A Megachurch Tries to Move On
Haggard’s Fellow Ministers Look Back At Warning Signs That Preceded Scandal
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.
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.