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 from an aggressive form of cancer.
Bishop Neil C. Ellis, of the Bahamas-based Global United Fellowship and a close friend of Long’s, has been a frequent guest in the pulpit since Davis left. “New Birth is going forward,” Ellis said after the appointed of Bryant was announced. Speculation had 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.
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“I’m pleased,” said Tracy Johnson, who has been a New Birth member for more than 20 years. “I believe he’s that pastor who will reignite the fire that New Birth had for a long time.”
Another member, Peggy Rice, said she planned to pray for her new pastor.
“It’s a new beginning,” she said.
Ellis had 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.
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.”
Last night, he said “there will never be another Bishop Eddie L. Long, let me make that clear,” but he said the new pastor could build on that legacy. He said it was also important to have a senior pastor who could be “a full-time pastor.”
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.
Bryant is also not without controversy, a fact that wasn’t ignored.
Bryant admitted to an extramarital affair when he was married to then-wife, Gizelle Bryant, who is one of the stars of Bravo TV’s “Real Housewives of Potomac.” It resulted in the end of his marriage and nearly destroyed his ministry.
He has said in an interview with Roland Martin that it was an humbling and stressful experience that he was not allowed to go through privately.
“He’s made some missteps, but I’ve made them too,” said Ellis. However, he called Bryant, “a gifted young man who, over time, will speak for himself.”
Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said was not surprised it was Bryant.
“You have to be as charismatic as Eddie Long was, whether or not you agreed with him,” said Butler.
“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’ve got some work to do. By myself, I cannot. Together we will.”