Earlier this month, a guest took the pulpit at Open Bible Fellowship in Morrison, Ill., a 350-member church surrounded by cornfields. The speaker was an insurance salesman from Colorado named Ted Haggard.
The former superstar pastor, disgraced two years ago in a sex-and-drugs scandal, had returned — this time as a Christian businessman preaching a message that was equal parts remorse and defiance. Haggard linked his fall to being molested in second grade and apologized again.
His sermon were posted, fleetingly, on Haggard's Web site under one word: "Alive!"
While his exact plan remains unclear, Haggard is unmistakably making himself a public figure again, nine months after his former church said he walked away from an oversight process meant to restore him.
The man who confessed to being a "a deceiver and a liar" is asking for another hearing. He is finding encouragement from a loyal circle of supporters, skepticism from those evangelical leaders who think it's premature and complex emotions at the Colorado Springs church he betrayed.
Haggard, 52, resigned as president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals and was fired from New Life Church amid allegations that he paid a male prostitute for sex and used methamphetamine.
Haggard said in 2006 he bought the drugs but never used them, confessed to "sexual immorality" and described struggling with a "dark and repulsive" side. He had risen from preaching in his basement to taking part in White House conference calls — and fell so far that he became a late-night punch line.
As part of a severance package with his former church, Haggard agreed to leave Colorado Springs for a period and not speak publicly about the scandal, church officials said at the time. But he never really disappeared, making news when he relocated his family to Arizona and solicited financial support in an e-mail.
Haggard's plea for funds was rebuked by a three-pastor team overseeing his "restoration" — a healing process that doesn't necessarily mean a public return. In February, New Life Church announced that Haggard had prematurely ended that relationship.
One restoration team member, H.B. London, said a return to vocational ministry in less than four or five years would be dangerous for Haggard, his family, former church and Colorado Springs.
"To sit on the sidelines for a person with that kind of personality and gifting is probably like being paralyzed," said London, who counsels pastors through a division of Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs-based conservative Christian group. "If Mr. Haggard and others like him feel like they have a call from God, they rationalize that their behavior does not change that call."
Haggard, who declined to be interviewed, is not the first fallen evangelical figure to agree to oversight and then bail. In the late 1980s, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart confessed to liaisons with a prostitute, begged forgiveness and submitted to the Assemblies of God, his denomination. Swaggart was ordered not to preach for a year, but resumed broadcasts after a few weeks and was defrocked.
Haggard's support system includes Leo Godzich, who runs a Phoenix-based marriage ministry and said he met with Haggard at least once a week for more than a year. Godzich said Haggard remains committed to restoration, has paid a high price and still has much to offer.
"If all men are honest, all men are liars and deceivers," Godzich said. "Once someone is gifted and called, that is something they generally cannot escape. They will be used in that regard again.
"True redemption occurs when someone is fulfilling a destiny and purpose in their life."
Haggard's Nov. 2 return to the pulpit was set in motion by the Rev. Chris Byrd, a college classmate from Oral Roberts University. Byrd said he first invited Haggard to speak at his church last summer to offer the Haggard family support, help them heal and teach his own flock about sin and forgiveness.
By then, Haggard had moved his family back to Colorado Springs and was selling life insurance at their $700,000 home down the road from New Life Church, angering some who thought he should stay away.
"I had confidence his heart was solid, his theology is sound and the message he's always brought to the body of Christ would come forth," Byrd said. "The Bible is filled with great leaders, men and women of God, who have failed. They were restored and resumed roles they were called to previously."
In the sermons, Haggard said a co-worker of his father molested him when he was 7, an experience that "started to produce fruit" when he turned 50. Haggard said something "started to rage in my mind and in my heart." Haggard said though some of the allegations against him were exaggerated, "I really did sin."
He apologized for making his family suffer, acknowledged suicidal thoughts and chastised church leaders for missing an opportunity to use his scandal to "communicate the gospel worldwide." Haggard said he emerged with a stronger Christian faith and marriage than he'd ever had.
Byrd said he was not restoring Haggard to Christian ministry and introduced him as a businessman — hinting at a possible future speaking to churches and civic groups.
"You could make a career out of your reformed fallen Christian life," said David Edward Harrell, a retired Auburn University history professor who studies charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity. "What you can't do is go back and do the same thing. Once you've lost that clientele, it's lost."
Evangelicals believe God can change hearts, yet Haggard also must be held accountable and should not return to ministry early, if ever, said David Neff, editor of Christianity Today magazine.
"It's like someone who has announced he's an alcoholic and they've got that under control and are dry now," said Neff, a National Association of Evangelicals executive committee member. "You don't want to chance putting them back in the situation where it could happen again."
The risk is diminished if Haggard seeks a role outside the pulpit, Neff said. Yet if Haggard stumbles again as a Christian speaker, it could crush those he inspired, he said.
On the Sunday after Haggard's return went public, Russ Gordon sat studying his Bible in the coffee shop of New Life Church in Colorado Springs. A church member for 12 years, Gordon said he's concerned Haggard stopped the restoration process, but he listened to Haggard's sermons and found them sincere.
"I can't really judge what's in his heart," Gordon said. "I think we have to watch and observe and see his actions. We as Christians believe in giving second chances. I just say, we all have fallen short."
Sitting a few tables away, Sandy Oltrogge had harsher words for her former pastor.
"I wish he'd just leave it alone and let God promote him and not promote himself," she said. "It's good he can apologize, but I don't think anyone can believe anything he says after that."
A New Life spokeswoman would not comment on whether the church believes Haggard has violated his severance agreement, which paid him a year's salary. The church is trying to move on.
"It's sort of like the mouse in the corner," said church elder Paul Ballantyne. "If he wants to squeak, he can squeak. But I don't think it's going to affect New Life."
Haggard's replacement, Brady Boyd, approved a three-sentence statement saying that while the church cannot endorse Haggard returning to ministry, "we do wish him only success in his business endeavors."
And on the day Haggard returned to the pulpit in Morrison, Boyd began a sermon series on heaven.