ATLANTA – When Bishop Eddie Long was accused of sexual misconduct by former church members, his congregation rallied around him and his wife stood by his side. About a year later, the Atlanta megachurch pastor is headed for divorce and stepping away from the pulpit.
Long announced Sunday at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church that he needed a break from preaching to focus on his family. The hiatus leaves New Birth, which once boasted 25,000 members, at a crossroads, its reputation battered and membership dwindling. Their pasts inextricably linked for nearly a generation, both Long and his church face an uncertain future.
"A church is bigger than its pastor," said Goldie Taylor, who has attended New Birth in the past. "For too long, the New Birth family has acted as if it is smaller than its pastor. Its challenge going forward will be its ability to flip that and become a church without walls again."
For many members, Long has been the only pastor they have ever known. He became senior pastor in 1987, taking the helm of a flock of only a few hundred members. Not long after he arrived, the former Ford salesman and Honeywell executive dismissed New Birth's board of directors and took unilateral control of the church, ensuring that he would be the one to determine the date of his departure.
New Birth grew quickly under its charismatic, dynamic young leader, swelling to 8,000 members in five years. A decade later New Birth boasted 18,000 members and the church paid cash for the land and sprawling property it currently occupies in DeKalb County — including a 10,000-seat sanctuary. In addition to its Lithonia, Ga., headquarters, the church has satellites in several cities including Miami, Charlotte and Denver and television and international ministries.
Many who joined the church under Long's tenure were attracted to the prosperity gospel that he preached and practiced. It was a message that mirrored an emerging black middle class in and around Atlanta. Unlike the traditional Southern Baptist preacher, Long owned a $350,000 Bentley and private jet, lived in a $1.4 million house with six bedrooms and nine bathrooms, adorned himself with diamond jewelry and read his sermons on an iPad.
Long's spiritual swagger inspired a loyal and protective congregation. In September 2010, when accusations swirled that he used his lavish lifestyle to seduce four young men into sexual relationships in exchange for cars, clothes and trips, New Birth members supported around their embattled leader, who vowed he was innocent and would fight the cases.
Long settled out of court eight months later for an undisclosed amount and has never admitted any wrongdoing. After that, some changed their opinion of him.
"Once the money was paid, it was like you're hiding something," said Donielle Marshall, who joined New Birth as a college student in 1999. "Did you lie to us? I look at him as just a common man, full of fault, but also a disgrace."
KaCey Venning said she left New Birth about a month after the allegations because she wanted a smaller church. She believes New Birth can get past its challenges "if they are able to stick together and not rally behind somebody in blind support."
"They need to focus getting back to their outreach, getting out in the community," Venning said. "If the focus is going to be around this particular person, if there's no New Birth without him ... there might be a problem."
Long's wife, Vanessa, filed for divorce last week after 21 years of marriage. The couple has three children and a fourth from Long's first marriage. In a statement released by the church, Vanessa Long said she may reconsider her decision to divorce, but her filing followed "attacks in the media that frustrated and overwhelmed me."
The Rev. Kenneth Samuel, who preceded Long, said the allegations hurt.
"With New Birth being as large and prevalent as it is, every church in the area has felt the impact," Samuel said. "And rightly so. I think there has to be a level of accountability. I think it's certainly possible for the church to carry on. My prayer is for growth and progress and to become more committed to open, honest dialogue and discussion."
Marshall said the church can be healed, but also thinks Long needs to step down permanently.
"All things can be renewed, but I think he needs to leave," she said. "Why continue to lead people when you are being dishonest? It shames the church, it shames the followers, and it shames him."
Follow Errin Haines on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/emarvelous
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