NEW YORK — The Rev. Amy K. Butler, the first female pastor of New York City’s famed Riverside Church who revealed last year that she was sexually harassed at the church, is now being ousted from her post. The pastor is facing allegations that her colleagues felt “pressured” to follow her to a sex shop during a church conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she gifted a vibrator to one female minister.
The progressive Riverside Church, which has hosted iconic political and cultural figures like Martin Luther King Jr., former President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela, announced earlier this month that they would not be renewing Butler’s contract after five years but did not state a reason.
“Rev. Dr. Amy Butler and the Riverside Church Council are announcing that after five years of leadership, Pastor Amy will not be renewing her contract as Senior Minister. As Pastor Amy’s contract has approached its end, both she and our congregational leadership have been prayerfully discerning how best to fulfill the work of God in the world to which they are called,” the church said in part.
On Thursday, the New York Post published a report alleging that Butler lost her job due to complaints that she took two Riverside Church assistant ministers and a female congregant to the Smitten Kitten sex shop in Minneapolis during a trip to the 27th annual Festival of Homiletics, a week-long conference where the 49 year old presided over the closing worship service.
“We wrapped up our week of powerful sermons with ‘Sink or Swim,’ a message shared by Amy Butler, senior pastor at the Riverside Church of New York based on excerpts from Genesis 6-9. In the sermon, Butler dug into a text many preachers like to avoid, the story of Noah and the Flood. The story of Noah does not appear in full in the lectionary. Maybe because as Butler put it, ‘The story of Noah and the arc is pretty much a terrible story. … The plotline centers around a natural disaster that destroys the whole world … and God is a terrible character in this story,’” the conference website noted about Butler’s work.
Butler, a mother of three, reportedly gifted one of the assistant ministers a $200 vibrator at the sex shop and purchased pleasure toys for herself and a female congregant.
A source that spoke with the New York Post alleged that the single mother who was celebrating her 40th birthday when her boss gifted her the vibrator didn’t want it. She reportedly accepted the gift because she was afraid.
The second minister, a gay man, was also offered a toy but he reportedly declined. Butler allegedly told the uncomfortable ministers that they didn’t have to accompany her to the sex shop but they allegedly “felt pressured” and feared professional retaliation, the source said.
It was further alleged that while she was at the register paying for the sex toys, she flashed the church credit card and quipped, “Is this a church business expense?” It was unclear if the items were actually charged to the church.
Days after the incident formal harassment claims were made against Butler and they were allegedly substantiated.
The Christian Post reached out to Riverside Church to confirm the allegations but Brian Simpson, the church’s director of communications and strategy, said “We have no comment” and directed this reporter to their earlier statement (above and again here).
“This is pretty much what we have to say on the matter,” he said.
Butler’s supporters said in a report in The New York Times that her ouster is retaliation for speaking out about sexual harassment at the church, specifically regarding an incident involving a former member of the church’s governing council who left a bottle of wine and a T-shirt on her desk, both bearing labels that read “Sweet B----.”
“There is absolutely no doubt that sexism played a role,” the Rev. Kevin Wright, who was recruited by Butler in 2015, told the Times. He had served as executive minister for programs but left in 2018. “I don’t understand how anyone could think anything different.”
Butler’s opponents argued in The New York Times report that Butler had been at odds with the deeply traditional culture of the church’s governing council for some time. Even though the church supports progressive politics there were concerns about her spending priorities.
She was also pushing for a substantial pay raise to be closer to that of her predecessor.
The New York Post reported that Bulter’s five-year contract, which expired June 30, paid her a $250,000 annual salary, an $8,000-a-month housing allowance and more than $55,000 in yearly pension contributions.
Butler’s supporters also point to her conflict with the influential former member of the church’s governing council, Ed Lowe, as the source of her problems at the church.
Lowe, 70, according to the Times, was the one who gave Butler the bottle of wine and T-shirt. An internal investigation, which found that Lowe had violated the church’s anti-harassment policy, also revealed that he sent suggestive emails and text messages to Butler’s female colleagues.
Lowe, a physician, argued in an interview with the Times that the allegations against him stemmed from his criticism of Butler’s management style.
“It was clearly a put-up job, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “A bully can only ride your back if you bend over, and I stood tall and erect. That irritated her more than anything else.”
He said he went to coaching to rectify his behavior but celebrated Butler’s departure.
“When I heard what was going on, I felt redeemed,” Lowe told the Times. “I felt my church has been saved. I felt vindicated.”