Although we seldom admit it, most clergy persons generally obey what one of my colleagues calls the “11th Commandment” – “Thou shalt not be critical of other ministers.” I usually follow that axiom, since clergy persons are also human beings with our own strengths, weaknesses and issues. This week, however, I’m breaking the “11th commandment to” say a few words about a colleague in ministry: Bishop Eddie Long.
Bishop Long is the pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb County, Georgia who “grew” what was once a 300 member congregation into a 25,000 member mega-church and is also no stranger to controversy. Many African-American clergy expressed concern about his cozy relationship to the administration of President George W. Bush and his reported multi-million dollar salary and extravagant lifestyle. He was also the target of a lawsuit by four members of the New Birth congregation who accused him of sexual coercion.
This past February, Bishop Long generated a new level of controversy when a self proclaimed “Messianic Rabbi” wrapped him in a ritual Jewish shawl, presented him with a Torah – the scroll that contains the first five books of Hebrew Scripture – and named him a “King” as members of his congregation seated him on and lifted his “throne.”
Bishop Long’s ministry and controversies hold lessons worth remembering for all people of faith. The first lesson is to maintain your focus. Bishop Long’s ability to make a small congregation into a mega-church speaks for itself. It appears, however, that he lost his focus and made the church more about him than about Jesus. We’d all do well when we achieve to give God the glory and not claim personal glory or take credit for what God has done.
The second lesson is something one of my preacher-uncles once told me: “People will tell you how great you are – if you believe them and act accordingly, you’re headed for trouble.” It’s very easy when we meet with success to get what those of my parents’ generation called the “big head,” act as if we deserve all of the praise and accolades that come our way and get offended if anyone fails to recognize our “greatness.” That’s particularly true for those who sit in a pulpit and are called “Reverend” or “Bishop.” It’s good to remember that Jesus lived a life of humility and resisted those who wanted to make Him King of Israel. His life was built not around occupying a “seat” of prominence, but on service to those often cast aside by society.
The third lesson is to maintain an awareness of human limitations and frailties and to avoid giving praise to people that should be reserved for God. One could easily argue from observation of Bishop Long’s words and deeds over time that he has no shortage of arrogance. His basic reaction to criticism has been, “How dare you? Don’t you know who I am? How dare you question or criticize me?” The irony is that many of those in his congregation have become what are commonly called “enablers” and rationalized or ignored his apparent indiscretions. When he was proclaimed a “King” and lifted up on a throne, many of those in his congregation applauded.
It’s very easy, especially in a congregation with a charismatic leader, to see that leader as unquestionably right and indispensable. Those who elevate clergy to that level do us more harm than good and open the door for us to lead people to focus on us instead of on God. Good leaders in any arena of influence strive to see that the focus is not on what they do, but on what God can do and to see that when things go right, God gets the glory.
God has blessed me to lead the largest congregation in the Seventh Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. When I’m with my colleagues, however, I’m still just “Joe” because I know that the church is not about me, but about Jesus and that I’m simply a servant of the Lord. When I organize the church annually – as all AME pastors do – I always include some folks who don’t agree with me and who may challenge me. That keeps me focused, reminds me that there’s a limit to my “greatness” and has taught me that if I can’t successfully defend my plans for the church to my detractors, then I might need to re-examine my plans. It also helps me, regardless of whatever accolades I receive, to remember the words of one Gospel song – “Everything that happens to me that was good, God did it.”