A Megachurch Tries to Move On

Hag­gard’s Fel­low Min­is­ters Look Back At Warn­ing Signs That Pre­ceded Scan­dal

The Washington Post Sunday - - National News - By Stephanie Si­mon

DEN­VER — They have had four months to re­flect, and the se­nior staff of New Life Church can look back and see the warn­ing signs.

Not one of them sus­pected that their high-profile pas­tor, the Rev. Ted Hag­gard, had se­cretly been visit­ing a male pros­ti­tute. They see now that Hag­gard talked too much about sex, that he could be crudely sug­ges­tive, that he seemed to have a need to push bound­aries.

And that no one called him on any of it.

“His loose dis­cus­sions about sex­u­al­ity might have seemed re­fresh­ingly raw and real, es­pe­cially since church had al­ways been so stuffy and prud­ish in the past,” said Rob Bren­dle, as­so­ci­ate pas­tor of the megachurch in Colorado Springs. “In ret­ro­spect, some of his com­ments and in­ter­ac­tions — that at the time seemed edgy but in­no­cent enough — now seem ques­tion­able.”

A team of pas­tors as­signed to in­ves­ti­gate Hag­gard af­ter he ad­mit­ted in Novem­ber to “sex­ual im­moral­ity” have con­cluded his be­hav­ior went be­yond merely ques­tion­able.

The board of over­seers un­cov­ered a pat­tern of trou­bling be­hav­ior — “ev­ery­thing from sor­did con­ver­sa­tion to overt sug­ges­tions to im­proper ac­tiv­i­ties to im­proper re­la­tion­ships,” the Rev. Larry Stock­still told the New Life con­gre­ga­tion in a Fe­bru­ary re­port.

Stock­still, a Louisiana min­is­ter who serves as a New Life over­seer, would not di­vulge de­tails, but he and the other in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded that Hag­gard — who is in ther­apy and is pre­par­ing to leave Colorado Springs — suf­fered from “ha­bit­ual, life-con­trol­ling prob­lems.”

They called it “a mat­ter of grace” that the pas­tor was caught in his “fi­nal re­la­tion­ship,” with pros­ti­tute Mike Jones of Den­ver.

Jones had come for­ward with al­le­ga­tions that Hag­gard had been pay­ing him for sex reg­u­larly for three years and had used metham­phetamine in his pres­ence. Af­ter Jones pro­duced voice-mail mes­sages from Hag­gard, the pas­tor ad­mit­ted he had vis­ited the pros­ti­tute — only for a mas­sage, he said — and said he had pur­chased drugs but never used them.

He was per­ma­nently re­moved from the lead­er­ship of New Life and re­signed the pres­i­dency of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Evan­gel­i­cals, which rep­re­sents 30 mil­lion Chris­tians.

Shortly af­ter his con­fes­sion, Hag­gard and his wife, Gayle, spent three weeks at a sec­u­lar coun­sel­ing pro­gram in Ari­zona. An­other mem­ber of the church’s board of over­seers, the Rev. Tim Ralph, told a re­porter that Hag­gard emerged from the treat­ment con­vinced “he is com­pletely het­ero­sex­ual.”

Ever since, Hag­gard’s friends and men­tors have been dis­avow­ing that quote.

“The true char­ac­ter­i­za­tion is that Mr. Hag­gard had a weak­ness and he con­tin­ues to work to strengthen him­self,” said the Rev. H.B. Lon­don, a vice pres­i­dent of Fo­cus on the Fam­ily who is work­ing with two oth­ers to help Hag­gard.

Even the most ar­dent pro­po­nents of ther­apy to change same­sex at­trac­tion say it is a life­long strug­gle, de­mand­ing con­stant vig­i­lance and sac­ri­fice — a price that they find rea­son­able to avoid re­la­tion­ships they con­sider sin­ful.

“Ted will need years of ac­count­abil­ity to demon­strate his vic­tory over both ac­tions and ten­den­cies,” Stock­still said in the re­port, which he read aloud to the New Life con­gre­ga­tion.

Hag­gard’s as­so­ciates say he is work­ing dili­gently to­ward that goal. He fol­lows a strict reg­i­men of group ther­apy, fam­ily coun­sel­ing and one-on-one ses­sions with spir­i­tual ad­vis­ers. He has agreed to re­stric­tions on what he watches and reads to try to ban­ish what he has called “re­pul­sive and dark” de­sires.

New Life will con­tinue to pay Hag­gard’s salary of about $130,000 a year through the end of 2007. In ex­change, he has agreed not to talk to the me­dia and to leave town.

Hag­gard and his wife have five chil­dren, two still in school; he has told friends that he wants to move the fam­ily some­where with a low cost of liv­ing, per­haps Iowa or Mis­souri.

“Je­sus is start­ing to put me back to­gether,” Hag­gard wrote in Fe­bru­ary in an e-mail sent to the 14,000 mem­bers of his for­mer con­gre­ga­tion. He and Gayle plan to take on­line cour­ses in psy­chol­ogy, he said, “so we can work to­gether serv­ing oth­ers the rest of our lives.”

Af­ter months of feel­ing “par­a­lyzed by shame,” Hag­gard wrote that he was start­ing to feel hope. As “God and peo­ple like you for­give me,” he wrote, “the sun is start­ing to rise in my life.”

The con­gre­ga­tion that Hag­gard founded in his base­ment — af­ter a vi­sion he had while fast­ing on Pikes Peak — is also reach­ing for re­newal.

Do­na­tions to the church, the largest in Colorado, have dropped about 8 per­cent in the months since the scan­dal. New Life took in $4.9 mil­lion from Novem­ber through Fe­bru­ary, com­pared with $5.3 mil­lion in the same pe­riod a year ear­lier, Bren­dle said.

The drop caused the church to lay off 44 of its 350 work­ers, among them pas­tors, ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tants and child-care providers.

At­ten­dance at New Life is also down, roughly 15 per­cent, Bren­dle said.

But those who have stuck with the church say they have not seen the free fall they feared. The in­terim se­nior pas­tor, Ross Pars­ley, is a familiar face at New Life and has a strong fol­low­ing.

“I look around on Sun­day morn­ings and I don’t no­tice as many empty seats as I would have ex­pected, given what we’ve been through,” said Carol Groes­beck, who sings in the choir.

“There’s still the sense of loss, but there’s also an op­ti­mism that things are go­ing in the right di­rec­tion,” added her hus­band, James.

A “moral au­dit” of the se­nior staff un­cov­ered one other ex­am­ple of un­spec­i­fied sex­ual sin, Bren­dle said. The staff mem­ber in­volved — who led a min­istry for young adults — re­signed. The re­main­ing lead­ers of the church have vowed to hold each other ac­count­able for their words and ac­tions, hop­ing to wipe out what Lon­don called “a cul­ture of en­abling” that fu­eled Hag­gard’s in­dis­cre­tions.

As an ex­am­ple of Hag­gard’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­marks, Bren­dle cited the pas­tor’s boast to a doc­u­men­tary film­maker that “evan­gel­i­cals have the best sex life of any other group.”

In front of the church, with the cam­eras rolling, Hag­gard pulled aside two men from his con­gre­ga­tion and asked how of­ten their wives had or­gasms. The scene was in­cluded in Alexandra Pelosi’s doc­u­men­tary “Friends of God” and is on YouTube.

NEW LIFE CHURCH

The Rev. Ted Hag­gard ad­mit­ted to “sex­ual im­moral­ity” in Novem­ber af­ter a male pros­ti­tute said the pas­tor was a long­time client. Hag­gard is in ther­apy.

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