After an extensive search, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta has named Pastor Jamal Bryant senior pastor. Bryant, 46, heads to New Birth from Baltimore, where he founded Empowerment Temple AME Church in 2000. Since then, the church has grown from 47 members to more than 10,000.
New Birth, located in unincorporated DeKalb County, Georgia, also has about 10,000 members. Before scandal rocked the church in 2010, however, membership topped 25,000. As Bryant steps in to rebuild New Birth, he must fill some big shoes. The influential but controversial Bishop Eddie L. Long led New Birth from 1987 until his death in 2017, at age 63.
New Birth’s New Leader
Bryant, an author and motivational speaker, is a third-generation pastor who attended Morehouse College. After Long’s death, Bryant revealed that Long helped finance his education. Asked why he’d leave Baltimore, Bryant responded, “Because it’s New Birth.” He recognizes “we’ve got some work to do” but says it can be accomplished “together.”
After the announcement, New Birth members gave Bryant a standing ovation. “I believe he’s that pastor who will reignite the fire that New Birth had for a long time,” says member Tracy Johnson.
A certain level of charisma is needed to lead the megachurch, says religious-studies professor Anthea Butler. “Jamal Bryant will appeal to a younger generation and might be able to fill up the pews again,” she notes.
Bryant isn’t without detractors. His ministry was jeopardized by an extramarital affair and divorce in 2008. “He’s made some missteps, but I’ve made them too,” says Bishop Neil Ellis. He calls Bryant “a gifted young man who, over time, will speak for himself.”
Ellis realizes not everyone will be pleased with the appointment. “No matter who we put in front of you, some people are going to have a challenge,” he told the congregation, “but you have to trust somebody.” Ellis urged church members to “guard your spirit, settle your emotions, eliminate your criteria.”
New Birth Hopes to Rebound From Past Troubles
In 2005, Long was accused of mishandling funds donated to a charity he established. In 2010, several young men accused Long of sexual misconduct, saying he used his power and wealth to force them into relationships. The case was settled out of court, and the next year Long got divorced and took a leave of absence.
Amid the turbulence, New Birth’s membership declined. Board chairman Thomas Dortch Jr. indicated that the new pastor had to be an energetic visionary who could “inspire our congregation and rebuild those various community ministries and missions that we used to have.”
After Long’s death, Bishop Stephen A. Davis took over leadership at New Birth while remaining pastor at an Alabama church. When Davis resigned in June, the search for a full-time replacement began. Among the 138 candidates were high-profile pastors such as Bishop Marvin Sapp of Michigan.
During the search, Bryant was one of several guest preachers at New Birth. He has criticized the church’s handling of the sex scandal, saying victims must be ministered to. “I know you don’t want to talk about this,” he said, but “I do know the church has to deal with it.”
Bryant will give his first sermon as New Birth pastor on December 9.