Amy Butler

July 15, 2019

Dueling Harassment Claims and Sex Toy Shopping: 5 Things to Know about Amy Butler Exit from Riverside Church

Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church has, not for the first time, been engulfed in controversy surrounding a leadership change.

The storied progressive congregation re-entered the news cycle last week when Senior Pastor Amy Butler and Riverside lay leaders released a statement that her five-year contract would not be renewed. An associate minister will lead the joint American Baptist-United Church of Christ (UCC) affiliated church on an interim basis until a new senior pastor is found.

In the following days, a steady drip of reports brought to light dueling sexual harassment allegations culminating in a staff shopping trip to a Minneapolis sex toy store, the Smitten Kitten, during the annual Festival of Homiletics preaching festival.

Butler’s patronage of the Smitten Kitten was newsworthy enough to merit coverage by the secular press. The London Daily Mail headlined Butler’s purchase of a “$200 bunny-shaped sex toy during a religious conference” while the always subtle New York Post splashed “Oh God! Oh God!” across a cover photo of Butler in clerical dress with a teaser about sex toy gifts to colleagues.

I have spoken with Butler in the past and found her to be both responsive and professional. While senior pastor at Washington, D.C.’s Calvary Baptist Church, Butler walked me through her progressive congregation’s disaffiliation process from the Southern Baptist Convention.

Since Butler’s sudden departure and alleged sex toy shopping has already been extensively covered by the secular press, I’m writing to provide blog readers with context about Riverside and Butler:

  • When Butler was announced as Riverside’s new senior pastor in 2014, she was one of a handful of female pastors tapped to lead a series of “tall steeple” urban progressive congregations. Adelle Banks of Religion News Service authored a story about how Butler, Ginger Gaines-Cirelli of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., and Shannon Johnson Kershner of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church were assuming positions of leadership at the same time as their institutions were amidst significant decline. It is unclear if there has been growth at these congregations (Foundry reports a slight attendance decline in the past five years, while Fourth Presbyterian reports slight growth). The term “Stained Glass Cliff” has been coined to describe setting up female senior pastors for failure.
  • Riverside, financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr, has long served as a center of Religious Left activism, although its congregation is no longer as numerous as it was under famed controversial minister Harry Emerson Fosdick. While Riverside’s weekly attendance has hovered in the 600s, that’s not large by U.S. standards and certainly not megachurch size. Even in New York City, evangelical congregations like Redeemer Presbyterian Church or Washington, D.C.’s Assemblies of God affiliated National Community Church are much larger.
  • While Riverside may not be particularly large, it is influential: Butler was featured prominently at the recent United Church of Christ General Synod and has been visible in a host of politically liberal causes at the national level, including environmental activism. The UCC even tweeted a message of support after the alleged sex toy controversy was publicly aired.
  • Riverside Church has a long history of conflict between clergy and lay leaders. Butler’s predecessor, Brad R. Braxton, was forced out in only one year after a controversial pay package and changes to the church’s worship style. The church overwhelmingly voted to hire Braxton, but the Wall Street Journal reported from the start, “dissidents complained about his evangelical style, which they said put a greater emphasis on personal salvation than on doing social justice. They recoiled at his penchant for the ‘altar call,’ in which he asked people to step forward and witness their faith.”
  • Race and age continue to be issues in the interracial congregation. Braxton and his predecessor, James Forbes, we both African American, while earlier senior ministers were white. Under Braxton, there was reportedly a divide between older white liberals and younger African Americans. More recently, Butler drew younger white liberals and was in conflict with some older African Americans. While I doubt the divides are this clearly demarcated, it was telling that Butler complained of inappropriate comments from an older African American former lay leader.

This latest conflict at Riverside is still in the early stages, with some congregants circulating a petition to have Butler reappointed as senior minister. Regardless of what happens, Riverside will continue to be newsworthy as a focal point of Religious Left activism in New York City and nationally.

21 Responses to Dueling Harassment Claims and Sex Toy Shopping: 5 Things to Know about Amy Butler Exit from Riverside Church

  1. Just another form of UCC wolf. Female pastor? Check. Pro-LGBTQX? Check. Pro-abortion? Check. Anti-Bible? Check.

    Don’t feel sorry for her. She’s walking away with over half a million in severance and such.

  2. JoeD says:

    I grew up in New York and appreciated the Riverside Church for one very secular reason: its basement was the studio for WRVR-FM, New York City’s legendary (and last) commercial jazz station. That’s the only religious training I ever got from that church.

  3. Nick Stuart says:

    Ever wonder about the outfits these folks like to wear?

    It’s like living inside a Chick tract.

  4. Dimitri Cavalli says:

    Butler seemed to lack self-awareness.

    As a feminist and a progressive, wouldn’t she have been appalled to read that a man (including in a supervisory capacity) at some corporate or government workplace purchased a sex toy for a female co-worker?

    Such behavior at almost any workplace would get a person fired for sexual harassment.

    I didn’t know Riverside or any liberal church had the money pay a pastor a six-figure salary and then provide a $500,000 payout to Butler.

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Dimitri, I thought the same thing: my own parish has an average attendance of about 600, and our pastor’s compensation is nowhere near the amount that Riverside is paying out. Riverside does have a sizeable endowment, and sources of income beyond just congregational giving.

    • binkyxz3 says:

      NYC is liberal with an abundance of lawyers. The separation amount could be viewed as hush money to prevent a lawsuit and make this story go away. IMHO

  5. Lee D. Cary says:

    Sometimes – and those times have been increasing in number for the last few years – I wonder if, had He known at the time, Jesus’ last seven words from the cross might have been: “Oh, for heavens sake, just never mind.”

  6. Sarah C says:

    If you clergyman gets $75,000 in Podunk, Iowa, then that’s probably the equivalent of $200,000 in Manhattan given the cost of living and real estate.

    • Patrick98 says:

      Podunk is in Massachusetts.
      Which rural church pastors earn $75,000.00? I would be highly surprised at that figure. Can you name them?

      • Sarah says:

        The parish of the rejected Episcopal bishop of Northern Michigan is looking for a rector and pays $60,000. That’s in Houghton, Michigan. It’s probably one of the best paying jobs in the city, outside of the second-tier state university, the public schools, the county, and maybe the local attorneys and accountants.

        My own Episcopal parish in a town of about 125,000 people pays our rector $100,000 and our organist $75,0000.

        • Patrick98 says:

          $60,000.00 is short of $75,000.00. I guess we will have to agree to disagree about whether a city of over 21,000 people (Marquette) plus a university of just under 10,000 additional people qualifies as rural. By contrast to the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, it isn’t.
          I am not trying to pick a fight with you. Just in my experience most rural pastors are earning much less than $75,000.00 from their churches, and many of them are tentmakers. So, if you know of a pastor in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, serving a church in a town of under 1200 people, and earning over $75,000.00, I would like to know who that is.

  7. Wm. "Bill" Paul says:

    Re cost of living/real estate…. She received, it was reported, $8,000 a month for housing in addition to the $250,000 salary.

  8. Matthew says:

    What a congregation pays FOR a religious leaders package, with the costs of medical coverage etc. and what they pay TO their clergy are two different figures. At the end of the day the total cost still has to be paid and smaller, aging, shrinking congregations of course are finding it harder and harder to afford “their own” in house clergy leader which the church as a whole needs to get better at recognizing and responding to.

  9. Kurt says:

    Francis is paid €35,000/yr. She gets $250,000 and wants a $100,000 raise????????

  10. Kerry Bond says:

    It’s interesting that I did not see any coverage of this resignation on the Big 3 networks or CNN or MSNBC. If this had been a male pastor accused of gifting sex toys to fellow church employees, it would have been trumpeted from every progressive news organization.

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      I think this is mostly understood to be a local news story, despite Riverside’s national reputation. The fact that the New York Times and Post both covered it was significant, but Butler is a pastor in New York. Her proximity to these kinds of media made a big difference — it wouldn’t have had the same reach if she was in a midwestern city (even Chicago). Perhaps the London coverage doesn’t support this, but I can see why the networks would take a pass.

  11. Joan Sibbald says:

    This is not rocket science: churches who hire feminists/LGBTPQ.. and you get a woman’s “Right” to kill her son or daughter in the womb; male and female homosexuals “Right” to”Let It All Hang Out!” hedonism; clueless or corrupt parents, politicians, professors, etc….teaching Sin to children in the name of”inclusion” and “diversity.”

    “Woe to anyone who teaches a child who believes in Me to sin. Better to have a millstone tied around the neck and tossed to the depth of the ocean than face Me at Judgment!”
    God in the person of Jesus Christ

    Any questions call Him. He’s in the Book

  12. “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.  But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.  I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.  Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead.  And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.  But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden.” (The Lord Jesus’ Letter to the Church of Thyatira; Rev. 2.19-24)
    Hopefully the Riverside Church will learn from this debacle, pay more attention to Scripture, and will call as its next senior pastor someone who believes the Bible and will every week faithfully preach the Gospel of Salvation from sin and death through the Grace of God alone through Faith alone in the atoning sacrifice and life-giving resurrection of Christ alone, rather than a “Balaam” (Rev. 2.14-16) or another “Jezebel”.  But given its current denominational affiliations (ABCUSA & UCC), I seriously doubt it.

  13. David Thrush says:

    Wow, I’ve been a musician for 40 years playing in churches, para ministries like promise keepers, some overseas music ministry, a Christian rock band in the 80s, as well as non Christian gigs to support my family which is now grown and gone…I never made anywhere near the salaries these “pastors” make…wolves in sheep’s clothing comes to mind…

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