November 2006 may have been the toughest month in 20 years for American evangelicals. One of our brightest stars fell. As president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Ted Haggard was assertive and winsome in representing the convictions of 30 million evangelicals in the halls of political power. He was thoughtful and unpredictable in his desire to build partnerships and embrace broad issues of social concern.
As pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Haggard was a committed charismatic, who reflected the respect Spirit-filled believers are being granted in wider evangelical circles.
But he was also a deeply flawed man, who hid a dark secret none of us could have imagined. His fall from grace raises the same questions that surface whenever the hidden failures of a high-profile leader are made public.
Although even the most elaborate accountability processes can be circumvented, could this situation have been avoided? Are there patterns of behavior that should serve as warning signs to church leaders and their congregations? Are the "superstar" positions of power and influence that characterize 21st-century evangelicalism too much for any man or woman to handle without cracking under the pressure and succumbing to their worst flaws? How does the church regain credibility when its own spokespeople seem to be strangely vulnerable to the very sins that it so vigorously condemns?
In the days following Haggard's admission and removal from leadership, Ministry Today talked with some of the leaders involved—as well as others who have navigated the waters of failure, discipline and restoration. Although many were unable to go on the record with more details than have already been covered ad nauseam in the media, several key observations distill that demand a shift in the way we deal with prevention, discipline and restoration in the wake of a moral failure.
At a time when some Christian organizations possess influence and notoriety on a level with Fortune 500 companies, the days of family-run ministries with secretive policies and no outside accountability have officially run their course. If anything, the Haggard scandal revealed the necessity of efficient, open processes of addressing ethical and moral accusations.
Perhaps wearied of denials and top-secret investigations that last for months with no substantive conclusion, commentators in the media seemed almost incredulous with how quickly the wheels of truth began to turn when allegations about Haggard first broke.
Within 72 hours, a megachurch pastor and one of the most influential evangelicals in America was exposed, unseated and placed in restoration. The bottom line? Every leader, no matter how powerful, should serve at the behest of an independent board of directors that has the power and fortitude to act quickly and decisively.
Unfortunately, the oversight for many prominent churches and ministries is left in the hands of employees and family members, leaving an organization vulnerable to accusation with no independent means of clearing its reputation.
For instance, in 1998, when a former Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) employee threatened to go public with his claim to have had a homosexual relationship with TBN founder Paul Crouch, rather than have the TBN board (composed of Paul, his wife, Jan, and his son Paul Jr.) investigate the claim and clear his name, Crouch paid the accuser $425,000 in hush money. Unfortunately, when the money ran out, the accuser came back in 2004 asking for $10 million more. When he didn't get it, he took his story to the Los Angeles Times.
For members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), this is a non-issue. The ECFA has stringent requirements for entry—one of which is that "every member organization shall be governed by a responsible board of not less than five individuals, a majority of whom shall be independent, which shall meet at least semiannually to establish policy and review its accomplishments."
Although some leaders Ministry Today spoke with cited the stringent and costly membership standards of the ECFA, one need not join the ECFA to enjoy a comparable level of security and accountability. Any ministry could create its own structure of accountability by appointing an outside board and making its financial activities public.
Although not a member of ECFA, New Life Church had policies written into its bylaws, prescribing a process of investigation and, if necessary, discipline in the event that allegations were made against the church's leadership.
Thomas Gehring is a Los Angeles-based attorney for several megachurches and national ministries. Also the founder of Concilium, a dispute resolution service, he notes that, although state laws usually require a nonprofit organization to be governed by an independent board (no more than 49 percent family members, employees and so on), these same laws do not apply to churches.
However, Gehring emphasizes the importance of an independent board to the ministries he counsels and dispels the myth that such a board puts a crimp on the effectiveness of a visionary leader.
"I've seen an independent board actually help a ministry grow. It's an integral part of church government and church growth," he explains. "The talent that you can bring to a board is just phenomenal."
Regardless of the legal loopholes that allow churches to avoid having an independent board, Gehring points out that the public has high expectations of churches and religious organizations.
"The government, judges and juries expect you as a religious organization to take the high road," he contends. "You're supposed to do even better than just adhering to the law."
These internal policies are worthwhile, not just for ethical reasons, but for legal protection, as Pasadena, California, pastor Ché Ahn discovered. Ahn leads Harvest Rock Church and is the founder of Harvest International Ministry (HIM), a network of 4,960 churches in 32 nations. In 2004, Ahn was faced with a crisis when one of the pastors he oversaw was exposed in ongoing homosexual behavior. When HIM attempted a process of discipline, the organization was sued.
"The sad thing was that the lawsuit essentially short-circuited the restoration process," he notes, "because we had to delegate it to someone else."
The incident prompted Ahn and his team of 23 apostles to tighten up restrictions for membership and ongoing accountability. New applicants for HIM membership must now complete a form drafted by an attorney clearly stating that HIM has the right to exercise discipline in the event of sexual immorality, financial impropriety or doctrinal heresy.
As Ahn discovered, when a ministry's bylaws do not account for potentialities such as moral failure, that ministry is at the mercy of the offending party, who may see an opportunity to drag an organization into a costly and demoralizing court battle. In the current litigious climate, churches are not immune to the attacks of predatory lawyers and embittered constituents, and ministries would do well to re-examine their policies for hiring, firing and disciplining employees.
But some leaders point out that these mechanistic policies—although worthwhile—do not address the root causes of sexual failure that lead to such disciplinary problems in the first place.
"The church has fallen into a false naivete," says Doug Weiss, an author and counselor specializing in sex addiction. "We're still holding pastors to a 17th-century standard of purity, while they're living in a culture of immorality."
Increasingly isolated ministers in an increasingly sexualized culture is a volatile combination, Weiss argues.
"Ministers tend to get caught before they actually admit to sexual addiction," he notes. "And we have not dealt with increasing problems of this among our leaders much better than the Catholic Church and its abuse scandals. Instead, we should be dealing with sexual sin when its small—before it leads to death."
The founder of Heart to Heart Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, Weiss attends New Life Church and is involved in Haggard's restoration process, but he declined to comment on the specifics of the process for reasons of confidentiality. However, he regularly consults with ministers battling sex addiction—as well as the churches they serve—and contends that as many as 50 percent of Christian men are sex addicts in some form or another.
Weiss' solution? Lie detector tests. The psychologist recommends that churches administer them to employees annually as a further incentive to keep pastors and church leaders pure. According to Weiss, sex addicts will not apply for positions that require polygraphs, for fear of being exposed. Additionally, polygraphs help churches effectively restore and monitor staff members struggling with sex addiction.
"If the church is sued for the sexual problems of a staff member, this allows churches to legitimately say to the public, 'We've done our due diligence,'" Weiss notes. "If evangelicals do not decide to be proactive about our leaders and the issue of sex addiction, and perform due diligence in whom we hire as ministers of the gospel, there is a legitimate concern that God will have lawyers help us do so."
Weiss admits that some see polygraph tests as merely a mechanism for changing behavior, not for transforming the hearts of sex addicts, In response, he cites Numbers 5:11-30 in which God instructs the Israelites on how to determine the guilt or innocence of a suspected adulteress by having her drink a potion of water and altar ashes. Sometimes its these practical measures that protect us from spiritual downfalls, he argues.
"Spiritual people fall every day. In Revelation and in 1 Corinthians, there were people who were loving the Lord and people who were immoral, martyrs and sinners side by side," he explains. "The polygraph helps kill the flesh."
As far as concerns about the reliability of polygraph tests, Weiss quips, "They are 98 percent reliable—100 percent more reliable than most sex addicts I know."
Although polygraphs can serve as an effective preventative measure against sexual sin, Weiss notes that our individualistic models of ministry are essentially a breeding ground for immoral conduct.
"Jesus sent the disciples out two by two," Weiss points out, noting that this was probably not just for reasons of friendship or camaraderie, but also for protection against sin. "That was a good policy—not one that suspects everyone is guilty, but one that protects them from becoming so."
As a useful guideline, Ahn cites the "Modesto Manifesto," a document Billy Graham and his team of evangelists drafted in 1948 addressing the dangers of sexual immorality, criticism of local churches and exaggerated publicity. One well-known guideline in the manifesto required Graham to be accompanied at all times by a fellow male minister, to protect from accusation and ensure accountability.
"However, no matter what systems you've set up, you can find loopholes," Ahn notes. "Even if you travel with someone or someone always knows where you are. The real issue is the root issue of the heart. The root cause is pride, arrogance, thinking we're above this."
If anything, the Haggard fall illustrates that every pastor needs someone to whom he can tell his darkest secrets, his most destructive inclinations, his most painful failures. It is in the shadows of secrecy that we are vulnerable to our own depravity—secrecy that is often cultivated by the distance our positions create.
Although he has no means of enforcing it in HIM, Ahn encourages leaders in his network to have at least one person with whom they can have total freedom—a confessor. Ahn emphasizes that these voluntary decisions to be accountable must be made when someone is less prominent, less successful and has less to lose.
For many pastors, this level of transparency is essentially nonexistent, as a July 10, 2006 Barna Group study reveals. Sixty-one percent of pastors say they have no close personal friends. Simultaneously, the survey reveals that "one-sixth of today's pastors feel under-appreciated. Pastors also deal with family problems: one in every five contends that they are currently 'dealing with a very difficult family situation.' "
Many argue that this combination of isolation and deep spiritual and family challenges so common in church leaders is essentially a recipe for disaster. The only solution: deliberate, voluntary, relational transparency.
In the sidebar " 'I Was There' " (page 24) former Pentecostal pastor Nate Larkin reinforces this principle of mutual transparency in an autobiographical account of his own sexual failure in the mid-'80s and the subsequent decades of recovery.
"This is what I have had with another brother for 27 years," Ahn notes. "We share everything, from when we slip and watch something on television we shouldn't to blowing it with masturbation. It's that kind of transparency that we need to have with someone else."
With the exception of Haggard's family, no one felt the pain of his failure more than the New Life Church family, who endured the probing questions of media and neighbors wondering how they could put faith in such a flawed person.
Ministry Today recently talked with Steven Todd, a former pastor, New Life member and executive director of special projects for Africa Ministries Network, a missions organization with offices in Colorado Springs.
Todd is hopeful that the church will recover from the blow of Haggard's failure, citing the swiftness and finality with which Louisiana pastor Larry Stockstill and others on the board of overseers dealt with the accusations.
"It saved the church from weeks of 'he said she said' and a growing polarization of sides—perhaps those who would have been 'pro-Ted' and those against him," he explains, describing the discipline process as an "amputation," a drastic act bringing health to the congregation.
In hindsight, Todd admits that Haggard's notoriety placed undue strain on the congregation—and on Haggard himself.
"Lots of us began to tire just a bit from the constant presence of TV cameras in the sanctuary from CNN and other news outlets," he notes. "But quite frankly, Ted seemed to be handling it in stride. A joke around the church prior to the fall was, 'What is the acronym for Attention Deficit Disorder? Answer: TED.'"
In the weeks following the crisis, Todd notes that the church staff at New Life has been proactive about communicating with New Life's hundreds of small groups, providing them with information as it becomes available and encouraging discussion and healing. While no church can be entirely prepared for the implosion of its leader, Todd emphasizes the benefit of strong structures and decisive action when such a failure occurs.
"The key to all this has been honesty—from the leadership, in particular," he explains. "We can't shove it under the carpet or blame the devil. We have to face it head on. The presence of the overseer board, particularly Larry Stockstill, is extremely significant. We felt that we were not 'alone' and it provided a ballast for the congregation."
A RENEWED VOICE
Admittedly, the failure of Haggard was a tough blow to those who appreciated the fresh manner in which he engaged political leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Haggard avoided the combative rhetoric that characterized conservative Christianity for the last 25 years, and he was frequently quoted in national media as the voice of American evangelicalism. In retrospect, perhaps we put all our eggs in one basket.
Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in the Orlando, Florida, area, serves on the board of directors of the NAE. He notes that this tendency to let someone else speak on our behalf is natural—and biblical—but that it does not negate the responsibility of local leaders and individuals to initiate direct communication with their representatives.
"We will always appreciate and look for a natural leader or spokespersons," he notes. "Teams and individuals do not replace the need for a go-to leader. Nowhere in the Old or New Testaments was much progress made without a leader stepping up to the task."
At the same time, some have suggested that Haggard's prominence was something of an anomaly created by the convergence of an evangelical in the White House, a Republican Congress, a war with Islamic extremists and the growth of the megachurch movement—phenomena that may be drawing to a close with the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 and the election of a new president in 2008. With this in mind, Haggard's departure reinforces the need for a variety of voices—each emphasizing different biblical concerns.
"The voices will become more sophisticated and focused, not unlike how the major channels have given way to the cable competition. There is not only FOX News, but also the History Channel, movie channels and so on," Hunter predicts. "So there will be different groups of Christians more focused on specific concerns. But what will not change is the requirement for a biblical basis for our voices and votes."
For better or for worse, the shepherding of this voice is ultimately in the hands of flawed human beings—whose lives sometimes contradict the very values they espouse. Far from an excuse to stop speaking, this factor emphasizes the need for leaders to build walls of protection and networks of accountability to protect the integrity of our voice. The world is watching. God is watching. Where do we go from here?
Confessions of a former Pentecostal preacher with a secret too big to hide.
The "Ted Haggard affair" triggers a flood of memories for me—taking me back to 1988, when Jimmy Swaggart, who described Jim Bakker as "a cancer on the body of Christ" the year before, is in the spotlight and looking mighty uncomfortable. A private detective had photographed him leaving a motel in Metairie, Louisiana, with a prostitute. Now the prostitute is talking. The whole world, it seems, is talking. Swaggart starts crying. I'm experiencing feelings of anger, sadness and embarrassment, but mostly I am feeling relief. At least it wasn't me.
I had bailed out of the ministry the year before, during the PTL scandal, resigning my pulpit and fleeing to the anonymity of civilian life. The official reason for my early retirement: I was burned out. The real reason: I was hooked on porn and prostitutes. The contradiction between my professional life and my secret life was killing me, and I was terrified by the prospect of getting caught.
Ever since adolescence, I had wrestled in vain against the unspeakable power of sexual fantasy. I hated the things it made me do and I hated myself for doing them, but I found that I could not hate my sin or hate myself enough to stop. Well, that's not exactly true. I could stop. I just couldn't stay stopped for very long.
I'd tried all the remedies I knew. I'd repented ad nauseam, forswearing illicit sex until I couldn't bring myself to mock my Maker with another empty promise. I'd prayed until my knees hurt, studied until my head swam, memorized Scriptures and repeated them like the rosary. I'd sought counseling. I'd submitted to prayer for deliverance. I'd even confessed to my wife. Each new effort brought some temporary relief, but my hopes for sexual integrity were always dashed eventually.
Through all the moral turmoil, I managed to keep my public persona intact. You could call me a hypocrite, I guess, but a hypocrite is not sincere, and I did have a sincere desire to honor God and obey His law. I loved God—I really did. I just seemed incapable of remaining true to Him, and I knew that sooner or later my failures would be found out. As a professional minister I was riding a train toward disaster. When I turned 30, the train slowed down a little, and I jumped off.
I told myself that life would improve after I'd left the ministry, but my duplicity actually deepened. The arrival of the Internet fueled my secret life. Cyber fantasies, once entertained, were never content to linger in the realm of imagination for very long. They campaigned relentlessly for a taste of reality. I succumbed to their demands in stages, walking toward Sodom one step at a time.
I almost always walked alone. Occasionally I worked up the courage to tell another Christian—usually a minister—about my battles, but I was careful to approach the subject elliptically, talking mostly in code. The guy would listen sympathetically, pray for me in pastoral tones, and give me the same advice I'd dispensed to parishioners for years.
He might offer to serve as an "accountability partner," but that arrangement never worked very well for me. I'd give the guy permission to ask me the hard questions, but I'd resent him when he did. Then, when the old compulsion returned, I'd start lying to him.
My closest friend—OK, my only friend—was my wife, Allie. God gave me a truly exceptional woman. For years, she was the only person on Earth who knew what a loser I was and loved me anyway. Allie was safe. She bore up bravely under the weight of each confession, but my betrayals wounded her deeply, and after awhile I couldn't bear to hurt her any more.
During the darkest years of my life, I begged God time and again for a private solution to my private problem, but He never gave me one. Today, I'm glad He didn't. Today, I can finally see a purpose in His apparent passivity. My weakness, which the enemy intended to use for evil, God was determined to use for good.
God had not afflicted me, but He had decided not to remove my affliction. He loved me too much to remove from my life the one lever big enough to force me out of isolation and into honest relationships with other disciples. In the end, I found victory over my sin by surrendering not just to Christ, but also to the body of Christ.
Ever since I was a kid, I had been under the false impression that my core relationship with Christ was not only personal—it was private. And when I entered the ministry, privacy became a practical necessity. As pastor, I was the guy with the answers, the guy who had his act together. Sure, I could remind my congregation from time to time that "I'm not perfect," but the only sins I could safely acknowledge were misdemeanors such as grouchiness and speeding. I was their solitary hero, a solo disciple, an inspiration to the weak and discouraged. I was a shepherd, no longer a sheep.
Here's the problem. Judging from the New Testament, Jesus isn't very interested in solo disciples. He first said "Follow Me" to two guys, not just one—and to them He quickly added 10 more. They followed Him together for two years, as a team, while He taught them how to love one another. When He sent them out to teach and heal, He sent them out in pairs. At the end of His ministry, as He was preparing to return to His Father, Jesus assured His disciples that He would still be with them, but under very strictly defined terms. "Whenever two or three of you are gathered in My name," He said, "I'll be there."
Think about it. The distinction is lost in English, but virtually all of the promises and commandments of the New Testament were written in the plural. The church, Paul says, is not a loose federation of self-sufficient individuals. It is a body, a living, breathing organism, whose members are so closely connected that they can only move together. Biblical Christianity—the faith that actually works—is not private at all. No, biblical Christianity is a collaborative enterprise. It is a team sport, not an individual event.
Today, my life is rich beyond description. Allie and I are still married, and we're happier than ever. She's still my best friend, but my wife is no longer my only friend. I now have dozens of deep friendships with brothers in Christ. Most of them are members of a group called the Samson Society. My friends in the Samson Society know my story—the worst of it, anyway—and they still treat me with respect.
There are six guys in the group who know my whole story, and I keep them updated on a weekly basis. One of them has agreed to serve as my Silas, and I keep him updated daily. Sometimes, when I'm feeling especially vulnerable, I'll call him several times in a single day. Most of my comrades in the Samson Society have been driven to the fellowship by the consequences of isolation. Most of them aren't addicted to sex and some of them don't seem to be addicted to anything, but that doesn't matter. I now know that sex was never really my problem. It was merely my favorite solution.
For years, I used the mood-altering properties of sex to medicate the pain caused by my real problems, deeper issues which, as it turns out, are common to man. These are the things my brothers and I discuss every day: pride, fear, unbelief, resentment, self-pity and the like. And more than our sins, we talk about the Solution, reminding each other daily of our high calling and the power and beauty of the gospel. We carry one another's burdens, and we call forth one another's glory.
When I die, Allie won't have to scramble to find six guys to carry my casket. I'll be carried in death by the same guys who are carrying me in life. They are carrying me and I am carrying them, and the indwelling Christ is carrying us all.
Looking into the tortured face of Ted Haggard, I can't help but wonder, Where were his brothers? Where are they now?
Nate Larkin is founder of the Samson Society (samson society.org) and the author of the new book, Samson and the Pirate Monks.