At New Birth megachurch, new spiritual push weighed down by old debts

Third-generation preacher Jamal Bryant is the new senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. To restore the Stonecrest megachurch to its former glory, he must manage the church’s $30 million debt. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Third-generation preacher Jamal Bryant is the new senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. To restore the Stonecrest megachurch to its former glory, he must manage the church’s $30 million debt. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Jamal Bryant takes preacher reins as Eddie Long’s influence lingers

The preacher from Baltimore strode to the pulpit of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church dressed in a gold tunic and promised the church would be reborn.

"No matter what pit they try to throw us in, God always throws us a trampoline for us to be able to bounce back," new Senior Pastor Jamal-Harrison Bryant promised in his inaugural sermon earlier this month

A chorus of voices responded with joy. "Amen." "Preach." Nearly every seat in the 10,000-seat sanctuary was full. Members marveled New Birth had not been that packed since the funeral of its visionary but controversial leader Bishop Eddie L. Long, who died of cancer in early 2017.

Long dreamed big and built big, creating one of the country’s largest megachurches by preaching God would bless the faithful with financial prosperity. He drew a fervent following of African-American celebrities, professionals and blue-collar workers.

He also left the DeKalb County church with big debts — about $30 million at last count, according to New Birth’s board of directors and public real estate records.

Bryant might be just as charismatic a speaker as Long. It’s an open question whether he or any other preacher can deliver New Birth from its mountain of financial obligations.

That kind of debt has thrown churches just as large into bankruptcy. Crystal Cathedral Ministries in California, famous for its “Hour of Power” broadcast, filed for bankruptcy protection owing $48 million after the Great Recession. Without Walls International Church in Florida went under owing $29 million. Both sold off beloved sanctuaries and moved on with smaller congregations.

Outwardly New Birth appears much the same. The grounds around the huge, green-topped sanctuary are neatly manicured. Its acres-wide parking lot began filling up quickly for the 9:30 a.m. service with visitors and members anxious to hear what Bryant had to say.

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Marilyn Burnett cheered as Jamal Bryant delivered his first sermon as New Birth’s senior pastor. Experts said that Bryant’s celebrity status could be an asset to the church, which needs to increase tithes and offerings to gain financial stability. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Marilyn Burnett cheered as Jamal Bryant delivered his first sermon as New Birth’s senior pastor. Experts said that Bryant’s celebrity status could be an asset to the church, which needs to increase tithes and offerings to gain financial stability. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Marilyn Burnett cheered as Jamal Bryant delivered his first sermon as New Birth’s senior pastor. Experts said that Bryant’s celebrity status could be an asset to the church, which needs to increase tithes and offerings to gain financial stability. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

New Birth leaders insist its finances are solid. The church renegotiated debt due this month after making a $5 million down payment this fall, pushing off the next payment several months, said Chairman Thomas W. Dortch Jr. It also plans to find a new lender with more favorable terms as part of an agreement with Evangelical Christian Credit Union, a major creditor, to reduce debt, he said.

“Nothing is in jeopardy. We have never missed a payment,” said Dortch, an Atlanta businessman.

Still, the church cut Sunday services from two to one after Long’s health began failing. It stopped televising its sermons. Membership has fallen from a peak of 25,000 to about 10,000. From the pulpit, Bryant told congregants it hadn’t given staffers a cost-of-living increase in more than five years.

And county real estate records analyzed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution underscore New Birth’s financial challenges. In the past decade, New Birth used its roughly 250 acres of DeKalb County property as collateral to renegotiate its debt five times and took out nearly $10 million in additional loans.

Bryant, a third-generation preacher, beat out 137 other senior pastor applicants — including one of Long's sons — with a vision that included eliminating the debt within 10 years. He said it involves putting New Birth's real estate to better use, referencing educator Booker T. Washington's belief that land is one of the best routes to black self-sufficiency.

“As the largest land owner of any black church in America, they (New Birth) have really not cultivated all the possibilities that can increase and enhance their revenue,” said Bryant in an interview, declining to give specifics.

Understanding a church’s financial health can be a challenge. Unlike other nonprofits, it isn’t required to file tax returns. New Birth has been less transparent than some other Atlanta megachurches that post basic financial details such as annual revenue and loans on their websites.

Still, New Birth’s debt level and its shrinking membership raise eyebrows among financial experts.

“You have to think, ‘How could this money have been better used?’” said Charles Zech, professor emeritus of church management at Villanova University.

Big plans, big debts 

During New Birth’s heyday before the Great Recession, offerings totaled $10 million a year. The church once had 17 different ministries, its reach spreading as far as South Africa and New Zealand, and held an Easter service that drew more than 50,000 to the Georgia Dome. Dortch said online giving, revivals and tithing fueled income.

Long was no ordinary pastor. Flamboyant, he wore muscle-shirts and preached with a gravelly roar. New Birth went big, leveraging church real estate to finance its growth.

In 1998, Long cobbled together hundreds of acres of land across South DeKalb to secure more than $33.6 million in construction loans, public real estate records show. After he opened New Birth’s sprawling sanctuary in 2001, the church continued to take on more debt. By 2008, the debt secured by its DeKalb County real estate totaled $46.8 million, some of it tied to an intricate business operation involving about two dozen companies.

A holding company in Ohio owned a building that housed New Birth’s Charlotte, N.C. church. Nonprofits that housed schools and related ministries opened and dissolved over a matter of years. Even a years-long U.S. Senate investigation into several megachurches, including New Birth, struggled to understand what role these companies played, according to a report it released. It found no wrongdoing.

All the while, Long spent lavishly on himself and his flock, securing the use of a $350,000 Bentley and $1.16 million mansion, cars for struggling members, and giving funds to start other churches.

Dortch said that money came from Long's personal wealth, not New Birth, through books, personal appearances and personal investments and businesses, but a 2005 AJC investigation found the Bentley and mansion were paid for by a nonprofit partially funded by the church.

Public records reveal New Birth struggled to stay ahead of its debts when the recession hit in 2008. The church's reputation also reeled from accusations Long sexually coerced young men, and the arrest of a financial planner that Long introduced to congregants, who later sued the advisor, Long and the church.

New Birth signed a forbearance agreement in 2012 and Evangelical Christian Credit Union agreed to a short sale of New Birth’s Charlotte-area church building in 2014. In 2015, it signed an agreement to protect its lenders in case of a foreclosure by handing over rent payments from a school that rented space there. It repeatedly took on new loans and renegotiated to push back due dates.

Dortch said New Birth in Georgia didn’t own the Charlotte property but guaranteed it.

New Birth nonetheless managed to stay afloat, helped in part by considerable real estate holdings that could be used as collateral while less-endowed churches filed for bankruptcy.

Yet the land may be worth less than church leaders hope, warned Henry Lorber of Henry Lorber & Associates, a Decatur firm that specializes in distressed real estate. New Birth sits near the granite hills of Arabia Mountain, where development is sparse because builders must blast through rock to install sewers.

The area’s retail prospects also appear bleak. Storefronts at the nearby Mall at Stonecrest remain empty. A plan to remake it into a sports tourism destination will develop the side farthest from New Birth. WalMart and other big-box retailers have built stores in better locations closer to the Interstate 20 exit. The fate of a bid to build a rail line to Stonecrest remains unclear.

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Nearly every chair was filled in New Birth Missionary Baptist’s 10,000-seat sanctuary when new Senior Pastor Jamal Bryant delivered his inaugural sermon earlier this month. Membership had declined from a high of 25,000 to 10,000 after an onslaught of scandals and lawsuits began to strike the church a decade ago. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Nearly every chair was filled in New Birth Missionary Baptist’s 10,000-seat sanctuary when new Senior Pastor Jamal Bryant delivered his inaugural sermon earlier this month. Membership had declined from a high of 25,000 to 10,000 after an onslaught of scandals and lawsuits began to strike the church a decade ago. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Nearly every chair was filled in New Birth Missionary Baptist’s 10,000-seat sanctuary when new Senior Pastor Jamal Bryant delivered his inaugural sermon earlier this month. Membership had declined from a high of 25,000 to 10,000 after an onslaught of scandals and lawsuits began to strike the church a decade ago. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Doubling down on charisma 

New Birth is also betting the 46-year-old Bryant will be a magnet for higher tithes and offerings after turnout continued to decline under Stephen Davis, who resigned as interim senior pastor in June.

Stone Mountain resident Denise Henderson joined the church 25 years ago. Bryant’s sermons are “exhilarating,” she said, predicting he’ll help win “souls on a global scale” like Long did.

Bryant's track record is promising. He grew his Empowerment Temple in Baltimore from a few dozen members to 10,000 by ministering to Gen-Xers and millennials, two groups he would like to tap at New Birth while not alienating the older and more educated "saints."

He has proven media savvy, with 266,000 Twitter and 201,000 Instagram followers. He played a high-profile role in Baltimore’s Black Lives Matter movement, delivering the eulogy for Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. His ex-wife, Gizelle Bryant, is a star of “The Real Housewives of Potomac.”

“It’s not so much about his business acumen, but the potential for him to increase the people in the pews who will hopefully contribute to the ministry,” said Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

When Bryant opened the doors of the church to new and returning members on Dec. 9, more than 200 people walked down the aisle. When he announced congregants could use Cash App and credit card swipers to make offerings, they reached for their cards and phones. He said services would be televised again.

Once the service was done, well-wishers formed a line that stretched down the hallway to shake his hand and take selfies with him.

The fascination with Bryant continues. A Facebook post of his second Sunday sermon got 453 shares, 23,000 views and roughly 3,000 comments.

“The first six months will give us a true indication of New Birth’s stabilization and the first year will send a message to all,’’ said Dortch, New Birth’s chairman. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Pastor Jamal Bryant was the right person at the right time with the right commitment to make New Birth viable again.”


WHY IT MATTERS

New Birth is one of the largest megachurches in the U.S. and owns about 250 acres of land in DeKalb County. It’s also saddled with about $30 million in debt and has suffered membership declines. Jamal Bryant, the charismatic new pastor, took over this month to try to return the church to its former glory.