By Robert Dilday
Washington pastor Amy Butler is a search committee’s candidate to be the next senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City, one of the most prominent congregations in mainline Protestantism.
The search committee’s selection of Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, was announced April 27. The first woman pastor in the church’s history, she will be formally introduced to the congregation May 4, with a vote expected June 8.
Since it opened its doors in 1930, Riverside 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. The church’s neo-gothic tower is a visible landmark in its Manhattan neighborhood which includes Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. Its pastors — including Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin and James Forbes Jr. — have been influential voices in American theological and political life.
Butler, 44, who has been Calvary’s pastor for 11 years, said that legacy of great preaching and prophetic witness drew her to Riverside and its 1,600 members.
“I have begun to wonder what mark an institution like Riverside might make on the future expression of church,” she was quoted as saying in a letter distributed by the search committee. “This wondering is so exciting to me! 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!”
Butler is a graduate of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the International Baptist Theological Seminary, now located in Prague, Czech Republic, and holds the doctor of ministry degree from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. She is a bi-weekly columnist for ABPnews/Herald.
Before becoming pastor at Calvary, Butler worked with the homeless community in New Orleans and served as associate pastor at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church there.
A native of Hawaii, she has three children — one in college and two in high school.
Calvary Baptist, where Butler has served since 2003, is a historic church in which the Northern Baptist Convention (now ABC USA) was founded in 1907. Deeply engaged in its Chinatown neighborhood, it offers English classes for new immigrants and an outreach to patients at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. The church’s resident partners include the Washington Theater Lab, Kid Power Inc., the Washington Youth Choir, Brainfood and the Friday Morning Music Club.
During her tenure Butler revitalized a church whose attendance had dwindled, leading it to embrace multiculturalism and to redevelop its facilities.
Riverside 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 New York 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.
In the April 27 announcement, search committee co-chair Christian Rojas said Butler was “prayerfully, deliberately and in the end unanimously” chosen following a 22-month period of “listening” to the congregation.
“We are convinced that she will be an inspired and inspiring minister for our beloved Riverside Church,” Rojas said.