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The Trials of Ted Haggard

I watched the HBO documentary “The Trials of Ted Haggard,” produced by Alexandra Pelosi, (daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) Thursday night with an incredible sense of sadness.  No matter what your opinion about former mega-church pastor Ted Haggard and his startling fall from grace, I believe it’s one of the tragic stories of our time.   After graduation from college, Ted started a small Bible study in his living room, which grew into a vibrant, 14,000 member church in Colorado Springs.  He became President of the National Association of Evangelicals, virtually being the representative for evangelical Christianity in America.  He skyrocketed to success, and then gambled it all
away with a meth-fueled extra-marital dalliance with a guy masseuse.

Whatever demons Ted has been struggling with since age 7, when he says he experienced his first same-sex encounter, how such a promising career in ministry could come crashing down on the rocks is a lesson worth considering.  Regardless of his mistakes, I wouldn’t wish his last two years of shame, upheaval, criticism, and frustration on my worst enemy.

Pelosi first met Haggard when she filmed her previous HBO documentary “Friends of God” – an agenda-driven and rather inept attempt to explore the Christian “sub-culture” in America.  As she cruised across the country interviewing every oddball Christian she could find, she somehow stumbled across Ted (before his fall) and struck a goldmine.  Ted was 100% open and inviting, virtually allowing Alexandra access to both his personal and professional life.  What she found gave me pause, even back then.

That’s why her new film, “The Trials of Ted Haggard” is ultimately a documentary about the Christian community’s continuing ignorance of the media, and how that ignorance disastrously damages our perception in the culture.

A previous generation of Christian leaders were skeptical or openly hostile to the news media.  Christian leaders throughout the 70’s and 80’s were convinced the media was out to get them, so they gave no quarter, and closed that door whenever possible.  That thinking became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because what they didn’t realize is that it doesn’t matter.  The media is going to create a story, so by not talking to them (even when it’s risky), allows them to frame the conversation.  As a result, over and over, when it came to that generation, the media version of stories  rarely reflected the actual truth.

So many Christian leaders in Ted’s generation have done the opposite – but found out it’s been just as big a mistake.  Ted thought the answer was to allow the media 100%, unfettered access.  As a result, in both documentaries Ted is interviewed in the most casual – even bizarre – settings:  working out, with the kids, in church,  – and even in bed.  I remember when the original news broke about the meth and sexual encounters, I cringed when Ted stopped his car at the end of his driveway, and rolled down his window to talk to reporters about the homosexual accusations – with his wife and kids in the car.   100% access may be well intentioned, but it usually doesn’t help your case – especially when it’s driven by pride.  Being caught in awkward, unprepared, or embarrassing moments – especially when the subject is so serious – doesn’t help anyone.  It simply continues the perception of incompetence and dubious behavior.

The better answer is a more strategic and respectful approach to the media, like I discuss in my new book “The Last TV Evangelist.”  But that subject is another post.

As a result, the documentary is really a heartbreaking film about the conflict between two mutually destructive identities:  a married, former evangelical leader who’s orientation is apparently not exclusively heterosexual.  Two years after he went public (while at the top of his game), he’s still struggling with who he is, and what he should become.  It’s also a tragic look at how the Christian community reacted to the news, and our lack of resources and concern for re-building the lives of fallen leaders and their families.

I don’t know the terms of Ted’s separation with New Life Church, but one of the great faults of the movie was using the term “banished.”  As Patton Dodd, a former church staff member confirms at “The overseers of New Life Church — four pastors from other churches — asked Haggard to sign a contract agreeing to keep quiet and leave Colorado in exchange for a generous parachute: a year’s severance for Haggard and his wife, a vehicle, counseling expenses, and moving expenses.  Haggard took the deal.”

In one of the many ironic and weirder moments, Alexandra (a less than brilliant interviewer) asks Ted “How does it feel to be in exile?”  He answers, “Miserable” – as he takes a swing on the golf course.

In its favor, the film does point out that many of the misunderstandings and “leaks” about Ted’s counseling program have actually been incorrect.  By all accounts, Ted recognizes the seriousness of what happened, and genuinely wants to do the right thing.  But when you can’t get a job, the struggle to survive and provide for your family supersedes almost everything else.

You can’t help but feel incredible sadness watching his wife and children move boxes from house to house.  Reduced to selling insurance door to door, the family has lived for nearly 2 years by the good graces of friends, moving from place to place about every 4 months because money is running out.  When he applies for a job, he desperately hopes the interview will go well – at least until the employer Google’s his name.  Seeing the impact on the wife and kids – who never did anything wrong in the first place – is tough to watch.

One of the thoughts that occurred to me watching the show was that there is a generation of pastors and Christian leaders out there who have experienced great success by the power of their personalities, motivation, and personal Charisma.  In a Christian celebrity culture, they excite and inspire audiences, and become leaders based on external abilities.  But what they lack is sober responsibility.  They are not personally disciplined leaders, forged in the fires of adversity.  They don’t have to  make the hard choices (they have “executive pastors” to do that).  They have an  attractive exterior package, but a shallow, empty interior.  They don’t carry the “gravitas” of the position – or apparently even care about it.

As a result, they have thousands of “fans” – but no real disciples.

When that happens, risk seems manageable and even easy, because in most cases, they’ve never really experienced the consequences of bad choices.  They begin to assume their charismatic personalities, loyal followers, or financial situation will help them weather any storm.  So they take on building programs, mortgages, or private jets  they want but can’t afford, dabble in sexual or financial indiscretions, take doctrinal shortcuts to help sell books, or in this case, assume that a gay encounter or experimenting with meth isn’t really a big deal – after all, I’m under a lot of stress, and I’m not accountable like everyone else.

If Ted’s story does nothing else, I would hope it would remind pastors and Christian leaders just how just how much th
eir actions impact the lives of others – sometimes, thousands and even millions of others.  Taking on the role of pastor or spiritual leader is far more substantial than being a motivational speaker or “life coach,” and how often we forget that the scriptures hold pastors to a higher standard of accountability.

On a somewhat different note, I was also saddened by the acclaim that Mike Jones, the gay masseuse who “outed” Ted has received.  Because “outing” (either with or against a victim’s will) is held in such high esteem by the gay community, Mike now has an impressive book deal, and is talking about running for public office.  How being a meth-dealing gay masseuse prepares you for public office is a testament to a celebrity driven culture where being in the news is more important than actual accomplishment.

Secular reviewers look at the film and are frustrated by what they believe is Ted’s refusal to accept his homosexuality and change this view of scripture.  But believers understand Paul’s frustration in Romans 7: 15: “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”  Faith isn’t about giving up because of the struggle, but continuing in spite of it.  Or as a French philosopher put it: “God hasn’t called us to be successful, he’s called us to be faithful.”

The end of the film makes note that the Haggard family has returned to Colorado even as new allegations have surfaced about another encounter previous to Mike Jones.  But as in all cases of sin, redemption, and restoration, we can only hope that Ted continues to work it out with fear and trembling.

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  1. This is imo the best write up of the whole Ted situation…

    I get sick and tired of Christians who just focus on the sin and not the family, both sides of the story and tells it from a totally unbias pov. Well done…

  2. While I haven't seen the Trials of Ted Haggard, I think your statement about Friends of God being "an agenda-driven and rather inept attempt to explore the Christian 'sub-culture' in America" is a bit unrepresentative.

    Having worked with Alexandra during the filming of the documentary, I think she was very interested in not being agenda-driven and was really seeking to find out what the church and Christianity are all about.  Most of the documentary was redone when Ted Haggard's news broke and I think she felt betrayed and lied to.

    And that is sad as well.  To all but mature Christians, the sinful nature of every leader tends to undo all of the good work and true ministry they have done over the years.

    And I would agree that most leaders don't understand the media and do even more damage when they think they can just "handle" the media openly.  Leaders, if you ever mess up, call a pro!

  3. For me personally, I had 2 issues with this difficult situation. One was “where was the church accountability?” I know I have said that before but it appears to me the bigger the church/ministry, the less accountability. After enduring the aftermath at ORU I have come to see accountability as a necessity in our time. Of course it needs to be done with love and grace but it does need to be done. There are so many distractions in our world now days and we are moving so surprises me that more of our leaders aren’t falling.

    Secondly, I am really troubled that one sin still appears more appalling than other sins. Sin is sin. My sin of bouncing a check is no less or no greater than Ted’s sin of homosexuality, lying or whatever. There seems to be this arrogance and pride within the body that if I have a “little” sin and you commit a “bit” sin, I am some how better. That is just not true.

    I, too, agree with you Phil, in hoping that Ted finds his way with the help of the Lord and that this segment of his journey is one that will become a platform for a newer, deeper and richer relationship with God.

    On my blog today, I write about how I am in my own segment of my journey trying to figure out what it is that God wants me to do and to learn. Just because I am not dealing with the same issues as Ted, doesn’t mean we don’t all have our own journeys and learning to do.

    Thanks for writing such a compassionate post on this “touchy” subject. God bless.
    Remaining Steadfast,

  4. Very well written and thought provoking. I think this is one of the more balanced articles I have read on the Haggard situation. Thank you for writing though the filters of grace and truth. 

     Blessings on ya!



  5. I think the fact that the ‘Church’ in the world today has become a such an institutional structure and system and nothing like what the new testament Church was in the books of Acts and the Epistles, is what is producing this type of disastrous effects because we keep missing the heart connection to God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ. Somewhere along the line we become more driven by running people and building church corporations (all in the name of evangelism – but really it is just corporate marketing of Jesus) that we just completely lose sight of our ever growing relationship and friendship with Jesus Christ until we are so far away from Him and completely in the dark, caught up in the very same thing we were delivered from in the first place. I pray that we will return to loving Jesus Christ and growing in Him and letting Him lead us – but we are too smart and we know all things. Sometimes if the truth is known many Christians today are using Jesus to fulfill their own needs and desires without ever truly knowing Him. Jesus is just an add-on and not the real thing – just another means to an end (just which end it is).

  6. Wow… What a great take on situation. Compassionate. I think I would have been more prone to be judgmental. What a powerful statement: "As a result, they have thousands of “fans” – but no real disciples." That should be a question everyone working in the church and Christian industry should soak in.

  7. Another good post, and interesting perspective, Phil. It is an interesting point that sexual sins are considered so much greater a failing than other sins. (I am speaking of adult involvement: as a Roman Catholic I am acutely sensitive to the subject of child abuse, and find it to be the single greatest sin imaginable.) "Infidelity" doesn't even make the Top 10: "Covetousness" does, however. Murder, of course… but one of the greatest is lying: significantly, and more precisely, "bearing a false witness", which seems to be what really is the issues with so many fallen pastors and Christian leaders. The depth of their sin is magnified by their false witness to God, whatever the sin may be.

  8. Your comment, Phil, about church leaders in the 70s & 80s closing their door on the media (out of suspicion) is dead on. But, no matter what, the media are going to write a story about you, whether you participate or not.

    A couple years ago Foursquare Church knew that E! Entertainment was going to do a tv special about their founder, Aimee Semple MacPherson. Instead of shunning them, Foursquare actually helped E! Entertainment with their research by providing biographies, photos and interviews. The special was actually shot in front of Angelus Temple in Echo Park hosted by DJ Benza. Foursquare Church was available to set the record straight with a number of details about Sis MacPherson’s life that the general public hadn’t known, including her scandalous disappearance to Mexico.

    By helping E!, Foursquare got a much better (and fairer) presentation of both their ministry and their founder than if they had refused to cooperate with the network.


  9. Don’t have HBO so didn’t see the documentary, but did see the interviews on Oprah and Larry King. Very sad story and yes it would be hard not to feel compassion for him, but don’t feel we have heard the whole story, especially from the people who he supposedly reached out to for help before this became public.

    Have been in pastoral ministry in the past and have on many occasions had people come for prayer and counseling that were very distraught and disturbed over their sin and wanted some kind of relief. That relief comes from confession and repentance, acknowledging the sin and turning from it.

    In his counseling he didn’t go that far and later it became public. Then he lied and denied it and only admitted it when he figured covering it up was futile. A lot of people then make apology not because they are truly sorry enough to turn from their sin but because they are sorry they got caught and know their lives are going to be destroyed. Don’t know if that is the case with him, only God knows and time will tell.

    But I am concerned about his statement that his sexuality is, "Complex and confusing." It was if he didn’t want to admit homosexuality was wrong and said several times that his sin was more about his unfaithfulness to his marriage vows. Well yes, that was certainly a big issue but he just seemed to dance around the question of homosexuality and what the Bible says about it.

    His sin was not, "Complex and confusing" as he described his situation. He like all of us fell short of the mark and we have no one to blame but ourselves. James said…

    James 1:13-15 

    Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.

    I hope and pray this story turns out with a happy ending. Satan will surely keep tempting him, and hope that he can make a mockery of God and His people. Hope he can find good Christian fellowship that will pray for him and hold him up and accountable during this time of restoration. 

  10. While all sin is indeed equal in an eternal perspective, bouncing a check can hardly be considered sin in the same way as marital infidelity or homosexuality. Bouncing a check is a mistake, if it was done purposefully, then it is fraud and obviously considered sin. That being said, speeding is illegal and purposeful speeding is therefore a sin as it is breaking the laws we are to obey as citizens, however the punishment for this is paying a fine, this is not the same thing as willful use of controlled substances which merit much stricter penalties and are a greater moral failing. In the same way sexual immorality is a much bigger deal. To God all sin is simply a matter of rebellion and disobedience against His will, but while taking God’s name in vain is a sin only against God and perhaps yourself, Sexual immorality regardless of type has multiple offended parties, God, yourself, the partner/s, if married your spouse/children and in a minister’s case his flock. There is a greater standard for those who would lead the church. It does not make me better if I "merely" fool around with small sins or even "lesser" forms of the same (i.e. thought life, pornography, sexual immorality). But the leadership of the church cannot be allowed to remain while engaged in such open defiance of Biblical principle as it will spread throughout the body. Further in Haggard’s case he makes the church look foolish and contributes to some rejecting Christ’s offer of forgiveness because of perceived hypocrisy. He may have good intentions but I believe he is making matters worse.

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