Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church

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When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

This month, Riverside’s governing council refused to renew Dr. Butler’s contract, shocking the 1,750-member congregation. The decision followed a series of charges and countercharges over sexual harassment, sexual mores, culture and hypocrisy in a church where past leaders had marched for civil rights with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Butler’s supporters said she lost her job because she had spoken out about sexual harassment and she had complained in particular about an incident in which a former member of the church’s governing council left a bottle of wine and a T-shirt on her desk, both with labels that read “Sweet Bitch.”

They said she had pursued better treatment for women and minorities, with the aim of fixing a difficult environment that had led some church employees to complain and even quit. Her persistence strained an increasingly fractured relationship between her and the church’s lay leaders, her supporters said.

“There is absolutely no doubt that sexism played a role,” said the Rev. Kevin Wright, who had been recruited by Dr. Butler in 2015 and served as executive minister for programs before leaving last year. “I don’t understand how anyone could think anything different.”

But her opponents said her dismissal was being misconstrued, and pointed to the governing council’s significant misgivings about changes she made to the church staff and programming and spending priorities. Her philosophy and leadership style, they said, collided with a church whose culture remained deeply traditional, despite its politics.

They cited an episode that occurred in May as the final straw.

Dr. Butler was traveling to a conference in Minneapolis with two church employees and a congregant when she brought them to a sex shop during a break, according to two people affiliated with the church.

They said the visit to the shop, the Smitten Kitten, which describes itself as a “progressive sex toy store,” lasted about 30 minutes, and made one person Dr. Butler brought uncomfortable. A complaint was filed with the church.

The Minneapolis incident was first reported by The New York Post on Thursday night.

It arose during contract negotiations that had already been floundering, according to people familiar to the talks. Among the points of contention were her push for a substantial raise, to bring her compensation closer to that of her predecessor, and her efforts to adopt stronger oversight for lay leaders, those people said.

A day later, the post on Twitter had been deleted and replaced with a link to the church’s letter to congregants and one word: “Transitions.

After this article was published digitally on Thursday, a lawyer representing the church released a statement maintaining that Dr. Butler and the church “mutually decided not to renew her contract.”

Accounts of her dismissal were based on interviews with congregants, lay leaders and current and former employees, as well as internal church documents obtained by The New York Times from church officials who were critical of how Dr. Butler had been treated.

Her supporters pointed to a series of episodes involving the influential former member of the church’s governing council, Dr. Ed Lowe.

In 2016, Dr. Lowe gave Dr. Butler the bottle of wine and T-shirt with the labels that read “Sweet Bitch,” according to an internal investigation ordered by the church after Dr. Butler filed a formal complaint.

Dr. Lowe, 70, also sent suggestive emails and text messages to Dr. Butler’s female colleagues, the investigation found.

He said he welcomed Dr. Butler’s departure.

“When I heard what was going on, I felt redeemed,” Dr. Lowe said. “I felt my church has been saved. I felt vindicated.”

In interviews, some members of the congregation said they were dismayed that Dr. Butler had left.

“I guess it’s the first time in my adult life — and this is a very privileged statement to say — that I’ve been disappointed and hurt by the church,” said Rebecca Kesting, 30, who joined Riverside after Dr. Butler’s arrival. “I know that the church is more than our senior minister, but we had a lot of momentum, and I’m concerned what a loss of leadership will mean for that.”

But her critics contend that her style alienated many in the congregation, and that the divide could not be bridged.

“I didn’t agree with the direction of some of the things that were going on,” said Virl Andrick, a member of the church for 35 years. “There will be a new regime,” he said. “We just want the church to thrive and flourish.”

Dr. Butler had been recruited from a church in Washington, D.C., that she had grown from a 75-member congregation to nearly 300 people.

As mainline Protestant churches have struggled to resonate with younger people, Dr. Butler assembled a solid following, and built a reputation with progressive Christians outside the church, as she championed Riverside’s social justice mandate.

She wrote in searing, and deeply personal, terms about her decision years ago to have a late-term abortion. She visited the border with Mexico, where she prayed for separated migrant families and decried the barrier wall as a “monument to the hubris of empire.”

And she wrote about how she wrestled with the harassment allegations. She said she had been forced to challenge “lessons I had learned my whole life — lessons of ‘just get used to it’ and ‘experiences like this are part of being a woman in leadership.’”

“And one day, witnessing another exchange I found unprofessional and uncomfortable,” Dr. Butler wrote in the post, which was published on the Patheos website, “I had the realization: I wonder if this one lay leader has been allowed to continue behaving inappropriately because I did not report the incident that had happened to me several months before?”

An embrace of dissent is baked into the collective soul of Riverside. There have been differences over pastors before.

Her predecessor surprised the congregation by resigning less than a year into the job. In his resignation letter, he cited disharmony that had made it “virtually impossible to establish a fruitful covenant between the congregation and me.”

Mr. Wright, the former executive minister for programs, said the charged environment grew out of the congregation’s passion. “We strive to be a heavenly banquet where all are welcome,” he said. “But often that banquet erupts into a food fight.”

Now, some congregants said they see the search for a new leader as a distraction, burning through energy that should be directed toward the church’s mission.

“I want to see the congregation united in its vision,” said David Vaughn, who joined the church in the 1980s. “I’m tired of this side versus this side. Let’s be God’s church and do God’s work.”

Edgar Sandoval contributed reporting, and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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