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When Leaders Fall: Ted Haggard vs. Tiger Woods

When I asked Ted if there was any sin that would keep a pastor from ever holding a ministry position again, he said, “ Yes, lack of repentance. Should we ever embrace sin and accept it as a lifestyle we should not be a position of vocational ministry.” We agreed on this point.

Things are still tense between Ted Haggard and the American Church. Ted feels like he was deserted by the Christian community after his fall. “If it were not for HBO, Larry King, Oprah Winfrey, etc., the church would have left me and my family starving in the desert and would have proclaimed in self-righteousness that I deserved it,” Ted said.

I know the pain must be overwhelming, and I sympathize with the Haggard family. I also sympathize with New Life Church. I can’t imagine the pain and hurt they’ve been exposed to on a public scale. My point in this story is not to dig into the details of the Haggard scandal but to look at the issue on a larger scale and ask the question: how should we respond to fallen church leaders?

I interviewed Jay Bakker, the son of Jim Bakker, a few years back, and when I asked Jay how the church should respond to those who have a loved one that falls, whether it’s from sexual immorality, alcohol abuse or another destructive behavior, Jay says: “Love that family. Stop gossiping! Don’t tear that family apart. Love that family and help restore that family.” 

Which brings me back to Tiger Woods. I know there was—and still is—a lot of gossip about the Tiger Woods scandal, but the golf community for the most part has accepted Tiger back to the PGA. Even the commentators seem to be over the scandal when they interact with Tiger. It makes me wonder, Did Tiger receive more grace from the golf community than Ted Haggard did from the Church? These are questions worth wrestling with—especially considering the overwhelming stats of fallen church leaders. Sin is serious and the church should respond to sin with an appropriate level of brokenness, disappointment, solemnity—and grace.

I know that the PGA is very different from the Church, but I wonder if we’ve made restoration—bringing a church leader back into a proper relationship with God and the church—too difficult and too complex for church leaders today. I’m not saying that every fallen leader should be placed back in full-time ministry—there are times when full-time ministry is not an option—but I do wonder if we’re throwing away many good leaders who, with the proper encouragement and accountability, could slowly—eventually—return to leadership. 

I don’t know how the Haggard story will end, but I do believe in second chances. I also believe that we need to cheer on repentant leaders—helping them, identifying with them, and doing the hard work of restoration in full view of the Church. However, I will admit, dealing with fallen leaders is a tricky business and it’s often hard to sort through the mess.

Like I said, we love a comeback story, but it’s easier to love a comeback from a distance and much harder to stand by someone the world—or even the Church—would like to throw away. 

Editor’s Note: Share your thoughts. Did Tiger Woods receive more grace than Ted Haggard? Have you seen a fallen leader restored properly in your church? 

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Brian is a writer and editor from Ohio. He works with creative and innovative people to discover the top stories, resources and trends to equip and inspire the Church.