Sunday, November 05, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Church fires Haggard for 'immoral' acts

After resigning as head of a national evangelical group, Ted Haggard is removed from his New Life leadership post.

DENVER — An investigative committee of independent pastors concluded "without a doubt" on Saturday that the Rev. Ted Haggard had committed "sexually immoral conduct" and removed him from his duties as senior pastor at a mega-church in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The committee's decision took away Haggard's last position of church leadership — and cast doubt on his assertion that he had visited a male prostitute for a massage but never had sex with him.

Last week, Haggard resigned from the presidency of the 30-million member National Assn. of Evangelicals under allegations that he had a three-year sexual relationship with the man. Haggard also has said that he bought methamphetamine from the prostitute but did not use it.

The statement from New Life Church's investigative committee did not list the evidence the group considered. But the strong wording left little doubt that Haggard's conduct involved more than an illegal drug buy.

"It's not just about meth. It's not just about a massage. I guess that's what we are to infer," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the evangelical association.

"We all have to be humble and recognize that people — even our leaders — have feet of clay," Cizik said. "So we love. And we forgive."

A letter of explanation and apology from Haggard will be read at New Life services today. His wife of 28 years, Gayle Haggard, will also address the congregation. The couple have five children.

Haggard, 50, built the church after he said he experienced a vision during a three-day solitary fast on Pikes Peak, the majestic mountain that soars above Colorado Springs. Given to visions — he says he can see demons, and he sometimes speaks in tongues — Haggard preached his first sermon in his unfinished basement on a cold morning in January 1985. His pulpit was a stack of old buckets. His pews were lawn chairs.

From the start, the church — and its leader — broke the mold.

Haggard led ebullient worship services filled with song and dance; he prayed over names in the phone book; he sent his members out walking through Colorado Springs with instructions to pray for specific parcels of land. He wrote a tract about his goals with the title "Making It Hard for People to Go to Hell From Your City."

Haggard's exuberance and inveterate optimism began attracting crowds, and New Life outgrew one space after another.

Nearly 22 years after that first service, the church has a congregation of 14,000 and a huge complex on the edge of Colorado Springs. Each Easter, the sanctuary is transformed into a theater for an extravagant passion play with a cast of hundreds, live animals, Cirque du Soleil-style acrobats portraying angels — and special effects worthy of Broadway.

Telegenic and proud of his accomplishments, Haggard welcomed reporters to the church campus (though he did send out a memo cautioning congregants to refrain from dancing in the aisles and speaking in "glassy-eyed heavenly mode" when TV cameras were rolling). His openness with the media only raised his profile further.

"He is probably one of the top five most prominent evangelicals in America and therefore in the world," said Ted Olsen, news director for the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. "Hardly a day went by where we did not see Haggard quoted by someone. It was pretty rare for him not to have an opinion."

Through their sorrow and bewilderment this past week, church members have been quick to say that the scandal will not bring down New Life — or shake their faith.

"This is a pruning, in a sense," said Patty VanTassel, 50. "New Life Church is not about Ted Haggard. It's about God … and rescuing people from sin."

Many others have repeated a variation of that line: We don't worship Ted Haggard; we worship God.

But Charles Chandler, who runs a support program for ousted preachers, said mega-churches like New Life sometimes put their pastors on a pedestal. The ministers are more than spiritual leaders; they're almost rock stars — their images beamed on enormous television screens as they preach, their books sold front and center in the lobby, their photos plastered across church websites.

"People almost put you on a throne," Chandler said. "You're vulnerable when that happens. You can take yourself too seriously."

In his group, Ministering to Ministers, Chandler has seen some pastors behave immorally in a gesture of what he calls "professional suicide."

"They can't handle the pressure, but they can't bring themselves to step down, so they do something stupid," he said. Others struggle with sexual or chemical addictions for years — and preach mightily about that very subject to try to cover up, Chandler said.

"They don't want to recognize that it's part of their life," said Chandler, who is based in Richmond, Va.

When caught, Chandler said, a minister's instinct often is not to confess, but to deny, as Haggard did when he was confronted with questions about the prostitute, Mike Jones. The pastor said at first that he did not know Jones. Later, after Jones released voice mail messages he said were from Haggard, the pastor acknowledged that he had visited the prostitute for a massage and bought methamphetamine from him.

The church's board of overseers said Saturday that they would "continue to explore the depth of Pastor Haggard's offense so that a plan of healing and restoration can begin."

Haggard's friends and followers are praying for that restoration. "God alone is judge, and he has the power to heal, restore and bring some good out of this," Cizik said. "It's hard to believe that there could be good of this. But that's a biblical promise."

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