Thomas McKenzie
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Ted Haggard: How Does it Happen?


Today, many of us woke up to the news that Ted Haggard has at least temporarily stepped down as the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals (here is their website) and the pastor of his mega-church, New Life (their website is here). Ted Haggard is a very, very influential leader in the evangelical Christian movement. While he is not as well known to the general public as other evangelicals, there is no one who has more clout within the movement itself.

At this point, there is a great deal of confusion as to what is going on. I certainly don't know if Mr. Haggard has done anything wrong, or if these accusations are true or not. It is possible this is all garbage, and at this moment Mr. Haggard has publicly denied the allegations. However, his church sent the following e-mail to its members last night:

Dear New Lifers and friends of New Life Church,

Many of you have expressed concern about today's news regarding our pastor. Thank you all for your prayers and support, and for your concern for our church family.

As you've likely heard by now, Pastor Ted has voluntarily placed himself on administrative leave as New Life's senior pastor to allow our external board of overseers to work effectively. Below is the statement that we released to the media on Thursday afternoon.

Since that time, the board of overseers has met with Pastor Ted. It is important for you to know that he confessed to the overseers that some of the accusations against him are true. He has willingly and humbly submitted to the authority of the board of overseers, and will remain on administrative leave during the course of the investigation.

Regardless of the facts, this story brings up an important point. Why does this happen? Why do pastors who preach a moral life sometimes end up in some really dark immorality? And why does this often end up with sex?

I'm not going to write a book on this, just a post. Books could well be written. But let me say this. I know these guys. I have personally been in the situation where, as the assistant pastor at a church, my pastor left in a sex-related situation. He left his wife, kids, and the church all in one day because he had hooked up with his former college girlfriend on the internet. I have also known many other pastors who have struggled with these issues, some of whom have stepped down and some of whom have not.

So, why does it happen. Let me try to bottom-line it.

  1. Often times, people become pastors because they are soft-hearted. They have a felt need to love people. They also have the deep need to be loved and accepted themselves.
  2. Because of this, pastors want to please people. However, they soon find out that they can not please everyone. In fact, no matter how hard they try, they will make people upset. They will also discover that people will often only love and accept the pastor while the pastor is being pleasing. Once the pastor displeases a person, the person will reject them.
  3. Because of his position, people ascribe a lot of things to a pastor. They project all kinds of things, usually father-related attributes. The pastor is not a real person to most people. He is a screen upon which we shine our projections.
  4. Since a pastor is not a real person, he gets too much praise when we like him (which feeds his need to be loved) and too much hatred when he displeases us.
  5. Because of these things, pastors are isolated. They are isolated by undeserved praise (which makes them feel superhuman). They are isolated by projections and expectations (which they feel like they must meet or be punished). They are isolated by the people's need for them to be perfect. People like to have perfect pastors.
  6. Pastors often respond to this situation by pretending to be perfect. Or, worse, they act perfect except for "understandable" flaws. This is the pastor who is "getting real" when he talks about how angry he gets when driving.
  7. The church is a huge part of a pastor's life. It is his church. It is his job. It is his primary community. It is the source of all of his relationships in the city (for most pastors).
  8. Pastors don't have friends. They have allies in the church, but not many friends (especially in the city they live in, a city they came to in order to pastor and have never lived in before).
  9. All of this sets pastors up to look for love and affirmation outside of the church. They can do this the easy way or the hard way.
  10. The hard way is to sacrifice time and energy that could be used for the church or the family. They can use that time to find real friendships, spiritual direction, rest, and community outside of their church. This is hard work, and they church might punish them for it. How? By not respecting that the pastor needs more time than most people to seek this out. This disrespect includes more rejection and "you are not spending enough time with me" talk.
  11. The easy way is to go to comforting behavior. Often times, this includes over-eating, alcohol, drugs, pornography, and other sexual behavior.
  12. Since alcohol and drugs are expensive and can be detected, that sometimes doesn't work.
  13. That leaves eating and sex. Internet pornography is easily accessed, and many pastors go there. However, as addictions are progressive, they can end up in all kinds of even darker places before things come to the surface and they have to leave the ministry.
  14. Finally, let's not leave out the spiritual stuff. The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking pastors to devour.

Is that surprising? I hope so. I hope that someone reads this and says "wow, being a pastor is really hard." It is. And I hope it motivates someone to pray for their pastor. And I hope it motivates someone to get off their pastor's back. And I hope it motivates someone to see their pastor as a real-live human being who deserves normal Christian love. At best, I hope it motivates someone to try to be a real friend to a pastor.

I have seen this pattern more often then I care to recall. Isolation and dishonesty is the first and greatest cause of moral failure among pastors, along with the belief that "this can't happen to me."

And this is why I blog. And this is why I go to the Samson Society (www.samsonsociety.org). And this is why I seek out mentors and spiritual directors. And this is why I go on annual retreat. And this is why I have actual, real-live male friends in this city who have nothing to do with my church. And this is why I make my personal spiritual life a priority. And this is why I prioritize time and energy for my wife and kids. And this is why my relationship with my wife is by farther than far the most important human relationship I have. Because if I don't, I'm going to end up in exactly the same place as that pastor I worked for, and the same place Ted Haggard may be finding himself shortly.