Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church was packed with about 2,000 church leaders and spiritual drama last weekend as Bishop Adam J. Richardson called waves of ministers to the pulpit of the Fort Washington church and handed out pastoral appointments.
Some ministers were awarded churches for the first time, and veteran preachers were reassigned during the Washington Conference of the Second Episcopal District of the AME Church, which includes 79 congregations in the District and parts of Maryland and Virginia. More than 100 "itinerant elders," ordained ministers who serve as associate pastors or in other midlevel capacities, left Ebenezer without getting an assignment as a senior pastor.
Bishop Adam J. Richardson presents a certificate of retirement to the Rev. William Porter, pastor of Hemingway Memorial AME. The Rev. Leon G. Lipscombe Sr. of Allen Chapel AME and the Rev. David Sparrow of Lee Memorial AME also were honored last week.
(Hamil R. Harris -- The Washington Post)
Richardson, 57, said making annual pulpit appointments has been one of the most difficult tasks in his nine years as a bishop in the 2.5 million-member AME Church.
"I send the ministers out with the hope that they will be able to connect with the communities where they are serving," said Richardson, who last year succeeded retiring bishop Vinton R. Anderson as head of the Second Episcopal District. In the next few weeks, Richardson will make appointments to all 400 churches in a geographic region that includes conferences in Baltimore, North Carolina and Virginia.
"We have to be courageously evangelistic," said Richardson, who praised the Rev. Jo Ann Browning, co-pastor of Ebenezer, for deferring to a former gang leader to welcome delegates April 11 to the 55th annual session of the Washington Conference.
Now an active church member, Hank Johnson was dressed in street clothes and presented a contrast to conference leaders in robes or dark suits. Richardson called the move "profound" because it introduced a different dimension to a traditional ceremony filled with pageantry and solemn liturgy.
One of Richardson's biggest tasks in the next two weeks will be to fill vacancies at two of the largest AME churches in the Washington area. The Rev. Leon G. Lipscombe Sr., pastor of Allen Chapel AME in Southeast Washington, and the Rev. William Porter, pastor of Hemingway Memorial AME in District Heights, are retiring after 30 years in their pulpits.
Richardson said he needed time to interview candidates for these prestigious positions. Allen has 1,500 members and Hemingway has 1,000.
Since taking over in the Second Episcopal District, Richardson has launched an ambitious agenda, from creating an in-house seminary for educating pastors to reaching out to inmates and those suffering from HIV/AIDS. The Rev. Lee P. Washington, pastor of 7,000-member Reid Temple AME in Glenn Dale, said he welcomed Richardson's plan to revitalize small churches in "blighted areas."
Richardson was consecrated in 1996 as the 115th bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was first assigned to the 14th Episcopal District in West Africa and later served as bishop of the 19th Episcopal District in southern Africa.
A native of Tampa, Richardson started preaching as teenager. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, where he was a drum major in the marching band and got the nickname "Rev."
For 18 years, Richardson was a pastor at Bethel AME in Tallahassee, where he was involved in social justice and civil rights.
The bishop said he believes the church has an important role to play in the public arena, from challenging the president on judicial appointments to urging Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965, parts of which expire in 2007.
"Church people have to stake out all of this and not let the opportunity pass without being concerned," he said.
The Rev. Melynda Clarke, minister for youth and young adults at Greater Mount Nebo AME in Upper Marlboro, is an example of the growing number of women going into ministry in the AME Church. Clarke, who was ordained last week as an elder, said female clergy have a critical role in helping women cope with such problems as domestic violence.
Richardson, who appointed or reassigned 23 women as senior pastors, said that he welcomes women into AME leadership but that challenges remain.
"Not that I am despairing what God is doing with women -- I think the church has an obligation to respect the call of women into ministry," he said. "But in some instances, women who have been called have found it difficult finding fellowship in communities where churches don't respect their call."
During the final conference service last Saturday, Lipscombe, Porter and the Rev. David Sparrow, retiring pastor of Lee Memorial AME in Kensington, were honored by Richardson for their many years of service.
Porter almost cried as he reflected on his decades in the pulpit. "It is very emotional when you have been somewhere for 33 years and you have baptized babies and the babies of the babies. When I came to the church there were only 20 members, and now there are more than 1,000."
Lipscombe said whoever replaces him must have a heart for the Southeast Washington community. "The new minister must keep in mind that they are serving a great people," he said. "I tried to create a ministry to ease pain and to create possibilities for all of God's children."