The pastor and many of the 24,000 members of Full Gospel AME Zion Church in Temple Hills have voted to break away from their denomination, saying that church leaders have stifled spiritually one of the largest churches in the Washington area.

"Growth necessitates change, and change facilitates growth," said the Rev. John A. Cherry, who on Thursday conducted the meeting where 15,000 church members voted to leave the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church and rename their congregation From the Heart Church Ministries.

The church's move has rocked the 1.5 million-member AME Zion denomination, both spiritually and financially, and comes at a time when many of the nation's largest churches are questioning whether they need to be part of a church denomination.

Some of Prince George's County's biggest churches--including the 8,000-member Jericho City of Praise, the 3,000-member Evangel Church and the 3,000-member First Baptist Church of Glenarden--are already independent bodies.

But Bishop Milton Williams, of the Mid Atlantic II Episcopal District of the AME Church, said, "It is very unfortunate what Rev. Cherry has done." Williams said Cherry has been a renegade pastor for years, even though he said he personally joined Cherry's church to try to steer it in the right direction.

"Since I have been his presiding bishop, I have defended his actions before the Board of Bishops," Williams said.

Williams said Cherry has been in trouble with church leaders because he has been "ordaining" other ministers, a role that is reserved for bishops in the AME Zion church.

Yesterday, during the first worship services since its break from AME Zion, the Temple Hills and Clinton locations of From the Heart Church Ministries were packed. Cherry led his congregations in prayer for their new endeavor.

"God, we go with humility as you allow us to be part of change," Cherry prayed during the 11 a.m. service at the Temple Hills building. Evoking the words of the Apostle Paul, he said, "As a church, we press toward the mark for a higher calling."

Although Cherry wasted little time getting rid of everything that read "Full Gospel AME Zion," during the services he prayed, "Lord, I want to thank you for the last 18 years; we don't disdain our heritage."

He could not be reached to comment on Williams's remarks.

In the last 18 years, the church now called From the Heart Church Ministries has grown from a gathering of 24 people in a District storefront to a "mega church" with millions in the bank, a national television ministry, two sanctuaries, a 10,400-seat building under construction and a Lear jet for the pastor's travels.

Yesterday, Cherry welcomed more than 600 pastors and leaders to his church as part of the 12th International Institute for Pastors and Leaders.

Williams said Cherry does not have the authority of the church to oversee another minister.

"There are about 25 to 30 church pastors who look to Cherry as their spiritual leader; he can't ordain anyone without authority," Williams said.

The AME Zion Church was founded in October 1796 after blacks were denied the sacraments and full participation in the services by whites at John Street Methodist Church in New York City. In 1848, "Zion" was added to the name of the church after the African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in Philadelphia about the same time.

From its inception, the AME Zion Church has had strict lines of governance. The church is led by 12 presiding bishops, including Williams. Every four years, pastors and other church leaders are elected to the church's General Conference, where policies and doctrines are set.

In May, about 200 local AME Zion leaders elected delegates to next year's General Conference. Williams said Cherry "wasn't elected by his peers" to the conference and became angry.

"I reached out to help him," Williams said. "I have tried over the years to be close to him."

Some of Cherry's critics suggested that he decided to leave the AME Zion denomination in retaliation for being excluded from the upcoming conference despite his church's major financial contributions. All AME Zion churches pay annual dues, and each year Cherry's church paid $67,000. And some church members accuse the AME Zion denomination of focusing too much on tradition and collecting money.

Although Cherry's critics say he has ignored the authority of a church in which his father and grandfather were ministers, some denomination leaders said privately that their colleagues have been jealous of Cherry.

Cherry and his wife, Diana, were guests of President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 1995 State of the Union Address.

The president recognized the couple for the work they have done to keep families together.

But Paul Wilson and his wife, Darmita, who are active members of From the Heart Church Ministries, said AME Zion church leaders were out of touch with the needs of young professionals like them. Paul Wilson is a physician, and Darmita Wilson is a nurse practitioner.

"We need more than Daniel in the lion's den," Darmita Wilson said. "We want to know, how are we going to raise our families?"

CAPTION: The Rev. John A. Cherry leads the new From the Heart Church Ministries, which split from the AME Zion denomination.