A relaxed Ted Haggard sits in an Adirondack chair by his backyard pool, surveying a horizon — both literally and figuratively — that he once thought he'd never see again. What the New Life Church founder first hinted at in an October Indy cover story is now coming to fruition.
Ted Haggard is starting a new church.
"Because of what Gayle and I have gone through the past 3½ years, I don't think I'm qualified to be a pastor or spiritual leader," says the former New Life pastor, who had also been president of the National Association of Evangelicals before the 2006 scandal that derailed his career. "But I do believe I'm qualified to help people."
That, says Haggard, is the motivation behind St. James, the non-denominational church he's starting with his wife. ("Gayle and I are going to co-pastor," he says, "even though I think of myself as more of a ministry coordinator.") And unlike the informal — though highly publicized — prayer meetings he held at his house back in November, this time, he says, it'll be a full-blown, honest-to-God church: "We're not going to start and stop," he insists. "We're in."
Whole Lotto Love
The Haggards will host a launch party this Sunday at their Colorado Springs home and will, by the third week, be renting whatever size facility is warranted — "a high school auditorium, someplace in the Pikes Peak Center, the City Auditorium, whatever."
So how will St. James differ from the church he founded in the family basement 26 years ago? And perhaps more importantly, how will Haggard himself differ?
"I want to foster an atmosphere where people see one another with compassion and feel what each other is going through," he says, "instead of judging, evaluating or analyzing. I think that may be important, that function, but it's just not for me anymore. I'm finished with it."
He still insists he was never anti-gay, although there are scenes in documentaries that certainly suggest otherwise.
"I never felt that way, but I was portrayed that way by my accusers," says Haggard, whose scandal involving a male escort made him a poster child for evangelical hypocrisy. The perception that he was intolerant, he maintains, was furthered by filmmakers' selective editing, even in The Trials of Ted Haggard, the HBO documentary whose director he otherwise praises.
"Alexandra Pelosi gave me the break that rescued my life," he says. "If she wouldn't have done that, we'd be in a little trailer in the Arizona desert somewhere trying to peddle insurance." (Haggard also says the Learning Channel is about to film a one-hour documentary that will serve as a follow-up to HBO's.)
As for St. James, Haggard says it will be doing something he's never heard of anybody doing before. When it's time to make "offerings to the Lord," the congregation will do it through financial gifts to each other.
"So if they spot some mom that needs help with food, or a dad who's stretched trying to pay his electric bill, or a teenage kid that needs a tank of gas, they give their offerings to them, not to the church institution."
More radical still is the plan to dole out 10 percent of the weekly tithings — a religious tradition in which congregants voluntarily donate a portion of their earnings to the church — to a church member whose name is drawn at random. The recipient will be able to use 25 percent of that for themselves or their families, and give the other 75 percent to charities or needy individuals outside their families.
"So let's say you're randomly drawn from the people who tithe," says Haggard. "So we're gonna give you $4,000 — or $40,000 — and we want you to decide who to give it to. So it's not a bunch of clergymen, it's not a committee or a board, and the recipients are just people in need that are trying to get by and doing the best job they can."
Doing the math, if Haggard's talking about $40,000 being one-tenth of the weekly tithing, does that mean New Life was bringing in 10 times that amount each week?
"Yeah, when I was at New Life, the undesignated tithes and offerings were between $200,000 and $300,000 a week. And I was making around $140,000 a year, while my peers became millionaires."
If St. James' redistribution of wealth is beginning to sound like TV evangelist Reverend Ike's "Don't settle for pie in the sky when you die," Haggard says there's a failsafe system in which the last seven recipients would serve as a "giving team." They wouldn't have the power to suggest or designate outside recipients, but they would have veto power.
"Because you may have some person that says, 'I just met with Maharishi Someone and I want to send it to his camp in India where they're all doing sweat lodges.'"
So would they override an organization like Inside/Out, which supports and advocates on behalf of LGBT youth? Haggard insists the congregation would support that, and further notes that the church will welcome everyone, "gay, straight, bi, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, tea party members."
The failsafe, he contends, is merely to prevent donations they deem inappropriate: "Well, you may come to church to play the lottery, and so you say, 'I want to give it to Uncle John in Florida,' and then there is no Uncle John in Florida."
So, in essence, is Haggard's intention to make this a smaller and more direct version of New Life?
"We'll see if it's smaller," he says, flashing his trademark grin. "Who knows?"