With more than 25,000 members attending his church at the height of his career, the late Bishop Eddie Long became a "Christian celebrity." And it was the trappings of this celebrity status he said that triggered his downfall.
In The Untold Story: The Story of Adversity, Pain & Resilience, a book he published just over six months before his death and that has become his literary swansong, Long warned Christian leaders about falling into the celebrity trap.
"There were literally days that I would come to my office and find myself overwhelmed by the stack of invitations to speak at churches and events all over the country and various parts of the world. At first, the travel and amenities were humbling. After a while, however, it became addicting and I fell into the 'Christian celebrity' trap," he confessed.
"It is this trap that began to shape my way of being and causing concern as I look at this generation of Christians. Our current church culture can unintentionally feed a celebrity mindset. If a minister isn't careful, he or she can quickly be drawn into it. The celebrity mindset is created by overexposure to people, but underexposure to God, and it occurs subtly," he explained.
The flamboyant late leader of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, doesn't "rehearse" the specifics of what led to his fall from grace in 2010 in the 92-page book.
He doesn't directly mention allegations, made in several lawsuits, of sexual relations with teenage boys who were members of his church. He doesn't talk about the undisclosed financial settlement with his accusers — Anthony Flagg, Maurice Robinson, Jamal Parris and Spencer LeGrande — in May 2011.
"This addiction unknowingly opened the door for a major, sudden downfall. I went from being the person everyone wanted on the platform to the person that no one would be seen with," he wrote. "It was a trap that I had fallen into. I began to pay more attention to the rules of being a celebrity than the rules of God. I needed to be reminded that Jesus doesn't take second billing to anyone. He must always be first."
Even though he says he was able to find his way back to God and make peace with his maker before his death, Long delivered a poignant look at his life after the scandal.
"Celebrity status can cause you to make choices that create scenarios for destruction. If I had made different decisions, I would not have found myself in the situation I was facing. God, however, used my limitations as a tool for bringing greater glory to His Name. By going through such adversity, New Birth was given the opportunity to show the world what the church is about. We got the opportunity to show the world what God's church can look like. As we became the #1 Google Search in the world for a few days, we had the opportunity to show the world how God's people should deal with fellow brothers and sisters," he said.
In the book, he talks about the rejection, loneliness and devastation he suffered after he was abandoned by most of the people he thought were his friends. Some just wanted him to keep recalling what he did wrong when he was trying hard to forget. He stopped talking to them because he wasn't sure who he could trust.
"There were moments of grief, anxiety, and anger. I, unfortunately, fell into a place of not trusting anybody, making myself even more alone than I already was. I now realize that relationships are complicated. When you shut yourself down; it could be that people have abandoned you; or it could be that you pushed them away. In some instances, people didn't know how to reach out to me...," he noted.
He revealed that his church lost more than half its members after the allegations broke. About a year ago, New Birth boasted about 8,000 to 10,000 members down from a high point of 25,000.
"Thousands of members left immediately in the aftermath of the allegations. Others left six months to a year later in response to peer pressure from co-workers or even from having to endure the discomfort of coming to church and being greeted by picket sign-waving protesters. For many, this just proved to be too much to bear," Long wrote.
For the members who stayed with the church and helped walk him through forgiveness and redemption, Long said they helped to show the church's resilience.
"We took a hard hit, but we stayed strong and kept moving forward. We're a living testimony of how people can rise up, even in the midst of confusion and doubt. All of this was done directly in the face of ridicule. Instead of being torn apart, we pulled together," he said.
A big part of how he was able to keep going after the scandal, he said, was his family, particularly his wife Vanessa.
"When, in an hour, my life changed from being celebrated to being ridiculed, if it wasn't for my family, I wouldn't have survived. Faith in God was essential, but, the tangible, physical presence of my family was what I needed to anchor me," he said.
"My wife, in particular, proved to be a woman of faith and unconditional love. She easily could have focused on herself and her own needs. Instead, she focused on my needs and how to be emotionally supportive," he explained.
Despite remaining married until his death on Jan. 15, Long said it wasn't easy for them to stay together primarily because of "media harassment."
"Let me be honest with you: our marriage did suffer during this ordeal. At one point, under the weight of the extreme stress and turmoil, my wife did leave for a while, and we contemplated divorce. What we thought would be 30 days turned into over a year of media harassment and, as a result, stress cracks developed in our relationship," he confessed.
"The constant rumors and reports, at times, wore us down. The stress cracks were not a result of arguments and anger but the product of pain and pressure. Beyond the other elements of suffering, this was my greatest area of pain. Our relationship did not consist of constant arguing and anger, but it doesn't always take that for a relationship to fail. I understood my wife's pain. She looked at me several times with tears in her eyes and pleaded, 'Can we just leave and get away from it all?'" he wrote.
He explained that there was a point when he had to relocate his family to get away from the media.
"The media pressure was so unbearable that I had to relocate my family to a new home to get away from it all. It was grueling. On top of this, I experienced the pain of witnessing what my daughter had to go through as a senior in high school. This was supposed to be her moment, a time of concluding her formative years and elevating, but instead, it was being dominated by my current life soap opera," he lamented.
Even though he had strong family support, Long also revealed how he had to get professional counseling to cope in the aftermath of the scandal as well.
"A big part of this was GOING TO COUNSELING. I needed to push through my problems and circumstances, and having someone to talk through stuff in a safe environment proved invaluable. I had been wounded emotionally and psychologically, and I needed to own it. I needed to put my pride aside and ask for help to get through the emotional trauma," he said.
It is unclear if at the time of writing the book, Long was aware that he was dying but he also appeared to be concerned he was running out of time.
"Just as Daniel needed something to threaten his life to move him into another dimension, I can hear God's voice and message for my life more clearly and with greater intensity. The confirmation I received from God is that there is still much work for me to do," he wrote at the time.
"The promise that God has given me is that I am to be a prophet to many nations. The major question in my life now is, 'Do I have enough time to accomplish all that God has for me to do while I'm on this earth?' At age 62, I feel as though I'm working much smarter than I did ten or twenty years ago," he said.
In the end, Long fought against the tide of public criticism and found grace in his personal walk with God, declaring, "I refuse to let others drive the conversation of my reformed identity in Christ."
"People may have tried to judge me by what they think I did wrong in my life. God, however, judges me by what I have done right in my life. We, therefore, need to 'remember what God remembers and forget what God forgets.' In your life you will experience 'seasons' of crucifixion – basically, the process of death, burial and resurrection. Understand and accept this. Put your focus on never allowing yourself to stay buried in the death. Trust and believe that there always is 'life after death.' It ain't over until God says it's over. If I can get up, you can too," he said.
Homegoing celebration services for Long will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25 at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Long will lie in-state from 8 a.m. until 9:30 a.m.