LITHONIA, Ga.,None - Embattled pastor Bishop Eddie Long announced during church services Sunday that he taking off time from New Birth Missionary Baptist Church to deal with family issues.
"I'm still your pastor. You'll still receive my direction," Long said Sunday to his congregation. "You've given me some weeks to take care of some family business."
He was not specific as to how long he will be on leave.
"I want you to know I haven't stepped down, I've actually stepped up," Long said.
During the afternoon service, a spokesman from the church sent a statement to Channel 2 Action News saying, "Rumors that Bishop Eddie L. Long has stepped down as senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church are completely false.
“As Bishop Long stated in his earlier comments, 'Vanessa and I are working together in seeking God's will in our current circumstances.' As any loving and committed husband would do, Bishop Long will take some time to focus on his family but he will continue to be the senior pastor of New Birth.
“Bishop Long and Vanessa Long are asking for privacy and sensitivity to their family, without the need for any further public comments at this time.”
Long’s announcement comes just days after word that his wife, Vanessa Long, had filed for divorce.
In June, New Birth denied rumors that his wife was moving out. The previous month, Long reached a settlement with four men who accused him of sexual abuse.
Former church members Maurice Robinson, Anthony Flagg, Jamal Parris and Spencer LeGrande filed lawsuits against Long in September 2010, saying he coerced them into sexual acts with gifts and money.
They said some of the encounters were on lavish trips across the globe.
Despite the troubled history behind Bishop Long, many of his congregants told Channel 2 Action News they still support him.
“Everybody, in life, goes through a trial. You know, everyone in life goes through some mishap. No one's perfect in life,” church member Dr. Cathryn Lafayette said. “We are a family of forgiveness, and we don't condone anything, but we are a family of forgiveness.”
As services were underway at New Birth, protesters were outside the church grounds, urging Long to step down.
“I think it's a mistake for him to come back. I don't think that he needs to come back," protester Maxine Thomas said. "I'm here because it is the right thing to do, is to be here. You know, I keep hearing about all of the things that has happened down there at the church, but I don't hear anyone talking about the effect that it’s going to take on these young boys' lives.”
One church member even got into a heated discussion with the protesters when leaving Sunday’s services.
“I love that man and he has changed my life, and God knows I needed that. So, it just hurts me because I know he has done a lot,” church member Carletta Lesure said. “He captured me and I just want him to know that we are behind him.”
Long was appointed New Birth's pastor in 1987 when the church had only 300 members. By its 10th anniversary New Birth reported a membership of roughly 18,000, peaking at 25,000. Attendance has declined in the year since the sexual coercion lawsuit was filed.
(The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this article)