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Jamal Bryant on his ‘bittersweet’ transition from one black megachurch to another

Bryant, the son and grandson of African Methodist Episcopal clergy, talks about why he’s making the transition, what it says about black megachurches and his hopes for his new role.

Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor and founder of Empowerment Temple. Photo courtesy of Empowerment Temple

(RNS) — The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, founder of a black megachurch in Baltimore, is shifting his ministry to a black megachurch outside Atlanta.

As he moves from Empowerment Temple to New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., the 47-year-old son and grandson of African Methodist Episcopal Church ministers talked with Religion News Service about why he’s making the transition, what it says about black megachurches and his hopes for his new role.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you leaving Empowerment Temple for New Birth Missionary Baptist Church?

I felt led by God to accept a new challenge, different than what I was familiar with, and really felt it was time for me to make a shift in a location and what was in front of me. And so really just by the prompting from God.

Will you stay affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and/or will New Birth remain affiliated with the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International?

I will remain in good standing with the AME Church and New Birth has not been a part of Full Gospel in over five or six years.

And when you say “good standing,” does that mean that New Birth could potentially become AME?

No, no, no. I am remaining a member of the AME Church. New Birth is a part of the Missionary Baptist convention.

You are leaving the church you started in 2000 with several dozen members. How does it feel to leave behind the church you began?

Very scary and unnerving. It’s the biggest faith move I’ve ever made in my life and it’s bittersweet. It’s really trusting God in the dark and hoping to see the light as I move. I’m moving with absolutely no guarantee but just believing that the Scripture’s correct: “all things work together for good.”

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Do you have any idea of who will take your place leading that church? How much of a role will you have in that succession?

(AME) Bishop James Davis and I have been talking extensively and praying and considering several candidates, taking seriously the undertaking as to who can take Empowerment Temple to the next level.

And what does your transition say about the diversity and the stability of black megachurches?

I think it says a lot. The reality is that most people in this generation don’t stay in one job for 18 years. The average lifespan even in my denomination of an appointment is five to seven years. This is the first time I’ve been able to eclipse my father and grandfather, who were both in the AME Church. My father pastored Bethel AME (in Baltimore) for 13 years and my grandfather for 16 years. So for me to be able to go 18 is really a blessing and is different from the norm.

You are following in the footsteps of Bishop Eddie Long, an influential leader who also faced controversy related to finances and allegations of sexual misconduct. You have dealt with a divorce and admission of an extramarital affair. How do you help congregations move on from controversy?

It’s being grace personified. It’s one thing to preach it. It’s another thing to live it. And I’m grateful that the church is living up to its name — not just for its congregants but now for its cleric — of providing new birth. Everybody likes Paul but nobody likes to deal with the reality of Saul, and all of us are changing. And Christianity is a journey. It’s not a moment.

There was an interim minister or new senior minister at New Birth, Bishop Stephen Davis, who resigned after a year and a half, perhaps showing the difficulty of succeeding a big-name leader. How do you expect to succeed in leadership at the church once led by Bishop Long?

(I have) an opportunity to love the people and to learn the culture. As much as we quote theology, many times when you go into a new environment, you have to learn anthropology to understand how things move and function and operate. This is completely different from being a founder. I’m going into something that already exists and then there’s a tremendous legacy of development that Bishop Long left that I now can build upon and expand for a new generation.

You’ve worked on plans to make Empowerment become a green church and have a health clinic. It may help confront the opioid crisis and be a place that helps with prisoner re-entry. Are you planning to continue any of those causes at New Birth?

Absolutely. I’m at a zoning hearing now in Baltimore, getting ready to testify so that we can build. So I’m committed to what it is that we started in Baltimore, even down to my last day. New Birth is the largest landowner of any black church in America. We’re sitting on 270 acres. And so we have to do an environmental study as to what it can hold and what it will be able to support. But I look forward to developing much of the property that we already own at New Birth.

What is your farewell message to Empowerment? And what will you say to New Birth when you start preaching there on Dec. 9?

My sermon for Sunday is probably going to be the hardest one I’ve ever had to write and writer’s block is an understatement. You have to call me back Saturday for that. But on Sunday, that Sunday after, when I’m at New Birth, is really going to be talking about a new page and a fresh start and a new beginning.

Finally, will you become a bishop?

No, I don’t have any desire in this season to become a bishop. I could’ve very easily just stayed in the AME Church and stayed the course. But I don’t believe in this season that that’s the call of God on my life.