My pastor disgraced our church

When I first heard that Ted Haggard was accused of using methamphetamine and enlisting the services of a male prostitute, I laughed. It struck me not as mere slander, but as a parody of slander, a lark of a lie. The accusations were inconceivable - Haggard was president of the National Association of Evangelicals in the United States, representing 30 million evangelical Christians, and senior pastor of New Life Church, one of the nation’s most influential megachurches. It was also inconsistent with everything I knew of him personally.

I had served as Haggard’s editor for eight years, helping him to write several books and hundreds of articles. Pastor Ted, as he is called by everyone who knows him, has long been a trusted adviser and a faithful friend. He gave me my first writing job and supported my decision to attend graduate school and pursue journalism. Even when I wrote a memoir criticising some aspects of our evangelical subculture, Pastor Ted was patient and generous. Moreover, he helped usher me into Christianity, pointing me to the moral, intellectual and spiritual riches of the faith that has shaped my life. Though we disagreed - I leaned left, he leaned right - our friendship transcended our differences.

So I laughed when the news broke in October, just ahead of the mid-term elections. But additional reports came so quickly and so confusingly that I was not laughing for long. The allegations were first made public on a Thursday morning. By Friday we knew that some of them were true. By Saturday we learned that the New Life Church overseers would remove Pastor Ted from his post. By Sunday we were at church hearing his confession letter read, a sea of thousands of mourners, dotted by reporters from all over the world.

That weekend is a blur of phone calls - my mother one moment, The New York Times and a dozen other media outlets the next - and waves of emotion. Television news vans descended upon the New Life Church parking lot. Locally, this was a tragedy. Elsewhere, it was a scandal and a thrill - a leading evangelical was going down, and the world was watching.

Working as I do for a religious news and inspiration website, I felt I could help in some small way by writing about the events as they unfolded. Much was being written about Pastor Ted as a hypocrite, and another blow to the George W. Bush era of US politics. No arguments here, except that those of us whose lives intersected with Pastor Ted’s as church members, staff members or friends knew that the full story was more complex.

The public evaluation of Haggard is painfully easy; the private evaluation is just painful, because it admits of more than the most recent revelations.

Here is a man who devoted his life to others. Even as he stepped into the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., and flew all over the globe meeting many world leaders, he remained Pastor Ted to his friends and to his church in Colorado Springs. Eighteen months ago, a friend of mine who had attended Pastor Ted’s church for years ran into dire straits at the college he attended in Mississippi. He was broke, and losing himself to depression and drink. Pastor Ted went to Mississippi; he told this young man what he needed to hear and bought him a truck. Pastor Ted didn’t want anything in return - he just wanted this guy to be OK. This page could be filled with similar stories.

Even when I winced over things Pastor Ted would say as a representative of evangelicals, even when I wished he’d focus on poor people rather than Republican party priorities, even when I wanted his theology to resemble that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Karl Barth instead of Oral Roberts, Pastor Ted was a man I was glad to call a friend. He’s still a friend now. Anything less would be a paltry definition of love. Love rejoices with the truth, wrote St. Paul, which means that anyone who loves Pastor Ted has to tell the full story - especially to themselves.

Unlike other writers responding to this event, I am not just observing it; I am living it. Everything I do - taking a reporter’s phone call, writing about related issues (homosexuality, evangelicals in politics, Christians in crisis), penning the words you’re reading now - is framed by this real-time experience. When you read about, watch or interpret an event, you let it settle into the ground of your predilections. When you experience an event, you push it as a plough, and your life unsettles and resettles as you make your way forward, renewing the ground beneath your feet.

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