Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church were grilled on the role of women clergy, waning volunteerism, conversion to cults and other concerns of the denomination's youth leaders who held their annual conference in Arlington last week.

The 351 young delegates from around the country, ranging in age from 16 to 26, questioned their bishops during the four-day National Christian Youth Council, held at the Lomax A.M.E. Zion Church, 2706 S. 24th Rd. The focus of the council was on service.

About 500 youths, including the official delegates, attended the gathering, making it the largest such conference ever held by the youth group. Church officials said the increased participation in the conference indicates greater interest in the church among young people in recent years.

Last year's conference in Detroit attracted about 350 youths, including 200 official delegates. Over the past decade, membership in the youth council has increased from about 4,500 to 6,500, church officials said.

"In terms of adults and youth, there seems to be a return to the church--we have been told that hard times do that," said the Rev. Nathaniel Jarrett, director of the denomination's youth ministry.

The purpose of the annual conference is to enable the youth leaders to share ideas and fellowship and to encourage service in the church and community, church officials said.

One of the oldest black churches in the country, the now 1.1 million-member denomination is sometimes called the "freedom church." It was organized in 1796 in New York when blacks broke away from a local Methodist church to protest racial segregation.

A.M.E. Zion congregations served as part of the underground railroad during pre-Civil War days. Among its members were educator Frederick Douglass, who published the abolitionist newspaper North Star from an A.M.E. Zion church in Rochester, N.Y., and Sojourner Truth, who preached racial equality and women's liberation. There are now 10,000 A.M.E. Zion churches in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

How can the church keep its youth from dropping out of the church or moving into cult religions? one young girl from California wanted to know.

The church itself is sometimes at fault, replied Bishop Cecil Bishop, who is from Temple Hills and serves as the denomination's bishop to Africa. "People look for a church life that is relevant to where they are," but neither may the church "cater to fads," he said.

"How soon can we expect to see a woman as a bishop?" asked a South Carolina girl. Bishop Charles Herbert Foggie of Pittsburgh explained that while there are no bars against a woman being made a bishop, she would have to meet the same qualifications as a man, including approval by two-thirds of the denomination's governing body.

Is volunteerism dying in the church? another query came. Perhaps volunteerism has declined some because of hard economic times, but it still exists in many local churches, several bishops replied.

"I urge you to become part of the nurturing ministry of our church," Bishop Clinton R. Coleman of Baltimore told the youths. "Our Christian religion affirms that the human being is a creature of inviolate worth." Christian education, he said, means "helping people get themselves together so they can grow to the highest potential, so they can be the best they can."

"Christ was concerned about our looking out for the welfare of our neighbor--not just the A.M.E. Zion Church, the Afro-American race, or one geographical area," George E. McCain II of Ridgewood, N.J., president of the youth group, said in an interview. Among new programs the youth organization is beginning, he said, are a college scholarship program and a work-study program for youths interested in service to the community.

From an 82-year-old social worker, there was a message for the youngsters on age and service:

"All of us are growing older from the day we're born to the day we die," Dr. Josephine Kyles, national director of social education and action of the denomination, told the youths. "But a lot of us keep continuing growing in minds and spirits, even when the body can't keep up." She warned the young men and women that a call from God to service does not mean exemption from disappointments.