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Clinton's Pastor With A Past

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Gordon MacDonald Clinton spiritual adviser Gordon MacDonald. (Grace Chapel)
The leader had soared to prominence, catapulting from one job to the next, winning support from people who shared his beliefs, admired his style and saw in him a certain benevolent power. He seemed to relish the crowds, yet he had an striking ability to connect with an individual.

And then he fell, unable to restrain his lust.

Gordon MacDonald, the minister who has accepted the task of counseling Bill Clinton's broken spirit, shares with the president a life that has risen and plunged with dizzying speed.

In the 1980s, when flashy, money-loving TV evangelists were giving men of the Lord a bad name, MacDonald was one of the shining lights. He wrote several best-selling books. He lectured throughout the country. He was pastor of a large evangelical church in Lexington, Mass., until he left to take over the $200 million World Vision Christian relief agency. He parlayed that post into the presidency of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of the nation's largest collegiate missionary organizations.

That's where he was in 1987, when anonymous letters arrived at the offices of religious publishers spelling out MacDonald's adulterous affair. The minister quickly and publicly admitted his sin.

MacDonald became, as his lifelong friend Vernon Grounds said, "one more conspicuous casualty in the never-ending battle all of us carry on against evil within and without."

Overnight, the pastor lost his job, his standing, his reputation.

"I am a broken-world person because a few years ago I betrayed the covenants of my marriage," the pastor has said. "I know what it is like to live with a secret," the pastor writes. "And I know what it is like to live once again in the light."

In time, MacDonald would win back virtually everything – from the love and respect of his wife and friends to his place on the bestseller list.

But the model MacDonald offers to a president who publicly proclaims his broken spirit is a far more demanding one than Bill Clinton may be willing to accept: MacDonald's book "Rebuilding Your Broken World" – which the president told the pastor he had read twice – prescribes a course of reflection, confession and change that requires time, discipline and, perhaps most important, a separation from daily duties.

In MacDonald's case, that separation lasted for two years. A group of elders from his nondenominational Grace Chapel stepped into their ex-pastor's life and imposed a period of silence – nearly a year of isolation from the public eye – and a series of other measures designed to heal MacDonald's spirit.

"It was necessary that there be some kind of cut or break from the pressures and routines of life," recalled R. Judson Carlberg, a longtime friend of MacDonald and a former elder at Grace who is also president of Gordon College, a Christian liberal arts institution.

Ever since the White House let it be known that Clinton was undergoing spiritual counseling from MacDonald and theologian Tony Campolo, MacDonald has refused invitations to speak publicly about his relationship with the president. He did not respond to several requests for an interview.

As hard as it is to counsel a president of the United States, MacDonald said he wanted to keep his interaction with Clinton confidential.

At least that's what he said until last week, when he decided to grab his piece of the media action, entering the celebrity swirl by telling ABC's "20/20" that he had spent the night before Clinton's prayer-breakfast confession at the White House: "I spent several hours with a deeply broken man, a deeply sorrowful man," MacDonald said. "We don't talk politics, we talk about this man and his deeply personal walk with God."

So much for confidentiality.

MacDonald said he and the president meet regularly and speak with a candor that even some of Clinton's closest aides never approach. "We have gone to the bottom of this man," the minister said.

This is a line of work MacDonald has specialized in since his controversial return to Grace Chapel in 1993. The church's elders invited him back then in recognition of MacDonald's successful completion of his spiritual probation. The offer split the church's members: Most believed bringing MacDonald back would be the ultimate expression of forgiveness, but a large minority argued that their minister had forfeited his claim to leadership. Some members left the church after losing the vote in which MacDonald was rehired by a 3-to-1 margin.

The majority of Grace's members wanted MacDonald back because, Carlberg said, "his preaching now is even more deep and sensitive and compassionate than it was before this. He certainly has an authority to address hurting people."

MacDonald calls them "broken-world people," and his books spell out treatment plans for Christians who, by sexual or other misdeeds, have fouled their nests.

A person's world breaks when their spirit is "violated by temptations from without or by strange stirrings from within," MacDonald writes.

His primary message is that nearly every life is broken in some way, that from biblical times to today's stressed society, almost everyone has experienced or committed some deep personal sin. Moses, for example, "amounts to little that means anything to God until his world has been broken and rebuilt."

The pastor believes that more than half of American middle-aged men harbor at least one secret about their personal lives – acts of vengeance, dishonesty or sexual promiscuity – that "would bring about catastrophic consequences for them and those close to them."

But despite the apparent universality of broken worlds, MacDonald concedes that the truly shattered worlds are those of people who have misbehaved and have "no one else to blame, no handy excuses, no injustices to identify."

In his book and in lectures and counseling sessions for such people, MacDonald maps a hard road toward redemption and forgiveness.

If in his private meetings with Clinton he is giving the president the full force of his approach, MacDonald is asking Clinton to confess guilt, "avoid all excuses and rationalizations," "make no attempt to blame others" and then assemble a "restoration team" of counselors and friends who will take control of the rebuilding process.

The prodigal "must point the finger at himself and acknowledge that he alone is responsible for his choices." Exactly how that should be done is left vague. MacDonald criticizes the Catholic practice of the confessional as "an empty obligation, a religious nuisance." And he says the Protestant tradition has so privatized faith, leaving confession a personal matter between a person and God, that there has been "a loss of accountability."

MacDonald appears to recommend a middle course between private confession to a minister and an Oprah-style public tell-all. "If an individual is genuinely repentant, you expect contrition, nothing fake," said Grounds, chancellor of the Denver Seminary and a longtime friend and spiritual adviser to MacDonald. "However, the specifics of what went on need not become public."

Whatever the president might say in public beyond his repeated apologies, MacDonald's process gets considerably tougher after the confession phase: A broken person should be relieved of responsibilities, make restitution to those he has hurt, and, finally, when he is ready to return to his world, make a public statement that he is once again able to take on responsibilities.

"Repentance is not a one-time act; it is actually a spiritual lifestyle," the pastor writes, spelling out a busy schedule of reflection and contrition that would hardly seem to fit a presidential agenda.

And even all that may not be enough, said Grounds, who at 84 is an elder in the art of spiritual counseling. "There may well also be the need for psychological counseling to confront the root causes of the behavior," he said, a point that MacDonald routinely makes as well.

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have had regular contacts with MacDonald – as well as with several other ministers – for several years. In a 1994 interview, Mrs. Clinton cited MacDonald as one of three religious authors whose books she regularly reads. The president told the pastor he had reread the "Broken World" book over Labor Day weekend.

The First Couple have latched onto a writer whose view of politicians is rather dark. "The systems in which we live constantly manipulate the truth," MacDonald writes. "We expect the politician to play with the truth, to tell us what we want to hear."

Some of MacDonald's advice is practical: Arrange your life so you are not exposed to temptation. Fill your evenings with activities that keep you near your wife or at least away from appealing women.

But while MacDonald is often strict with those who have misbehaved ("Broken-world people are in no position to demand grace or even to deserve it"), he also encourages broken people with the notion that restored spirits may be the most powerful and accomplished of all.

If Clinton has found comfort in MacDonald's approach, it may be because of the pastor's frequent assertions that throughout history, many of the greatest figures have been those who fought back from broken worlds.

The pastor returns repeatedly to the story of King David, whose affair with Bathsheba led to a confrontation with self that MacDonald credits with turning David into a great leader.

"Most outstanding men and women in the Bible seem to have had some sort of experience with brokenness," he writes. "It seems to be the absolute essential before God is willing to work with any of them." Today, MacDonald says, we would likely disqualify from office Joseph, a convicted attempted rapist; Jacob, a habitual liar; and David, an adulterer and murderer.

MacDonald is clearly not ready to give up on Bill Clinton as a leader. Whether the pastor is pushing for the president to give up his position, even for a short-term spiritual retreat, is not known. But the minister has decided to believe that the president's desire to change is genuine: "If there came a moment when we concluded that that sincerity was not there, we would have to let people know," MacDonald told ABC.

"He certainly is aware of the dangers here," said MacDonald's friend Carlberg. "We have talked about the pitfalls. Gordon has a very sensitive antenna because he has been there. He talks about how he walks with a limp now, and while he has restored his marriage and his other relationships, he will always have that limp."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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