Baptist Preacher: Compel Congregants, Don't 'Guilt' Them

Pastor Amy Butler will take the helm of New York City's progressive Riverside Church later this year. She discusses her desire to become a faith leader and explains her vision.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Michel Martin is away. Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of program where we talk about issues of religion, faith and spirituality. The Riverside Church in New York City is one of this country's best-known churches. It has a diverse congregation and legacy of progressive political action. It's where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic anti-Vietnam War speech in 1967.

Despite its storied past, Riverside has been a church without a shepherd since 2009. But now, Reverend Amy Butler has been named the new senior minister of Riverside. She'll be the first woman in that post. She'll say goodbye to her flock in Washington, D.C., this weekend. And Michel Martin caught up with her shortly after she was voted into her new position by the congregation. She began by asking the reverend why she wanted to be a minister.

REVEREND AMY BUTLER: I have always been interested in the church. It's been something that I've loved since I was a young child. I was raised in the church. And when I went to college, I started taking some theology courses, and I really loved them. So I took a class where I did a ministry internship at a local church. It was a conservative church, and I was there with six other men for the summer on the staff. At the end of the summer, they ordained all the men, and they me a certificate of appreciation. And it was sort of in that moment that I thought, huh, I bet I could do what they're doing. In fact, I have, and I'd like to continue. And that was sort of where things were born for me. And I decided to go to seminary, and that's how the journey started.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Within your tradition - you are Baptist, correct? You were ordained in the Baptist tradition, and we know that there are different opinions about women in leadership. Was this is a struggle for you?

BUTLER: Right. I grew up in a very conservative tradition where I never saw women in the pulpit at all. So when I went to college, it was liberating and sort of rebellious to become a Baptist, you know. And I just loved the Baptist idea that the spirit of God could show up and work wherever she wanted to work. And so when I decided to go into ministry, I thought, this is going to be great. Everyone's going to go for it. And, no, not so much.

MARTIN: Not so much. But you stuck with it.

BUTLER: I stuck with it. And we have congregational polity, so each church can make their own decisions about whom they ordain. And so I found some wonderful communities of faith along the way that really just supported me and encouraged me to keep going.

MARTIN: So you were elected to your current position, where you're also a senior pastor. You are an unusual figure for that pulpit, as it has been traditionally understood. I mean, you are a single mom of three. You have been a pastor of a church, not an academic.

BUTLER: Right.

MARTIN: You know, people like that term - public intellectual. Seems to me like all pastors are public intellectuals to a degree. But anyway, you're an academic and not a kind of theologian, per se. Why did you want that pulpit?

BUTLER: Well, I sent my resume in, initially, at the encouragement of a friend, who called and told me that I should do it. And as I began talking to the folks at the Riverside Church, the prominence of that pulpit, which looms large, became less of a compelling factor than the congregation itself. I just felt a connection with the people. And I felt that they could see how I like to be a pastor and how I like to be church together. And that they really wanted to bring some of that into their community, and I just felt drawn to that.

MARTIN: I want to play a short clip from the sermon. You were voted into Riverside. You were voted into this position by the congregation. It is their choice, and as I understand it from the reporting of the members, it was near unanimous. I just want to play a short clip from your candidacy sermon. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERMON)

BUTLER: We're often like that caged bird with clipped wings and tied feet. Why? Because we live in a society where the institutional church is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Because those of us who have spent any time in the inner workings of the institutional church can quickly lean toward despair. Because the history of the church universal has been marked by many shame-filled failures.

MARTIN: You know, that's actually kind of a tough message. Normally, in an interview - in a job interview, people generally don't appreciate being told what's going wrong, but you went right there. I'm curious about why you decided to do that. You were quoting Maya Angelou, of course. You were ready referencing the late, great Maya Angelou, who just passed away.

BUTLER: Right. I thought her passing made me think about the way the church is often constrained. You know, I feel like the text guides my preaching. And Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, where the church was born. And there's no better Sunday than to express to the church again what it's called to be. And I thought, what a great gift and opportunity to share with them what I expect and anticipate.

MARTIN: What - yeah - to that end, though, why do you think the church is on the ropes? Some might argue that, you know, the conservative churches are alive and well. It's the liberal churches that are the ones that are on the ropes. Why do you think that is?

BUTLER: I think for the last 60 years, we have just skated by on societal requirements, you know. People had to go to church to be socially acceptable. That's not the case anymore. So we're not going to skate by anymore on people's feelings of guilt. We have to have a message that's compelling and a community that draws people in. And what a great opportunity for us, now, to think about we are and who we want to be and to make it mean something.

MARTIN: It's interesting that conservative Christian religious figures loom very large in our public discourse these days, in a way that liberal Christian religious figures used to, but no longer do. I mean, people know the name William Sloane Coffin. People know the name Martin Luther King, Jr., right?

BUTLER: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: But these days, they're more likely - if you were to name an influential Christian religious figure, the person that they would more likely name would be, you know, Pat Robertson, for example.

BUTLER: Right.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

BUTLER: Well, we religious progressives and liberals have often given into sort of a lukewarm message, because we're so scared of offending anybody. You know, but the gospel message is really offensive and transformational, and it's a great message to share. And we need to own it again, otherwise we're just the Rotary Club.

MARTIN: What role do you think your gender plays in your faith message? Do you think it has any relevance today? It's noteworthy that there - as you pointed out you're not that - forgive me - you're not that old. But you're in your forties, correct?

BUTLER: Yes.

MARTIN: And it's interesting to see the change in the time since you've been a practicing minister. And that, you know, at first, it was like a fight, you know, to kind of get in the door. And now, you see that many pulpits - the seminaries - there are many, many women. To the point where some people - some - are worried that, in fact, the church is becoming so feminized that men are being pushed out of it. I'm just interested in your take on what role, if any, you feel your gender plays in the way you see the world or the way you preach or the way you practice.

BUTLER: I feel like my gender is something that is a real advantage for me as a pastor. That feminine approach brings a softer edge, maybe, to the task of pastoral leadership. There are many men who are very good at this, too, though. Let's be clear.

MARTIN: Yeah, do you think, though - I'm curious, though. There was - this one issue arose. The prior person to hold the pulpit - it has been reported that part of the reason that he left is that people were kind of offended by his salary. And they felt that his - he was a little too fancy - is what they felt - for the position. It's been reported that your salary is considerably less.

Part of the reason I'm curious about that is that's some of the things that people worry about. They worry that when women move into leadership, that leadership becomes redefined in a way that is less prestigious, right? It's like administrative assistants used to all be men. And then, when they became prominently women, salaries went down, and the profession became less respected as an important profession. And people feel at the same thing is happening in law and in a number of other areas as women become more prominent. Thoughts?

BUTLER: No, I think that's a fair - I think it's a completely fair question. And the Riverside Church was very intent on paying me equitably to make sure that, you know, there was no question about that. You know, being the first female pastor, that was also very important to me. So my salary is $250,000, which is the same salary that Dr. Braxton made. The church is paying for my housing and my retirement and, you know, my health insurance, as is normal. So the two packages are not exactly the same, but I think, you know, the salaries are the same. And I think that was the important thing for me, in terms of equity. And, you know, the church was very supportive of that.

MARTIN: So not a bad salary...

BUTLER: That's said.

MARTIN: Not a bad salary for a country preacher.

BUTLER: That's said. It's a huge salary, and it's - you know, I feel really humbled by it. I mean, it gives me the opportunity to think about how to be a good steward of these amazing resources I've been offered. And same is true for the church. They, you know, have many, many resources, and it's our job to think about how to use those most effectively for the gospel mission.

MARTIN: I am curious, though - are there any people who feel that they just want to see a man in that job. It's like the father figure. Some people - that is - in some traditions, that's the argument for why women are not in the pulpit, because they feel that person needs to be in the image of Jesus or the image of the deity, who they perceive as male. Has anybody - have you had any suggestion of that?

BUTLER: I have not heard one expression of that at all. People have been very welcoming and have just taken this as the next thing.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I mention you're also a person of color? You - I don't know how - if you perceive yourself that way. As I understand it, you father...

BUTLER: I do.

MARTIN: ...Is a native Hawaiian.

BUTLER: Yes.

MARTIN: I don't know that is also part of your sense of yourself in the world.

BUTLER: Oh, that has totally shaped my theology of church, because I grew up in this completely diverse environment with people from all over the world. It's a total melting pot. Have you ever been there? It's wonderful. And I get nervous when I'm in a room and everybody looks the same as I do. I think our lives are so much richer and our faith community is so much more deep and profound when we do the work of living in diverse community.

MARTIN: What do you hope to accomplish in this new role? How will you know that you are succeeding?

BUTLER: I think I'm going to know that I'm succeeding if I do good work and I love the people. My goal for this community of faith is that we come to know each other and love each other in such a way that our community is compelling. And that that radiates out to the community and to the world around with the message of Jesus.

CORNISH: That was Reverend Amy Butler. She'll begin her post at New York City's Riverside Church this fall.

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