A group of congregants at Riverside Church are calling on the historic Manhattan pulpit to reinstate its first female minister, days after the church chose not to renew Amy Butler’s contract following a visit she took to a sex shop with church employees and a congregant.
The 11 congregants introduced a petition at an all-congregation meeting Sunday — convened after morning services in part to discuss Butler’s dismissal — and asked the church to schedule a vote to bring back Butler as senior minister, according to three people familiar with the matter, including current and former church members.
The congregation “should be the ones to decide whether Pastor Amy continues as our Sr. Minister, and we should be able to make that decision based on facts and information,” reads a copy of the petition obtained by The Washington Post. “Through Pastor Amy’s leadership and our work together, our beloved Congregation is vibrant and growing.”
The petition is before the Church Council, which is supposed to hold a special, all-congregation meeting to vote on it because more than 10 congregants signed it, per Riverside’s bylaws. It’s unclear whether or when a vote would take place. A church spokeswoman declined to comment.
The turmoil comes after back-and-forth allegations of sexual harassment centered around Butler, which have roiled the more than 80-year-old interdenominational church known for its devotion to social justice and notable guest speakers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu.
The church’s contract negotiations with Butler over the past few months stalled in part over her desire for a roughly $100,000 compensation increase to match what her male predecessor made, according to the three sources and one other individual familiar with the proceedings.
Another sticking point was Butler’s request that the church adopt a policy mandating stricter discipline of laypeople who committed misconduct such as sexual harassment, according to the four people, who spoke to a Post reporter on the condition of anonymity because they were concerned about repercussions for speaking publicly about the matter. The Sunday meeting was closed to media.
But revelations that Butler took two church employees and a congregant on a visit to a Minnesota sex shop in May ultimately derailed the negotiations, according to the four Post sources.
Butler and the others were in Minnesota for a conference when, during a break, Butler and the congregant proposed visiting the Smitten Kitten, which labels itself “a progressive sex toy store,” partly as a way to celebrate the birthday of one of the clergy members, the congregant said. The foursome spent about a half-hour inside the shop, and Butler purchased a few toys as gifts for herself and others present with her own money, according to the congregant.
The two clergy members were having a difficult time at work, and Butler hoped the Minnesota trip — with the chance it afforded for personal connection — would cheer them up, according to two of the four people interviewed by The Post.
Butler, who before leaving for Riverside was a highly popular progressive pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, has long been an advocate for “sex-positive” behavior as a healthy approach to human relationships, inviting to church speakers such as Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor who recently came out with “Shameless,” a book calling for more openness and diversity from the church in supporting people’s sexual and reproductive lives.
The congregant on the trip spoke out in defense of Butler’s conduct in Minnesota during the Sunday meeting. Reading from a prepared statement, the congregant delivered an account of her experience of the trip, noting that everyone agreed to go and appeared at the time to enjoy it.
”No one indicated otherwise to me for the duration of the trip to the conference or at any time after,” reads the statement, a copy of which she gave to The Washington Post. “If anyone had indicated discomfort, the trip simply would not have continued.”
In her remarks, the congregant, who spoke to The Post after the meeting on condition of anonymity because she was concerned about broader exposure, also castigated Riverside leadership for what she called its “incomplete investigation” into the sex shop visit. The inquiry was launched after one of the two church employees filed a formal complaint about the trip, according to the four sources.
The congregant told the church audience that no investigator from the church contacted or questioned her about the trip.
”It’s important that you hear this directly from someone who was there, instead of via rumors or the papers,” the statement read. “I am speaking to you today because this is what I want for us: a community where we tell each other the truth of our experiences.”
The two church employees on the trip could not be reached for comment.
Butler also did not respond to requests for comment. Riverside Church declined to comment Sunday beyond a statement on its website.
”We are proud of the work of the church during the five years that Pastor Amy has been with the Riverside Church,” the statement reads. “The Council thanks Pastor Amy for her leadership and asks all congregants to pray for her continued ministry as a leader in the progressive Christian world.”
The investigation into Butler’s conduct is the second such probe Riverside has commissioned in the past few years. Its senior minister committee launched an investigation into Ed Lowe, a powerful former member of the church’s governing council, after Butler and other women at Riverside raised concerns about his conduct — particularly his suggestive emails and texts to female church staffers.
Lowe, 70, left a bottle of wine and a shirt reading “Sweet B----” on Butler’s desk in October 2016, according to a copy of the investigative report obtained by The Washington Post.
”Enjoy the wine and wear the T-shirt at your discretion,” Lowe wrote of the gift in an email to Butler, adding a smiley face next to his words. In a separate email, sent in May 2016 and captioned “Thought you’d like this,” he sent Butler a photo of a female toddler and wrote that he “still (had) a way with the young girls... :-).”
The investigation ultimately found that Lowe had engaged in “multiple violations” of the church’s antiharassment and antibullying policies. Based on its results, the senior minister committee decided to remove Lowe from all Church Council committees and to restrict his access to staff.
Lowe declined to comment Sunday. When questioned by church officials about his conduct during the investigation, he freely admitted to “virtually . . . all of the incidents” but said “he felt that his actions were harmless and not inappropriate,” according to internal church documents obtained by The Post.
Butler in May 2018 went public with her allegations against Lowe, writing in a post titled “From #MeToo to #ChurchToo to #NeverAtChurch” that her interactions with Lowe left her “deeply uncomfortable.”
Butler joined Riverside in 2014 after serving for over a decade as senior minister of Calvary Baptist Church in the District of Columbia, where she quickly raised the profile of the church for a range of tasks, from racial justice work to incorporating Spanish into services.
She had been raised in a conservative evangelical home in Hawaii and attended the Baptist school Baylor University in Texas. She felt called to be a pastor, but the theology of her background forbade female pastors. That’s when she made the shift to more liberal Baptist institutions, most prominently in D.C. at Calvary.
While in Washington, Butler built an activist congregation and led it to formally break from the Southern Baptist Convention. In 2014, Butler became the first female minister at the historic Riverside, which is associated with the American Baptist Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.
Butler also forged a reputation as a charismatic leader whose power rested in part in her willingness to preach and write on personal issues, often in a humorous, revealing way. She is known as an extrovert who puts everyone on her level.
In a letter sent to the Church Council and the senior minister committee June 22, a few days before her dismissal, Butler wrote that she was aware the pay increase she wanted was “significant” but that “holding to a high standard of excellence” requires “treating women and minorities justly.” She also wrote that Riverside badly needs “clear standards of behavior and policies” for lay leaders to ensure a “safe and non-hostile” environment for staff, according to the letter, obtained by The Post.
And Butler looked to the future. “ love being your pastor, and I want to continue our journey together,” she wrote. “Imagine what could come to be in the next five years.”