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Can one pastor bridge deep divides between evangelicals and mainline Protestants?

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NEW YORK — Amy Butler could be America’s pastor closest to heaven.

Her new office in Riverside Church’s steeple — the tallest in the country — towers within Manhattan’s skyline. But more than six months since she was installed as senior minister of a heralded pulpit, Butler faces significant challenges, including the church’s decades-long membership decline.

As mainline Protestant churches struggle with membership losses across denominations, Butler is looking for ways to infuse some of what has made evangelicalism thrive into a more progressive form of Protestantism, two forms of Christianity usually seen at odds with one another.

[Past coverage: Historic Riverside Church recommends first woman as senior minister]

From her upbringing and her family to her role as a pastor, Butler seems to embody what some might see as contradictions. Her unique set of experiences — including her evangelical upbringing in Hawaii, her interracial adoption of her daughter Hannah, her divorce from her husband and her leadership of Calvary Baptist in the District — set her up to lead a historically important national cathedral of 1,750 members.

Butler began at Calvary in 2003 with 45 to 60 parishioners, growing the flock to 250 before she left in 2014. Now Butler is looking to reverse Riverside’s decline. In 2008, Riverside had 2,400 members.

Butler said that when she was interviewed for the job, she was asked about why she calls herself an evangelical. She cites her views on the Gospel, or what tenets Christians believe are central to their faith.

“ ‘Evangelical’ is a scary word for a lot of people,” she said. “I was asked very direct questions about, ‘How can you say you’re an evangelical and be a woman pastor in a church that welcomes gays and lesbians?’ ” said Butler, who is the cathedral’s first female senior minister. “I want to reinterpret the Gospel and reclaim it in a way that is life-giving.”

And, Butler said, she has fielded calls from some progressive evangelical pastors who ask her how they can become more inclusive of gays and lesbians in their church’s leadership. Her church in the District formally began allowing openly gay leaders in 2008. In 2012, she led the church to formally sever ties with the Southern Baptist Convention.

While some individuals like Sojourners founder Jim Wallis have worked to make evangelicals more progressive, Butler seems to be trying to make mainline Protestants more evangelical.

[A conversation with Jim Wallis]

Mainline Protestants can learn from evangelicals about populism, or helping explain theology to the masses, said Randall Balmer, a historian at Dartmouth College. And evangelicals, who tend to focus more on their personal faith, can draw social action strategies from mainline Protestantism, he said.

“I think what’s desperately needed in American Protestantism today is for someone to engineer the confluence of these two streams of Protestantism so that the faith can reclaim its prophetic voice,” Balmer said, noting the multiple voices within Riverside. “Anybody who can try to turn that cacophony into a symphony should be considered a miracle worker.”

Why Riverside matters

Butler’s appointment comes at a time when all of mainline Protestantism faces declining numbers. Once plastered on the covers of Time magazine, mainline Protestants haven’t produced many nationally known figures in the past 20 years, said the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral.

“There’s some intra-faith work that Amy is positioned to do,” Hall said. “She has evangelical street cred, and her position on issues and personality gives her mainline street cred. She really can be a spokesperson for Christianity in the 21st century that weaves a lot of different movements right now.”

Butler’s appointment comes with no small challenges, however. Managing a $14 million budget and a staff of about 140, Butler has to at least sustain a $150 million endowment.

Built in 1927 with money from tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr., famous leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Jesse Jackson, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have spoken in its walls.

But the church, which sits next to Harlem, Columbia University and Union Seminary above Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has waned in members. About 600 people attend the church on a weekly basis. In its heyday, in the mid-1950s, average membership was around 3,600.

Riverside’s Harry Emerson Fosdick, who wrote the hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” was one of the most prominent liberal ministers of the early 20th century. He was a key figure in the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy” within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s that would divide mainline Protestants from fundamentalists and evangelicals over issues like biblical interpretation.

Stemming back to that controversy, many mainline Protestants and evangelicals look at each other with suspicion or even hostility because of theological and historical differences.

Butler, on the other hand, could provide a bridge between some progressive evangelicals and mainline Protestants. She seems to infuse her more theologically conservative evangelical upbringing with her more progressive mainline Protestant theology.

“I think that we’ve found ourselves in this strange dichotomy of, either you care about social justice and the transformation of the world, or you believe in Jesus and read your Bible,” Butler said. “I’m unhappy with that separation.”

Bridging two worlds

Butler’s office features a range of books spanning her interests, including those by popular evangelical author Philip Yancey, the late influential African American preacher Howard Thurman, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann and poet Mary Oliver.

Butler grew up in a nondenominational evangelical church, one that would include teachings from evangelicals like Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. A graduate of Baylor University, a Baptist school in Texas, Butler fell in love with theology and began reexamining the faith of her family. That faith did not allow female pastors but also emphasized the movement of the Holy Spirit — and Butler says she felt drawn to a theology that included female pastors at the same time she felt called to full-time ministry.

She cited her experience going to seminary in Europe with students from 30 different countries as instrumental in shaping her Christian faith.

“We had the Africans who thought if you drank alcohol you were going to Hell, and we had the Italians who couldn’t study for a test without a bottle of wine, and it just made me completely rethink: What are the essential components of this faith that we claim?” Butler said. “For me, it really comes down to that one definition that Jesus gives it: It’s the rule of love, loving God and loving your neighbor, that should guide all of our theological expressions and the way that we live in community together.”

Butler’s approach would be attractive to more progressive evangelicals, but more theologically conservative evangelicals would not consider her to be an evangelical because of her views on Scripture, because she does not believe in inerrancy, the idea that the Bible is without error.

“I certainly don’t claim the inerrancy of the Bible, but I deeply claim the presence of God in this holy text,” Butler said. “I don’t want to see the Bible too conservative-fundamentalist. I want to claim it, and use it, and experience it as a source of life and wholeness for even those of us in the more progressive side of things.”

Butler is willing to both adopt and critique what she sees as the best and worst parts of both evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism. For instance, she says evangelicals have created litmus tests to decide who is an evangelical — cultural expressions rather than sound theology.

“I had to rebuild my theological framework when I decided I wanted to be a pastor,” Butler said. “I’m steeped in that tradition, so that’s sort of the framework of my faith, and I don’t want to surrender it.”

While Butler might not appeal to many conservative evangelicals, progressive evangelical author Brian McLaren said she could appeal to people who have left church or have no religious background. Her office displays a blend of warmth and activism, showcasing both a quilt behind her desk and a framed mantra near her couch, “Stop bitching. Start a revolution.”

“Amy has a very down to earth air about her, an informality that might make Riverside a more hospitable place for people who might not have gone there before,” McLaren said.

Mainline Protestant churches face challenges as they try to be both institutional and entrepreneurial, remaining steeped in tradition while moving forward.

“We don’t want to offend anybody,” Butler said of her fellow mainline Protestants. “What’s happened as a result is that we end up creating a community club, or something like that, and we forget why we’re here. The intersection of being an evangelical and the institutional church is, for me, this amazing moment of possibility.”

Balancing both worlds

Like Butler, Riverside embodies some seeming contradictions. The interdenominational church is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches USA, incorporating differences from their denominational traditions. For instance, Butler will baptize congregants in full immersion while another pastor will sprinkle water. Butler has also hired a Methodist and Presbyterian for her staff, building an ecumenical staff.

Butler looks white — not insignificant for a church of 70 percent black congregants — though her father is half native Hawaiian and half Chinese.

“It’s given me the opportunity to open conversations to a lot of different expressions about what does diverse community really mean,” Butler said.

She is also an adoptive mother of a 17-year-old girl named Hannah who is half black and half white.

“Being Hannah’s parent, I had been living with a sort of Pollyanna-ish view of race, and you know, ‘Her race doesn’t matter.’ Race matters. Race matters because our society projects so much onto us, and watching her go through gaining a black identity in this culture has been hugely eye-opening for me.”

When racial tensions began to flare after the death of Michael Brown, Butler traveled to Ferguson, Mo., with other clergy members from all over the country on Tuesday and wrote about the experience on her blog.

Riverside was mostly a white church for the first 20 years and gradually became more racially integrated, said Princeton Seminary emeritus professor of Christian ethics Peter Paris, contributor to the book, “The History of the Riverside Church in the City of New York.”

In her own way, Paris said, Butler embodies a diversity needed in a church that urges diversity in sex, race, sexual orientation and other areas.

“When you have diversity in the midst of a democratic environment, everything can become very messy,” Paris said. “Riverside needs someone who is not afraid of constituencies sparring against each other, competition generated by all sorts of motives. A leader at the helm has to appreciate that and try to bring unity without sacrificing any diversity.”

She is divorced, something she has written about publicly.

“I’m not a magical human being who doesn’t have problems. Though I never expected this to happen to me, and it’s one of the deep griefs of my life, sometimes these things happen,” Butler said. “And the grace of God can lead us to a new place of wholeness.”

Two of Butler’s children, Hannah and Samuel, who is 16, stayed in the District with their father, and her oldest Hayden, 20, is a junior in college. She has been living in housing at Union Seminary next door. Her predecessor, the Rev. Brad Braxton, drew criticism in part for his salary and for his housing choice to live in a more expensive place.

Braxton resigned in 2009 just two months after his installation after fights with his new flock, including some discussion over theology. The church debated Braxton’s compensation package, which critics said was $600,000, while a church council member said it was $457,000. Butler’s salary is $250,000.

A pastor’s new public presence

Butler, who wrote her doctoral dissertation at Wesley Theological Seminary in the District on how a pastor can develop a public persona, seems positioned for national leadership. She seems to aim to blend the liberal Protestant influence of Fosdick to the populism of Billy Graham to the grace-focused Anne Lamott. Social media has enabled her to broadcast local messages that outsiders can also read.

“Everything on social media is me communicating parts of myself and what I care about so that I can send a message to my people that this is who I am as your pastor, and this is who we are as a community,” Butler said. “Now, the public piece of this job means that there’s a lot of other people peering in.”

Fosdick preached on the radio at a time when mainline Protestants had more controlled airtime. Now, Butler is one of just many national leaders with social media followings.

“Would someone like Amy Butler gauge her success by retweets and people who listen to a podcast or would institutional numbers matter? Is that what success looks like for a religious leader now?” said Elesha Coffman, a historian who wrote “The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline.” “There are so many people in that social media space already.”

Even with the rapid decline in church membership, Butler has confidence in institutional churches.

“The institutional church is probably not going to look in the future how it looks now, in terms of our buildings and our board of ushers, or whatever,” Butler said. “This calls for some grieving, and for me it feels like this tremendous moment of opportunity for the institutional church.”

At Calvary, Butler began bringing Spanish into the worship services, which made some people uncomfortable.

“People with different backgrounds, different opinions and different ways of looking at the world, can suspend some of their need for comfort and say, ‘We have a higher goal that unifies us,’ ” she said.

Butler may be the American pastor physically closest to the heavens, but she believes she must tackle the challenges she faces on earth.

“I can’t be a voice for the larger community if this community is not growing and healthy and strong,” Butler said. “I cannot have a voice for the outside world unless I’m pastoring a community here that is fully engaged in the transformational work of the Gospel on the ground.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann.