I was on the board that fired the first female senior minister at the historic Riverside Church in New York City.
Sexism is rampant at the famed progressive church where prominent clergymen like Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Emerson Fosdick and Desmond Tutu preached about justice, peace and equality.
In spite of how its governing board held her to a double standard and dismissed her this summer, the congregation voted in late September to affirm the leadership and ministry of Amy Butler as our pastor.
While technicalities of the church’s bylaws mean that the vote did not permit the congregation to call her back to the Riverside pulpit, this symbolic act put the church in disagreement with its board, called the Church Council.
As the only council member to oppose Butler’s dismissal earlier this year, I resigned my position last month in protest over the double standard we held against the first woman to serve as senior minister.
“In retrospect, we acted rashly.”
The Riverside Church, the tallest church in America, is not your average corner church. Since it was founded nearly 90 years ago, Riverside has used its national platform to lead the church and country through moral and spiritual crises. Butler’s predecessors famously challenged fundamentalism, advocated for civil rights, celebrated LGBTQ persons and preached about the dangers of war.
But sometimes the national spotlight that Riverside draws is unwelcome. In the wake of Butler’s departure this summer, I have been disappointed and even heartbroken to read half-truths, rumors and inaccuracies in national newspapers, tabloids and on social media. What has been missing from the discussion is that during Butler’s tenure, the Church Council handled two investigations into workplace harassment very differently.
The first investigation in 2017 came after several female ministers at Riverside, including Butler, reported multiple episodes of harassment from Ed Lowe, a longtime congregant. Lowe was an influential member of the council from 2016 to 2019. The investigation was thorough and methodical. Every piece of evidence was documented.
I wish I didn’t I have to use Lowe’s name. But because he chose to go on the record in a New York Times story, I believe it is necessary.
Documented evidence includes photos of a “Sweet Bitch” wine bottle and T-shirt he gave to Butler. It also shows copies of sexually suggestive emails to her and another female staff member and transcripts of a text message where Lowe asked another female staff member for sexual favors as thanks for reallocating funds to the church’s general operating budget. It includes a detailed description of the time when he told a female minister petting a dog that “he isn’t the first dirty dog to want to be in [her] lap.” The completed investigation generated nearly 100 pages.
By contrast, an investigation into how Butler allegedly created a work environment where staff feared retaliation yielded a grand total of two pages. The one incident that the investigation uncovered was a trip Butler took to a sex toy store with two church employees and a congregant while attending a church conference in another state in May this year. She purchased two vibrators, one for an employee and one for the congregant, at her own expense.
The council learned of the incident at our last meeting before Butler’s five-year contract expired, where church lawyers reported that Butler “took” the others to the sex shop, pressuring them to go or face professional retaliation. Only two weeks after the council meeting, I learned of another version of the story: all parties voluntarily decided to go and joked about it after. Upon further research, I also learned that the so-called “sex shop” describes itself as a sex-positive store and educational center that sells books and games, and held sex education workshops. Sex toys are only part of its inventory.
The entire document detailing Butler’s actions is less than the length of one minister’s incident report on Lowe. Testimonies from staff members are not included. The congregant who was on the trip wasn’t interviewed because her perspective was deemed “irrelevant” by a board member.
“While our decision-making process was dominated by oral reports, her voice was excluded.”
The council never had a chance to read the report on Butler’s actions until after we dismissed her. The report wasn’t even written until July 10; we decided not to renew her contract on June 24.
The council swiftly reprimanded Butler, dismissing her from her post in less than two weeks from the time it learned of an outside investigation and complaint to human resources, the department that oversees personnel matters for more than 100 employees at Riverside. Yet the council had deliberated for over a year about how to reprimand Lowe. Only after multiple meetings that took place between October 2017 and February 2018, did the council remove him from the church finance committee.
Further, Lowe was allowed to serve the remainder of his term on the council, and only at the conclusion of his term — nearly a year and a half after the investigation began — did the council act. By the slimmest of margins, we voted to ask him to take a one-year time out from serving on the council.
In spite of that action, he petitioned this spring to run for an alternate church leadership position. Unaware of the investigation, the congregation elected him to serve on a committee staffed by one of his complainants.
Lowe had the opportunity to defend himself at each step of the process. Each time he explained himself, he remained defiant and unrepentant. The church even paid for counseling.
But the council did not offer Butler similar opportunities. She was interviewed by the human resources investigator, but she did not have the same chance to speak with the council. While our decision-making process was dominated by oral reports, her voice was excluded. She was excluded from executive session meetings because the council meets without the minister to discuss personnel matters.
I believe our former senior minister showed poor judgment by going to the store with two staff members and a congregant. As an executive, Butler is different than a member of its governing board (Lowe). That’s why a board needs to be even more thorough and judicious in its investigation and any disciplinary action.
In retrospect, we acted rashly. People were upset with Butler, but because the council never talked with her or the other participants like we did with Lowe, we had only partial information. In our haste to hold our executive accountable, we fired our senior minister and permitted someone who was shown to be a sexual harasser to remain in church leadership.
The fallout was swift. On the day of her departure, two female ministers on Butler’s senior staff resigned immediately.
“The entire document detailing Butler’s actions is less than the length of one minister’s incident report on Lowe.”
Even after her dismissal, Lowe continued to use his leadership position to antagonize Butler. On Sept. 5, just days before the congregation had planned to vote on the resolution about her leadership, Lowe sued to stop the meeting. He demanded that the church first hold a meeting on financial decisions made after Butler’s departure. While many churches struggle with finances, this was a manufactured crisis to detract from honoring Butler.
The New York Civil Court prohibited the council from having a congregational meeting about Butler’s leadership without discussing the financial matters. To comply with the court’s ruling, the council combined both congregational meetings into one, and rescheduled for Sept. 29. The budget resolution even was discussed first. Yet again, we gave priority to one man’s concerns.
With attendance in decline across the country, many churches, including Riverside, face financial challenges. But during the five years under Butler’s leadership, annual giving increased by 37 percent, from $1,596,000 to $2,195,000. In our 2018 annual evaluation of Butler, we praised her as “a talented preacher and teacher,” celebrated that “all programs of the church have been revitalized and are functioning at a higher level,” and observed that “the number of families and young adults joining the church has significantly increased in the last three years.” In the 2017-2018 program year alone, more than 70 percent of new members were millennials.
However, when it came time to renegotiate her contract, the council grew frustrated with Butler’s request to be paid the same amount as her male predecessor in 2009 and with her pleas for greater protection from sexual harassment.
In our annual evaluation of Butler, we wrote, “We acknowledge that gender does influence how people interact with each other and that it has been tough as a woman leading Riverside Church.” Then, we added, “We support your holding people accountable for their behavior when appropriate but people’s behavior is not always about your being a woman.”
Nevertheless, these two investigations show that the council acted differently towards a woman.
The future of the Riverside Church is unclear. In my view, however, the congregation’s overwhelming support for Amy Butler and her leadership demonstrate that the church needs to practice its message of justice and equality inside its own walls, not just preach about it.