By Robert Dilday
Amy Butler, a Baptist pastor in Washington nominated April 27 to fill the pulpit of the prominent Riverside Church in New York City, was elected June 8 as the 84-year-old congregation’s first woman pastor.
Butler, 44, who has been pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington for 11 years, took to Riverside’s pulpit Pentecost Sunday to tell her new congregation a “hurting world needs the hope that you can offer.”
“God’s church can be a place where we are healed, and where we heal each other, and together we heal the world,” she said in her sermon, according to the New York Times.
Since it was organized in 1930 by industrialist John D. Rockefeller, the 1,670-member Riverside Church has been a bastion of progressive Christianity. Officially affiliated with both the American Baptist Churches USA and the United Church of Christ, it describes itself as interdenominational. Its pastors — including Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin and James Forbes Jr. — have been influential voices in American theological and political life.
The church has been without a senior minister since the resignation of Brad Braxton in 2009, who held the position for less than a year. According to the Times, Braxton, an ordained Baptist minister, was the focus of infighting over the mission of the church. He told the Times he saw his mandate as helping the congregation decide “how to bring an interfaith, interracial, progressive religious institution from the 20th century into the 21st century.”
But eventually he stepped aside to allow the church to work through issues such as solidifying its identity and determining exactly what kind of pastor it wants to lead it.
Butler found a similar situation at Calvary when she became its first female pastor in 2003. Attendance had declined and the church was grappling with its mission. During her tenure the church grew from under 100 worshippers to about 300 and attracted a racially and demographically diverse congregation.
When she was nominated in April, Butler told the Riverside congregation that it could model the “future expression of church.”
“Riverside’s diversity raises the potential of modeling how we live with and relate to one another. The human community is messy and sometimes painful. But to live into a vision of love within the tension of uncertainty and difference can be stunningly transformational. The possibilities are so great — small glimpses of God’s imagination and intent for the whole world.”