is living in a greater measure of repentance and forgiveness today than he has been living in for years.”

Other speakers urged the congregation not to look for political conspiracies. If the timing of the disclosures affects the nation, or the election on Tuesday, then that is God’s will, the speakers said. Haggard was a prominent supporter of conservative causes, including a proposed amendment to the Colorado Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

“God does things when he thinks they’re appropriate,” said Larry Stockstill, the pastor of the Bethany World Prayer Center in Louisiana, from which the New Life Church began in 1985 as an outreach mission.

“What’s going to happen in the nation?” Stockstill said. “You know what – I don’t think that’s your concern or mine. He chose this incredibly important time for this sin to be revealed and I actually think it’s a good thing – I believe America needs a shaking, spiritually.”

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