COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Members of the independent New Life megachurch gathered for their weekly service Sunday, less than 24 hours after the church's founder, the Rev. Ted Haggard, was dismissed for "sexually immoral conduct."
Church elders planned to read a letter explaining their decision, and a letter from Haggard himself also was to be read.
Several hundred members of the congregation had arrived by 8 a.m.
Haggard had resigned two days earlier as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, where he held sway in Washington and condemned homosexuality, after a man claimed to have had drug-fueled trysts with him. He also placed himself on administrative leave from the New Life Church, which has 14,000 members, but its independent Overseer Board took the stronger action Saturday.
"Our investigation and Pastor Haggard's public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct," the board said in a statement.
Haggard was informed of the decision and "agreed as well that he should be dismissed," the statement said.
The Rev. Ross Parsley will lead the church until a permanent replacement is chosen by the end of the year, it said.
The NEA, representing 30 million evangelicals, has named the Rev. Leith Anderson, senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, as its interim president.
Haggard, 50, on Friday acknowledged paying Mike Jones of Denver for a massage and for methamphetamine, but said he did not have sex with him and did not take the drug.
He did not answer calls to his home or cell phones seeking comment Saturday. The Rev. Rob Brendle, an associate pastor at New Life, said Haggard was out of town.
"We are fully confident in the board's judgment and decision," Brendle said. "Everyone supports Ted and his family. We stand by him."
Jones said news of Haggard's dismissal saddened him.
"I feel really bad for his wife and family and his congregation. I know it's a sad day for them, too," Jones said. "I just hope the family has peace and can come to terms with things. I hope they can continue with a happy life."
Haggard's situation is a disappointment to Christian conservatives, whom President George W. Bush and other Republicans are courting heavily in the run-up to Tuesday's election.
Many were already disheartened with the president and the Republican-controlled Congress over their failure to deliver big gains on social issues even before the congressional page scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley.
Haggard, who had been president of the evangelical association since 2003, has participated in conference calls with White House staffers and lobbied Congress last year on Supreme Court nominees.
Haggard founded New Life in the mid-1980s and held its first services in the basement of his Colorado Springs home.
Jones, who said he is gay, said he was upset when he discovered who Haggard was and found out that New Life had publicly opposed same-sex marriage — a key issue in Colorado, with a pair of issues on Tuesday's ballot.
Jones has denied selling drugs but said Haggard snorted methamphetamine before their sexual encounters to heighten his experience.
Haggard told reporters he bought meth but never used it; he said he received a massage from Jones after being referred to him by a Denver hotel. Jones said that no hotel referred Haggard and that he advertises only in gay publications.