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Pastor at Haggard's church: 'We stand with him'

By Josh Levs
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (CNN) -- As evangelical Christians absorbed the news of the Rev. Ted Haggard's admission he bought methamphetamine -- but did not take the drug -- his church reeled with shock and heartache.

Haggard has led the 14,000-member New Life Church for 21 years.

"The response in our church is sadness and surprise," said the Rev. Rob Brendle, an associate pastor at New Life.

But, Brendle added, "We believe in him and we stand with him."

In a telephone interview shortly after Haggard acknowledged having contacted Mike Jones for a massage and purchased meth, Brendle said no one at the church sensed Haggard may have been up to surreptitious activities.

"Ted has for 21 years led this church in an exemplary way. He's demonstrated the highest personal character, and his interaction with the staff and the people of this community has been of the most selfless and noble kind."

Jones maintains that he and Haggard, who has strong White House ties, had a sexual affair lasting three years, with the most recent tryst in August.

Jones said he was a gay escort, and Haggard contacted him for sex, using a fake name. Haggard denies these accusations. (Read full story about Haggard)

When Jones came forward this week, Haggard denied knowing him -- until Jones released recordings of voicemails Haggard had left him.

Friday morning Brendle spoke on the phone with Haggard just hours after Haggard resigned as leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, a group which represents 30 million people. Haggard also temporarily stepped down as New Life's senior pastor.

"I asked him about his family, and he assured me that they're doing well," Brendle told CNN.

Haggard has a wife, Gayle, and five children.

"I asked him what we could do to help him while he's going through this, and he said, 'Gayle and I have given our lives to New Life Church and we'll be OK, but please make sure that the church stays strong'," Brendle said.

As for Jones -- who brought his story to the media this week, triggering a national scandal -- Brendle said the church holds no animosity toward him.

"I feel compassion for Mike Jones honestly," said Brendle. "I think that the timing of his disclosure was motivated by politics and I think that it was decent of him to acknowledge that."

Jones says he found out Haggard's identity several months ago and decided to come forward to "expose the hypocrisy" of Haggard's public support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which is on Tuesday's ballot in Colorado.

"I think that he seems to be doing what his conscience dictates and my hope is that people's response to him will be one of love and kindness rather than anger and hatred," said Brendle.

He added that the church has openly gay members.

Brendle said he sees no hypocrisy in Haggard's actions. "To my knowledge, Mike Jones has not alleged that Ted asked him to marry him... No, I do not see this instance as hypocrisy. I do see it as indiscretion, and I am grateful that Ted is repentant and humble."

Brendle, 32, who has been with New Life for a decade, said the congregation supports Haggard and is "hoping he will go through a process that will restore him to health and well being."

Asked whether Haggard is in some way sick, Brendle said no, but that he was referring to "general emotional and spiritual triumph."

If certain allegations are proven true, "those would be evil," he said, citing sexual activity outside of marriage and drug use.

"Doubtless the events of today and yesterday do tarnish Ted's status as a role model," Brendle noted. "And we deeply regret that."

But he added that as a church leader himself and a father of three children, he views the church as a family that can help lift someone who has fallen.

"I want my children to grow up in that environment," he said, adding that it's alright for children to see someone they admire do wrong.

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