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.