As disgraced minister Ted Haggard limped quietly away from the Colorado Springs platform he spent more than two decades constructing, leaders of the 14,000-member New Life Church rushed to fill the cavernous void left on stage. In the weeks following the scandalous news of Haggard's three-year affair with a homosexual prostitute, longtime worship pastor Ross Parsley delivered Sunday morning sermons steeped in gentleness and encouragement.
"I have a sense of hope and faith and confidence that this is God's church, and He is in charge," Parsley preached in a Nov. 19 address. A week later, the message turned from damage control to sober reflection: "We need to engage in a corporate repentance of some sort. . . . It's not just the person that led us who has wandered into sinfulness; it's us as well. If he's part of our body and we're part of the body that he belongs to, then we need to join him in that repentance."
Such words reflect the priorities of a leadership more concerned with building character amid adversity than simply avoiding a drop in numbers. Pastor Mark Cowart of the nearby Church for All Nations in Colorado Springs, one of four men on the independent board of overseers responsible for Haggard's dismissal, believes Parsley's leadership has helped prevent a massive exodus: "This is a shock for everyone and quite a traumatic event. But all things considered, the church is doing extremely well."
Cowart told WORLD that he has observed a "steady and stable" congregation willing to hold together through the difficulty. The church recently elected a selection committee to undertake the task of locating a new pastor. The nine-person panel will make a recommendation to the overseers, who will decide whether to approve the candidate for congregational consideration. Church members will have the final vote after hearing sermons over three successive weeks.
In the meantime, at least one overseer will attend New Life each Sunday to help guide the interim leadership. Pastor Mike Ware of Victory Church in Denver is spending several days a week in Colorado Springs and has witnessed signs of continued church health, such as 250 new volunteers to lead small groups.
Ware is also taking an active role in Haggard's recovery, having known the former minister since the early 1980s when they served together on the staff of Bethany World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, La. Ware told WORLD that he has asked Haggard some hard questions recently and received transparent answers: "His state of mind is like anyone who's just lost everything they had. There are moments of extreme shame and depression but then little rays of hope."
Ware said Haggard is cooperating fully with the restoration team of megachurch pastors Jack Hayford and Tommy Barnett and Focus on the Family minister H.B. London. "He's told me, 'I'm going to do whatever anyone asks me. I'm going to learn from whatever process no matter what step anyone asks me to take,'" Ware said. "Our goal is to help Ted be restored to public Christian life and, hopefully sometime in the future, Christian ministry life. Whatever that looks like, we don't know."
The dramatic impact of Haggard's sin on his church and the National Association of Evangelicals, which he served as president, has spurred questions as to whether the fall was preventable. Did anyone see it coming?
In the swirl of initial sound bites, a Jewish newspaper in New York quoted Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition as saying he and other prominent evangelicals had known of Haggard's homosexuality for some time but were unsure what to do about it. Sheldon later issued a statement calling that representation false: "I talked with Rev. Haggard several times about homosexuality and was troubled by his belief that homosexuality was somehow genetic and not a behavioral choice. . . . [But] I did not 'know' that Rev. Haggard is homosexual or that he engaged in a relationship with a homosexual prostitute."
Cowart, a close friend of Haggard's for 20 years, said he'd witnessed no indication of significant character flaws that might have served as warning signs. Ware confirmed that Haggard had never undergone any previous disciplinary action in all his years of ministry.