Let he who stands take heed, lest he fall

I once filled out a mental health questionnaire that asked how often I had nightmares. I answered "whenever public radio does a fund drive." ” Not that I'm complaining -- I really appreciate how public funding spares me for the rest of the year from the ad spots that drive me nuts when I listen to commercial radio. But when my clock radio drifts the urgent pleas for cash into my not-yet-conscious mind, they morph into my dreams. This started eight years ago when I dreamed that someone was attacking me with a giant WHYY golf umbrella. A few days ago the fund drive dream took the form of a friend having purchased a vacant lot (with, granted, a really cool climbing tree) on a neighboring street and imploring me to help pay for it.

The radio-influenced bad dream last Thursday, though, had nothing to do with the fund drive, and, unfortunately, nothing to do with my imaginative subconsciousous. The bit of noise that infiltrated my consciousness just as I was coming to was a quote from James Dobson, who was standing up for the reputation of his friend Ted Haggard, who at that point was denying the allegations against him of hiring a male prostitute and buying drugs. So the first information- processing I accomplished that day went something like this: Wha...? Haggard? Oh, crap.

Haggard'’s been described as the kind of evangelical the New York Times can love. He's been our collective go-to guy to demonstrate that we're not all Falwells (or, for that matter, Dobsons): See, we're not all right-wing wackos! Look at us! We care about AIDS! We care about the environment! We're not going to beat you over the head with a Bible! We want to make the world better, not turn the U.S. into a theocracy -- so don't fret about our weekly conference call with the president. So when he gets exposed, it is a PR headache (nightmare) for the movement as a whole. Now we'’re back to just Billy Graham as our emblem of a nice, high-profile evangelical with integrity --– and don't think too hard about him, or you might start asking questions about his son. (I don't mean to insinuate that Franklin doesn't have integrity -- but some of his public statements sure don't fit through a mainstream nice filter.)

Much has already been said about the present fiasco. (See, for example, Jeff and Myles' wise takes.) The GetReligion team has been blogging a storm about the storm of coverage, and Ted Olsen atypically logged onto his work account on a Sunday afternoon to update his (and Haggard's) core constituency about that morning's service at New Life Church.

So, I'm not going to say anything more about the drugs or the sex. But I do have some musings about a far less exciting dimension of this whole thing: church polity.

I am intrigued by the fact that it was an external board of overseers, pastors of other churches, rather than the church's elder board of lay members, that was charged by the church's bylaws with the discipline of a megachurch's senior pastor. I have never heard of such a system employed among nondenominational churches organized on a congregational model, and I wonder if anyone else employs such a system.

This system seems to be a wise check against the inevitable "“cult of personality" effect that can grow up in an organization that has a charismatic founder. Had the discipline of the senior pastor been vested in the church's lay board, there would be a risk that they would circle the wagons around their beloved leader rather than making the painful but necessary choices that would best serve the healing of the church and the fallen pastor. The external board of overseers imports one of the strongest practical advantages of denominational affiliation for this nondenominational church --– an external structure in place to provide leadership, discipline, and pastoral care in response to a crisis at the heart of the congregation's leadership.

New Life Church's ability to recover from this scandal will likely be in large part attributable to the decisive steps taken by this board -- which were made possible by a prior recognition that the church, while independent of a denomination, is not independent of the rest of the body of Christ. New Life is the largest church in Colorado Springs, but from what I'’ve read, it's never acted like it's the only church in Colorado Springs. – Haggard has long been a leader in evangelical ecumenism, locally as well as nationally. Entrusting this leadership to external leaders is a practical extension of this recognition of interdependence. I hope that other "“independent" churches with healthy, but insular, leadership structures will see this example and set up the checks and balances that will serve them in the case of a future crisis.

I can't help but wonder whether Haggard himself set up this structure precisely in anticipation of his own weakness (which may be too weak a word for this situation) catching up with him. In his statement to the church, he acknowledged that the behavior that led to his dismissal (which neither he nor the board has specified) was something that he had struggled with, with varying degrees of success, for his entire adult life. He assured the congregation that he still believed everything that he has taught them, although he hadn't lived up to it. I can imagine Haggard creating the overseer's board specifically to protect "“his”" church from his own failing, by making it not his church. Recognizing the possibility that he would fall again (and again), that he would be found out, he set up measures to keep himself from taking the ministry down with him.

Whether it was Haggard or someone(s) else who had the foresight to put him under the authority of his pastoral peers, I am glad that the congregation of New Life Church was protected in this way. But I grieve for Haggard and his family that he was not able to find the pastoral support to deal with the "“repulsive and dark" part of his life before it exploded into public light. It must have been a painful burden to carry that secret all these years.


I almost forgot: the best episode ever of the best radio show ever was inspired by, and features, Haggard. It's always been bittersweet for me to listen to this episode, but all the more in the current context. It is definitely worth an hour of your time. (And no pledge pitch!)


P.P.S. Add Gordon MacDonald to the list of wise commentators on this sad situation.


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