Faith And Leadership: How One Man's Divine Calling Transformed A Maryland Church

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The Rev. Matthew L. Watley, a prominent figure in the historically Black African Methodist Episcopal denomination, has led his suburban Maryland congregation, Kingdom Fellowship AME Church, to become one of the fastest-growing churches in America.

This achievement, he insists, is not a mere coincidence but the result of a divine calling that has guided his journey from South Africa to the pulpit. As reported by AP News, Watley's spiritual journey began in South Africa, where he was part of the Step Afrika troupe. It was here that he felt the call to ministry, prompting him to abandon his law school aspirations and enroll at Howard School of Divinity.

"In America we believe in God, but in Africa, they depend on God," Watley shared, reflecting on the profound faith he witnessed in Africa. His wife, a lawyer and federal lobbyist, was also a significant part of his journey, having met her at Howard.

Since its inception in 2019, Kingdom Fellowship AME has experienced exponential growth. Initially, the church had approximately 3,000 members and an average weekly attendance of about 1,800 people. Today, the congregation has expanded to nearly 8,000 members, with weekly services attracting about 2,500 attendees.

Watley, 50, recently delivered a sermon from the Gospel of Luke, recounting the transformative encounter between Zacchaeus, a corrupt tax collector, and Jesus. "When Zacchaeus climbed that tree, that was his way of doing what he needed to do to become whole to become healed from the stuff hed been carrying his whole life," Watley preached. His sermons have a profound impact, with many new members joining the church after each service. According to the church's count, Kingdom Fellowship is averaging about 110 additions per month.

Before establishing Kingdom Fellowship, Watley had already built a robust following through a ministry called Power Lunch. These midday worship hours, held in the District of Columbia and the greater Washington metropolitan area, provided attendees with a to-go meal before they returned to work. Watley's innovative approach to ministry also included bringing the church to the people, recognizing the need for a place of worship for the scores of Black Americans relocating from D.C. to the suburbs.

Despite being located outside the district, Watley and Kingdom Fellowship have remained politically active, hosting figures such as Baptist pastor and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia; Vice President Kamala Harris; Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff; and Angela Alsobrooks, the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee challenging former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. However, Watley insists that the church's identity is rooted in its homespun hospitality and a culture that treats all members equally, regardless of their professional status.

"We appreciate that youre the CEO, whatever. We need some help on the parking lot. Its great youre the head of the ER medical unit. We need somebody to hold this door. And thats the culture," Watley stated.

Kingdom Fellowship originated as a satellite campus of the growing Reid Temple AME Church in nearby Montgomery County, where Watley served as executive pastor. Under his leadership, the campus became financially self-sufficient. When the time came for Reid Temple's senior pastor, the Rev. Lee Washington, to retire, he chose to spin-off Reid Temple North as an independent church, renaming it Kingdom Fellowship AME and appointing Watley as its inaugural senior pastor in 2019.

"I believe in sharing," Washington said, reflecting on the decision to allow the flourishing congregation to become independent.

Bishop James Levert Davis, the presiding prelate for the AME district that includes Kingdom Fellowship, has recognized Watley's maturity and strong opinions, even as a young leader. "Between his father and his grandfather, he has been anchored and nurtured by the best of who we are," Davis said.

Watley's leadership has not been without challenges. The construction of a new worship center was a nerve-wracking project, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic hit just as they were preparing to break ground. However, the congregation rallied, increasing their giving, and the first service in the new worship center was celebrated in 2022 for Easter.

Despite a decline in church attendance among Black Protestants in the U.S., Kingdom Fellowship AME has experienced rapid and seamless growth. Sharon and Billy Watts, members of the congregation, attribute this to the kindness and care of the church staff and Watley's gift for preaching and reaching people.

"To me it seems like were called to bring the community together, to hear the word of God, to not just prepare them spiritually, but to prepare the whole person," said Sharon Watts, reflecting on Watley's impact.