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.
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.
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.”
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