Metropolitan Baptist Church, one of the District's oldest and most influential African American congregations, has decided to leave its Northwest Washington home and may move to the suburbs if it cannot find a site in the city big enough for a larger church, its pastor said this week.

The historic 6,000-member church, which started in 1864 with 10 freed slaves worshiping in a Civil War barracks, reluctantly concluded last month that its current location, at 13th and R streets NW in Cardozo-Shaw, poses too many obstacles to badly needed expansion.

"It would certainly be my desire to stay in the District of Columbia, but our primary goal is to be in a location to pursue the entirety of our ministry," the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr. said. The church wants "the maximum amount of space at the most feasible cost. We don't want to find ourselves boxed in again where we are unable to grow."

Hicks said Metropolitan needs to move because of increasing problems finding parking and because historic preservation restrictions on some church-owned property prevent it from adding new buildings. He also cited recent tensions between the church and its surrounding neighborhood, saying there is "a spirit within our community that challenges the very existence of our church."

Hicks, who came to Metropolitan in 1977 and is the church's fifth pastor, stressed that the church has not yet decided where to relocate. Asked about the possibility of moving to Anacostia in Southeast Washington, an area Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) hopes to revitalize, Hicks said the church is looking at every quadrant of the city.

Having prided itself on inner-city service, Hicks said, Metropolitan will maintain "a ministry of some significance" in the city "that will meet the social demands of the Gospel"--even if the church moves to Maryland, where Hicks and 45 percent of its members live.

The church property, with a 1,400-seat sanctuary built in 1985 and a Monument Hall erected in the 1950s, has an assessed value of nearly $4 million, according to real estate records.

The church plans to launch a capital building campaign on its 136th anniversary in May, with an initial fund-raising target of $4 million.

By 2002, it hopes to begin construction of a 3,000-seat sanctuary, a banquet hall, a conference center, music rehearsal suites, a library, counseling rooms and a child-care center. Later, it hopes to build a senior citizens home.

The congregation began examining a possible move more than a year ago. But its final decision, made at a Dec. 1 meeting of about 1,200 active church members, was partly influenced by bruising fights last year with some of its neighbors. The dispute aroused some racial tensions.

Feelings ran high last summer in the increasingly upscale Cardozo-Shaw community when residents challenged Metropolitan's 20-year lease on a parking lot adjacent to Garrison Elementary School and sued the D.C. school system to make the lot a playground. Earlier, Brookland residents unsuccessfully opposed the opening of a church-run day school on Randolph Street NE. The church has no plans to move that school.

Hicks, in an emotional speech at the December meeting, said Metropolitan's facilities are no longer adequate for its outreach ministries, Bible classes, choir rehearsals and counseling programs.

And with about 2,500 worshipers each Sunday, most of them driving to services, parking is a major hassle.

"It is my belief, with every fiber of my soul, that God is leading us to relocate the church. . . . If we remain as we are," he warned, "Metropolitan Church will enter a period of serious decline and decay."

Hicks said Metropolitan is no longer filled with members who walk to services. New residents, he said, have no historic relationship with the church, don't see it as a community asset and "are in vocal and often confrontational opposition" to the church's growth and presence in the neighborhood.

In an interview, Hicks called the church's intended move "regretful" because it has contributed much to Cardozo-Shaw's renewal. "If you knew R Street 10 years ago, it was a place of drugs and prostitution," he said.

The church helped improve the area by renovating apartments, planting flowers and buying out a delicatessen that was a haven for drug dealing. It has also assisted a nearby shelter for the homeless and, the pastor noted, contributed $250,000 in the past four years to support Garrison Elementary.

"One of the reasons the area is attractive to persons moving back into the neighborhood is because Metropolitan Church spent a lot to clean up the area," Hicks said. "It was almost our own undoing. We created a new community."

Julianne Malveaux, a syndicated columnist who lives in Shaw and walks to services at Metropolitan, said she was "always puzzled and hurt by what I perceive as hostility in the community, an element of which I believe is racial. . . . You have a force for good in the community that in my opinion has been run out by a lack of flexibility."

But Glen Melcher, a lawyer and Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who represented residents in a parking lawsuit, said Metropolitan's work with students and the homeless is appreciated. The church, he said, has mistakenly "perceived certain actions by people in the community as hostile to them. . . . We had a single-issue problem with the church. . . . I don't think anyone in the community is pushing Metropolitan Baptist out of the city."

He agreed that the church needs more space, calling it "a sign that it's a very successful congregation."

Claude Bailey, general counsel at the Washington Convention Center and a member of the church who chaired its Hicks-appointed Millennial Planning Group, noted: "Most people did not want to move. But when people started talking about the issues, they came to the conclusion that the church had to do something."

Plans to build a larger church on church-owned properties in the 1700 block of 13th Street were abandoned when buildings there were added to the Greater Fourteenth Street Historic Preservation District in 1994. But even that option, Hicks said, wouldn't have given the church enough space for long-term expansion.

Malveaux said she probably won't follow the church if it moves to the suburbs, because "I need to worship where I live."

But Candies Walker, of Greenbelt, a member since the early '90s, said he'll "go wherever the church goes unless it's way down in Manassas. It has to be reasonably convenient."