From The New York Times November 19, 2006
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
COLORADO SPRINGS, Nov. 15 — The four ministers who assembled here two weeks ago to decide the fate of the Rev. Ted Haggard were facing a painful choice.
A male prostitute had accused Mr. Haggard, one of the nation’s most prominent evangelical ministers, of engaging in a three-year affair with him and of using drugs. Then, in a private emergency meeting, Mr. Haggard promptly confessed to the ministers — his handpicked board of overseers — that he had engaged in sexual immorality.
Now, the question was, what punishment did Mr. Haggard deserve? The board had two options: discipline him or dismiss him as senior pastor of New Life Church. Could he take a leave of absence, repent, receive spiritual counseling and return to ministry?
The answer became clear the next morning, the overseers said, when Mr. Haggard gave an interview to a television news crew as he pulled out of his driveway with his wife and three children in the car. He denied having sex with the male prostitute, and said he had bought methamphetamine but never used it. The overseers said they watched Mr. Haggard, affable as ever, smile grimly into the television camera and lie.
“We saw this other side of Ted that Friday morning,” said the Rev. Michael Ware, one of the overseers. “It helped us to know whether this would be a discipline or a dismissal.”
The Rev. Mark Cowart, another overseer, agreed. “It was a defining moment.”
In many ways, Mr. Haggard had sealed his fate long before the driveway interview by establishing a mechanism for accountability in his church that gave a committee of his peers ultimate authority to remove him. Years ago, Mr. Haggard had asked four of his closest friends, all senior pastors of their own churches, to serve as a board of overseers. They had only one function: if Mr. Haggard was ever accused of immoral conduct, they would act as judge and jury.
Until the scandal that drove him from the pulpit, Mr. Haggard appeared to be a responsible steward and chief executive of New Life Church and the adjoining World Prayer Center — an evangelical empire that he built from nothing on a bare plateau with sweeping views of the Air Force Academy and Pikes Peak. He was sovereign over a 14,000-member church that answered to no denomination and was in many ways built on his charisma.
Mr. Haggard spelled out his system of checks and balances in bylaws that independent churches in the United States and overseas have adopted as a model. “All of our bylaws are really set up to protect our churches from us,” said Mr. Ware, the senior pastor of Victory Church in Westminster, Colo. “The same bylaws Ted wrote were the same laws by which he was dismissed.”
Unlike the televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, who became mired in sexual and financial scandals in the 1980s, Mr. Haggard’s case was decided by his board with a haste that stunned many church members and employees.
“To watch his whole world evaporate in less than 24 hours is one of the most humbling and God-fearing experiences I’ve ever encountered,” Mr. Ware said in an interview over a motel breakfast of little but coffee with two other overseers.
Mr. Haggard could not have picked overseers with more potential conflicts of interests. Mr. Haggard, Mr. Ware and the Rev. Larry Stockstill started in ministry together 28 years ago in Baker, La., at Bethany World Prayer Center, where Mr. Stockstill is now the senior pastor.
Another member of the board, the Rev. Tim Ralph, the senior pastor of New Covenant Fellowship in rural Larkspur, has known Mr. Haggard since he founded New Life Church in his basement 21 years ago. Mr. Ralph’s son was a sound technician at New Life for six years.
Three of the overseers have their own boards of overseers at the churches they pastor, and Mr. Haggard was on all of them.
In 20 years, Mr. Haggard’s overseers had been summoned only once, to investigate an accusation of sexual impropriety that turned out to be a misunderstanding, overseers and staff members said. A church member reported to the elders in 2001 that he had seen Mr. Haggard in the church offices embracing a woman who was not his wife. The elders immediately called in the overseers to investigate, and they found that the woman was Mr. Haggard’s sister.
But the accusations that surfaced on Nov. 1 proved much more serious.
Mr. Ralph said the accusations left the overseers “holding nitroglycerine” in one hand. In the other hand, he said, they held “some very valuable life to the body of Christ,” referring not only to Mr. Haggard, but also to his wife, Gayle, who directed women’s ministries at New Life Church, and their five children, ages 13 to 25. The Haggards’ eldest son, Marcus, pastors a satellite congregation of New Life in downtown Colorado Springs.
The overseers gathered the next afternoon in the offices of the church’s lawyer, a bit stunned to be called into action, said Mr. Ralph, who likened the assignment to his second job as a firefighter.
“You don’t want to take the trucks out,” he said, “you want to keep shining the trucks.”
They reminded one another that despite their long ties to Mr. Haggard, the Bible says they are to judge accusations without partiality. On handheld computers, they pulled up another Scripture that says two or three witnesses are necessary when determining the guilt of an elder.
They considered the prostitute the first witness. When Mr. Haggard confessed that afternoon, he became the second. Within hours, he had resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
“He made it easy on us,” said another overseer, the Rev. Mark Cowart, the senior pastor of Church for All Nations in Colorado Springs. “We didn’t have to sort through everything.”
Mr. Ware said Mr. Haggard told them: “Ninety-eight percent of what you knew of me was the real me. Two percent of me would rise up, and I couldn’t overcome it.”
The harder decision was whether to dismiss him, but the overseers said Mr. Haggard’s lie in the television interview had deeply unsettled them. When they informed Mr. Haggard of their decision on Saturday, they said, he told them they had done the right thing.
The overseers also believed that Mr. Haggard needed more counseling, oversight and accountability than they could provide. They asked three of the country’s most renowned evangelical leaders — the Revs. Jack Hayford and Tommy Barnett and Dr. James Dobson — to serve as a “restoration team.” Dr. Dobson, the founder of the Focus on the Family ministry, soon excused himself, saying he could not devote adequate time and attention. He was replaced by the Rev. H. B. London Jr., a Focus on the Family vice president who runs a division that counsels clergy members and churches.
Mr. London said it could take at least three years before a fallen minister was “restored” to “spiritual, emotional and physical health,” with no assurance he could return to ministry.
He said Mr. Haggard’s former congregation had rallied around him, and church officials said they were negotiating a generous severance package.
There are mixed views on how well the overseer system Mr. Haggard put in place worked.
“From what I can tell, it was handled very well,” said Mark A. Noll, a historian at the University of Notre Dame who studies evangelicals. “If the accountability procedure is real, as this one seems to have been, it works well.”
But Eddie Gibbs, a professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calf., said Mr. Haggard’s accountability structure was a failure. The flaw, he said, was that it provided for intervention only when the pastor was about to crash and burn, rather than establishing a process to check on him routinely to prevent such an outcome.
“You’ve got to have the kind of people who will ask the awkward questions about every area of life,” Mr. Gibbs said, especially if for a high-profile pastor in a large church.
In the New Life executive suites, the Rev. Rob Brendle, Mr. Haggard’s young associate pastor, who said he had thought of himself as “Ted’s Karl Rove,” said he was so traumatized he could not yet ask himself if had seen signs of Mr. Haggard’s double life. But Mr. Brendle said he was comforted by the smooth handling of the crisis.
“I want everyone to see how evangelical Christians respond during adversity, and how we treat our wounded,” he said. “We aren’t interested in kicking someone to the curb when he shames our movement. We are committed to serving him.”
Last week, a young man working at the cafe of the World Prayer Center stripped Mr. Haggard’s books off a shelf. Mr. Brendle said he had approved the purge of books and of the sermon archives on the Web site because he did not want people “looking for clues.”
In his book “Foolish No More,” Mr. Haggard wrote that lying about a sexual affair produces “the stinking garbage of a rotting sin.”
“If a church leader sins,” he warned, “everyone within the church’s influence pays.”