Ted Haggard -- Lessons For Christian Leaders
In Europe today, many Christians awoke to the unsettling news that one of America's leading evangelical leaders has confessed to improper behaviour.
Several U.S. cable media outlets covered charges made against Pastor Ted Haggard, leader of the New Life Church in Colorado. The charges are twofold: that Haggard engaged in homosexual sex acts with a male prostitute and that he received methamphetamine drugs from the same person.
At first, Pastor Haggard denied the allegations. However, when his voice was identified in voice mails to the prostitute, he admitted purchasing drugs, though he still denies any sexual impropriety. He also claims never to have used the drugs, though he was ‘tempted’ to do so.
As former head of the 30 million strong National Association of Evangelicals -- a position he resigned as a result of the allegations -- Haggard is well-known in America. Many Christians in Europe would never have heard of him, but opponents of evangelical Christianity here are likely to file the story for future use. They’ll keep it aside for when they need a ‘bad news’ story on Christians or Christian values generally.
Though not as politically strident as some other American evangelical leaders, Haggard has moved the organisation closer to overt involvement in the political fray, particularly with his firm support of President George W. Bush. One author reported that Haggard talks to President Bush or his advisers once a week, though the claim was quickly denied by a White House spokesman.
Haggard believes in the fight against global warming and has advocated a greater involvement of the church in issues relating to poverty. Both positions have set him at odds with many of his more right-wing and outspoken colleagues.
But he also advocates that homosexual marriage should be banned; a position that, in the middle of a highly charged midterm election campaign has made him new enemies. It was this stance that led his accuser, a self-confessed ‘male escort’ and drug supplier, to bring his charges into the open. Thus far, the sexual aspects of the charges remain unproven.
Whether or not they are ever admitted or proven, there are some salutary lessons for all Christian believers – and especially Christian leaders – in this sad situation. [**See Footnote.]
For one, it reveals again the fine and often dangerous line Christian leaders walk when they become politically active. Unlike America, where Christianity seems to play a much greater role in public political discussions, European leaders have tended to shy away from making their views known on key issues -- to the point, I think, where people of other faiths, most notably Muslims, have become more central to political decision-making than Christians.
Perhaps we are afraid of the personal cost that can be involved in making a political stand. The real danger is not involvement, though, it is in aligning oneself too closely with one side or the other in the political fray. Or being seen to endorse one candidate for office over another, in a public way.
It is worth remembering the positive example set by Christian statesman Dr Billy Graham. Although early in his ministry he made very public statements about the need to fight communism, he later wisely stepped back. His private views probably remained just as strong, but he steadfastly refused to align himself with either side of politics. As a result, he was able to advise politicians and presidents of all persuasions and proved that his most vital concern was their personal stand before in God.
More than ever, European Christian leaders in all spheres of life need to get involved in the decision-making process. The only way to control the future is to invent it today. We can’t be content to pass on to our grand-children a world that is even further away from faith than our own!
Yes, influence comes at a price. Letting our views known may sometimes put us in the firing line. There will be those who, not content to disagree with our views, will seek to discredit us as people.
However, if we try not to allow ourselves to be used as tokens in political games, we can with God’s help preserve our integrity and that of the message we carry. (It’s difficult in this age of 24/7 blanket news reporting – where thoughtful opinions are boiled down to soundbytes – but we need to make the effort and trust God for the rest.)
Perhaps the second lesson is the importance of keeping a close circle of friends and counsellors, who know us well enough to spot trouble before it arrives. Of course, having this won’t prevent us from hiding our problems – human beings have a special talent for that – but if their are people in our lives who are allowed to be completely honest, we can be open without losing our sense of dignity.
A third lesson, particularly for leaders, is that if we allow our ministry effectiveness to be founded on position or titles, even small mistakes become ministry-wreckers.
In the business world, they say, 'it's lonely at the top' and there is definitely a loneliness in every level of leadership, particularly I suppose at the level of national organisations.
But prominent leaders should resist, as far as they are able, being placed in a position of 'Christian celebrity', so that the focus is on them rather than the message they bring.
I’m not suggesting that Haggard has done this, but people’s deference to positional leadership can be both a strength and a weakness. It breeds respect for the role, which allows the leader to lead; but it also sets individuals up for a fall, because people start looking for saints rather than flesh-and-blood human beings.
Finally, we see an opportunity to show the meaning of grace. I have never met Pastor Haggard and the chances are you haven’t either, though I think we do have admire someone who can build a large church in a major city. To achieve this he has obviously shown many leadership qualities, not the least of which are courage, determination and public-mindedness.
Were I to meet him now, I think I would simply say, ‘I'm praying for you and for your family. God has a great future for you and it is good.’ The Biblical God is the God of a second chance – with accountability, healing and gradual restoration.
We will probably hear more of this story in the media. There will be fair and balanced reporting and, of course, the other kind. That will run its course.
Meanwhile, every preacher should continue to speak the word of God without fear or cant. Though God’s messengers may sometimes fail -- and haven't we all, though perhaps in less public ways -- the message remains as reliable, trustworthy and life-enhancing as ever.
** PostScript Nov 6: There seems now to be acceptance, at least in the minds of the overseers of New Life Church, that Pastor Haggard engaged in sexual misconduct. A statement from the overseers on Saturday Nov 4 said: "Our investigation and Pastor Haggard's public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct." The statement continued: "Please continue to pray for Pastor Ted and his family, and let's all continue to stand strong together for the kingdom of God. We will get through this together. Remember, New Life Church has never been a man, a building or anything else -- we are a family."