ATLANTA - Baltimore pastor Jamal-Harrison Bryant on Monday was named the new senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest. One hundred thirty-eight candidates were considered for the high-profile position, and eventually, the list was whittled down to only two.
The announcement, made from the pulpit of the DeKalb County church, was met with applause and a few gasps.
Bryant—a Morehouse graduate—is currently the pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore. Bryant will deliver his first official sermon as New Birth’s pastor on Dec. 9.
The search for a new senior pastor was launched shortly after Bishop Stephen A. Davis, who also pastors a church in Birmingham, Ala., resigned in June. Davis assumed the helm of the megachurch after the death of Bishop Eddie L. Long in 2017 from an aggressive form of cancer.
Bishop Neil C. Ellis, of Bahamas-based Global United Fellowship and a close friend of Long, has been a frequent guest in the pulpit since Davis left. “New Birth is going forward,” Ellis said upon after the appointed of Bryant was announced.
Speculation has centered on several high-powered pastors, including Greenville pastor John Gray of Relentless Church; Bishop Marvin Sapp of Lighthouse Full Life Center Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. and a recording artist; and Bryant.
There was some speculation among members that one of them could be named, but all lead prominent churches already.
Ellis has also been involved in the search for a new pastor. “In the midst of it, I’ve found more than I wanted to know, but what I do know is, you need a pastor,” he said during a sermon at New Birth on Sunday.
“Here’s my appeal to you,” Ellis said. “I need all of New Birth to guard your spirit, settle your emotions, eliminate your criteria. A lot has gone into this. Is everybody going to be happy about the appointment? I doubt it. No matter who we put in from of you, some people are going to have a challenge and you may be deserving of those challenges, but you have to trust somebody.”
He then asked members to give the new pastor a chance and also pray for him.
“Administratively, he’s been placed on a timeline for evaluation,” he said. “And if he ain’t working, I ain’t going nowhere until we’re certain.”
Ellis, Bishop Dale C. Bronner of Word of Faith Family Worship Cathedral in Austell and Elder Vanessa Long, the wife of the late New Birth senior pastor, were part of that search team, among others.
In a previous interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Thomas W. Dortch Jr., chairman of the church’s board, said the new senior pastor should someone who is a “visionary” “energetic” and can “inspire our congregation and rebuild those various community ministries and missions that we used to have at New Birth.”
Some members were unhappy with Davis’ resignation and left when he did. Others stuck it out, waiting to see who would be his successor.
The new pastor will have big shoes to fill. Long was an influential and controversial pastor.
In its heyday, politicians, athletes, prominent business leaders and entertainers were known to visit — and even belong to — his church.
At one point, the church membership rolls reached 25,000. After the church was rocked by a scandal in 2010, membership started to decline. Dortch said this summer the membership roll is just over 10,000. Bryant’s Empowerment Temple in Baltimore also has 10,000 members.
Long was named in a 2010 lawsuit by several young men who alleged the bishop used his influence, trips and gifts to coerce them into relationships.
The court case was dismissed and settled out of court.
Since the scandal, though, membership has declined. The new pastor will need to rebuild the congregation and ministry.
“You have to be as charismatic as Eddie Long was, whether or not you agreed with him,” said Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
“This may be a chance for New Birth to get back some of the glory days. Jamal Bryant will appeal to a younger generation and might be able to fill up the pews again. It seems to me that New Birth has been on the skids. It’s not just because they are getting over a pastor being dead for nearly two years, but they are still getting over 10 years of scandal, and that’s a whole different ballgame.” Bryant is the third generation in his family to become a pastor.
After Bryant delivered a heartfelt prayer, the crowd gave the newly-appointed leader a standing ovation. He mentioned Long during his speech, calling the late pastor “a real trailblazer.” When asked why he would leave Baltimore, Bryant replied, “Because it’s New Birth. … I realize we got some work to do. By myself, I cannot. Together we will.”
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