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Haggard scandal raises questions about 'superstar' pastors

Pastor Ted's influence was felt everywhere in New Life Church: in the videos shown at worship; in the New Life bookstore, which stocked books he recommended; and in the story of the church itself. He started New Life in his basement, building it into a 14,000-member nationally known megachurch. As the Rev. Ted Haggard's fortunes rose, so did the church's.

So when Haggard fell spectacularly from grace in a scandal involving drugs and allegations of gay sex, many wondered if New Life, so tied to his public persona, would crash with him.

The answer has significance far beyond the Haggard tragedy. As evangelical megachurches have sprung up around the country, concerns have grown over whether superstar pastors help or hurt faith communities.

"When you get to these top 25 or 50 of the largest or most influential churches, these pastors are clearly celebrities. They were the founders, they created much of the growth and they are, in some sense, a brand in and of themselves," said Scott Thumma, a professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, who specializes in studying megachurches. "It's just like a business where the name of the founder is, in fact, a trademark."

America has always had big-name preachers -- from Billy Sunday, the pro baseball player-turned-evangelist, to Billy Graham. But the two were not closely tied to a single church. Among today's best-known pastors, Rick Warren has Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Joel Osteen has Lakewood Church in Houston and Bishop T.D. Jakes has The Potter's House in Dallas.

Graham and Sunday also worked in a vastly different media environment. Modern-day celebrity pastors have Web sites, where they promote their books, along with the DVDs, TV shows and films they produce, while preaching internationally. With such high profiles, word of any wrongdoing will spread quickly, intensifying the damage to them and their congregations.

Haggard felt the impact firsthand last week. On Nov. 2, Mike Jones of Denver came forward saying he had drug-fueled homosexual trysts regularly with Haggard over the last few years.

The claims spread through the Internet, where they were placed side-by-side with video and past news articles in which Haggard had condemned gay marriage and had presented his family life, with wife Gayle and their five children, as a model.

Haggard, 50, immediately resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group for about 45,000 conservative churches, and within days was fired by New Life in Colorado Springs, Colo. In a letter read Sunday at New Life services, he did not address the specifics of Jones' claims, but confessed he was guilty of "sexual immorality."

New Life's reaction was swift -- yet most megachurches don't have such effective oversight. Many have boards stacked with relatives, friends, personal lawyers and hangers-on who wouldn't dare contradict the pastor, said Bill Martin, a Rice University expert on evangelicals.

Nearly all megachurches are independent from a denomination -- an asset for their flexibility, but a liability when it comes to checks on power. By contrast, mainline Protestant denominations vet clergy credentials and have elaborate systems of church tribunals, similar to civil courts, that discipline errant ministers.

"The pitfall with the megachurches, the personality driven churches, is it's so easy for a person to consider him- or herself above accountability," Martin said. "If that accountability is absent or reduced, then trouble is on the way."

Some megachurch pastors are aware of the risk. They allow independent audits of their finances and have elaborate rules meant to minimize any chance of sex scandal. For example, some only allow male staff members to counsel women if someone else is in the room or if the door is open. And in a highly unusual practice for pastors, Warren, who has sold millions of copies of his book "The Purpose Driven Life," gives 90 percent of his income to the church.

"Money is a difficult issue with megachurch pastors," Thumma said. "They're accused all the time of fleecing their flocks and using that money to buy fancy cars and homes when their members have less."

With Haggard gone and the crisis he created easing, New Life members face a different challenge: They must decide whether they wish to belong to a church without the charismatic leader.

Nancy Ammerman, a Boston University sociologist who researches congregational life, said the megachurch might be saved by its extensive programs that create social groups within the church. New Life uses the small group model, where churchgoers meet regularly with just a few others, sometimes based on common interests outside of worship.

"That also gives them a forum within which to deal with what happened," Ammerman said.

But Randall Balmer, a Barnard College historian of American religion, said megachurches are so wrapped up with their pastor that New Life inevitably has hard times ahead. Without any creed or denominational identity for the church to cling to, attendance will eventually drop by half or more, he predicted.

"You have a kind of cult of personality that confuses the faith with a particular individual," said Balmer, author of "Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America." "I just think it's very difficult to recover from this sort of thing."

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