The Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr. addresses the Metropolitan Baptist Church congregation at an Easter service and ceremonial groundbreaking for its new sanctuary in Largo in 2004. (Michael Lutzky/The Washington Post)

The Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., one of the Washington area’s most influential church leaders, is stepping down as pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church after nearly 40 years behind the pulpit.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Hicks, 70, said that he has Parkinson’s disease and that it was the key reason for his retirement. He did not say when his last day would be, but he said it was time for a successor to lead the congregation forward.

“All we have now is a changing of the guard, from one gladiator to the next,” said Hicks, who became pastor of Metropolitan in 1977 at age 33. “All that I have tried to be is a gladiator for the Gospel.”

“There are some things that are more difficult for me to do now,” he added, discussing for the first time outside the church his struggles with Parkinson’s. “I continue to work, I continue to preach, but in order for Metropolitan to thrive, it will need to turn a corner in terms of leadership, and my responsibility at this juncture is to give guidance and ensure a transition that’s orderly and loving.”

Entering its 150th year, Metropolitan is one of the area’s oldest black churches. And for years, it was one of the most influential: It has attracted White House appointees, civil rights figures and nationally renowned gospel artists. The church was a must-stop for political candidates during election cycles. And for years, Sundays were standing room only in the sanctuary at 12th and R streets NW, as hundreds piled in to hear Hicks preach.

Members of the area’s church community lauded Hicks for his leadership in the days when the District was struggling with gun violence and the crack epidemic.

“Rev. Hicks and Metropolitan Baptist Church offered stability through the rough times in Washington, D.C.,” said Graylan Hagler, senior minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast Washington. He added that Hicks “has left an indelible mark upon preachers and upon the church.”

At its height, the church, which was started in 1864 by 10 freed slaves worshiping in a Civil War barracks, had more than 6,000 members and 60 ministries, including the Cherub Choir, the Marriage Enrichment Ministry and the Prison Ministry, and five affiliates, including a day school.

But Metropolitan’s ties to the District weakened as most of its members moved to the suburbs. By 2004, half of the congregation lived in Prince George’s County, and a sizable portion lived in Virginia.

For the past five years, the congregation has held its services in a charter school at 1400 First St. NW after its effort to move to a bigger church in Largo hit a snag. After selling its property in the District and buying 35 acres for a planned multimillion-dollar sanctuary, the church was forced to stop construction because it could not secure additional loans to finish the project. The congregation has since declined to about 2,000.

“I don’t think what has happened can be measured by . . . the fact that it stands today in an incomplete form,” Hicks said of the Largo sanctuary. “We know that one day God will have God’s way. What God wants will be done but in the meantime.”

Hicks said that while many people measure ministry by events and “what happened or what didn’t happen,” his success at Metropolitan has been about the lives that he has touched and the more than 200 ministers, male and female, he has trained.

Those closest to him said that his dedication — as well as his booming oratory — is what made him stand out.

“This church has been his life; he has always put God first and then his family,” said his wife of 47 years, Elizabeth Hicks. “He has been at this church for more than half of his life. And he has given all that he has.”