When highly visible religious leaders have a lapse in character and their moral failure is exposed to the general public, we are often quick to publicize and circulate the news to our personal gossip circles and local street-news committees. However, when the same leaders demonstrate levels of high moral character, contrition, and/or personal transformation, we are not as apt to spread the news. Generally, I think the discrepancy between how fast good and bad news about religious leaders is disseminated can be attributed to our culture’s fascination with the sensational and scandalous aspects of public life. Furthermore, when the scandalous news is surrounding a highly visible preacher the fascination is compounded with questions related to issues like pastoral redemption, congregational forgiveness, suitability for ministry, sin, adultery, preying preachers, and sanctified freakiness etc.
In so many ways the public scenario that I’ve just described is exactly what happened to Baltimore based mega church pastor and TV preacher Jamal Harrison-Bryant.
The Allegations of Infidelity
During the summer of 2007 accusations of an affair began to surface about Pastor Bryant and an alleged 17 year old church member. These accusations reached a culminating point in the winter of 2008, when the Baltimore Sun newspaper published an article about an ensuing divorce between Pastor Bryant and his wife Giselle as a result of Bryant’s alleged infidelities. The article incited an online media firestorm on various blogs and gossip sites, as countless individuals far and wide began to express their feelings of support and condemnation, for and against, the embattled Reverend Bryant. This exchange of rumors and accusations, defamation and affirmation concerning Pastor Bryant’s alleged moral failings continued for several months without any in-depth public address, statement, and/or interview from Bryant.
Jamal Bryant Responds To Rumors and Accusations
Fast forward 2 ½ years from 2008 to now, Pastor Bryant and Giselle are officially divorced, he is still pastor of Empowerment Temple, he continues to preach extensively across the country, he has written a book about avoiding personal sabotage and he’s ready to talk about the so-called scandal; and he has done so in an interview conducted by Jamie Foster Brown in the October 2010 edition of Sister 2 Sister magazine
According to Mrs. Foster-Brown it took a while for her and Pastor Bryant to get together to talk about his alleged sexual affair and “fall from grace,” but eventually they were able to arrange a sit down conversation at her home in Maryland.
Admittedly the interview displays all the charisma, complexity, brilliance, and wit that we’ve come to expect from Jamal Bryant. During their conversation he admits that he had an affair with a woman while being married but he adamantly denies claims that he impregnated the unnamed woman and that he was sexually involved with several women. According to Bryant there was “one woman. Not several. Not 10. And there is no baby anywhere…..there is no subpoena for me to go anywhere. I am not rolling up my sleeve for any blood test. My issue was infidelity against my wife.”
In addition, Bryant also admitted that in the beginning he was in absolute denial about the affair and when he finally decided to come clean to his wife it was already too late. He goes on in the interview to describe how distraught he was about the whole situation. He shares candidly about how his experience of depression and embarrassment left him wanting to leave ministry. Perhaps most telling is his admission that his father Bishop John Bryant called him during the heat of the controversy and told him that “he has never had this kind of pain and disappointment in his life.” Among other topics discussed in the interview were Bryant’s kids and their reaction, his affection and admiration for his ex-wife Giselle, the state of his congregation, his book World War Me
, his reality television appearances, and other interesting personal details of his life.
What We Should Learn From Bryant’s Admission
Though I am in no way celebrating or condoning Bryant’s actions I think he is to be commended for his admission of infidelity. Too many times our leaders feel the need to hide their indiscretions for fear that negative public perception will bring an end to their perceived success. Obviously, Bryant was not immune to this fear since it has taken him some time to come clean. Whatever the case, his courage to speak out about his situation has the potential to be a teaching moment for those willing to listen. In my assessment I think we can learn at least (2) important things from his admission.
To begin with I think we can learn that the celebrity preacher culture that we have created can be extremely problematic. To be sure, there have always been widely popular preachers like Justin Marytr and John CHRYSOSTOM in the early church, Martin Luther and John Calvin during the Reformation, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney during the revivalist era, Aimee Simple McPherson and Billy Sunday in the early 20th century, and Martin Luther King Jr., Billy Graham, and T.D. Jakes
etc., in recent times. Interestingly, the current culture of Christian superstardom is exacerbated with the formation of advanced forms of media that have the potential to make our preachers even more larger than life. This fact presents significant challenges for popular preachers because their personal lives have become even larger targets for both admiration and accusation. Also their high visibility creates a Christian celebrity culture that promotes a harmful perception of Christian ministry among clergy of all levels of influence.
According to Bryant, the celebrity preacher status caused him to think that he “was beyond a chink in the armour.” In other words, he felt like he was beyond getting caught. One wonders how individuals ever come to believe that they won’t get caught after having witnessed numerous individuals (like Jimmy Swaggert, Ted Haggard, and Bill Clinton etc.) have their indiscretions plastered all over the television and the internet.
The unfortunate reality is the more confident or successful we become, the more we believe we are in control of destiny, not realizing that no one is truly the captain of their ship. Moreover, what is most unfortunate is the potential danger of making someone a celebrity preacher who is not gone through a process of becoming a healthy leader. Bryant accentuates this point when he states “one of the most dangerous things is to become a celebrity when you’re sick because it will further antagonize what your issues are.” To be sure, no leader (celebrity or otherwise) is perfect, but there is such a thing as a healthy leader. I define a healthy leader as someone who is responsible enough to handle the pressures and temptations of being followed. The unfortunate reality is that often individuals are exalted to high visibility as a result of their gifts and not their health or spiritual maturity; too often this scenario becomes a recipe for disaster.
Bryant’s most powerful admission about the perils of celebrity preacher culture is related to perceptions of success in the so-called black church. According to Bryant, “success in black church circles is defined as having thousands of members, preaching at national conferences, and driving a Bentley and living on the water.” As someone who has been in ministry for 10 plus years I have to concur with Bryant’s assessment of success in mainstream ministry culture. Far too many individuals enter ministry with aspirations of being successful rather than with the conviction to be faithful. Furthermore, when the measure of success is money, cars, homes, and hoes--it turns preachers into celebrities and not servants. Commendably Bryant admits that in the process of becoming a Christian celebrity “preaching became his profession and not his lifestyle” and as a result he “lost his grounding.” Hopefully, this admission will teach good church folks not to celebrate ministers simply for their preaching persona and charisma but also to celebrate them for the quality of their service to others.
One way we can combat the perils of celebrity preacher culture is to stop perpetuating the male-masculinity cult among certain clergy. This is the group that views ministerial authority as a parade of people with penises sanctioned by God to bear witness to a Power that they deny the power of. This is the group that preaches divine liberation but practices religious bondage of women and other disenfranchised groups. This is the group that publically commends relational fidelity and chastity of singleness but privately condones irresponsible sexual habits among fellow male ministerial colleagues. I have personally witnessed this gender cult ruin many young men who enter ministry with good intentions and this is why I hope we learn this lesson about celebrity preacher culture from Bryant’s situation.
Finally, the last thing I think we can learn from Bryant’s admission of infidelity is that a culture of constructive critique is needful in Christian culture, especially since powerful Christian leaders rarely surround themselves with individuals whom they trust to tell them the truth about themselves. When bloggers (like myself) first posted the news of Bryant’s alleged fidelity three years ago after it was published in the Baltimore Sun supporters of Pastor Bryant inundated the comment sections of our blogs with “not so holy” indignation. I remember persons lecturing me about the virtue of praying for our leaders and not engaging in slander of “men of God.” Also, I remember having personal conversations with individuals who felt Bryant’s alleged moral failings were not important because “the deeds of a good man far outweigh any of his indiscretions.” And of course, there were those among the congregation of blind allegiance who categorized every critique of Bryant and his congregation as indications of jealousy and preacher player hating. Honestly, at the time I personally did not feel the need to respond to such short sided and provincial reactions.
However, now that Bryant has admitted his infidelity and critiqued the very system of preacher celebrity culture that he insists provided the context for his indiscretions, I cannot help but lift up the value of unpopular countercultural Christian critique. Sadly, had the court of popular opinion prevailed Bryant may have never come to realize the error of his ways. In the article Bryant tellingly admits that he “initially was in complete denial, but pressure from blogs and newspapers” caused him to have to be honest with his wife about his wrongdoings and as a result he learned a lesson from his situation.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting that any leader’s personal life should be made the topic of public gossip sessions at the public’s kitchen table so to speak. However, I am suggesting that certain individuals in the Christian community need to become more enlightened witnesses and realize the necessity of developing a critical discerning eye that can tell the difference between bold discipleship and blind devotion.
Thank goodness there were some enlightened witnesses out there raising their voices in the spirit of compassionate critique because as a result a gifted young pastor has grown and reconnected with a lost part of himself as a leader. And as Christian leader myself I can only hope that individuals will continue to remind us of our responsibility to be healthy leaders and when we sometimes fail at this task I hope we’ll have the courage to be as honest as Pastor Jamal Bryant. In the end analysis I commend Bryant for his soulful admission, I continue to hope the best for his ex-wife Giselle and the children and I pray we as leaders have been reminded of the burden of leadership.
Compassionately and Critically yours, Billy Michael Honor