Updated: The Rev. Dr. Staccato Powell, who was elected bishop in 2016, was removed from the office of bishop of the AME Zion Church following a trial in July 2021.
The Rev. Dr. Staccato Powell arrived for his first service at the Grace African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Raleigh, N.C., and found more people in the choir loft behind the pulpit than in front of it. He told the singers to sit in the pews, even though it meant preaching to the choir.
“I had to have a decent congregation to preach to,” said Powell, 51, a trim North Carolina native with salt-and-pepper hair.
Powell no longer worries about having enough people in the pews. When he arrived in December 2003, the membership of the church, which was founded in 1919, had dwindled to fewer than 50. Today, it’s more than 1,300, with the number rising weekly.
On Sundays, ushers set out folding chairs in the main aisle because the pews are overflowing. More than 140 people attend a weekly Bible study. Powell has opened a branch of the Grace AME Zion Church in nearby Wake Forest. There are plans to build a new church in Grace’s Raleigh neighborhood that will include a charter school and housing for seniors.
Church member Lisa Hodges said of Powell, “He truly has transformed this community and the congregation, and has elevated all of our lives.”
For all his success, Powell says it was not his doing. He didn’t want the job, but a few years before, he had made a promise to surrender his life to God’s will. When AME Zion Bishop George Battle asked him to take over the faltering church in a drug-plagued area near downtown Raleigh, Powell said he heard the voice of the Holy Spirit say, “This isn’t Battle. This is me.”
Powell said yes, reluctantly.
“I really came kind of pouting, kicking and screaming, because I didn’t want to be in the pastorate. I said to God, ‘I’m not going to do a thing. I’m not going to lift a finger. You want me here, then you do it. You run the show.’ And God said, ‘Well, I can do that.’”
The ‘new church’
So began the story of a church and a minister who are confounding the national trend in shrinking church attendance with an idea that is at once radical and fundamental: Let us not be like a church; let us be like Christ.
Powell describes his work at Grace as being the midwife at the birth of what he calls the “new church,” which stresses Christian fervor over denominational identity.
Questions to consider
Questions to consider:
- Powell’s vision of a “new church” is modeled on the practices of the earliest Christian communities. How does Powell’s vision compare to the work of John Wesley at the beginnings of the Methodist movement?
- How do the activities of the Grace AMEZ Church compare to the work of your congregation? How does your congregation live out the description in Acts 2?
- How are the beliefs and practices of a congregation affected by a relationship to a denomination?
- How are the ways that the congregation honors God, does mercy and loves justice shaped by connections to other institutions?
- What hinders your congregation from being the thriving community described in Acts 2? Which of these obstacles, if overcome, would make the most difference in becoming such a community?
Powell’s push for the “new church” is something of a one-man campaign for less attention to denominational distinctions and more attention to the collective power of Christian faith. It is not denominationally specific, he said, “but an ethos, a mindset and the spirit that is pervasive throughout the body of believers and the people of Christ.”
The “new church” models the practice of faith on the earliest of Christian communities, Powell says, a model “where they held all things in common. Signs and wonders were performed, and the church grew on a daily basis. I think the ‘new church’ will recapture that kind of dynamic impact.”
Powell saw an expression of this “new church” in an event he coordinated in March 2010 known as the Great Gathering. The event in Columbia, S.C., brought together leaders and members of the three major Methodist denominations within the African-American community: the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches. The event attracted more than 12,000 people and took as its main focus “the state and condition of the African-American male.”
In his opening remarks at the Great Gathering press conference, Powell said: “For the first time in the history of these three churches have we met together on this scale. ...We are coming together to blend our voices in a way that we are confident will change the course of the history of not only our denominations but this country. This signals the ‘new church’ in a real way.”
George Washington Carver Walker, the senior bishop of the AME Zion Church, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., praises Powell as a “charismatic personality” who has “great integrity.” But he doesn’t support Powell’s vision of a church renewing itself by shedding its denominational identity.
“I don’t think much of that,” Walker said. “I do know that he is quite progressive in his outlook of the church. As a bishop, I cannot go with the post-denominational church. That would be against my philosophy.”
Walker said Powell shows “great respect” for the church’s leadership but that he may be underestimating the appeal of the traditional church.
“There are those who are trying to renew the church in some sense, but I do believe the mainline church is going to prevail,” Walker said. “Many of the megachurches are beginning to lose their punch, and people are looking for something more stable, and they find it in the mainline church.”
While church leaders may be wary of churches where labels matter less, Powell said that the mainline churches have no options. They must reconnect with the roots of Christianity or wither as divided branches. And that imperative applies not only to African-American churches but to all mainline denominations, he said.
“The churches are dying. There is nobody in those churches,” Powell said. “The average-size congregation in America is 50 -- black, white, blue or green. What people see are the big megachurches, but you aggregate them and do the average -- 50 members.”
Powell says he is not against the traditional church; he wants to revitalize it.
“I don’t see this church as being a repudiation or being antithetical or being in opposition. This is not a ‘tea party’ church in opposition to the establishment,” he said. “This is reclamation of God’s original intent. It’s a return to the old church.”
Challenge to change
Powell is an unlikely reformer. He once seemed most likely to rise within the religious establishment, as a gifted preacher with stellar academic credentials and a talent for working with national organizations. Now he is rising by challenging the traditional church to change.
He grew up the fifth of six children in a working-class family in the small town of Hallsboro in southeastern North Carolina. His mother, a domestic worker and housekeeper, and his father, a civil service worker at a shipping terminal, were active in Mt. Hebron AME Zion Church. Attending church was part of family life, and Powell picked up the faith so enthusiastically that he gave his first sermon at 16 and was given his first pastorate at 18.
Now his son, Staccato Keithan, is following him into the ministry as a divinity student at Shaw University in Raleigh. His other child, Susan Elizabeth Nicole, is a senior at Spelman College.
Powell completed his college education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in two and a half years by going year-round. He is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and has a law degree from North Carolina Central University.
His national posts include serving as deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches. In 2010, he led the Great Gathering of African-American churches. Some see him as a future AME Zion bishop. Churches and councils, white and black, want him as a speaker.
Bishop John R. Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago noted Powell’s work at the Great Gathering and invited him to speak in his district.
“He gave a powerful ministry before the congregation,” Bryant said. “I’m thoroughly impressed with his gifts and graces, and I think he is one of the strong voices in the church today.”
More to church than Sunday
Powell remains active nationally, but he sees the future of the church as dependent on what happens locally.
Although he is accomplished and has traveled abroad through his work with ecumenical organizations, Powell takes a humble approach in leading Grace Church. He drives a 1992 Chevy Lumina, and dresses in a clerical collar and modest suits. It’s a stark contrast to some popular preachers, who wear their worldly success like a sign of being blessed.
“That’s not what church is about,” he said. “When I read the Scripture of Jesus, I don’t see him being an aristocrat. We are servants of the people. We are not to be served.”
Michelle Mobley has attended Grace Church since the mid-1980s. Since Powell’s arrival, she said, “The atmosphere of the church has changed. We’re doing more in the community. We’ve never done that before.”
The church serves a midday meal to the poor, collects clothes for the needy and distributes book bags full of school supplies to students. It hosts recovery group meetings and leads efforts to improve the neighborhood. Powell visits the sick and tries to help the addicted get off drugs and alcohol. Sometimes he goes to court hearings for church members or their relatives.
The service helps others, Mobley said, but it also strengthens the faith of church members. “[Powell] made us realize there is more to church than going to church on Sunday. We know who is inside, but what are you doing to get that lost soul who is on the outside? You say you are a child of God, but what are you doing? Now we are doing something.”
Joseph Crockett, special assistant to the president of the American Bible Society and a pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in New York City’s Harlem, is a friend of Powell’s. He thinks Powell has found a way to revitalize the church by shaping his church around the needs of its people.
“He is so much more about solidarity, being with God’s people, caring for the poor and living for the dispossessed,” Crockett said. “That sense of social gospel groundedness keeps him from just spiritualizing life where it is just a stream of vapors that doesn’t have any connection with life.”
‘You can’t stay as you are’
Grace Church’s growth is not merely a product of serving needs. Under Powell, Grace also demands that its members confront their weaknesses and be willing to sacrifice for God.
“We live in a culture where I’m OK, you’re OK. Where in the ‘new church,’ you can come as you are, but you can’t stay as you are,” Powell said.
Powell takes a conservative view of sin. For him, resisting temptation is like fighting an addiction.
“We are either recovering sinners or practicing sinners, and in order to stay in recovery, you’ve got to do those things that sustain your sobriety,” he said. “What are they? You’ve got to attend your meetings, and your meetings are Bible study, Sunday worship and prayer services. Those are accountability sessions where you remain sober and you stay out of the entanglement of sin, but every day you run the risk of falling off the wagon.”
This resonates with his congregation. Darren Woodruff originally came to Grace for recovery group meetings but eventually decided to attend a service. One Powell sermon drew him into the congregation.
“He delivered the Word so profoundly that the Spirit told me I needed to join, and I’ve been here ever since,” Woodruff said.
Crockett, of the American Bible Society, says Powell’s strength as a spiritual leader comes from the way he mixes -- and moves beyond -- styles and traditions.
“He really doesn’t fit into a category,” Crockett said. “He is transcending many of the categories and classifications that we think of when we think of faith and leadership.
For church member David Williams, Powell preaches best by how he acts, not by what he says.
“The most important thing, to me, is all the things that Christ stood for. You can relate to him. He’s compassionate, he’s understanding, he’s willing to listen, he has a forgiving spirit and things of those nature there. That’s what separates him. He’s always trying to help someone.”
Whether during a sermon, a church meeting or an interview, Powell can become charged with feeling, his words quickening in cadence and rising in pitch until his entire slim frame reverberates like a musical instrument.
He rouses his congregation to its feet and has held meetings of church leaders spellbound with his spontaneous speeches. But he does more than soar. He can be as low-key and wry as a late-night talk show host. He mixes his powerful orations with often self-deprecating asides. He can seem alternately a messenger of God and a regular pal.
Whether by his words or by his actions, the reluctant preacher who left his work to God has made great gains in an unlikely setting.
Virgil Ward, associate minister at Grace Church, who grew up in Powell’s hometown of Hallsboro, knows better than anyone in Raleigh how far his friend has come. He remembers his mother taking him to church, where he saw Powell, then just a teenager, preaching.
“It kind of gave me the idea that it was OK to be young and loving the Lord,” Ward said.
Some 30 years later, Ward is still learning. He recalls a scene at the church one Sunday this spring.
“We were trying to accommodate the number of people about to come in. We had to put the overflow crowd in the choir loft. I looked back at Dr. Powell and said, ‘Whoa,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, we’ve come a long way.’”