TIME faith

Meet Riverside Church’s First Female Pastor

Dave Cross

Rev. Amy Butler talks about feminism, her salary, being a single mom, and what it means to lead one of the country's most storied congregations.

Update added on June 12, 2014 at 4:15 p.m.

Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, who has been the pastor at Washington, D.C.’s Calvary Baptist Church for the past eleven years, was chosen Monday to be the first female senior minister at The Riverside Church in New York City. The Riverside Church has been a pillar of faith and activism in New York since its first service in 1930, with its famously diverse congregation participating in political issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to immigration. TIME sat down with Rev. Butler to talk about her upcoming transition.

Your emphasis at Calvary has been on unity and coming together, but Riverside’s congregation is more than twice the size of Calvary’s, and it’s interdenominational. Are there challenges that you think will come with that and do you have a plan for how you’re going to approach the new congregation?

There are many challenges ahead, and this is a diverse community. If you think about doing and being a diverse community together, this is the perfect place to try to do it because all of the pieces are there. And this is a community that has valued diversity for all of its history and, as we all do, struggled with what that means in day-to-day life. I’m really looking forward to trying to figure out how we can make that diversity into an asset and something that is really a compelling and attractive expression of our community. Diversity doesn’t always have to be hard and terrible. It’s a challenge, always it’s a challenge, but it’s a great opportunity for modeling what the church can be in the world.

Not only is the Riverside Church diverse, but also it is politically active. What do you see as the intersection of religion and politics, and what do you hope to do with that at Riverside?

The role of the church in society is changing very radically. Fifty years ago the church had a loud and compelling voice at many of these conversations. Increasingly, the church is becoming marginalized. And I think that at this point in history it’s a great opportunity for us as people who claim the message of Jesus, the gospel of loving God and loving each other, as this radical and prophetic place where we can be the church together. So I think the opportunities are boundless and endless, and I think increasingly we’re going to be feeling opportunities to be prophetic and speak truth to power in ways that we may not have had when we were part of the group sitting around the table.

You wrote in an Associated Baptist Press column in April that, “The church is not as vibrant in our society as it once was. In fact, the question of whether church as we know it is viable for the long term is a question begging to be asked.” So I’m going to ask it – do you think the current institutional model is viable? What are you going to do at Riverside to make it relevant and sustainable?

I think the church of the past is not the church of the future, and I think we don’t know what the church of the future is yet. I think the church is not going away because people are looking for community and people are looking for a place to ask the big questions. And if the church can provide a place in which both of those things are present, it’s going to be a place where people are going to want to come and be part of it. So I don’t know what the future of the church looks like, but it’s going to look different. I think at the Riverside Church we could be a place where some of those future expressions of church start to emerge, and that’s one of the things I find so exciting about this opportunity.

You’ve been open about your own struggles with faith. How do you navigate the relationship between your own personal questioning and your role as a leader of the church?

I think traditionally people have expected clergy to be the ones that have all of the answers. Here’s the truth: nobody has all of the answers. We’re all on this journey of figuring out what it means to be human in this world and to understand God’s role in our lives and in the world at large, and I think questioning together is a much more powerful experience. That’s the kind of leadership approach that I take.

I have to ask after the controversy over your predecessor Rev. Brad Braxton’s resignation [related to his more than $450,000 compensation]. What is your salary going to be?

I’ve always heard that it’s not polite to talk about what you make, but I’ll be earning a salary of $250,000. It’s quite a generous salary and it presents an opportunity for me to think about how to be a good steward of the tremendous resources that I am becoming a recipient of. And it’s also a good model for the church as a whole. The Riverside Church has many, many resources, so how do we, as a faith community, think about how to best be stewards of that tremendous gift?

What do you see as the biggest fiscal challenges ahead for Riverside?

I think the future of the church probably does not include building big cathedrals like this in major cities. But places like the Riverside Church are a gift, and can be a gathering place for people who are seeking God in the middle of a very busy and powerful city. So I think our place is important, and I think one of our challenges is going to be moving into the future thinking about how we preserve that and how we make it accessible to as many people as would like to be part of it.

You’re a single mother, you were the first female senior minister of Calvary, and now you are going to be the first female senior minister at Riverside. Where do you see yourself fitting in the modern feminist landscape?

I really recognize the significance of my call. I really want to commend the Riverside Church for taking the step of hiring a woman. That said, there are many, many gifted women around this country who are leading churches and who are doing all kinds of amazing professional roles and being mothers at the same time. And so hopefully this can be a recognition of that fact. It’s not something new; it’s happening everywhere and has for some time. Because this is such a public decision, I hope that it can be affirming of the many different roles that women play.

Do you have anything else that you want to add about the upcoming transition?

Having been the pastor here at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., for 11 years has been such a great time of preparation and growth for me, and I’m leaving behind this amazing, amazing community here. And that is giving me a lot of the courage to move into this new, big role.

[Update: After the story was published, Butler asked to add additional context to her description of her salary. The following question was asked and answered by email.

Your salary sounds different from your predecessor’s. How did that figure into your decision?

The Riverside Church made it clear that they wanted to ensure equity in what they offered me. As their first female pastor, I felt that was an important message to send. And I felt that exact numbers—especially for such a humbling offer–were less important than the witness of equity. So the overall compensation won’t be the same, but we agreed to keep the same salary of $250,000 and for the church to provide for my housing, health insurance, and contribute to my retirement. I’ve found it is easy to think in terms of what we are owed or what we own, but it’s important to ask instead how we can use the resources we have, and how we might be used by God through them. Riverside has blessed me and given me quite a responsibility with their offer.]

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