*(Via ajc.com) – When Bishop Eddie Long was accused of sexual misconduct by former church members, his congregation rallied around him and his wife stood by his side. About a year later, the Atlanta megachurch pastor is headed for divorce and stepping away from the pulpit.

Long announced Sunday at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church that he needed a break from preaching to focus on his family. The hiatus leaves New Birth, which once boasted 25,000 members, at a crossroads, its reputation battered and membership dwindling. Their pasts inextricably linked for nearly a generation, both Long and his church face an uncertain future.

“A church is bigger than its pastor,” said Goldie Taylor, who has attended New Birth in the past. “For too long, the New Birth family has acted as if it is smaller than its pastor. Its challenge going forward will be its ability to flip that and become a church without walls again.”

For many members, Long has been the only pastor they have ever known. He became senior pastor in 1987, taking the helm of a flock of only a few hundred members. Not long after he arrived, the former Ford salesman and Honeywell executive dismissed New Birth’s board of directors and took unilateral control of the church, ensuring that he would be the one to determine the date of his departure.

New Birth grew quickly under its charismatic, dynamic young leader, swelling to 8,000 members in five years. A decade later New Birth boasted 18,000 members and the church paid cash for the land and sprawling property it currently occupies in DeKalb County — including a 10,000-seat sanctuary. In addition to its Lithonia, Ga., headquarters, the church has satellites in several cities including Miami, Charlotte and Denver and television and international ministries.

Many who joined the church under Long’s tenure were attracted to the prosperity gospel that he preached and practiced. It was a message that mirrored an emerging black middle class in and around Atlanta. Unlike the traditional Southern Baptist preacher, Long owned a $350,000 Bentley and private jet, lived in a $1.4 million house with six bedrooms and nine bathrooms, adorned himself with diamond jewelry and read his sermons on an iPad.

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