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 Christianitytoday.com: “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.