Amy Butler on her role as the first woman to lead Riverside Church
At first, the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler chafed at being identified as the first woman to lead The Riverside Church in the City of New York. But she has come to believe that her role as a pioneer is something to embrace. In her conversation with “Can These Bones” co-host Bill Lamar, she talks frankly about the sexism she has faced, the effect growing up in Hawaii has had on her leadership, and the memoir she is writing about taking on a new role while at the same time facing her younger brother’s death. She also reflects on the power of community to help find life in the “valley of dry bones.”
Bill Lamar: From Faith & Leadership, this is “Can These Bones,” a podcast that asks a fresh set of questions about leadership and the future of the church. I’m Bill Lamar.
Laura Everett: And I’m Laura Everett. This is the premiere episode of a series of conversations with leaders from the church and other fields. Through this podcast, we want to share our hope in the resurrection and perhaps breathe life into leaders struggling in their own “valley of dry bones.”
Bill Lamar: We are excited about the future of the church, and we want to share that excitement with you through conversations with interesting people doing some very, very interesting things.
Laura Everett: Bill, you are one of those interesting people I need to be in conversation with, and honestly, one of the reasons I said yes to doing this is I wanted the chance to talk with you.
Now, you and I have known one another for over a decade, and in some ways, our paths are quite different. But we both lead legacy institutions -- you at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and me at the Massachusetts Council of Churches, based in Boston.
Bill Lamar: Laura, I’m looking forward to talking with you and with others about the struggles and the joys of this life of service.
Laura Everett: We have a wonderful guest list lined up, and our first guest is Amy Butler.
Amy Butler is the senior minister of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Bill, why was Amy the first on your list?
Bill Lamar: So, Laura, when I came to D.C. to serve at Metropolitan, Amy was serving at Calvary Baptist Church here in the city, and I had heard of her work. She was doing some very exciting things, but she was on her way out as I was beginning my tenure, so we didn’t get a chance to meet in Washington.
But subsequently, about a year ago, we had a chance to meet. And I have just been compelled by her honesty, by her willingness to be very, very clear about who she is and about her major change in scale and scope going from Calvary to The Riverside Church, one of the most storied pulpits in the United States of America.
When I spoke with her, for example, she was recovering from neck surgery, and she was willing to share all of those challenges with us.
Laura Everett: That sounds really good, Bill. Let’s listen to your interview with Amy Butler.
Bill Lamar: This is Bill Lamar, and joining me is Pastor Amy Butler, the seventh senior minister of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Welcome, Amy.
Amy Butler: Thanks, Bill.
Bill Lamar: Thank you for joining us. My first question is, how are you? I know that you have taken some time due to some [health] issues. I just want to check in and see how you are.
Amy Butler: Oh, thank you for asking. So I was two months out, recovering, but I’m back and ready to go.
Bill Lamar: Excellent. Well, one of the interesting things about your life is that you were born in Hawaii, and our conversations lead me to believe that your being born there deeply formed you in ways that affect who you are and your work in the world. Can you share something about what Hawaii means to you?
Amy Butler: Bill, thank you so much for asking that question. I feel like this summer, things have sort of shifted for me in terms of my identity as a native Hawaiian person, and the deeper understanding of how growing up in an island culture impacts my leadership.
I went to Hawaii in August with my children, and Hawaii is a place that is so tactile -- the air hugs you; you feel the water; you smell the flowers -- and I felt healed when I got there. And it caused me to reflect a lot on what I learned about how you build and lead a community by growing up watching my father, who is a native Hawaiian activist and community organizer, and just the idea that when you live on an island, you have to learn to get along or you’re all going to die.
So [Hawaiian culture has] this pull toward community and making sure that everybody has a place at the table, and I think it’s foundational to who I am as a leader and as a pastor.
Bill Lamar: So -- Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin, James A. Forbes, Amy Butler. What does it mean to you to be listed among those sainted persons?
Amy Butler: I might not forgive you for saying that. I try not to think about it, because in my mind, like in the minds of so many other people, they are legends, and the work that they did at the time that they did it really changed the world.
And I have come to know them in a different way from the inside, because they were people, just like I’m a person and you’re a person, and they had immense gifts and tremendous challenges, just like I do.
Where it leads me, Bill, is the constant thinking that I do about this platform and the faithful stewardship of this platform. It’s overwhelming some days, and scary.
Bill Lamar: So you did phenomenal work at Calvary Baptist, and I want you to share a little bit about what it was like to go to that place, and the significant ministry that you and that community birthed in Chinatown in Washington, D.C.
Amy Butler: I started looking for a pastorate when I became an associate pastor, because I loved the parish. And in the Baptist world, we don’t have a lot of places for women to serve in head leadership roles.
I grew up in Hawaii, as you mentioned, and so I need diversity around me all the time. I also have an adopted daughter who is biracial, and I needed to be in a place where she would fit -- and where all of my children would understand the family of God to be something other than how they looked.
Calvary, I think, was a bit desperate -- you know, they had this storied past, but they were having a hard time figuring out who they were and where they wanted to go.
And they called me, and I went. Probably both of us would rethink that decision if we had to go back again, because it was 11 years of really hard work and pain. And then the birth of, as you said, this amazing community. And we did it together.
For me personally, I learned so many critical lessons about leadership going through church conflict -- that for an institution to live through transformation, there has to be conflict.
And most of all, what I learned is it isn’t about me. So I have to really credit that congregation for teaching me how to be a pastor and a leader. I’m just eternally grateful for that lovely community.
Bill Lamar: I know that you have been about the business of writing. How much can you share with us about what your forthcoming project is about?
Amy Butler: Yes, I’m publishing a book, and, Bill, you’ll just die when you hear this. I finished it, and then all of my health issues happened, and I’ve sort of landed in a place where I feel like I need to rewrite the book and bleed a little bit more, and that is incredibly fear-inducing for me.
But I think the story of coming to Riverside is something that is important to tell. A lot of people don’t know the whole back story about how my brother -- my younger brother -- died at the same exact time, and I think I’m finally ready to write about that.
The book is a memoir, and it’s called “Beautiful and Terrible Things.” That moment was such a beautiful -- being called as the first woman pastor of The Riverside Church in the City of New York -- and [at the same time] my younger brother, having to take him off life support, and his death.
So here I am, trying to stare down the fear and make this book what it needs to be.
Bill Lamar: In this moment, Amy, for people -- personally, as a pastor, and then from the platform that you have been given to steward -- there are a lot of persons looking fear, in its various manifestations, in the face. How are you walking with people in that process?
Amy Butler: Well, I could use some tips, but one of the biggest things for me is my own fear. Naming it. Knowing when to name the darkness and call for the hope in a way that’s genuine and acknowledges the tremendous pain that we’re going through corporately right now.
Internally, within the church -- you know this -- when people are afraid, they behave badly. And so my work within our community is a work of reassurance and calling people to genuine community and trying to articulate how our work building beloved community can actually change the world -- that it’s worth it.
I’m very aware that people are watching me, especially other pastors who perhaps don’t have as much freedom in their pulpits as I do. I take that responsibility very seriously, and I want to help people become a voice of faith that is a counternarrative to what we’re hearing from evangelical right-wing pastors, because that’s not the witness of faith in this moment.
And I also want to say that I think, in a way, the church in America has been given a gift, and this is our moment. We -- there’s no question about what our work is here, and we have to have the courage to stand up for what’s right and to keep doing it. And in a way, I’m so grateful for that clarity.
I say sometimes in crazy church council meetings, “People, Donald Trump is the president! You know? Let’s focus.”
Bill Lamar: Amy, I think one of the hallmarks of your work is an ability to be very honest. You have talked and written about your divorce; you’ve talked and written about your late-term abortion. What is it about you that propels you to do these things as a part of your public ministry?
Amy Butler: Well, to be perfectly honest, Bill, it’s that I’m tired and I can’t maintain a faux persona. It’s too much work. And I -- at the very core of who I am -- I do this work because I need authentic community, too. And so I want to be honest about who I am and my journey of faith and how I think that impacts the church.
I never, I never want to be somebody different outside the pulpit than I am in -- ever, ever.
Bill Lamar: Another of the hallmarks of your leadership at Riverside, in my opinion, is your ability to gather some of the best and brightest folks as senior staff and other folks to push forward the great mandate for ministry that is a part of Riverside’s heritage and its present and its future.
So can you say something about this wonderful team that you have and how it’s been built and how you’re cultivating it?
Amy Butler: Oh, they are so incredible. I mean, I work with some of the brightest people I have ever met. I -- well, this is how it started. I’ve always had the management philosophy that you should hire people who are smarter than you are, and I have managed to do that.
And when I came to Riverside, I just thought that everybody in the church world would be like, “All right, let’s do this. I want to come and help.” And that really wasn’t the case. I think people were hands-off -- “Let’s see if she falls flat on her face.”
And so I decided to employ what is, for me, an avocation, as I know it is for you, too, Bill -- going out and finding the next leaders. You know, people who have this amazing talent and push and call who are willing to take a risk on me and on this church and who I might be able to help form into the next leaders of the church.
I feel like if I left Riverside today, I would be so proud of that work, because my colleagues will not be at Riverside for their whole careers. They’re going to leave, and they’re going to change the landscape of the American church. And you know, if I never preach a good sermon ever again, that’s something I’m really, really proud of.
Bill Lamar: So you have shared with me and with others in larger venues how women especially -- not just young women, but a lot of young women -- pull on your energy, because they see you, and then they can see themselves, doing this kind of work. They want mentorship. Can you speak to that?
Amy Butler: Sure. I mean, this issue has been so deep and evolving in my life for these past three years. And particularly as we’re watching issues of women leaders sort of roll out on the national and international stage, I’ve shifted exponentially around this issue.
When I came to Riverside, Bill, I was so annoyed that Time magazine, The New York Times, everybody’s like, “She’s the first woman. She’s the first woman.”
It just made me angry -- like you think I was called here because my hair is cute? I was so angry about that. And it had to do with sort of the philosophy I’ve had my whole career, which is, “Don’t tell me I can’t do something, because it will make me want to do it more, and I’ll just work harder and I’ll just do better. Just try to stop me -- you won’t be able to.”
And coming to Riverside, I learned that young women and young men and the church need to see women in these roles. And it particularly hit home to me when I published an article in USA Today about a late-term abortion that I had about 20 years ago. And, boy, the hate mail I got for that. Oh my gosh, that’ll make a great book someday.
But someone sent me an email and said, “We have never before in the history of the American church had a woman in a high-steeple pulpit as pastor talking about her personal experience of abortion, ever. And that’s so powerful.”
So there have been several incidents like that that have made me, whoa, take a step back and say, “You need to reframe this. This is important. It’s important for the church. It’s important for the world.”
And then the second thing I want to say about that is, you know, this is a pulpit that is deeply rooted in issues of social justice, and so a big part of my learning curve is, “How do I authentically be prophetic?”
In this past year, I’ve really come into more naming of misogyny as an injustice that happens. And part of that is because the sexism and misogyny that I face in this job is so overwhelming. I’m just stunned by it almost every day.
And the [third] thing is I don’t know who else is talking about this. I preached a sermon at the end of June called “Hysterical,” which was about Sarah laughing when she found out she was going to have a baby. And I made some joke about, “Can you just imagine a whole bunch of men sitting around talking about whether or not you can have a baby?” You know, these are issues that we face, and they need to be talked about from the pulpit.
So I’m growing into that, and I’m struggling with the whole, “Oh, she’s just a bitter woman who’s so negative about everything,” which actually was said to me two weeks ago. It is real, Bill. It’s real, and it’s wearying. It is so wearying.
Bill Lamar: So your moving from Washington and Calvary Baptist to Riverside was a huge jump in scale and scope, and for our listeners who are moving from one scale and scope of institutional work or ministry [to another], what wisdom can you offer when you’re taking that big jump?
Amy Butler: Right. When I left Calvary, there were about 250 members, probably an eight-person staff, and just a little over a $1 million annual budget.
So when I came to Riverside -- $12 million annual budget, 150 employees, this huge plant -- I had a big learning curve. You know, all of a sudden, I’m leading a corporation.
And one of the things that I did not anticipate that I wish someone had told me is the feelings of grief and loss that I had, and still have. I’m sort of tearing up now when I talk about it, because some of my favorite parts of being a pastor are now not part of my work.
For example, I don’t do weddings; I don’t do funerals; I don’t go visit babies in the hospital; I don’t visit people who are sick. I don’t have those kinds of pastoral moments that really fed my soul at Calvary.
There are 2,000 members at Riverside, and you can’t be that kind of pastor to such a large group and not die. So I’ve had to really think about some of the grief and letting go and trying to understand my call in a new way, and I wish I had been more prepared for that.
Bill Lamar: Can you say something about the institution that is Riverside Church and how you and your team are helping to shape a vibrant future? I mean, it’s a storied past, but -- I’m very much in a similar situation, with a place with a storied past -- but what future is emerging that’s giving you all energy?
Amy Butler: Bill, you know this about me. One of my huge passions is institutional leadership. And I think Riverside’s history is still in place, and it’s still a big part of who we are, but the church had come to a point where you can’t live in the past anymore. You can’t propel yourself forward with an orthodoxy of nostalgia.
Bill Lamar: Wow.
Amy Butler: It’s just not ...
Bill Lamar: Hold on. I think you just said -- that’s a book -- an “orthodoxy of nostalgia.” Wow. Hmm.
Amy Butler: Truth be told, I stole that from Brian McLaren, but, you know.
Bill Lamar: OK. We’ll give him his credit.
Amy Butler: Yeah. I think it’s a cool phrase.
I think the state of the world is propelling us forward, but I also think, from an internal standpoint, the church is finally at the point now where it’s ready to fly.
I’m doing a massive staff restructure, and we’re working to infuse health into our lay leadership, and as you know, that’s very time-consuming and tedious work. But I can see the progress being made, and I can see that the world needs this voice, and that just makes me very passionate.
Bill Lamar: What are your practices -- spiritual, physical -- that keep you, in the midst of so many demands?
Amy Butler: Well, this is, you know, a constant struggle for me, because, as I was saying to a friend yesterday, everything seems so important all the time. I’ve put into place some stricter boundaries around how often I’m in the office, and I try to leave -- I do leave -- every morning until 10 a.m. [reserved] for prayer, reflection, reading, writing.
I live right next to Central Park, and so I’m in the park every morning running. And I just got this new running shirt that says “I hate running,” which makes me so happy.
I have a spiritual director, who I see every two weeks. I have a coach. I have a group of colleagues that are very close to me, who I’ve been in intentional relationship with for 15 years.
So those things keep me going. One of the hard things for me, Bill, is that there are not a lot of people who understand this -- Riverside, New York, my job. You know, it’s kind of lonely, because I’m not going to call you and be like, “Oh, Bill, I’m so nervous because Hillary Clinton’s coming tonight,” you know, because then I’m going to sound like a jerk.
So I don’t know -- I feel isolated and lonely a lot, and I feel the gap between what other pastors experience and the craziness of my life, which, you know, pulls me forward and also makes me wonder if it’ll kill me.
Bill Lamar: Wow. It seems like you’re doing a lot of things to make a full life, and will err on that side.
My final question is -- the title of the podcast, the name of the podcast, is “Can These Bones,” and as a great preacher yourself, you know that that comes from the Ezekiel text. And I just wanted to ask you where you are seeing life in the midst of death, where you are seeing resurrection across the landscape. What are you seeing that’s giving you that kind of hope?
Amy Butler: The landscape is so stark now, isn’t it? Yeah. You know, I believe so deeply in beloved community and in the church and in what we can be together in terms of the work of healing the world.
I remember when I was interviewing with the search committee, you know, it was all very secret, and I couldn’t talk to anybody about it. I had never been to Riverside, so I took the bus up from D.C., and I did the tourist thing, and I walked in. And of course my manager mind is like, “Oh, those flyers need to come down off the wall right now.”
But I remember going into the nave and sitting in the third pew and feeling, like, the darkness, the lack of hope and just the darkness, and I just remember thinking, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it -- I cannot do this.”
And when I walked into the nave yesterday, I was reflecting on that, and I thought, “It’s light in here. It’s light, and there’s life, and there’s community, and there are children crying, and there’s beauty all around, and there are people who love each other and who are learning to love each other.”
And when I am assaulted by the news, just like everybody else, I hang on to those things, because beloved community can change us and can change the world, and I don’t know what I would do, Bill, if I didn’t believe in that.
Bill Lamar: Amy, thank you for your time and for your work, and we’re praying for your speedy recovery -- no more surgeries -- and I look forward to talking with you again real soon.
Amy Butler: Thanks, Bill. It’s good to hear your voice.
Bill Lamar: Thank you, Amy.
Laura Everett: That was my co-host Bill Lamar’s conversation with Amy Butler, the senior minister of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Bill, as I was listening, I was struck by Amy’s bravery -- how willing she was to look fear in the face in so many settings.
You and I have talked about this, and I know you’ve experienced it, too. As the leader of a prominent black church after the shootings in Charleston, how did you look fear in the face in your institution?
Bill Lamar: Oh, Laura, it was quite a challenge. I recall that Wednesday night in 2015 when I began to get text messages from members of my denomination from around the country, most especially from South Carolina. I got news of the death of Pastor Pinckney and others before it was reported nationally, because of my personal relationships. And I was thrown into a tailspin, along with many of my congregants, because not only did we know Pastor Pinckney, but many of us knew multiple victims of that awful, awful tragedy.
That next morning, I got a call from my bishop, who asked me to begin to plan a national day of mourning at Metropolitan, which is considered the national church of our denomination. And so, really, I was struggling with trying to put together the kind of worshipful experience that would honor the lives of those who had fallen, but also trying to have a space of hope and trying to manage my own grief and difficulty.
And so it was much more than I would have imagined in the way of taxing me personally, along with those in the congregation. The eyes of the world were upon us. We were talking to media from Germany and Russia, Japan -- it was a very, very, very big undertaking.
But what I have considered, Laura, in the aftermath of that event, is how throughout the founding of our own denomination, this event in Charleston was not anomalous. Time after time, we have had to be the space of hope and the space of lament in the midst of countless tragedies and assaults on black bodies in the United States and around the world. It is a part of who we have been, and it’s a part of my ministry, and it is challenging.
But I gain strength from the strength of the people, and I gain strength from the strength of our ancestors, who continue to persist and to be brave and to move forward upon their theological convictions in the midst of a lot of struggle and difficulty.
Laura Everett: I hear in both your story, Bill, and in Amy’s a deep sense of this pastoral responsibility to name the fear and the darkness even as we are sitting with our own sense of fear and darkness.
Bill Lamar: I love Amy’s use of the phrase “orthodoxy of nostalgia.” I still think it could be a great book title. Laura, how do you encounter the orthodoxy of nostalgia in your own work?
Laura Everett: Well, I run an institution that’s 115 years old now, and it was really formed at a different time. That orthodoxy of nostalgia, in my experience, means that some parts of our life and history can be amber-colored, sort of frozen in time, as if that’s the only way to do God’s work in the world.
One of the ways that I’ve really had to learn to notice that orthodoxy of nostalgia, and break it open, is to ask, “What is the core commitment we are trying to enact, and are there other ways to do it?”
So, for example, we used to have a committee called the Strategy in Action Commission, and it was populated with the staff people in the denominations who had public policy or Christian public witness as a part of their portfolios.
Well, in Massachusetts, a lot of the denominational bodies have needed to cut staff, so the people who populated that committee no longer exist in the same sort of way. We still have an obligation to do the work; we just don’t have the people that were once in place to do it.
And people are really sad. People are really disheartened, and they think that the commitment to public Christian witness won’t continue if it doesn’t continue in that form. And so I’ve had to try to help my people see that there are other ways to fulfill the mission.
I think we’ve gotten stuck in an orthodoxy of nostalgia of structures rather than a core commitment to the values we’re trying to enact.
One of the other things I heard in the interview and found incredibly brave was the way Amy talked about sexism, and the way she changed her mind about being identified as the first woman to have the job of senior pastor of The Riverside Church in the City of New York.
I’m really grateful for you, also, for not including that in your introduction to Amy; it comes later in the interview. I’ve talked and written about misogyny and the sexism that I’ve encountered as a woman in ministry, and it is such a hard thing to do, to name it.
I confess that sometimes when I talk about it, I feel like it undercuts my own leadership. I wonder, as a male colleague in this work who I know is so committed to the liberation of all people to fully use our gifts for God, how do you work with the misogyny and the sexism you see in Christian leadership?
Bill Lamar: Laura, what I try to do is assume a posture as student and not as teacher when it comes to working with my woman colleagues in ministry.
It’s very interesting. Recently, I was having a conversation with a colleague who leads the Ethical Humanist Society here in town, and she was speaking with me about “mansplaining” -- a term which I had not heard. I assume that I have been living under a rock.
She explained to me how she’ll go to meetings and she will say something perfectly wise and perfectly appropriate, and a male colleague will feel the need to interpret it. She talked about how she lives in the midst of mansplaining but how she also never lets mansplaining happen unchecked. She doesn’t check it in ways that are disrespectful, but she is very clear when mansplaining occurs.
My ignorance was such that I said to her, “Would you please, the next time we’re in a meeting and someone mansplains, just tap me?” And we were in a meeting and she tapped me at least three times, and so I finally got the gist of what it looked like.
So I’ve learned a lot, and I feel like I’m growing. I’m always listening and learning from my colleagues who share with me where those things may even surface in me and I may not be aware of them. So I’m very thankful for colleagues who are willing to teach and very thankful that I know I’ve got a lot yet to learn.
Laura Everett: Bill, I’m so grateful for the ways that you notice the sexism in the church, and the ways that Amy named it in her interview, too. One of the things that came through so clearly in this interview is that Amy is a particular person with a particular past and a humanness that’s a model for public leadership.
She’s not some clergy-bot following the role of what it’s supposed to be to be the senior pastor of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. But that authenticity of where she’s been and who she is and what she’s experienced is coming through loud and clear in that interview.
Bill Lamar: Laura, I think that you have coined a very helpful term in “clergy-bot.” I like that a lot. And I hope, as we continue learning the individual stories of these wonderful people, that no one who listens will determine they need to be a clergy-bot, or an automaton of any type, but that they can live fully into who they’re called to be. And that indeed is a point of resurrection for each and every one of us -- the authenticity of our calling and our work.
Laura Everett: Amen.
Bill Lamar: We want to thank you for listening to “Can These Bones.” Laura, this was a lot of fun, wasn’t it?
Laura Everett: It was really good, Bill.
Bill Lamar: There is more about Amy Butler, including video of her preaching, on our website, www.canthesebones.com. Laura, who are we talking with next time?
Laura Everett: Bill, we’ve got a great conversation with Astead Herndon, who covers the White House and national politics for The Boston Globe.
Bill Lamar: There’s nothing to say about politics or the White House or any of that stuff -- but I can’t wait for that conversation, Laura. Looking forward to it.
Laura Everett: I’ll see you soon, Bill.
Bill Lamar: “Can These Bones” is brought to you by Faith & Leadership, a learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. It’s produced by Sally Hicks, Kelly Ryan Gilmer and Dave Odom. Our theme music is by Blue Dot Sessions. Funding is provided by Lilly Endowment Inc.
We’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts about this podcast on social media. I’m on Twitter @WilliamHLamarIV -- that’s the Roman numeral IV -- and you can reach Laura on Twitter @RevEverett. You can also find us through our website, www.canthesebones.com.
I’m Bill Lamar, and this is “Can These Bones.”
This transcript has been edited for clarity.