For years, Bishop Eddie L. Long has been synonymous with New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.
But the charismatic pastor with the gravelly voice is gone, and it’s unclear who may lead the DeKalb County megachurch next.
Will its members - particularly younger or newer members who may not have much invested in Long’s ministry - flock to other churches or stay and continue to build on Long’s legacy?
New Birth’s membership, which reached a high of 25,000, declined after Long was sued in 2010 by four young men who claimed he coerced them into sexual relations. But Long, who denied their allegations, remained in the pulpit.
“I’ll be here, I’m not going anywhere,” said Yolanda Stewart, a business owner and member who described Long as a father figure. “I enjoy the fellowship, the teaching, the community outreach and the engagement. I think whoever he has to be the next leader, is going to be that and more.”
Another member, Marquise Goldwire said that “honestly, for the future, I see New Birth continuing on. Bishop may not be here on earth with us, but he will always be with us in spirit. New Birth isn’t going anywhere.”
On the day Long’s death was announced, it was unclear whether Long had a succession plan in place.
He has several “spiritual sons” spread out across the country, some of whom already have pastoring experience. The church needs a new charismatic leader to fill the thousands of seats.
“Even though we don’t know the details right now, Bishop Long wouldn’t leave us in a lurch,” said longtime church member Lela Brooks. A member for 29 years, she said she’d seen Long several times since his appearance in the pulpit on New Year’s Eve. “His legacy will live on. He did a lot of good and we won’t let that fade.”
“Most of the time an interim pastor will come in and help in the meantime, until they find a new pastor,” said Ed Stetzer, who holds the Bill Graham Distinguished Chair at Wheaton College in Illinois. “All too often, though, a lot of churches do experience a decline if they don’t pick the right leader from within or from without.”
“This is why churches need succession plans,” he said, adding he didn’t know if Long had one. “Particularly in churches that are heavily tied to a personality. When a church has that kind of personality, it’s hard to know where that person ends and the church begins.”
The Rev. Gerald Durley, pastor emeritus of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, knew Long for about 15 years. “I believe they will reorganize, and build upon the legacy he left,” he said.
He believes the ministry will continue to build on its reputation for helping people in need.
“It’s so needed in today’s world,” Durley said. He believes the people who would leave the church already did so after the controversy, and that those still with the church are dedicated to the ministry.
“He’s got some solid administrative people’ who will help carry on the mission, Durley said.
“I suspect they will continue,” said Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania. “The question is what is their financial situation. After 2010 happened, that church clearly did not have the same attendance. It’s a fact that if you lose 25 percent of your population, you lose 25 percent of your income.”
Member Valencia Banks remembered being attracted to the church after seeing Long and the church’s community outreach and his leadership. “It was amazing how he brought people together, how he brought the church together,” she said, “and that’s what has kept me here.”
Staff writers Arlinda Broady and Janel Davis contributed to this story.