October 01, 2009 News » Cover Story

The resurrection of Pastor Ted 

Nearly three years after his downfall, Ted Haggard rises again in Colorado Springs

"This is Judah," says Ted Haggard as his family's Brittany Spaniel greets me at the door. "Not Judas — Judah."

But it's Judas — not Judah — who's been on the former New Life Church pastor's mind lately. In fact, earlier today, he'd read a Bible passage describing the ways in which two of Christ's disciples handled their respective disloyalties. Judas' suicide, Haggard believes, served the interests of church leaders, while Peter's recovery enabled him to go on and expose the religious hierarchy's own deceptions.

It was the path of Judas (the Bible's best-known traitor) in which Haggard (the Evangelical church's best-known exile) nearly followed. The scandal-plagued pastor fell into an extended depression after he and his family relocated to Phoenix in 2007, following the very public exposure of his liaisons with a male escort and his purchase of methamphetamines.

According to the terms of an agreement he signed with his former church, Haggard was not only banished from New Life but also — in a provision more typical of TV westerns and medieval decrees — forbidden from ever returning to the state of Colorado. As chronicled in The Trials of Ted Haggard, an HBO documentary that aired last January, the Haggards moved through a series of temporary lodgings as the pastor-turned-insurance-salesman roamed Phoenix neighborhoods, growing to resemble the Willy Loman character in Death of a Salesman.

So virtually no one expected to find Haggard and his family back in their comfortable Colorado Springs home, less than a mile from the mega-church that started nearly 25 years ago as a basement gathering of worshippers. Gayle, Ted's wife for the last 30 years, has written a book called Why I Stayed, which is slated for January release by Christian publisher Tyndale House. Ted, meanwhile, has begun speaking at churches around the country and recently posted to the Internet that he's "motivated for the first time in 2.5 years to re-enter full-time ministry."

While not all Facebook and Twitter updates have been quite so optimistic ("I don't like what I've done to myself, my family, or my friends. I don't like my anger and frustration. I hate this situation"), it was a broadly smiling Haggard who ushered me into his living room last week for what would become a 2½-hour interview.

Like the upheavals in Haggard's life, there have also been dramatic shifts in his story, the most significant of which was his denial of, then admission to, sexual relations with Denver escort Mike Jones. He also has insisted that although he once bought meth, he never used it; in the following interview, he admits that he actually did use the drug, and did so on a number of occasions.

During the course of our conversation, Haggard describes, in sometimes uncomfortable detail, his memories of childhood abuse, the scandals that led him to the brink of suicide, and the disconnect between his preachings and practices. He also discusses his return to the city in which he built an evangelical empire and subsequently fell from grace, as well as his prospects for creating a new ministry here in the shadows of New Life.

Indy: So I understand you met earlier today with some people who want to start a church here in Colorado Springs?

TH: They're a couple who want to do a church plant amongst the Hispanic community. And so we spoke with them about where we felt the greatest need was for a significant Spanish ministry, which is right there around the Citadel area — that geographical area of the city would be a great place for some more significant Spanish ministry.

There is some real good Spanish ministry right now, but based on what I'm seeing on the news and what I'm hearing from the newspaper, they have some significant problems with gangs, and violence and things like that, and sometimes ministry can help that.

Indy: Did you feel a sense of nostalgia talking with them about the old days here?

TH: Oh no, I have a pastors meeting probably every two weeks in these different places I fly to on weekends. And I sit here with my computer and this phone and this phone, and this is where I work when we're here.

Like just before you came here, a call came from Jamaica, a person working on a church project there wanted to know what to do. And before that it was a call from somebody in Tulsa trying to make their church more successful.

Indy: And you've begun speaking here in town a few times as well.

TH: Yeah, just whenever the schedule permits. My wife and I really enjoy that. So no, we do church work all the time. We never stopped doing church work, really, except for the short time that we were in Arizona. And we're very pleased with New Life and how it's doing. I mean, I can see New Life Church right outside of my bedroom window, and it's a blessing to me.

Indy: How so?

TH: Oh, I'm just so pleased when I see the parking lot full and I know Brady's doing a great job — you know, the new pastor [Brady Boyd] — and the staff I had is by and large still there, and I know those are great men and women.

Indy: Wasn't yours one of the first ministries to have a real presence on the Internet?

TH: I have no idea in that regard, but we did build worldprayerteam.org, which became the largest prayer Web site in the world.

Indy: How did that differ from New Life?

The World Prayer Center is just a ministry of the New Life Church. I don't know what the emphasis is on it anymore, but back in my day we had a 15-foot globe that was rotating all the time and there were people there just about all the time praying over the nations of the world. Because when you see Africa, you can pray for it with a little more intentionality than if you're just trying to visualize Africa.

And prayer requests would come in from all over the world, and they would be flashing up on big screens every 12 seconds or something. And you could go in there at any time of the day or night and tell where the sun was up, because prayer requests would be coming in from that portion of the world.

I also had an idea for free-market small groups. Most churches are a top-down pyramid system where the pastor tells them when to meet or how to meet and what Scriptures to cover or whatever. I took a free-market approach to that and just wanted to empower people to minister whatever was in their hearts.

Indy: It all sounds very different from the 30-pew church I went to as a kid.

TH: Well, the whole population is going to go from 6 billion to 9 billion during our generation. And so the way people of all faiths gather will evolve with that. There will be more big churches and more small churches. And there will also be more of what we call house churches. And, of course, no matter what people do, they think what they do is the best.

Indy: What was your father's church like?

TH: Well my dad was Presbyterian most of his life. And then right toward the end of his life, there was not a Presbyterian church there that he enjoyed. So he had just a little tiny meeting there in his veterinary hospital, and he called it the Church of the Branches. But it was just a gathering around a table of a handful of people.

He was a very successful veterinarian; he had the largest small animal practice in the state of Indiana. Dad was a great guy. People respected him highly, and he always did a good job with the community as far as he could.

Indy: Did he live to see your ministry start to grow?

TH: Well, yeah, but not New Life. He died when I was a youth pastor down in Baton Rouge. But he didn't like it because I used the New International Version of the Bible and he was a King James guy. And so very often he would point out to me what the real Bible said.

Indy: Your mom got to see New Life?

TH: Mom got to see New Life. After Dad died, Mom did come here; she lived in a little condo here on the north side of town and she actually died in New Life Church's old auditorium, after a Sunday service. She died very peacefully — she was sitting there and she just lowered her head and was gone. No gasp, no panic, no anything. She was a very, very proud southeastern Kansas farm girl, and she always said it's just as important to die well as to live well. And she did that.

Indy: Were you comfortable talking to your parents about the abuse you experienced as a kid [at age 7, according to Haggard, by one of his father's employees]?

TH: You know, that was not an issue. It wasn't painful. It wasn't traumatic. I didn't realize it was an issue until my crisis. I think it was like so much abuse — the reason pedophiles get away with what they get away with, is because a huge percentage of it is not painful to the kid. As I recall, it happened and my dad took care of it, and that was it. And I think they probably thought that since Ted's doing OK, it's OK.

Indy: But it wasn't.

TH: I thought it was.

Indy: Did you just not even think about it?

TH: I very seldom thought about it.

Indy: But it wasn't completely repressed.

TH: It wasn't repressed at all. I mean, when this crisis happened and we were working through it, the therapist asked me, "Were you abused as a kid?" And I said no, I had a great family, a great life — and where the therapist figured it out was when I was describing being a sixth-grader.

As a sixth-grader, I was still wetting the bed and wetting my pants at school and at friends' houses. So she said something was causing that. And then she worked on that a bit and I told her about that, but I said I don't think that was abusive. But she used EMDR [eye movement desensitization and reprocessing] and did a trauma resolution therapy regarding that.

Indy: I'm a little confused as to why you still wouldn't feel it was abusive. Is it because I'm not understanding what exactly happened?

TH: Well, it was oral sex. It was oral sex on his part, on me.

Indy: But you didn't feel it was abusive?

TH: Well, I didn't think it — certainly, I thought it was wrong, certainly I thought it was a violation, and yes, it would qualify as abusive. I just didn't think it affected me.

Indy: And yet you say that had a lot to do with what happened in later life?

TH: Well, that's because the therapist — I don't know that it did, and I don't want to displace responsibility for my own failures. And I don't want to say that people who have homosexual tendencies, have homosexual tendencies because of abuse, because most don't.

And if I said the things that the therapists have said to me, some people out there would read it as me giving an excuse, which I don't want to do. I just want to be well. I want to be able to be faithful to my wife, faithful to my kids, and faithful to my faith. I want to be the man that I am, I want to be true to myself, and that's why I haven't let the others put me in a box. Oprah really wanted me to be gay or straight or something, and I just said, "I am not going to fit into your boxes." I'm not here to fit into your stereotypes, I'm here to be faithful to me.

Indy: The New Life Church leaders referred to you as being completely heterosexual — I believe that was the phrase — which I understand didn't come from you.

TH: Yeah, that was one quote by Tim Ralph, which he corrected later. I called Tim laughing when some guy did that song, "Ted Haggard is Completely Heterosexual." It's really bad — I mean, it's poorly done — but it's funny.

Indy: So you were able to laugh at those things to some degree.

TH: Well, I am now that we're doing so well. But for a year and a half, the sun never came up. It was very sad and everything was a dagger. And even now, some people writing in a blog will flippantly refer to me, and they're ill-informed and they're just mean. And that type of meanness, it's inaccurate and it doesn't help anybody.

Indy: I saw you sent a Twitter message to Perez Hilton and a lesbian blogger you've had interactions with ...

TH: Well, for a while I thought if I would give people more accurate facts, I thought it would help, but that was naïve.

Indy: But Perez Hilton?

TH: Who's she?

Indy: He's a prominent gossip blogger. I assume it was because of something he had written about you?

TH: Yeah, all those would have been responses to something, because I'm not ashamed of my story — my story is my story, I'm not gonna cloak it, I'm not gonna hide it — but at the same time I have children and I want them to have as much dignity as possible. And I want dignity.

Indy: So tell me about your appearance in the film, Jesus Camp.

TH: Well, here's what happened with that. We were all done with everything and — do you remember that preacher scene in Polyanna? He's up there in his robe looking at the crowd saying, "Death cometh unexpectedly!" It's just iconic in the preacher world, especially for churches like ours where none of us are like that. So we were all done with everything and I was kind of doing the modern version of that — "I know what you did!" — and the crowd's roaring and laughing in the background, because they know it's totally counter to my style and everything that I do. We had been taping for over an hour before that, and for Jesus Camp to use that as a serious piece was dishonest on their part.

Indy: Being from California, my first impression of you came from that film.

TH: But see, I think that's the point: I've never had a TV ministry, I've never had a radio ministry, I've never paid for radio and TV. I grew up in a really nice United Presbyterian Sunday school in Delphi, Indiana. And I never — I mean, the angry, anti-gay, religious right rhetoric — that's totally contrary to what I taught. But on YouTube, you'll see the title, "Ted Haggard's Hateful Anti-Gay Speech," and it's just me saying what I believe today, that if you want to know about God's plan for sexuality, consult the Scriptures.

And so, even though I've been through a sad series of events in my own life, I've always believed that the best expression, the safest, the Godly expression of sexuality is in a heterosexual monogamous marriage. Now that's not saying — I mean, I think a lot of people believe that, but a lot of people who believe it have their own issue with their own minds, their own eyes, their own hormones, their own loneliness, their own whatever.

Our view is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and when you come to Christ, all your sins are forgiven — past, present and future — and then you begin a walk with the Lord where you grow his influence in your life. And so homosexuality is not a sin unto death, unless you embrace it as a lifestyle, and that means you don't repent of it any longer. But the same would be true with virtually any sin.

Indy: But to follow that logic, let's say Mother Teresa was not a religious person but did all those things — and also was a lesbian. Does that mean that she doesn't get into heaven?

TH: I'm not gonna work with hypotheticals with you, but I will work with me. And it's because hypotheticals are too hard to deal with. But the bottom line is, the Scripture says all have sinned and all have fallen short of the glory of God. The Scripture says that when we repent of our sins, when we confess them, that God is faithful and he is just. He will forgive us of our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness. And so the process is that we all know that we all fall short.

Indy: So as long as you continue to repent, even if you keep messing up, you're still in?

TH: Yeah, you're ...

Indy: I mean, you do believe in a literal heaven and hell.

TH: I do believe in heaven and hell, I believe they're literal places.

Indy: And God and Satan?

I believe in a literal God and a literal Satan. Yes, I do. And that's why my behaviors — see, that's why I was so confused about it myself. Because I knew that it didn't fit with my belief system and it didn't fit with the rest of my life.

Indy: There's that whole element of Greek tragedy: the greater the rise, the greater the fall.

TH: Exactly. And see, when I was in my saddest times, I thought I was crazy for trying to do any good.

Indy: So you became really disillusioned.

TH: Very disillusioned. I thought for a long time that my whole ministry time was a total waste, and I just would have been better off to have built a construction company or sold cars or whatever. Because if I was a car salesman, nobody would have cared. You know, they just would've said Ted's got marriage problems. Even if I'd had a small church, they probably would have done that. "Ted, work out your marriage problems."

But see, I never had goals to build a large church. I never asked to be president of the NAE [National Association of Evangelicals]. I never dreamed worldprayerteam.org would be huge. We started a prayer meeting in our home up here and people just kept coming.

And then we had a universal pay scale system. I was on the same pay scale as the youth pastors and some of the janitors and the secretaries. So everybody on salary was on the same pay scale system. I was there longer than a lot of the other people but, if you were a youth pastor there, at five years you were making what I was making at five years.

Indy: What were you making at the end?

TH: Around 140 [thousand] a year.

Indy: Which is, for a church of that size ...

TH: Pathetically low. See, let me tell you what the scandal was not. The scandal was not a financial scandal. The scandal was not a heresy scandal. The scandal was not people being laid off or unemployed or being denied benefits ...

Indy: You were actually the first person to be laid off there.

TH: Yeah, that's right. [Laughs.] That's exactly right. The scandal is not even any crazy hateful quotes about gays, about anybody else. I mean, that whole argument is just so crazy to me. When the Amendment 2 thing happened here years ago, I was a supporter of Greg Walta — the ACLU lawyer here in town who was in our church at the time — and his compromise. [According to a Denver Post article at the time, the proposed alternative to the 1993 amendment "would have denied 'special rights' to gays while also guaranteeing them some protection."]

And another time, the City Council of Colorado Springs was contemplating extending insurance to domestic partnerships, and Ted Eastburn at that time — he is a cardiologist here in town and he was on the City Council — he had breakfast with me and said, "What should I do about this as a Christian?" And I said that I just don't believe any Christian should do anything to deny people health insurance.

And then there's one other thing: Even the ballot initiative that upset Mike Jones so much — and that caused him to come out and attack me — that was one ballot initiative originally that gave the definition of marriage, and then it said that same-sex couples cannot ever receive the benefits, that type of thing. I was the one that insisted that it be two separate initiatives because, in my mind, the definition of a word is very different than equal rights. And so I thought that Colorado voters had two issues to voice their opinion about, not one. Just because the definition of marriage is what it is does not mean that it should impact people's rights.

Indy: There's a stereotype of evangelists that's persisted from Flannery O'Connor's traveling preachers on up through the philandering of TV evangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. How much of an element of truth is there in that?

TH: It's an element of free-market religion. If you're gonna have freedom of religion, the people have to be responsible for who they support. Just like freedom of the press ... if you want government or religious hierarchy to make those choices, that would be a very sad day for freedom of thought, freedom of faith and freedom of expression.

Indy: In the HBO documentary that Alexandra Pelosi did, there's some obvious bitterness: You talk about being excommunicated and I think at some point say you'd been sent to hell.

TH: Well, I was in Phoenix during the hottest summer on record. [Laughs.] Let me repeat that: The hottest summer on record. But I did feel like that. I felt shunned, excommunicated and exiled.

Indy: Did you feel that you had lost control not only of yourself, but of what the church had become?

TH: Well, I did. I resigned. That was an obvious loss of control.

Indy: But I mean before that.

TH: No. Our church was set up with four different systems. In the day-to-day operation of the church, it was led by the pastor. In the selection of a new pastor, it was congregation. In all financial matters, it was run by the board of trustees. And in the discipline of the pastor, that was run by an outside committee called the overseers. So when I had my scandal, the overseers came in, and they're the ones who established the contract with me that said I needed to leave.

Indy: And also to leave Colorado, which is extremely unusual.

TH: It is unusual, but I believed in submission. I wanted to submit to the church authorities. And so I would have signed anything. I would have agreed to anything. It didn't matter if it was legal or enforceable, I would have done it.

Indy: So how long were you supposed to be gone for?

TH: In perpetuity.

Indy: And so you ended up defying that?

TH: No, I asked. I went to Tommy Barnett, my pastor in Phoenix, and asked him to adjust the contract enough so that we could move back to Colorado, for the sake of the children.

Indy: Why would a pastor in Phoenix be able to adjust that?

TH: He was on that board, so he was in communication with those people all the time.

Indy: So the board consisted of people who actually came from outside the church?

TH: All the overseers and restorers were people outside the church, and they're the ones who established that particular contract. But Gayle and I went to him just before Christmas of 2007, and I asked him for permission to go back to our family home, to change that one paragraph, and he came back in January and released me from the entire contract.

Indy: I understand that you've served as an overseer for other churches in the past?

TH: I served as an overseer with several guys and I'm great friends with all of them — it's because I didn't force any of them to leave their state. I didn't force their kids to leave their school. But what I did do wrong was, I asked them to leave the church that they had been serving as a leader. I would no longer do that, because I think if you're a family, you need to stay together.

Now their roles may change — if they're a senior pastor they can't be senior pastor anymore — but the whole issue is service, whether you're teaching Sunday school or teaching the Bible or cleaning a toilet. And just because you disqualify yourself with your own foolishness from being a Bible teacher, that doesn't mean you can't clean toilets.

Indy: And, if you were still at New Life, make the same amount of money.

TH: Yeah, that's right. But let me clarify that all salaried positions were on a universal scale. There were also hourly employees and part time and volunteers.

Indy: I want to ask about a message you posted to your Twitter account this morning: "Judas and Peter both sinned and repented. Judas' suicide served the religious leaders well, Peter's recovery exposed them."

TH: Well, this is where I read my Bible every day, and when I do an inspirational Tweet, it's typically based off my Scripture reading that day. So my Scripture reading was Matthew 27:1-10, which is the story about Judas hanging himself, OK? [Reads passages.] So Judas and Peter both denied Christ. Judas killed himself and couldn't talk anymore, so all we know about him is that he was a bum. Peter did the same thing; he denied Christ three different times. The difference was, 50 days later, he was speaking again. And so now we see his denial in the context of his whole life, whereas with Judas we see his denial as the pinnacle of his life.

And so those are pretty important ideas to me, because the contract said that I could never speak to the media again in perpetuity. It said I could never even acknowledge that the contract existed.

Indy: So you were erased?

TH: I was erased. I could never acknowledge that I'd been at New Life Church, so I was trying to get a job with a 22-year gap in my résumé. No telling what they thought I was. [Laughs.]

Indy: New Life is visible from here ...

TH: It's nine tenths of a mile.

Indy: Do you ever get the urge to go over there?

TH: Oh no. I know that would be confusing, and I want the new administration to do well and I admire them.

Indy: You've had contact with Pastor Brady, right?

TH: Yeah, he's come over here twice, and those conversations were very constructive and helpful.

Indy: For dinner and drinks?

TH: We don't drink. [Laughs.] Gayle does, but I don't. It's not because of a faith position, it's just that I don't drink. I'm a Mountain Dew guy.

Indy: Do you still have mood swings?

TH: Less and less as time goes by. I used to have them. Well, at the beginning, for the first year and a half, everything was dark. We started to heal when we came home in June of 2008. So from November of 2006 to June of 2008, it was dark. The sun never came up, no grass was green, the birds never sang, the sky was never blue.

And then in June of 2008, when we came home, we started to heal, because the people of Colorado Springs are so loving. So I'd be in Starbucks, Wal-Mart, wherever, and people were so loving toward me and my children and my wife, we started to heal. We've not had one negative interpersonal experience. Not one.

Indy: There's a scene of you preaching in the HBO documentary where you say, "If you need to go somewhere in the middle of the night and you want to keep it a secret and hope no one ever knows, don't do it." Did it occur to you that you weren't really a member of the choir you were preaching to?

TH: Oh no, everything I taught, I believed. I taught strongly that there's no such thing as a secret.

Indy: But you were able to keep one for how long?

TH: Well, some people keep secrets for most of their lives, and then it will come out on Judgment Day.

Indy: What would have happened if you hadn't been outed by Mike Jones?

TH: Oh, it was inevitable. It was going to happen sometime, either by somebody else or me.

Indy: How long did it go on?

TH: Well, all those details I went over thoroughly with my wife and with the counselors, that's not for the press. But what is for the press and for people that are outside my family is the fact that I was immoral and — I'm not guilty of everything I've been accused of — but I sure am guilty of enough. So I'm very sorry for what I did.

Indy: If there were things that you were accused of that were not true, why not specify what those things are?

TH: Because it doesn't matter. According to the Scripture, if you've violated one point in the law, you've violated all of it.

Indy: So if more things were to come out, it wouldn't make a difference?

TH: It makes no difference. And that's why I said in my resignation letter, I failed. And so I shouldn't be the pastor anymore, and we need a new administration and I need time to get well.

Indy: At which point you'll start preaching again?

TH: Maybe. That's up to people. Remember, it's a free-market religious system. I have somebody that tells us to start a church every day. If people say we don't want you to do it, that determines it. But if they say we want you to do it, then I get to choose.

Indy: Was there a point — and I'm guessing there was — when you couldn't imagine that would be an option again, like when you were out driving through the desert trying to sell insurance?

TH: Oh yeah, sure. I thought it was all over right after the scandal. Actually I thought life was over.

Indy: You thought about killing yourself, or just that life was over metaphorically?

TH: No, I thought I'd so shamed my wife and my children and my friends and the city I lived in — I mean, I embarrassed every citizen of our city.

Indy: How close did you get?

TH: Well, I was working on the methodology.

Indy: What was it?

TH: I'm not gonna say that. I think that demonstrates your own issue. [Laughs.] Now if you had a clip of just that, that's a pretty mean Ted. That's what Jesus Camp did.

Indy: You've posted that you're feeling for the first time that you could start a ministry here.

TH: Well, we go back and forth on it. Some days we think, let's do something again. Other days, we think we really love our private life.

Indy: But what else would you do for a living? Actually, what are you doing for a living?

TH: Well, there are lots of choices. I mean, the insurance business is very lucrative.

Indy: Is it? Because it looked horrible in that documentary.

TH: Oh, that was health insurance. I don't do that anymore. Yeah, we switched to life insurance. Life insurance is great. Although we haven't had time to do it — with all these appearances I'm doing in churches where I apologize for embarrassing them. And I'll continue doing that — of course, I'll do that all my life, to some degree — but I'll continue doing that until Gayle's book comes out in January.

Indy: And then?

TH: Then we'll start dealing more with the ideas — the ideas of, if a church preaches forgiveness and healing and restoration and assistance with sin, then how should they work that out on a practical level?

Indy: How do you see the connections you've made through the Internet impacting the possibility of you starting a new ministry?

TH: What I have to accept is that, because of the Internet, there's no such thing as time. In other words, even today, people are learning about my scandal for the first time.

Indy: Including some people who read this article, although it's hard to imagine anyone wouldn't know about it here in Colorado Springs.

TH: Yeah, but your newspaper will come and go. But what you put on the Internet from it, that's gonna stay there for somebody to find theoretically forever, along with everybody's comments.

So, No. 1, there's no such thing as time. And No. 2, there's no such thing as distance. So it used to be that, back in the old days, when somebody would get in trouble, they'd just need to move 40 or 50 miles, or a hundred miles, and they could start again. Not anymore.

Which is one of the reasons why we needed to come home. Because I needed to finish this story from here. I could not let my Colorado Springs life be summed up with a scandal. I had invested 22 years of wonderful relationships with this city and the people of this city, and then we had the scandal. And now I need to be honorable and respectful and humble here in my hometown, and let the next chapter be written.


Crystal method

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