Walking on water syndrome

walkwater2 770659Election day is finally here, which means that it’s OK for the Rev. Ted Haggard story to slip back deep inside the newspaper (unless it’s a Colorado newspaper).

The real story has arrived and politics trumps religion, which is why religion stories often end up being forced into political molds. This is precisely what I think happened to most of the Haggard story in the American press — it was covered as a major development in a political struggle between left and right, Democrats and Republicans.

Haggard wasn’t a pastor in a megachurch he built using his own charismatic gifts. He was a political figure, a man involved in conference calls with the White House.

This was true, of course. But was this the heart of the drama that unfolded last week in Colorado Springs?

I think not. It also appears that Stephanie Simon, that Los Angeles Times reporter who is often praised on this blog, did her own non-pack reporting and reached a similar conclusion. The evidence is that she decided this is — the drama is not over — a story about a pastor, husband and father who, as many do, crashed and burned under the pressure of leading one of those modern mega-mega-churches that has reached the size of a large mall in large part because people in the flock are attracted to the singular message and personality of the shepherd.

What does this look like in hard news copy? Here is a sample from Simon:

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.

. . . 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.

But this is where Haggard fell off a cliff that has claimed many others. That story has, sadly, been written before and it will be written again.

Sin is sin. Stress is stress.

People who specialize in counseling burned-out clergy often refer to this as “walking on water syndrome.”

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. …”

When this happens, ministers often begin to hide their secrets and develop double lives. Sexual issues are often, but not always, a part of this. Drugs and alcohol cause problems, too. Stress can cause breakdowns and family problems that are even harder to see from outside the glass parsonage.

This is especially true in today’s massive, almost totally independent congregations — settings in which there are no bishops, denominational officials or even other local seminary buddies to see the warning signs. Many of these super-clergy have little if any formal training. They are gifted, but often left alone. They are stars.

This leads to the stunning final image in Simon’s story about the tear-soaked services at New Life Church this past Sunday. There is a father, in the church bookstore, and he is reading a passage from Haggard’s book, Letters from Home, written to his two oldest children as they prepared to leave for college.

In a section called “Live as if there are no secrets,” Haggard listed powerful men brought down by lust or lies, including presidents Nixon and Clinton and the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart. “Major leaders have lost their positions of influence because of what they did alone in a room,” he wrote.

“Please don’t ever fall into the trap of believing that you can do something in secret, even when you are far away from home,” Haggard urged his children. “This is a lie, and it will always come back to haunt you.”

That’s a human story, not a political story. Amen.

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Crucify Him! Vote for Steele!

barabbas2It’s time for the little big show here in Washington, since the midterm elections are never quite as big a show as the big big show, which is a presidential election day. However, the presidential election does officially start at sunrise tomorrow, to hang in there.

We will, of course, be looking for signs of the “values voter” collapse today — since that has been the template for much of the MSM over the past few weeks.

Listen for two or three key stats: (1) note the “pew gap” in the voting patterns of people who are most active in traditional forms of religion; (2) note the factor of marriage and, in particular, the percentage of parents with children who swing to the Democrats; (3) watch Tennessee and Virginia, to see if the new old Bible Belt Democrats play well; and (4) pay attention to the religion factor in Maryland’s election for U.S. senator and, in particular, see if many African American churchgoers swing over and commit heresy by voting for Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (an African American Catholic) in the race against Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

This will be a hard day for me to write, since I teach all day and I have a Scripps Howard News Service column — non-election related, due to the lead-time factor — due tomorrow morning, as well.

But let me pass along what I think is the most amazing political quote that I have heard in a long, long time. It comes from that Washington Times story by reporter Jon Ward that young master Daniel mentioned yesterday.

With Cardin sitting in the front pew, the Rev. Delman L. Coates used this image in his remarks to 1,500 members of his flock at Mt. Ennon Baptist Church, in Clinton. You’ll need to sit down before you read this one.

Mr. Coates preached that voting for Mr. Steele would be like voting to free the thief Barabbas instead of Jesus. In the gospels, Pontius Pilate asks a Jewish crowd whether he should free Jesus Christ or Barabbas, and the crowd shouts for Barabbas to be freed, and for Jesus to be crucified.

Mr. Coates implied that black people who vote for Mr. Steele would be deceived just like the crowd that shouted to crucify Jesus. He said people who supported Barabbas could be called “Barablicans,” and people who were for Jesus could be called “Jesuscrats.”

“Can’t you just see the commercials that were designed to endear Barabbas to the crowd?” he said. “I can just see [Barablicans] well dressed, well groomed [and] holding a puppy.”

The reference to one of Mr. Steele’s TV ads, which have featured Mr. Steele holding a puppy, drew laughter from the congregation and prompted several worshipers to stand and applaud.

We do not know, of course, if the pastor — seconds before making this remark — said something like this: “Now, I realize that I cannot endorse a candidate from this pulpit. I also can’t speak for this church. But, just speaking for myself, I think that this whole Senate race reminds me of a painful scene in the New Testament. You know the one, the one where . . .”

Was this an endorsement? And where is this quote in the rest of the Washington media? Try to imagine a pastor — black or white — on the other side of the race using this kind of language without anyone noting it.

That’s an amazing quote. Does anyone have a stronger one from a mainstream figure in this election year?

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“My test has begun; watch me”

kleenexThe Rev. Ted Haggard story is now unfolding in a manner that is both dramatic and, for journalists, frustrating.

The drama this morning at New Life Church was very human, yet there really wasn’t much in the way of news for reporters to write about. It was a day for tissues, not newsprint. Here is a sample of the coverage in the Colorado Springs Gazette:

The mood was a mixture of sadness and determination that the church will go on. The service was rife with tears, hugging, anger and calls for forgiveness. The congregation stood and applauded for acting senior pastor Ross Parsley, for the overseers, and for a letter written by Gayle Haggard, but not for the confession submitted by beleaguered pastor Ted Haggard.

Haggard will seek intensive mental and spiritual counseling from nationally-prominent pastors Jack Hayford and Tommy Barnett and Focus on the Family Chairman James Dobson.

The Rev. Larry Stockstill, head of the oversight board, said: “Today you’re seeing both the goodness and the justice of God. We can be mad at God, say that it’s not fair, the timing is terrible, or we can say ‘blessed be the name of the Lord.’”

The oversight committee that fired Haggard is still not talking about the details of his sexual sins.

Haggard elected not to confess them, either, in the letter read to his flock.

And that’s that. The most dramatic story of the day was written by the fallen pastor, and it was a story about sin, faith and partial repentance, not bold details. There wasn’t much that reporters could do to improve on it, although that might happen in the days ahead.

Click here for the full text. Here is a sample of what Haggard had to say:

… I alone am responsible for the confusion caused by my inconsistent statements. The fact is, I am guilty of sexual immorality, and I take responsibility for the entire problem. I am a deceiver and a liar. There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life.

For extended periods of time, I would enjoy victory and rejoice in freedom. Then, from time to time, the dirt that I thought was gone would resurface, and I would find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach. Through the years, I’ve sought assistance in a variety of ways, with none of them proving to be effective in me. Then, because of pride, I began deceiving those I love the most because I didn’t want to hurt or disappoint them.

The public person I was wasn’t a lie; it was just incomplete. When I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased and finally dominated me. As a result, I did things that were contrary to everything I believe. The accusations that have been leveled against me are not all true, but enough of them are true that I have been appropriately and lovingly removed from ministry.

pdeo003076The key now is the phrase “from time to time.”

It is likely that Colorado newsrooms will do everything they can to document the past. But the church’s leaders — leaders of a church all but created in Haggard’s image — have acted firmly and quickly. It will be interesting to see how the flock responds.

What will happen next? It sounds like the Haggard family will press forward — at least that is what Gayle Haggard’s letter said. I wonder if any journalists will debate whether to write stories about when marriages are saved, and when they are lost, under these circumstances. I wonder what editors would say if a reporter proposed writing that story.

After all, Gayle Haggard said this:

What I want you to know is that I love my husband, Ted Haggard, with all my heart. I am committed to him until death “do us part”. We started this journey together and with the grace of God, we will finish together.

If I were standing before you today, I would not change one iota of what I have been teaching the women of our church. For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties, know that this will never again be the case. My test has begun; watch me. I will try to prove myself faithful.

UPDATE: The omnipresent Ted Olsen at Christianity Today says there is a bit more news between the lines — including hints of a comeback. Click here for Ted’s parsing of the letter and services today.

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Overseers: Based on our investigation, he’s out

ScarletAs several GetReligion readers have noted on the comment boards, the Rev. Ted Haggard has been fired.

This is not a big surprise. What is surprising is that it has happened so quickly. Here is part of a Denver Post story by reporter Chuck Plunkett:

Ted Haggard, the beleaguered pastor of a Colorado Springs evangelical church who had denied having sex with a male prostitute, has been fired by an oversight board, which found him guilty of “sexually immoral conduct.”

. . . The board that made the decision, called the “Overseer Board of New Life Church,” said in a prepared statement Saturday afternoon: “Our investigation and Pastor Haggard’s public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct.

If you stop and think about it, this is actually a pretty interesting statement. Based on what has been made public, Haggard has not openly confessed to any specific act of sexual morality. Yet the board cites his public statements. It also mentions its own investigation. The board’s statement is available as a PDF.

Apparently the overseers have evidence — or been told information by Haggard — that reporters and, thus, the public do not know about.

It also appears that Haggard will not speak in the Sunday service at New Life Church. Instead, a statement — of explanation and confession — will be read along with a second statement of encouragement by his wife. Even with the family absent, I fear that this will be a major, national-media circus.

As you would expect, the longest story on the firing is in the Colorado Springs Gazette. This is a long story by reporter Paul Asay that I imagine would be at the heart of tomorrow’s page-one package. There are many interesting details and poignant remarks by church members. It also seems that the Denver police are investigating whether crimes were committed. This is sobering news for the accuser, as well as Haggard.

scarletletterThen there is this angle over at Focus on the Family, a serious line of research that I think is worth major coverage in the days or weeks ahead:

The attention may be intense, but scandal in the pulpit is not uncommon. Focus on the Family’s pastoral care center receives 400 to 600 calls a month from pastors, many of whom struggle with addiction or sexual issues.

“When Ted Haggard is accused of something like this, I’m not surprised of the accusation because I deal with it so much,” said the Rev. H.B. London, head of Focus on the Family’s pastoral center. “I am surprised of the man.”

London said it’s possible for wayward pastors to return to the pulpit, but it takes time — sometimes as much as five years: He said Haggard should be remorseful and confess his sins, though the congregation doesn’t necessarily need to hear all details. “But coming back to the same congregation is many times difficult because people have drawn their own conclusions.”

Finally, here is a link that several readers have sent in. It leads to a New Life recording of Haggard’s sermon last week. It is, apparently, rather haunting.

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Ted Haggard, the symbolic centrist

ministries 1371 1Over the past few days, I have been watching the coverage of the Rev. Ted Haggard fiasco carefully to see how many journalists understand one of the most important facts in this story.

What is that fact? Haggard is not a leader of the old Religious Right. For many people, he was the charismatic face of a more moderate brand of evangelicalism that backs the traditional Christian doctrines on the hot issues linked to sex and marriage, but also carries that “Culture of Life” emphasis over into discussions of poverty, the environment, the spread of AIDS, economic justice in the Third World and other issues.

Yet, at the same time, he was one of the new “moderate” evangelicals who had not lost the trust of the old-guard evangelical alpha males symbolized by Dr. James Dobson and Charles Colson. Haggard was a bridge personality, in other words. This made him an important figure for the White House, since he was an evangelical — but not among the old faces that everyone is used to seeing on the cable TV shows (think Pat Robertson) that President Bush has avoided like the plague.

It isn’t hard to find out this fact about the now resigned head of the National Association of Evangelicals. All one has to do is Google “Haggard,” “evanglicals” and “environment” and some pretty obvious links pop up. In fact, the evangelicals-that-the-New-York-Times-can-love template was kind of a cliche there for a few months. Click here to see what I am talking about.

It’s no surprise that there are hints of this reality in coverage by the talented and fair-minded Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times. For example, she wrote:

A father of five who dresses in blue jeans and drives a Chevy pickup, Haggard is well-known, and widely praised, as an energetic, charismatic pastor who has pushed to expand evangelical activism into issues such as global warming and world poverty. But he hasn’t shied away from the traditional culture-war issues of abortion and homosexuality.

A lengthy profile in Harper’s magazine — which is quoted approvingly on Haggard’s website — recounts how he built New Life Church in part by hanging out at gay bars and inviting the patrons to come to his sermons and be saved.

Under Haggard’s leadership, the National Assn. of Evangelicals, which has 30 million members, reaffirmed a policy statement that describes homosexuality as “a deviation from the Creator’s plan” and calls same-sex relations a sin that, “if persisted in … excludes one from the Kingdom of God.”

Note the presence of the words “if persisted in.” That is a fine point that applies to all kinds of activities that traditional Christian believers consider sin.

In addition to Simon, reporter Myung Oak Kim at the Rocky Mountain News has included some references to Haggard’s moderating role in modern evangelicalism. (I am sure there are other articles of this type that I have missed in the deluge. My apologies, in advance.) In an article on Haggard and national politics, Kim uses language that is very similar to that of Simon:

Within the evangelical community, Haggard is considered a moderate. Since becoming president of the 30 million-member evangelical organization in 2003, he has worked to broaden the mission of the NAE beyond hot-button issues like homosexuality and abortion to environmental consciousness, fighting poverty and promoting international human rights. …

BK TH001 250pixelsAnd in her latest story, Simon carries these themes even further. While many focus on the impact of the scandal on Republican politics, it is much more important for journalists to ask how it may or may not affect the fault lines within modern evangelicalism.

Thus, Simon writes:

Jesse Lava, who runs an online community called Faithful Democrats, said he hoped Haggard’s call for more activism on issues like poverty would gain traction in the coming months as his followers confronted “the fact of human fallibility” and remembered that “we need to address people in need with grace and compassion.”

But political scientist John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, predicted the opposite effect. Haggard’s push for action on global warming raised hackles among powerful leaders on the religious right. With Haggard discredited, those leaders may be able to swing the focus back to issues such as abortion. Or the evangelical movement — a solid GOP bloc over several election cycles — could splinter.

“This could have quite profound implications for how evangelicals [affect] politics in the future,” Green said, “long after we’ve forgotten the results of this coming election.”

Of course, there is no need to “swing the focus” back to abortion. That is the issue that never, ever, goes away in American politics — in either party. Ask the Democrats who are biting their tongues while a few culturally conservative Democrats in key red zip codes try to win some Hill seats that may return the party to power. The issue is whether the evangelical agenda narrows and narrows and narrows, while the old guard lose trust in the leaders who are trying to take their place.

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Father Ted Haggard? Say what?

AmyHaggard1After a wild Friday on the Colorado Springs front, I think I can safely say that there is more news and fallout to come.

There does not seem, however, to be much new in the basic stories today. Here is a link to the ongoing coverage at the Colorado Springs Gazette, which, of course, has the best collection of local sidebars out there at the moment (for those who care about the impact of all of this on that giant New Life congregation). It does appear that Haggard will address the congregation on Sunday.

I wonder if that is the event that totally pulls the TV networks into this pre-election firestorm.

Timing, timing, timing.

However, on a personal note, I will be away from my computer keyboard all of today, speaking at a national Orthodox Christian Laity conference here in Baltimore at the College of Notre Dame.

The topic is “The Present State & Future of Orthodoxy in America.” Speakers include Archbishop Lazar of the All American Saints Monastery in British Columbia, Father Peter Gillquist of the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Missions and Evangelism, Andrew Natsios, formerly of the U.S. State Department and now the White House special envoy for Sudan, and others. My topic is “So What Do the Converts Want, Anyway?” I do not know if audio or text versions of the talks will be posted in the future. I will ask. I am not expecting coverage in the Baltimore Sun.

Please keep us posted on major stories that you see today about the Ted Haggard story (please leave comments with URLs on the many posts already up) and also the coverage of the consecration of the new presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church and any pre-election developments. It will be a busy day.

But before I vanish I wanted to point GetReligion readers toward an interesting graphic that was included with a longer post at Amy Welborn’s Open Book site. Click here to see her whole post.

It seems that the WTSP-TV producers in Tampa Bay had a rather one-track mind when they selected art for their website’s original post of the Haggard story. Then the folks at the CBS affiliate changed the art to something that, in some ways, was even worse. Welborn explains the sequence.

Now it appears that the art is totally gone.

I had no idea that Haggard was a Roman Catholic priest. I also had no idea that this story was directly linked to Holy Week. Yes, Easter has to follow Good Friday. But I don’t think that theological point was what the producers were thinking about.

Now, the station has added this correction at the end of the article:

WTSP apologizes for our earlier inclusion of a photograph of a Roman Catholic priest’s collar. The inclusion of the photo was not intentional.


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Covering a story driven by electronic media

radio mikeAs a print journalist, I often wince when important news stories are driven by the radio and television. Accusations fly quickly and responses are hastily arranged. Even in the age of the Internet, stories driven by print reporters develop more slowly. Facts tend to be treated with greater care when they are handled by individuals independent of the situation than by accusers and the accused.

But television and radio reporters are part of the age in which we live and events unfold as they may.

KUSA 9 Denver managed to land an interview with the Rev. Ted Haggard and posted it in its full unedited glory here (requires Windows Media). It’s a difficult interview to watch. No, it’s not the poor camera work and lighting, it’s the very apparent pain in Haggard’s face, and I don’t know what to say about his wife. But the interview broke the big news of the day, at least as of 6 p.m.

Haggard continues to deny some aspects of what he has been accused of, but he has since admitted to things he previously denied.

From the beginning this story has been driven by the local television and radio stations. Print reporters have been left scrambling. Even the announcement that Haggard’s accuser, Michael Jones, failed a lie-detector test occurred as he performed it, live on the radio.

It is important to note that the accuracy of a lie-detector test, also known as a polygraph, has come into serious question lately, particularly in the government. Aldrich Ames, a former CIA counter-intelligence officer and analyst convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, beat several of them and a 2003 National Academy of Sciences report said that the polygraph has serious limitations.

I’m not saying that Michael Jones is telling the truth, or that he is lying. It’s just important to realize that a polygraph is not a reliable way for a journalist to determine the truthfulness of a person’s statements. While mentioning that Jones failed a polygraph, journalists should not allow that to determine who is telling the truth in this case.

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“Deceptions” in a lie-detector test

actGrab2Here is the latest from Denver. This does not prove anything one way or the other, of course, it just adds evidence that the truth is somewhere in between the accuser’s pre-election media splash and the Rev. Ted Haggard’s initial denials. In other words, the lie-detector test backs the position already accepted by the leadership of New Life Church.

Ted Haggard’s accuser failed a polygraph test early this morning about the truthfulness of his accusations that he had had a three-year homosexual affair with the influential Colorado Springs minister. The test was given to Michael Jones, 49, an admitted male prostitute, who made the allegations on the Peter Boyles Show on radio station KHOW Thursday morning.

. . . The test administrator, John Kresnik, said Jones’ score indicated “deceptions” in his answers. However, Kresnik said he doubted the accuracy of the test he administered because of the recent stress on Jones and his inability to eat or sleep, according to KHOW producer Greg Hollenback. Kresnik suggested that Jones be re-tested early next week after he was rested.

And for those awaiting the word from on high, here is a New York Times story. Frankly, I would watch the Colorado dailes — here, here and here.

This story is still centered at the local level right now. I would not want to be in charge of media security at the church’s service this Sunday.

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