Evangelical set rules that sealed his fate

November 19, 2006|By New York Times News Service

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- 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 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, Haggard promptly confessed to the ministers - his handpicked board of overseers - that he had engaged in sexual immorality.

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 Haggard gave an interview to a television news crew as he pulled out of his driveway with his wife and three of his children in the car. He denied having sex with the male prostitute and said he had bought methamphetamine but never used it.

"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."

In many ways, 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, 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 Haggard were ever accused of immoral conduct, they would act as judge and jury.

Until the scandal that drove him from the pulpit, 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 built on his charisma.

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 Ware, the senior pastor of Victory Church in Westminster, Colo. "The same bylaws Ted wrote were the same laws by which he was dismissed."

In 20 years, Haggard's overseers had been summoned 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 Haggard embrace a woman who was not his wife. The elders immediately called in the overseers to investigate, and they found that the woman was Haggard's sister.

But the accusations that surfaced on Nov. 1 proved to be much more serious.

The Rev. Tim Ralph, an overseer and the senior pastor of New Covenant Fellowship in rural Larkspur, 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 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, is pastor of a satellite congregation of New Life in Colorado Springs.

The overseers gathered the next afternoon in the offices of the church's lawyer, a bit stunned to be called into action, Ralph said.

They reminded one another that despite their long ties to Haggard, the Bible says they are to judge accusations without partiality. On hand-held computers, they pulled up another piece of Scripture that says two or three witnesses are necessary when determining the guilt of an elder.

They considered the prostitute the first witness. When Haggard confessed that afternoon, he became the second. Within hours, he had resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

The harder decision was whether to dismiss him, but the overseers said Haggard's lie in the television interview had deeply unsettled them.

There are mixed views on how well the overseer system that 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, Calif., said Haggard's accountability structure was a failure. The flaw, he said, was that it provided for intervention only when the pastor was about to fall.

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