The pastor's comeback
BRANDON - Mike Hailey is in a huggy mood. He is bounding around the room, giving bear hugs and slaps on the back. "So glad you're here, it's a beautiful day," the ebullient pastor says, nodding to every arrival. Lights dim and worship music fills the meeting room-turned-sanctuary, tucked away in a strip shopping center. But it's not a choir of dozens accompanied by a live band. It's a DVD, with canned tunes streaming out of bookshelf speakers. When Hailey, 59, steps to the pulpit, a simple metal stand, he looks out at the congregation of 60 or so. He can probably name every person at his year-old nondenominational church, New Day.Six years ago, before the meltdown that ripped apart his family and his once-thriving congregation, before the binge drinking and a spiraling two-year depression, before going bankrupt and getting arrested, Hailey's life was vastly different. Up-and-comer in the powerful Southern Baptist Convention. Senior pastor at Crosstown Community Church, a megaministry serving up to 3,000 people a week in a new building straddling Tampa and Brandon. A Kodak-moment family captured in portraits with his high-school sweetheart wife, two strapping sons and a daughter. He loved the image: Perfect husband, perfect father, perfect pastor. Only he knew that he was anything but. "I was a great big beautiful mess. Still am," he says. "Only now I'm honest with myself and I'm working on it." Hailey arrived at Crosstown in 1997 with impressive credentials. He had master's and doctorate degrees in divinity, from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Luther Rice Seminary & University, respectively. He had served five congregations as a senior pastor, including a stint at First Baptist Church in Lakeland, where he appeared regularly on a national syndicated network. He had built a reputation for his creativity, leadership skills, biblical knowledge and dynamic speaking abilities. Crosstown was on the rise. Formerly known as Calvary Church and housed in Bloomingdale High School, it moved to a sprawling facility on 25 acres. New building, new pastor, new beginning. Hailey implemented innovative outreaches, including a Friday night "come as you are" service. Sunday's contemporary worship included pulsating music by a rock band and illustrated sermons. Crosstown was hip and flashy and kid-friendly, appealing to the "seeker" generation of Christians. And it was big enough for Hailey to hide his imploding life. The congregants knew the outward man, the gregarious minister who led three services a week in their fast-growing church. But they knew very little about what was swirling inside his head. In 1991, while in Lakeland, the Haileys got a call that every parent dreads. Their eldest son, a University of Florida football player and a Fellowship of Christian Athletes student of the year, slipped off a bridge in Oklahoma and plunged 45 feet down jagged slate. Twenty-year-old Jason's injuries were devastating: a crushed brain, an eye socket fracture, a collapsed lung, several broken bones, among other things. Doctors warned the couple that he might not live. And if he did, his personality would not be the same. Hailey was there when his son came out of the coma. He watched him uncurl his hands and open his eyes. When Jason started walking and talking, he declared his firstborn "a miracle boy." But the doctors' predictions came true. For the next several years, the brain injury had a major impact on his personality. Jason's addictions - to booze, drugs, and pornography - raged out of control. Daughter Jessica, feeling ignored with all the attention focused on her brother, started acting out. Instead of being honest about the disintegration in his household, Hailey put up a front that all was well. "I was so bound up with fear, fear that someone was going to find out that I actually had problems in my life," he says. "I didn't like not having control of the situation, and I hated that I couldn't fix it. So I hid everything." Robert Roberts, director of missions for the South Florida Baptist Association, knew Hailey during the Lakeland years. He says the minister had a "riveting presence in the pulpit" and was considered a highly gifted leader. Roberts thinks Hailey could have had a bright future with the Southern Baptist Convention. "The state president, maybe even the national president, down the road," Roberts says. "I was completely caught by surprise. ... I never saw any signs that was coming." The Haileys left Lakeland in 1995 for a church in Shreveport, La., in hopes of starting over. They walked into some political dissension within the church and things got worse. Just more than a year later, Hailey got the job offer from Crosstown. "It seemed like the Promised Land, coming back to Florida," Sandy Hailey says. "Only it didn't work out that way at all." Trouble in paradise The now-divorced Haileys recall the years at Crosstown as a mixed blessing: A time of energy and growth for the church, and a time of denial and stress on the homefront. Sandy loved her role as pastor's wife. She felt she was born for it. High school sweethearts in Oklahoma, she and Michael were both 19 when they got married. After years of moving around for school and church jobs, this is where they had hoped to put down roots. They lived comfortably on his six-figure salary and settled in a four-bedroom house on two acres in Brandon. But the pressures that come with overseeing a megachurch and all the personal crises of its congregants mounted. The couple still had issues of rebellion with two of the children, which Hailey kept hidden. His bouts of depression became more frequent. Unbeknownst to Sandy, he started binge drinking late at night, when everyone was sleeping. Although Southern Baptists generally don't drink alcohol, Hailey took a more moderate view, teaching instead that the sin was alcohol abuse. He didn't practice what he preached. When he met with his accountability partners - men who support each other in staying biblically focused - he lied about his state of mind. He started to avoid one-on-one contact with congregants, deferring to staff members to handle the interaction. He kept telling his wife that everything was fine. He cursed the devil for the turmoil churning within. He called out to God: Why are you allowing this to happen in my life? I'm a man of God who serves you. How could you let this happen to me? When his mother died in spring 2003, he went to her funeral in Oklahoma. Days later, he was back in the pulpit. No one knew the pain he was feeling because he didn't want to show anything but strength. That's a common fault among ministers, says Ralph Earle, founder of Psychological Counseling Services in Phoenix, regarded as one of the nation's top counseling programs for troubled clergy. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Earle has an insider's understanding of the particular stresses that plague religious leaders - and lead to addictions, troubled marriages and emotional breakdowns. "Most clergy are people-pleasers. They want to be liked and they want to appear godly, immune to the problems that affect the rest of us," he says. "We say we don't want to put our clergy on a pedestal, but we do it anyway. And so do they." Surveys show that some 1,500 ministers leave their calling every month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout or church in-fighting. And as many as 80 percent feel unqualified and discouraged in their roles as pastors. Earle says the numbers would drop drastically if seminaries would put less emphasis on biblical studies and more training on how to maintain good mental and physical health. He also says it's imperative to be involved in an accountability group whose members are not from the congregation or staff. "It's hard enough for men to open up; it's even worse for clergy," he says. "Everyone needs a safe place where you can be honest and build trust. If not, it will catch up with you." It caught up with Hailey on the first Wednesday in June 2003. He went to the golf course that day, downing several beers in the hot sun. When he got home, he popped a couple of his wife's pain pills. Then he went to church for the evening service. He didn't realize he was slurring his words and forgetting his place as he preached from the Bible. But several of the elders, who had watched his behavior deteriorate over the past few months, knew that Hailey was impaired. The next day, they went to his home and told him he could not return to the church campus. It was time to step down and get some help. "I was angry. I blamed them, I blamed God, I blamed church. I blamed everybody but myself," he says. For Sandy, it came as a total shock. She was shaken, but believed they would get through this hurdle as a team, the way they had gotten through other difficult times. The next week, Hailey was allowed to return to the Crosstown campus for Friday and Sunday services and tell the congregants in a brief and tearful statement that he was taking time off to deal with personal issues. For most members, his sudden parting felt like a betrayal. He was supposed to be their rock and their leader. "We had a lot of people who were new in the faith, and this felt like a slap in the face," recalls Dave Speicher, a former staff member who now attends South Bay Community Church in Riverview . "They had invested a lot of time and energy in the church. Now they were seeing a dark side to the whole thing, an underbelly that they didn't want to see." Some lost track of Hailey when he walked out that day. Those who stayed in touch may have known that he kept drinking and withdrawing. They may have heard that a few months later, he got pulled over on his motorcycle just blocks from his house and was charged with driving under the influence. It was Thanksgiving morning. While his daughter was preparing her first holiday meal for the family, he got a county-issued bologna sandwich and a bottle of water. Sandy went to an ATM later that day and withdrew some of their diminishing funds to pay her husband's bail. The charge was later reduced to careless driving. Shortly after Christmas, right before his 34th wedding anniversary, Hailey left home and moved to a small apartment. Although he quit drinking cold turkey after his arrest, his depression was worse than ever, with him spending days curled up on the floor. He will always refer to 2004 as a "big, dark hole." Working on forgiveness Hailey says he's living proof of God's grace. With the support of a few friends who remained steadfast in his life, and the Bible that gave him direction and comfort, Hailey found his strength again. In 2005, he decided to go through a spiritually guided restoration process steeped in prayer and intense counseling, with two ministers who specialize in the area. He had to come to grips with his troubled childhood, his fear of not being perfect and how to combat depression without self-medication. This time, he's honest with his accountability group. He's still working on forgiving himself for all the damage he caused. "I made bad choices. And I take full responsibility for that," Hailey says. He filed for divorce and bankruptcy, unable to reconcile his marriage or his financial obligations. At Crosstown, it took a search committee more than a year to find a new pastor. By then, many members had left the church for another or quit going altogether, disillusioned. Crosstown doesn't exist anymore. It merged with The Pointe in Riverview in 2005 and is now called The Crossing. Hailey was estranged from his kids for several years. They are tenuously rebuilding the broken relationship with their father. All are doing well and living near their mother, who moved to Tennessee to start a new life. At 58, Sandy Hailey, once a homemaker and preacher's wife who had financial and emotional security, had to find a job and lease a furnished apartment. She had to come to grips that the marriage vows made before God were broken by the man she still considers her soul mate. Even though their life together was shattered by no choice of her own, she says the experience has made her stronger in her faith. "It's easy to teach and preach about trusting God, but it's harder to live it," she says. "I've been forced to. Just lately, I've been feeling a lot happier and content." She's writing a book called "Little Girl Lost." It's about learning how to start over when everything crumbles beneath you. "I'm not the first person this has happened to, or the last," Sandy Hailey says. "But maybe my story will help someone realize you can get through this." Hailey says he's a lot happier, too. After filling out about 180 applications, the only job he could find was selling sports magazines. Returning to ministry wasn't a consideration. How could he? Then Paul Hollis, pastor at New Beginnings Fellowship of Tampa and one of his restoration mentors, allowed him to preach from time to time. "You have a gift," he told Hailey. "You can't walk away from this." In January 2008, Hailey started a small Bible study in an apartment living room with four other people. Six months later, it had grown to a few dozen, so they rented space in a shopping center and the One Thing Prayer Center and a church evolved. Many are former Crosstown members who heard Hailey was back in the pulpit. "I wouldn't have been comfortable if he hadn't taken time away to do soul-searching," says Dean Graves, who runs a marketing firm. "He's put a lot of work into making things right again. Now I think he's 10 times the pastor he was at Crosstown. He's more real." Nonetheless, Graves says, he will be paying closer attention to the signs of potential trouble. He knows people with addictive behaviors often don't handle difficult situations well. As one of Hailey's accountability partners, he will be there to help him. And Hailey feels he is now what he was called to be: a shepherd personally involved in the lives of those he serves. He's more empathetic with people who lose their way because he's been there. He doesn't have health insurance or savings. He drives a 2001 Buick donated to New Day Church and lives with a Valrico couple, who take in missionaries and visiting clergy in an upstairs bedroom of their house. Having lost most of his possessions, he now realizes how little he needs. The name "New Day" captures how Hailey feels about his own life. "I used to say I would never go back to this," he says. "But the truth is, I thought God wouldn't allow me back. He doesn't condone sin, but he's a gracious God, quick to forgive and willing to restore."
Reporter Michelle Bearden can be reached at (813) 259-7613.