June 9th, 2011
12:53 PM ET
By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) - If you're a famous pastor who has just survived a sex scandal, laid off church staff and lost a chunk of your congregation, what do you do to move forward?
If you’re Bishop Eddie Long, you announce that your church is expanding.
Long, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Church outside Atlanta, Georgia, has announced that his church is opening two new satellite churches and is asking parishioners to donate up to $1,000 to support the expansion, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Long’s announcement comes two weeks after an out of court settlement with four young men who accused him of using his spiritual authority to coerce them into sexual relationships. The timing of Long’s announcement prompted me to ask several public relations and church experts a question:
How should Long - or any other pastor - act after a scandal?
Art Franklin, a spokesman for Long, says the pastor is simply acting as a minister should. He’s helping New Birth fulfill its mission.
"By expanding with satellite churches, New Birth is continuing to do what God has called the ministry to do," Franklin said in a statement.
The public relations experts who responded to my query thought otherwise.
“Long needs to rebuild and repair his brand - if that is even possible - before he can think about expanding it,” said branding strategist Adam Hanft, CEO of Hanft Projects.
Hanft says Long may claim that no charges were ever proven against him in court, but that will not earn him much sympathy.
“No corporation or politician today can buy much slack by appealing to a loophole,” Hanft says. “Churches have even less wiggle room. What’s going to happen here is that everyone other than his hard-core base of supporters will peel off from him - he will have enormous difficulty in attracting new members.”
Angie Schuller Wyatt, a pastor and therapist whose father was ousted from his ministry at the Crystal Cathedral megachurch in Southern California, says Long’s attention should be focused on his own congregation in Atlanta.
“Leaving a broken congregation to build a new one is theologically irresponsible,” says Wyatt, granddaughter of Robert H. Schuller, the founder of the Crystal Cathedral. “It’s like sending all your money to care for another family while your own family starves.”
Since the four men’s lawsuits against him and New Birth went public last September, Long’s congregation has faced tough times.
In February, Long became entangled in a dispute with an entrepreneur over what Long said was $1 million in “sour” investments made by New Birth members. Long asked the entrepreneur to return the money to New Birth members who were experiencing financial hardships.
New Birth has also seen its attendance drop and its staff reduced, while Long announced a cut in his own salary. Church officials blamed the changes on a bad economy and more churchgoers watching service online rather than in person.
Richard Laermer, author of Full Frontal PR, says Long’s should adopt a more introspective public posture.
“If he wanted his day in court, he should have taken it,” Laermer says. “…I would tell him to leave the vicinity, go on recognized sabbatical, write some great theological papers - and stop trying to raise money.”
Cherie Kerr, president of KerrPR, a company based in Southern California that offers strategies for celebrities in trouble, says Long could repair his image by making another kind of announcement.
She suggested that he could announce that New Birth would start or expand their outreach to the homeless or partner with other churches to help the needy.
“Expanding is the last thing he should be doing because people will see that as an arrogant act,” Kerr says.
Wyatt, the pastor and therapist, says that it’s difficult for pastors to change their habits even after they emerge from a scandal.
“Pastors of megachurches learn to love the spotlight and power,” she says. ”Long’s new church franchise is only the first of many to follow. Even in the face of scandal, famous preachers will do anything to maintain their platform.”
Some experts have spoken, but what do you think?
Did Long make a mistake with his announcement? Or should pastors who have not been proven guilty carry on as usual after a scandal?
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.