The Power Pastor: How A.R. Bernard Built a New York Megachurch


Like the Rev. Floyd Flake, senior pastor of the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral in Queens, and the Rev. Calvin Butts, who leads the 200-year-old Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Mr. Bernard now commands an enormous, culturally diverse congregation made up of parishioners traveling from all over the state, Mr. Cunningham said.

“So he crosses a lot of lines, a lot of boundaries,” Mr. Cunningham added. “If you’re a politician and you have a message about jobs or the economy or crime and you’re addressing that megachurch, your message will ripple out to all these different communities.”

Initially, Mr. Bernard’s sermons about male responsibility were attracting a lot of young men, which in turn, brought in more women. Church congregations typically skew more female than male, but at one point more than half of the Christian Cultural Center’s membership was male. (Now the split is 60/40 female to male, like many college campuses.)

The meat of those sermons is collected in “Four Things Women Want From a Man,” Mr. Bernard’s second book, out last May. It’s a slight book, as self-help primers tend to be, but there are a few pearls. Mr. Bernard uses the bible’s first couple, Adam and Eve, as his central metaphor. Adam, alone at first, is a clueless workaholic; Eve, created by God to help Adam get his act together, has better people skills and can multitask, even though Adam thinks she’s a nag.

Man up, men, Mr. Bernard exhorts, or you’ll lose her. Echoing animal behaviorists, he suggests women offer positive reinforcement if their menfolk behave properly.

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The pastor’s newest book is a relationship primer based on his sermons.

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Jessica Lehrman for The New York Times

Mr. Martin, the former football star, is one male congregant who has been avidly following Mr. Bernard’s teachings; he said the pastor is both his friend and a father figure. “He is the single most influential male in my adult life,” he said. Now 43, Mr. Martin began attending his church in the late 1990s, when he signed with the Jets. “A friend of mine said, ‘You’ve got to hear this guy speak,’” he said. “And I just kept going back. I’m a very practical person, and I think he has a tremendous gift for making what is complicated extremely simple. He can talk about God in a way that makes you attracted to God so you don’t get lost in all the rules and regulations.”

Mr. Martin brought his friend Carra Wallace, now chief diversity officer in New York City’s office of the comptroller. She was coming off a divorce — “I like to say I married late and divorced early,” she said — and was attracted to Mr. Bernard’s teaching method: “You take notes, you’re able to study and think about it.” These days, Ms. Wallace attends the 8 a.m. service, an hour’s train ride from her home in Battery Park City. “You get your message in, and then you have your day.”

Mr. Bernard, who is the chief executive of his church, as well as its senior pastor (his six-figure salary is determined by a board), is at heart a practical evangelist. When it was reported in the run-up to the presidential election in 2012 that African-American ministers were encouraging their congregations not to vote because of President Obama’s position on gay marriage, Mr. Bernard bristled at being lumped into that group.

“Let me give you three powerful reasons why I would never tell my congregation not to vote: Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney,” he told a reporter on MSNBC, referring to the young civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. “Don’t let same-sex marriage be the deciding factor.” He went on to give a meticulous, and theologically agile, mini-lecture on the separation of church and state, on why same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue and how his own faith nonetheless requires that he obey its tenets.

Last year, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, Mr. Bernard delivered a sermon about how societal norms and laws change over time. “I used the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit as one example,” he said. “That’s the law, but most people are doing 65, so that’s the norm. If they hit 95, which is the extreme, the police will pull them over. Over time, cultural practices can move from extreme to norm to law.”

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Mr. Bernard signing copies of his book.

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Jessica Lehrman for The New York Times

Change is a process, not an event, he likes to say.

This election year has come with its own challenges. In June, when Donald J. Trump’s team invited a group of evangelicals to advise the candidate, Mr. Bernard was among them. Mr. Bernard has since stepped away from that role, he said, because he felt more like “window dressing,” as he put it, than a genuine adviser. The two had met years ago, weirdly, at Maya Angelou’s 80th birthday party, where Mr. Bernard was the keynote speaker; the setting was Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, which perhaps explains the unlikely pairing of that presidential hopeful with the poet and civil right activist.

“If I’m going to advise you,” Mr. Bernard said, “it’s because I’m going to really, genuinely advise you. O.K., politics is a weird game, I get it. But when I found out that no matter what we were saying, he continued the same path, I said: ‘You know what? I need to step back and remain neutral.’”

Ms. Bernard, with typical candor, said, “I never met Trump, but Trump just has issues, and it’s obvious he has issues.”

Two weeks ago, when Elena George, a celebrity makeup artist, was preparing Donna Brazile, the veteran political analyst now serving as interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, for her role on CNN’s round table after the first presidential debate, they phoned Mr. Bernard to join them in a prayer. “I told Donna, ‘We need reinforcement,’” Ms. George recalled.

“He quoted scripture,” Ms. Brazile said. “And it was helpful.”

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