Elder Vanessa Long told members of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church that they will have to recalibrate after the sudden resignation of interim senior pastor Bishop Stephen A. Davis.
“I must admit it came as a shock to me just as it did to you,” she said during Wednesday night services at the DeKalb County megachurch. “I feel your pain. I feel your love. I feel your disappointment. I feel your confusion.”
Long said there were moments she cried as she thought of members who would grieve a loss - once again.
Davis stepped in as interim senior pastor after the death of Bishop Eddie Long in 2017. Vanessa Long is his widow.
A national search will be launched to find a new senior pastor for the church.
Thomas W. Dortch Jr., chairman of the church’s board, said that the “strain on Bishop Davis from having to come back and forth from Birmingham to Atlanta weekly while maintaining his other churches — one in Birmingham and one in Tuscaloosa — became a major challenge for him.”
Also speaking Wednesday was Bishop Dale C. Bronner of Word of Faith Family Worship Cathedral in Austell.
“I’m convinced God loves New Birth,” he said. “I’m convinced God has a plan for you.”
He reminded them that there are transitions in life, but to keep their focus on God.
Every time you are broken and disappointed, there is a birthing, he said.
In a statement released by New Birth in Stonecrest, Davis called leaving the church bittersweet.
“I love my New Birth Family both in Birmingham and Stonecrest,” Davis said in the statement, which appears to be the first time he has addressed the matter publicly. “However, at this time, my wife, my children and the New Birth Birmingham family need my full attention. We will remain a[t] New Birth Church in Birmingham and maintain a relationship with the New Birth Stonecrest Congregation.”
Vanessa Long and others praised the work of Davis and prayed for him and his family.
Davis could not be reached directly for comment. Several calls were made to his church in Birmingham. A woman who answered the phone there said Davis would be issuing his own statement, but no further details were available.
Long, an influential and controversial pastor, died in January 2017 from an aggressive form of cancer.
From the beginning, Davis had big shoes to fill. Long, with his gravelly voice and his bulging biceps, was known as a charismatic preacher with a global following. 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 the membership roll today is just over 10,000.
Long was named in a 2010 lawsuit by former New Birth members who alleged the bishop used his influence, trips and gifts to coerce them into relationships.
The court case was dismissed and was settled out of court.
Dortch said the board has asked Bronner, Long and Bishop Neil C. Ellis of Global United Fellowship, based in the Bahamas, to be part of that team, among others. Bronner and Ellis could not be reached for comment.
Dortch said there will also be several “listening sessions” at the church so members can weigh in on what they want in a new pastor.
Nichole R. Phillips, an assistant professor of sociology, religion and culture at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said a national search would provide “a more democratic process so stakeholders and congregants can be part of the decision-making process.”
Dortch said the new senior pastor is someone who is a “visionary,” “energetic” and can “inspire our congregation,” as well as rebuild its role in the community.
Davis was an ex-officio member of the board, which Dortch said would be expanded from about three to seven people.
“We’re not going to make a rush decision,” said Dortch. “We’re going to take our time. We really want to restore New Birth as an integral part of the community. … We want someone who can look at where we are now and where we’re going. We’re not looking for another Eddie Long, but someone who has vision and can build on that legacy.”