Regional A.M.E. clergy, laity hash out their 'nitty-gritty' church grievances

November 07, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

After a period of polite platitudes at a regional church meeting yesterday in a downtown Baltimore hotel, the bishop threw a challenge to the laity: "Get down to the nitty-gritty. More provocative questions, please."

The floodgates opened.

Soon, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop H. Hartford Bookins was conceding that "some of the churches in our district are literally split asunder." The district he heads covers North Carolina, Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland.

The questions did get specific. "Who handles the money?" "Where does it go?" "Why does our church put so little emphasis on Sunday school and Bible study?" "Why not have a lay committee to evaluate the ministers?" "Why do wives of ministers not consider themselves part of the laity?"

That last question got a response from a minister's wife from Catonsville, who jumped up to say, "I don't know where that attitude comes from. She is certainly a laywoman."

Bishop Bookins acknowledged that "every preacher you have ever known has a messianic complex at least to some extent," adding, "Some have a misguided understanding of their ministry."

To members of congregations with overbearing or incompetent pastors, the bishop said the solution could be the same as in Tuesday's presidential election: "He's out!"

The session at the Inner Harbor's Hyatt Regency Hotel had turned lively. Platitudes were nearly forgotten. James C. Johnson, director of A.M.E. lay activities for the district, cautioned, "Let's be cordial and respectful. Under-the-breath kinds of comment don't accomplish anything."

Said the Rev. Eddie C. Hughes, "Us church folk can be volatile."

He likened some church members to the dog that always barks at his tires when he drives down a certain street. "If I stopped and offered that dog the steering wheel, he wouldn't be able to get me where I want to go," the minister said.

His sense of humor and that of Bishop Bookins and others among the speakers accounted for waves of laughter, raising the level of amiability. At one point, the bishop said, "You don't have to be eternal to be immortal."

During a discussion of finances, the bishop said, "Some of us have a steak appetite on a chitlins pocketbook."

But on a more serious note, Bishop Bookins called firmly for a return to tithing -- the pledging of a tenth of a congregant's income -- in the A.M.E. Church. The recommendation met with a mixed response among the laity.

Hazel P. Scott, a member of East Baltimore's Waters A.M.E. Church and president of the host division for the fourth annual lay convention of the denomination's Second Episcopal District, said the organizers were disappointed at the clergy turnout.

Ministers accounted for only about 25 of the 225 people registered for the three days of meetings, which concludes with a prayer breakfast this morning.

The Rev. Thomas R. Jones Sr. of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Centreville drew murmurs of "Amen" when, referring to competing movements within Christianity, he told the lay delegates, "We have educated ourselves into imbecility. The problem is not different personalities, the problem is sin -- but people don't like to hear that word today."

The A.M.E. denomination has nearly 2.3 million members.

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