Rev. Reid of Bethel rips AME system

5th-generation city pastor drops bid to be bishop

Bureaucracy `selfish, bloated'

July 07, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Baltimore's Bethel AME Church, has dropped his bid for bishop in the 3 million-member denomination and issued a scathing critique of the church bureaucracy, calling it a "satanic system" in a booklet distributed at the AME general conference in Indianapolis over the past week.

The 24-page "Up from Slavery: A Wake-up Call for the African Methodist Episcopal Church" rips what Reid calls a "bloated, self-serving" bureaucracy and warns that the predominantly black denomination is drifting from its traditional mission of uplift and empowerment.

"As I began to move through the Episcopal election process, I rediscovered the demonically dark side of African Methodism," wrote Reid, a front-runner for one of eight bishop's posts to be filled at the convention before he ended his bid in June. "I saw close-up and personal a satanic system that makes slaves out of good people."

Reid, a fifth-generation AME minister with degrees from Harvard and Yale, wrote that he had "discovered a religious bureaucracy that was selfish, bloated, self-serving and had little concern for the development of the local church, pastor and laypersons."

"Instead of equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry, this system created and equipped slaves to feed the bureaucracy."

The broadside, which Reid issued just before the convention opened last week, drew a mixed response from the thousands who attended the denomination's quadrennial meeting. The conference concludes today.

"There are people who will say it's about time that someone said this fervently and put it in a forum where it could be debated seriously," said Mike McKinney, director of communication for the conference.

Others, he said, criticized Reid for "airing AME's dirty laundry." McKinney added, "That he would release [the booklet] days before the convention was shocking to people."

McKinney said church officials, including the organization's 19 active bishops, had no comment on Reid's denunciation. But Reid acknowledged the booklet was not popular among the hierarchy.

"Only one [bishop] came to get a copy," said Reid, who said the printing of more than 1,000 copies sold out at $7 each.

An estimated 30,000 church members from at least 14 countries attended the conference, which considered church legislation and elected eight new bishops. Until dropping out of the race, Reid was favored to become one of them, as his father and grandfather had before him.

Although his attack on the church bureaucracy led some to wonder whether Reid was preparing to leave the denomination, the Bethel AME pastor said he planned to stay for now.

He said he released his broadside during the convention so it would reach the widest audience and provoke debate as the denomination considers its future. He said he was frustrated with a bureaucracy that has come to serve itself instead of the needs of the faithful.

He said financially onerous assessments on some smaller parishes made it difficult for them to minister to the needy in their communities.

In focusing inward, he said, the AME and some other African-American denominations are drifting from their tradition of helping people to lift themselves up.

"When you look at the effect of the history of the African-American church generally, what did it teach? Uplift - it's on you," said Reid in a phone interview. "It is our responsibility to challenge people in our community that it is on us to stop blaming other people for our condition and do things for ourselves."

"If we returned and practiced those principles, we would see a revival of empowerment and change in our communities that would blow people's minds."

Although Reid used satanic imagery to describe the operations of the AME bureaucracy, he said he was not implying that church bureaucrats were working for the devil. Instead, he said, the forces of good and evil often battle each another for the soul of institutions.

McKinney, the communications director, said he agreed with some of Reid's points.

"Some of the views I share, personally - the issue that there needs to be a change in church structure, how we do business, and we're doing that," McKinney said. "There are other issues that were more personal for him, the whole demonic [notion]. Those are Frank's issues and concerns."

The full text of Frank Reid's critique is available online at www.baltimoresun.com/reid.

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