Walking on water syndrome

walkwater2 770659Election day is finally here, which means that it's OK for the Rev. Ted Haggard story to slip back deep inside the newspaper (unless it's a Colorado newspaper). The real story has arrived and politics trumps religion, which is why religion stories often end up being forced into political molds. This is precisely what I think happened to most of the Haggard story in the American press -- it was covered as a major development in a political struggle between left and right, Democrats and Republicans.

Haggard wasn't a pastor in a megachurch he built using his own charismatic gifts. He was a political figure, a man involved in conference calls with the White House.

This was true, of course. But was this the heart of the drama that unfolded last week in Colorado Springs?

I think not. It also appears that Stephanie Simon, that Los Angeles Times reporter who is often praised on this blog, did her own non-pack reporting and reached a similar conclusion. The evidence is that she decided this is -- the drama is not over -- a story about a pastor, husband and father who, as many do, crashed and burned under the pressure of leading one of those modern mega-mega-churches that has reached the size of a large mall in large part because people in the flock are attracted to the singular message and personality of the shepherd.

What does this look like in hard news copy? Here is a sample from Simon:

Haggard, 50, built the church after he said he experienced a vision during a three-day solitary fast on Pikes Peak, the majestic mountain that soars above Colorado Springs. Given to visions -- he says he can see demons, and he sometimes speaks in tongues -- Haggard preached his first sermon in his unfinished basement on a cold morning in January 1985. His pulpit was a stack of old buckets. His pews were lawn chairs.

. . . Telegenic and proud of his accomplishments, Haggard welcomed reporters to the church campus (though he did send out a memo cautioning congregants to refrain from dancing in the aisles and speaking in "glassy-eyed heavenly mode" when TV cameras were rolling). His openness with the media only raised his profile further.

But this is where Haggard fell off a cliff that has claimed many others. That story has, sadly, been written before and it will be written again.

Sin is sin. Stress is stress.

People who specialize in counseling burned-out clergy often refer to this as "walking on water syndrome."

Charles Chandler, who runs a support program for ousted preachers, said mega-churches like New Life sometimes put their pastors on a pedestal. The ministers are more than spiritual leaders; they're almost rock stars -- their images beamed on enormous television screens as they preach, their books sold front and center in the lobby, their photos plastered across church websites.

"People almost put you on a throne," Chandler said. "You're vulnerable when that happens. You can take yourself too seriously."

In his group, Ministering to Ministers, Chandler has seen some pastors behave immorally in a gesture of what he calls "professional suicide."

"They can't handle the pressure, but they can't bring themselves to step down, so they do something stupid," he said. Others struggle with sexual or chemical addictions for years -- and preach mightily about that very subject to try to cover up, Chandler said.

"They don't want to recognize that it's part of their life. ..."

When this happens, ministers often begin to hide their secrets and develop double lives. Sexual issues are often, but not always, a part of this. Drugs and alcohol cause problems, too. Stress can cause breakdowns and family problems that are even harder to see from outside the glass parsonage.

This is especially true in today's massive, almost totally independent congregations -- settings in which there are no bishops, denominational officials or even other local seminary buddies to see the warning signs. Many of these super-clergy have little if any formal training. They are gifted, but often left alone. They are stars.

This leads to the stunning final image in Simon's story about the tear-soaked services at New Life Church this past Sunday. There is a father, in the church bookstore, and he is reading a passage from Haggard's book, Letters from Home, written to his two oldest children as they prepared to leave for college.

In a section called "Live as if there are no secrets," Haggard listed powerful men brought down by lust or lies, including presidents Nixon and Clinton and the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart. "Major leaders have lost their positions of influence because of what they did alone in a room," he wrote.

"Please don't ever fall into the trap of believing that you can do something in secret, even when you are far away from home," Haggard urged his children. "This is a lie, and it will always come back to haunt you."

That's a human story, not a political story. Amen.

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