On most Sundays for more than a decade, the Rev. Amy Butler, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, has been holding court with her eclectic congregation in discussions about faith and doubt, spiritual values and religious dogma, intolerance and acceptance. Along the way she earned a reputation as a gifted preacher and leader who transformed a once moribund church with a fractured congregation into a united community of people from vastly different walks of life.
Her dynamic sermons, insightful writings, unconventional ministering and views on how faith should be lived and not just preached have made her an influential voice in Washington’s religious community. Now, Butler’s presence will be felt in New York City and beyond.
On Sunday, the 1,600-member congregation of Manhattan’s historic Riverside Church, long one of the most prominent pulpits in the country, voted to hire Butler as senior minister, the first woman to hold the job once filled by famed pastor William Sloane Coffin.
“I sense in the Riverside community a sense of hope and a desire to build a transformed and transforming community,” Butler said last week as she prepared to deliver her sermon. “I think the last six months has been a time of intense discernment for both Riverside and me. God has called us to be together in this place and at this time to do it together.”
Butler was chosen from a pool of 91 applicants after a two-year search by a 12-member church committee.
“We were looking for a collaborative leader and an excellent preacher and theologian who would work well with the staff, the clergy leadership and the lay leadership,” said Christian Rojas, co-chair of the search committee that unanimously selected Butler as the finalist for the job.
Pastor Paul Sherry, transitional operations minister at Riverside and a former president of the United Church of Christ, described Butler as “an outstanding preacher, a compassionate pastor and a visionary leader” who will lead Riverside “into the future and with grace and strength.”
Butler’s many fans say Riverside is lucky to get her.
“As wonderful as her ministry has been to date, I think the best is yet to come and I think Riverside will see the full array of her talents and even more achievements in terms of her ministry,” said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, an ecumenical association of 50 member groups.
Lynch noted how even as many churches have left the District, Butler and other younger and newer pastors have revitalized the churches that remain.
John Taylor, a longtime deacon at Calvary, was among a handful of Calvary members who traveled to New York to support Butler and were at Riverside on Sunday when the announcement was made.
“We love Amy and her family and we’re going to miss her, but we’re going to be just fine at Calvary because of what she has taught us,” he said. “What a fine legacy for someone leaving a job.”
That legacy was long in the making.
The oldest of five children — “I’m the bossy one,” she joked — Butler was raised as an evangelical Christian in Hawaii. Her mother was a high school teacher and her father, a native Hawaiian, was a community activist and social worker. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Baylor University in Texas and later received a doctorate in ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary in the District. Before joining Calvary in 2003, Butler was an associate pastor at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, where she worked with the homeless community.
Calvary, located in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Northwest Washington, was in transition and in conflict when the 33-year-old Butler took the pulpit as its first female senior minister. Attendance at the church was low and emotions were high. Longtime members were leaving the city and joining suburban churches. Aging white members who remained were uncomfortable with the increasing number of Latino immigrants coming to Sunday service.
“I think they were surprised,” Taylor said of the church’s old guard. “They were expecting someone who had already been a senior minister and had a doctoral degree. Most people were probably anticipating a 60-year-old white guy . . . because although we had women in administrative roles, as associate pastors and minister of education, we had not had one as a senior pastor.”
A mother of three children ages 16, 17 and 20, Butler went through a painful divorce while at Calvary and wrote bluntly about her own challenges and doubts earlier in her tenure. Tension had risen so high at the church that Butler hired a professional coach to help.
The coach first asked her about her own relationship with God.
“The question hit hard and deep,” Butler wrote last January in her biweekly column for ABP News/Herald, an independent news service of the Associated Baptist Press. “I immediately responded: ‘I don’t think I believe in God anymore.’ ”
The coach replied: “Don’t ever say that again. You’re the pastor, and that kind of comment is not appropriate in church.”
“I heard his message loud and clear: Church should never be a place where you ask questions, and it should certainly never be a place where you wonder out loud if God even exists,” she wrote.
“After that, I fired him.”
Butler thinks it’s imperative for churches to consider these hard questions, and she encouraged them at Calvary.
“I said, ‘I’m walking on this journey with you. You have questions. I have questions. Let’s voice them together and see where God shows up.’ ”
Taylor said trying to find the answers to their problems together united Calvary.
“She taught us a lot about how to handle conflicts,” Taylor said. “She said it’s okay to disagree, but here’s how to do it in a healthy way.”
Daniel Alcazar-Roman, a newer member at Calvary, couldn’t agree more. When he moved to Maryland from Houston with his wife, Lu Shan, and their two children, they spent several months visiting churches near their home in Potomac. None were as diverse or progressive as Alcazar-Roman, who was born in Peru, or his wife, who was born in China, wished. Their former pastor in Houston suggested they check out Calvary.
Alcazar-Roman was struck by Butler’s forthright approach.
“She was open and honest, as opposed to other pastors that are guarded and always try to give the appearance that everything is fine,” he said. “Amy was very accessible and very open about where the church was and where she was.”
Today, Calvary has a vibrant multiracial congregation of nearly 300; young urban professionals and some retirees, young families and empty-nesters, new transplants and Washington natives, working-class Latino immigrants and an ethnically and racially diverse group of middle-class Americans. Eleven years after Butler became the church’s spiritual guide, members are still actively involved in existential discussions about matters spiritual and secular: how to build a faith community that reflects the larger community. How to address social problems and ease suffering. How to “grow in their love for one another.”
The challenge at Riverside Church is similar to the one Butler faced at Calvary. The church founded in Upper Manhattan by industrialist John D. Rockefeller has long been one of the most politically influential and socially active churches in the United States.Martin Luther King Jr. voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War there; Cesar Chavez, Jesse Jackson, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have all spoken there. Famed pastors Harry Emerson Fosdick and James A. Forbes have held the pulpit at Riverside.
But in recent years, Riverside has been struggling with changing demographics and disagreements over the direction and leadership of the church. The last senior minister left nine months after his installation because of disagreements with the congregation over the church’s mission and his compensation.
“My experience at Calvary has taught me that when we learn to love each other it radiates outward,” Butler said.
She plans to capitalize on Riverside’s status to engage its congregation and the larger audience outside the church in a national discourse about the role of the institutional church in society.
“I’m passionate about conversations about the future of the church. The institutional church is changing radically around the world and can be an important force for social change,” she said. “The church is not going away, but what is it going to be? It’s so exciting to think about those conversations; what are they going to be about, what will they look like?
“People are looking for two things: community and a place that asks the big questions. Churches that allow and welcome this are going to survive and thrive.”
Valbrun is a freelance writer.