NEW YORK (RNS) — The famed Riverside Church in Manhattan has recommended the Rev. Amy Butler as its seventh senior minister — the first woman to lead the congregation in its 83-year-old history.
Butler has been senior minister of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., for 11 years. The church has about 300 members with an estimated 150 people in attendance on Sunday mornings.
When she arrived at Calvary, she inherited a church that had dwindled from 5,000 parishioners to about 70 on a Sunday. As pastor, she has pushed the downtown church to be more multicultural and oversaw a massive redevelopment of the church’s downtown property.
“Under her leadership, the church has become an influential congregation in the nation’s capital, and she has become a much sought-after voice for Progressive Christianity,” Riverside’s search committee said in a letter to the congregation.
A call to a Riverside spokesperson was not returned, and Butler said she was unable to talk to media before the vote on her Riverside candidacy.
If approved, Butler would join two other women who have been appointed to senior leadership at significant mainline congregations. The Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner will begin in May at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church and the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli became senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington.
The towering Riverside Church, built by tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr., in Manhattan’s Morning Side Heights in 1927, is an interdenominational church affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches USA.
Its pulpit has been home to some of the most influential clergy in progressive Protestantism, including Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin Jr. and James Forbes Jr.
Butler will be introduced to the Riverside congregation on May 4. The congregation will be asked to vote on the church committee’s recommendation after she preaches on June 8.
Under Butler’s leadership, Calvary Baptist voted in 2012 to disassociate with the Southern Baptist Convention, citing concerns over the SBC’s commitment to the separation of church and state and allowing local churches to make their own decisions. Calvary, for example, is open to gays and lesbians in leadership.
Riverside has 1,650 members and affiliates, and a report in 2008 suggested the church had 2,400 members.
The church has been without a senior minister since the Rev. Brad Braxton resigned in 2009 just two months after his installation after a fight with his new flock landed the church in court.
The church debated its mission and the pastor’s compensation package, which critics said was $600,000, while a church council member said it was $457,000. Under Braxton, the church with more than 100 employees had a $12-million budget.
When Braxton was appointed as the church’s second black senior minister, the church’s changing demographics, from majority white to majority black, was a source of tension. Braxton’s evangelical and scripturally focused preaching was also reportedly an issue, which some saw as a threat to Riverside’s open and inclusive reputation.
Forbes, who was the first black senior minister of the church, has led Riverside during the transition as a minister emeritus.
In the Riverside statement, Butler indicated she may be ready to make the move to New York.
“Riverside’s diversity raises the potential of modeling how we live with and relate to one another,” she said. “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 received her bachelor’s degree from Baylor University and a doctorate from Wesley Theological Seminary. She grew up in Hawaii and has three children.
“I think it’s high time Riverside had a woman in the pulpit as the senior pastor,” said Serene Jones, the first female president of neighboring Union Theological Seminary.
She pointed out that she and Butler are both single mothers (both are divorced): “It just shows a new generation of women leaders can be moms and presidents and pastors.”
Jones said Butler won’t be daunted by the public nature of Riverside and would bring humor and intelligence to the job.
“Riverside needs someone who cannot only preach but someone who can pastor and care for people,” Jones said. “She’s also got that wonderful, strong prophetic edge that Riverside values.”
Sarah Pulliam Bailey joined RNS as a national correspondent in 2013. She has previously served as managing editor of Odyssey Networks and online editor for Christianity Today.