By Rev. Francine Brookins, Esq.
If we are honest with ourselves, most of us who have been in the AME Church all of our lives know more “former AMEs” than we can count. As part of a project for the Los Angeles North District Conference (Allen L. Williams, Sr., Presiding Elder), we conducted a survey of people who have left the AME Church. Our goal was to listen without becoming defensive.
Our listening began with a question posed on Facebook “Did you leave the AME Church, and if so, would you consider returning?” Three of us shared this inquiry and we received more than 670 public responses on Facebook alone. We also began to receive private messages from people pouring out their heartaches and hopes about the AME Church. Some who responded were not yet gone but were on the verge of leaving. Others were encouraged just knowing that someone cared enough to acknowledge they left. Some would consider returning if they were asked to do so.
A small pool of persons was invited to take part in a detailed survey. The questions were carefully crafted (by the Rev. Kirkpatrick Tyler, pastor of St. Mark AME Church, Los Angeles, California) to help us grow as a body. Broadly speaking, they covered areas such as personal demographics, the level of involvement in the church, roles(s) in the church, age when they left, whether they were helped or hindered in their spiritual development in the AME Church, and primary reasons for leaving.
We were encouraged by what we heard; and when they spoke, we listened. The majority of responders (only 15 in this first sample) were active AMEs before they left the church as adults. They served as leaders in auxiliaries or as persons called to ordained ministry. They were familiar with the Church’s history, structure, and ministries. Their decisions to leave the church were not made lightly. There are thousands of others who would take part if asked.
A majority of the small number of responders would consider returning to the church if there were some institutional and theological adjustments. Generally, people want to see less hypocrisy and more focus on Jesus than on maintaining the institution. Specifically, one our respondents said, “Get rid of the election campaigns for the episcopacy. Use that money to get health care and retirement benefits for pastors. Have a kind of “Rooney Rule” that requires the consideration of women for all appointments as pastors, stop the silence around the lives of gender non-conforming people in the denomination.”
We believe those who have left may still have something to teach us. Are we humble enough to listen? I hope that we have taken only mere baby steps in the direction of what will ultimately be connectional strides to pause and get back what the devil has stolen from us.
The Rev. Francine A. Brookins, Esq. is the Pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church of Fontana and the Clerk of the Judicial Council.