Haggard disclosure creates much-needed dialogue


Even as the Rev. Ted Haggard was pulling the plank from his own eye after stunning revelations about sexual misconduct with a gay prostitute, ex-gay ministries across the country were stepping up their work helping clients with the sawdust in theirs.

"There are those who have realized that if God allowed this man to fall, I can fall, too," said Joe Dallas, founder of Genesis Counseling in Tustin, Calif. "That lights quite a fire under a man. Sometimes there is a crisis of truth that is necessary to get a man to take the steps he needs to take."

Dallas, a nationally recognized expert on homosexuality, said calls to his ministry have increased significantly in light of the Haggard incident.

At Exodus International, the largest ex-gay ministry in the United States, calls are up three to four times their norm at their Orlando, Fla. headquarters.

"A lot of people are calling us and asking us about change and restoration," Membership Director Randy Thomas said. "The world is questioning if change is possible and what restoration means."

The First Lutheran Church in El Cajon, Calif., operates a Christian-based sexual addiction support group through Celebrate Recovery, the Haggard situation has prompted plenty of dialogue.

"Once again it's a reminder to us that we all struggle with difficult things as humans," said Marilyn Hetherington, who coordinates Celebrate Recovery for First Lutheran. "Pastors, bishops, whatever you call them, they are not exempt from the thorn-in-the-side that Paul mentions.

"It just underscores what we try to do, which is to provide a safe place for people to come and to confess and to get help, get healed."

Those on the frontlines of Christian ministries that deal with homosexuality say the two-punch remedy rests with confession and restoration. Thomas, from Exodus, said transparency and redemption are also key ingredients in walking away from the homosexual lifestyle.

On the national stage, Haggard confessed to undisclosed sexual misconduct, within days of initially denying accusations by Mike Jones, a gay prostitute who outed the Colorado Springs pastor on a Denver radio station. Haggard was immediately fired by the board of overseers of New Life Church, the 14,000-member church he founded in his basement. Haggard also resigned from his post as head of the National Association of Evangelicals. A restoration team of Jack Hayford, from Church on the Way in Van Nuys, H.B. London, a Focus on the Family executive, and the Rev. Tommy Barnett, from First Assembly of God in Phoenix and the founder the Dream Center, has been formed to counsel Haggard.

Working through fear
Although difficult to calculate, Hetherington said it is possible her ministry, which includes clients from various churches throughout San Diego County, will deal with a ripple effect from the Haggard disclosures.

"People deal with someone else's failure differently," she said. "When the word homosexual is added it will put on different filters for different people.

"The person in recovery says, 'Wow,'" she said. "They can relate to his fall.

 "To me, that's what the church is for," she said. "That's what we're supposed to be. Jesus spent time with the prostitutes and tax collectors."

Even so, Hetherington said she believes removing Haggard from the ministry will be a major key in healing for his family.

Teaching moment
Haggard's high-profile status and equivalent fall, Thomas said, has created an opportune moment for the Christian community to highlight the effectiveness of the reparative therapy message. Reparative therapy refers to the concept that people can, by God's grace, prayer and education, change same-sex feelings.

The concept is widely dismissed in many therapeutic circles, although Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist and co-founder and director of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, believes homosexuality is a disorder that can be cured. Nicolosi's stance is opposed by the American Psychiatric Association, the same organization that dropped the definition of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. Nicolosi was among the psychologists that lobbied for the '70s APA change before having his own change of heart and mind.

"They have never heard change is possible," he said. "They need our love and encouragement and they need us to rally around them. We need to run toward them and not abandon them."

Thomas, who overcame his own same-sex attractions, was featured in the book "The Good Life," written by Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship.

"People who do struggle, it's (Haggard story) been tough for them. It's difficult for them to watch someone who struggles with this issue to fail."

While both Dallas and Thomas admit the issue has drawn heated ridicule from homosexuality activists, they warn that much more stands to be gained for Christians working to help people leave the same-sex attractions behind.

"We are not preaching ourselves," Dallas said. "We are preaching Christ Jesus and we are preaching standards that are good even when we don't live up to them," he said.

Bad diet, bad coach?
As an example, Dallas pointed to talk show diva Oprah Winfrey, who has espoused health and fitness for two decades.

"When she gains weight we don't say that diet and exercise are a fraud," he said. "We recognize that at times she does not follow everything she teaches."

At the same time, Dallas said he believes the Haggard legacy could be mammoth, if church officials take the opportunity to reflect and re-evaluate their priorities and mission.

"Moral compromise, whether it's pornography, adultery or different forms of fornication, this is a prevalent problem both in the laity and the clergy," Dallas said. "If you are morally compromised, you can't call the culture to moral purity. It does weaken your credibility."

Churches, he said, need to get serious about walking the talk.

"It seems we are not even disciplining our laity when they get involved in sexual sin, which is a shame, really," he said.

While discipline and consistency may still need work, Thomas described as hopeful the church's response to Haggard's actions.

"Thirty years ago there wasn't much compassion," he said, adding that the Christian community's response to Haggard "is a clear indication that that attitude is gone."

"Exodus was born in a void," Thomas said. "The church wasn't open to this kind of ministry."

Recognizing that there is still work to do within the church, the ex-gay ministry announced this summer the implementation of a new initiative called the Exodus Church Network. In launching the program, Exodus officials determined that in order for meaningful change to happen within the Christian community, churches need to become ministry partners in the area of homosexual deliverance.

"Change is possible," he said. "People who deal with same-sex attraction do not have to buy into a gay-world view or a gay experience. We have a right to do that. It's not easy."

Public debate
In light of Haggard's public disclosure, Thomas and others are hoping the stigma of same-sex attraction will generate no more hostility than any other sin.

"If you know Jesus, and you know you are a sinner, then you know how to help someone who struggles with homosexuality," Thomas said. "Don't look at this as something that's alien, because we're all sinners in need of a Savior and that's our common thread."

However the story ends, or starts, for Haggard, Hetherington said she's confident that the Christian community has not seen the end of such revelations.

"I think as time goes on we are going to see more and more of this coming out," she said. "It is so hidden, so stuffed under the rug in people's lives, that this is just the tip of the iceberg."