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Some churches like Ga. pastor's thin on safeguards

It's too early to say whether the sex allegations against Bishop Eddie Long will spur the kind of soul-searching that followed the downfall of the Rev. Ted Haggard in Colorado in 2006.
Eddie Long
Bishop Eddie Long speaks during a funeral service at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., on Aug. 3, 2009.John Bazemore / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The 2006 scandal that ousted one of America's most prominent preachers forced independent charismatic and evangelical churches to consider how to keep a closer eye on their leaders, an issue raised again this week with lawsuits accusing another megachurch pastor of misconduct.

It's too early to say whether the sex allegations against Bishop Eddie Long, the famed pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, will spur the kind of soul-searching that followed the downfall of the Rev. Ted Haggard in Colorado.

Regardless, pastors and experts say the Long case demonstrates how vulnerable the country's independent churches still are to being damaged by the misbehavior — sexual, financial or otherwise — of leaders whose considerable influence often comes with temptation and little accountability.

"The more powerful a Christian leader becomes, the fewer restraints that other people can put on them," said the Rev. H.B. London Jr., vice president of ministry outreach for Focus on the Family. "Some of these men and women become so powerful that no one can tell them 'no.'"

In one of the biggest shocks ever for independent churches, Haggard resigned from the Colorado Springs megachurch he founded after a Denver man accused him of paying for sex. The fall of Haggard, who drove a pickup truck and made church salaries public information, shook the independent churches who considered him a spotless success story.

"Ted was not viewed as being one of the extravagant people," said J. Lee Grady, a contributing editor at Charisma Magazine and the author of "The Holy Spirit is Not For Sale." said. "Ted was viewed as one of the sensible people. That was a huge blow to the movement."

Haggard said the risk for all pastors lies in how they understand their relationship to God and the members of the congregation.

"Some preachers see themselves as with the people," he said. "Some see themselves as leading the people. And some preachers see themselves as on the mountaintop with God, above the people."

Having recently started a new church, Haggard said he's always tried to be a pastor who is with the people.

There have been subsequent scandals for independent churches since 2006, but none has involved a leader as prominent as Long. Over the last 20 years, Long became one of the most powerful independent church leaders in the country. He led New Birth as it grew from a suburban Atlanta congregation of 150 to a 25,000-member powerhouse with a $50 million cathedral and a roster of parishioners that includes athletes, entertainers and politicians.

This week, four young men who once belonged to New Birth filed lawsuits, claiming Long pushed them into sexual relationships when they were 17 or 18 years old with gifts including cars, cash and travel. Three of the young men live in Georgia, while the other was a member of a satellite church in Charlotte, N.C., run by Long.

Long denies the charges and plans to respond at Sunday worship services.

Meanwhile, Long, during a Friday conference call with supporters, said he was "under attack," WGCL-TV reports. The Atlanta TV station said it was on the conference call with parishioners from across the country.

"We will arise through this situation, and go forward, and we are moving forward," WGCL quoted Long as saying.

Long said several times that he had to be careful what he said because the case is in litigation, the station reported. He would not take any questions.

"I have never dealt with anything like this before. I have been under attack before, but everything else has been different levels and different challenges," Long said.

He said the truth would be revealed, and that he is praying for his accusers, according to WGCL.

"I always operate in the spirit of love, and we are going to move through this," he said.

Even before the allegations of sexual misconduct, New Birth was one of six ministries targeted in 2007 by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, over the handling of their finances. Long was singled out by Grassley for questions over whether he, rather than New Birth's board of directors, holds sole authority over the organization.

It's a question that applies to many Pentecostal and independent charismatic churches around the country, which often have little or no affiliation with other churches and which sometimes have leaders who seem bigger than the church itself.

Lavish lifestyles and autocratic leadership can combine to create a kind of religious celebrity and the temptations that go along with that, according to Christian journalist J. Lee Grady.

"In some ways, they're like television personalities," Grady said. "When they fall, it's loud, because everybody knows them. It's almost like success destroys people."

After Haggard's scandal, churches began new programs of training for pastors and looked to adopt safeguards against misconduct. London, who counsels pastors, advises church leaders to always have at least two people holding them accountable — to the point of being able to access their computer and phone records.

The abundance of clerical scandals at churches with more formal, hierarchical structures is proof that such safeguards can't completely eliminate misconduct, with the Roman Catholic Church's sex abuse saga a prime example.

"The main check on leadership that goes berserk is really the congregation," said Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox, an expert on Pentecostal and charismatic churches. "You've got to keep the congregation with you, or they can toss you out."

At the time of Haggard's fall, he led the National Association of Evangelicals. The organization, which includes Pentecostal and charismatic churches along with Presbyterians, Lutherans, and other longer-established bodies, is developing a clergy code of ethics for its members, according to David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today and a member of the committee developing the code.

Neff cautions that such measures are not foolproof.

"It's possible for policies to be bent and shaped and ignored," he said. "Even when you're in a denomination that has a much stronger set of controls and authority than these independent churches do, you're on your own most of the time."