Faith-based

Why Did a Progressive Pastor at an Important New York Church Get Fired?

Was she punished for reporting harassment—or was she the harasser?

Amy Butler stands amid the pews in a church in Washington.
The Rev. Amy Butler in Washington in 2014.
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Thursday, the New York Times published a story that seemed to be a straightforward case of a woman wronged: The Rev. Amy Butler, a prominent progressive pastor in New York, had been let go from her position at the Riverside Church abruptly after five years on the job. Supporters told the Times that the dismissal came after Butler accused a member of the church’s governing council of leaving her inappropriate gifts (including a T-shirt reading “Sweet Bitch”) and making suggestive comments to her and other female ministers. “There is absolutely no doubt that sexism played a role,” one supporter told the Times.

Although Butler didn’t respond to requests for comment from the Times, her story seemed to be a powerful example of the phenomenon of female pastors being harassed and denigrated on the job, often by their own parishioners. Online, female clergy across the country started posting their own stories of harassment and workplace creepiness using the hashtag #WeAreAmy.

But the full story of Butler’s departure turns out to be significantly more complicated. On Thursday evening, the New York Post ran a piece reporting that Butler had indeed been ousted over a harassment claim—but Butler was the accused. On a work trip to Minneapolis in May, the Post reported, she allegedly took two assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop, despite their discomfort. Sources told the paper that Butler bought one of the ministers a $200 vibrator and other “pleasure gadgets” for herself and the congregant. The group apparently “ ‘felt pressured’ and feared professional retaliation.” A formal harassment claim was filed days after the trip, and the church hired an independent investigator who the Post says substantiated the claims.

The Times’ story was revised sometime on Thursday to include the new allegations, though the page makes no mention of the revision. The first draft of the Times’ story strongly suggested Butler had been ousted because she had spoken up about the creepy behavior by a prominent church member, Ed Lowe. Lowe left the “Sweet Bitch” T-shirt (and a wine bottle with the same slogan) for Butler in 2016. Butler reported it and other inappropriate incidents sometime afterward, which she wrote about more than a year ago in a blog post titled “From #MeToo to #ChurchToo to #NeverAtChurch.” An internal investigator found Lowe had violated the church’s anti-harassment policy. He no longer sits on the church’s governing council. Lowe told the Times that the investigation against him was retaliation for his complaints about Butler’s leadership style. “A bully can only ride your back if you bend over, and I stood tall and erect,” he said. “That irritated her more than anything else.”

Butler’s supporters seem to be suggesting that old-style theological and political liberalism might nonetheless remain at odds with culturally progressive younger people of faith. Riverside is an historic icon of progressive Christianity, in a moment when religious liberals are feeling newly energized as a group. Riverside’s pugnacious founding pastor, Harry Emerson Fosdick, was a key figure in the Protestant split between modernists and fundamentalists in the early 20th century. Another well-known leader, William Sloane Coffin, was arrested as a Freedom Rider, supported gay rights long before it was mainstream, and made Riverside a hub of the nuclear disarmament movement. Today, the church has ministries devoted to climate change activism, LGBTQ advocacy, and support for asylum-seekers. It announced a plan to fully divest from fossil fuels several years ago. In a 2016 interview with Butler about the future of the religious left, Vox called Riverside “arguably the most prominent liberal Protestant church in the country.” But the Times piece includes quotes from old-guard members of the church suggesting that Butler’s politics and flamboyant style—the most charitable read of the vibrator incident is that it was a freewheeling feminist gesture gone badly astray—might be too much for them.

Butler became senior minister at the church in 2014, the first woman in the job and only the seventh senior minister in the church’s 89-year history. The job gave her a national profile. In 2016, she wrote a widely shared op-ed about her decision years ago to have an abortion late in a pregnancy. Last year, she traveled to the Southern border to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policy. Her website shows her in photographs with Bill Clinton, Al Sharpton, Rep. John Lewis, pastor and activist William Barber II, Neil Patrick Harris, and Gloria Steinem. Butler has a nose for a good story: In 2017, after hearing one of her children’s friends talk about his online friendship with an 81-year-old woman in Florida, she flew the 22-year-old East Harlem rapper down to Florida and took pictures of the pair meeting in person. The uplifting photos went viral and became the subject of a national media coverage—and one of Butler’s sermons.

The Post reports that Butler received a salary to match her stature: $250,000 as a base, plus an $8,000 monthly housing allowance and other benefits. Her contract expired at the end of June, and the Post says she had hired a lawyer to try to negotiate a $100,000 raise. (Requests for comment sent through Butler’s personal website on Thursday and Friday received no response. She has not spoken on the record with any reporter since her departure.) A letter on the church website announcing Butler’s departure stated that as her contract neared its close, both Butler and the church’s leadership “have been prayerfully discerning how best to fulfill the work of God in the world to which they are called.” The only thing certain for now is that this story is far too messy to serve as a sermon illustration.