The Rev. Amy Butler is the seventh senior minister at the Riverside Church in New York City and the first female to hold that position.

Historic Riverside Church recommends first woman as senior minister

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.

Amy Butler photo courtesy of Amy Butler

Riverside Church in Manhattan has recommended the Rev. Amy Butler as its seventh senior minister, the first woman in its 83-year-old history. Photo courtesy of Amy Butler

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.

Riverside Church

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.

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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."



  1. Female senior pastors coming for the 1st time to Riverside, Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, And Foundry UMC in DC. A trend?

  2. Author

    Good point, Dean. I’ve updated the story to reflect that.

  3. I have been a contributing member of TRC for 49 years and rejoice that the pastoral search committee will report the nomination Rev Amy Butler for senior pastoral leadership.
    I was pleased also to learn that Dr Butler is currently serving the Calvary Baptist Church in DC. Dr George Hill left retirement from Calvary to serve TRC as interim. Praise God .

  4. Amy is definitely a PASTOR who cares for people, as the article suggests. I hope that pastoral spirit – also evidenced Pope Francis – is also a trend!

  5. The troubling part was the reporting of the difficulty with the pastor who resigned in 2009…a church that had difficulty with him “preaching from the Scriptures.” Isn’t that what churches are supposed to be doing anyway?

  6. The Southern Baptists have abandoned local congregational autonomy? Have they also abandoned “soul freedom”? If so, why are they calling themselves Baptists?

  7. I applaud Riverside and Pastor Butler. I have followed her blog for a year now and I am extremely excited for the congregation to have her to help them discover their way in living as Christ followers.
    And as a Baylor University alum, I cannot help but say, “Sic ‘Em Amy”!
    God is good all the time.

  8. I would suggest that there are more than two women leading significant Mainline churches. Certainly the Reverend Dr. Nancy Taylor is a nationally recognized Senior Pastor and highly regarded leader of progressive mainline Christianity and has been serving as the first woman senior pastor of Old South Church in Boston since 2005.

  9. Congratulations to Riverside Church for gettin’ on the train. We bring a perspective and a love to our pastorates. For the most part we don’t let competition get in the way of our ministry. We celebrate the accomplishments of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are blessed with Gods calling their lives and the listening hearts of congregations.

    You go, Amy!! Peace and deep Grace to your unfolding life.
    Rev. Peggy Wallace

  10. It seems that the main qualification for being called to these famous large churches is having a three-name name: Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin, Shannon Johnson Kershner. 🙂

  11. Says Father R. Joseph Owles. Teehee! Congrats to TRC and Rev. Dr. Amy Butler!

  12. I worshipped at Riverside on World Comminion Sunday in 2012 (was doing work at the awesome Metro Baptist Church NYC with church members also from First Baptist Madison, AL) and enjoyed walking the long hall with huge portraits of previous pastors. I will be happy to see Amy’s portrait up there. The service was over 2 hours long that day, yet it felt like only 45 minutes had passed. Excellent worship service and Comminuty. A lot of dedicated ministers and lay leaders at Riverside.
    God bless you, Amy, and The Riverside Church for many more years of community service, world influence, and excellence in Worship.

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