Cracking the Stained Glass Ceiling: An Interview with Pastor Amy Butler

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The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler is the Seventh Senior Minister of The Riverside Church in the City of New York.  Pastor Amy—her preferred title—is the first woman to hold this position in the 1,750-member church’s 87 year history.  Amidst Advent activities and her usual full load of meetings, preaching preparation, pastoral care, and political activism, she graciously agreed to an interview for Equity for Women in the Church, Inc.’s blog with board member Lynn Casteel Harper.

To reach Pastor Amy’s office, one must ascend to the high places—to the 19th floor of the tallest church in America.  Her office’s contents reflect her pastoral leadership style—warm and intentional, invitational and boldly direct: a comfortable but commanding dark blue sectional (her “power couch,” she laughs), an antique but sturdy wooden desk that once served as a communion table, two well-stocked book shelves, and a coffee table with a single book atop it—Rebecca Solnit’s Men Tell Me Things.  “That’s there on purpose,” she says.  “It says, ‘you’ve been put on notice.’”  Such anti-sexism signals prove sadly necessary, as Amy tells of a lay leader who recently told her she was “a very immature leader” and gave her the names of two “experienced” male pastors who could mentor her. 

The insecurities and anxieties of male church leaders, however, are nothing new to Amy.  “There have been times in my career where I have worked for bosses—all men—who felt threatened by my work,” she recalls.  “They held the reigns really tightly, protected the pulpit really tightly, because—I don’t know why—they couldn’t control me or whatever.  I just always thought, ‘That’s really stupid because if I do well, you look better!’”  Amy’s approach departs from this brand of controlling, anxious leadership.  Rather than feeling threatened by the good work of others, Amy abides by a different philosophy: “Hire someone who knows how to do the work better than you do, and then let them do it!” 

Although resisting oversimplification, Amy notes, “Women have a different approach to leadership in general.”  Committed to an expansive, relational management model, Amy readily asks for the help and training she needs, and collects wise people around her to advise and coach her.  “A big part of my approach to doing my work,” she comments, “is just celebrating my colleagues and trying to model this sort of connectional collaboration.”  While Amy fully acknowledges that not many churches have the resources of Riverside, she maintains that building one’s team and gathering circles of support are learned skills and need not hinge on the capacity to hire a large staff.  “Find the people [in the congregation] who have the passion and the skills and the health,” she advises, “and put them in places where they can be effective, then let them flourish.”

Amy wants to see clergywomen flourish, too—which, she maintains, means adequately preparing women to lead declining or transitioning congregations.  “Because of the inequity in the church, we who are now breaking glass ceilings and getting jobs are getting jobs that men don’t want,” she asserts.  “We’re the ones who are being handed these ‘well, we-don’t-know-how-to-fix-it, so good luck’ churches […] To help a church die or to help a church transform, those are extraordinarily specialized leadership skills.”  Because these skills are not typically taught in seminary, Amy believes leadership organizations, denominations, and nonprofits like Equity for Women in the Church, Inc. can support women by helping them gain the necessary business and leadership acumen to succeed in highly complex pastorates.

While the work requires administrative savvy, it also requires “a very keen pastoral sensibility,” Amy notes.  “Churches are so funny; it’s not like you could hire a business person, a CEO, to come in and clean things up administratively.  That would never work because you have to have the relational trust.”  Amy regularly invites congregants to her home for what she calls the “Pastor’s Table” and keeps open office hours for congregants to visit.  It is hard enough to be a change-agent in any church, which Amy calls “punishing” work at times; the additional layer of sexism and patriarchy produces especial difficulty for female pastors: “It requires not only sophisticated skill but a level of spiritual engagement and discernment that is pretty substantial.”  Central to equality for clergywomen in the church, Amy is convinced, requires equipping women early in their careers (and supporting them throughout) for “a very sophisticated kind of leadership” that involves balancing administrative, organizational, and pastoral demands amidst the forces of sexism.

Amy admits that the focus on her gender—“everyone wants to talk about me being the first woman”—sometimes frustrates her: “I got this job because I’m good at what I do!”  But she quickly tempers her indignation, recognizing the importance of her unique position.  In recent months Amy has written on abortion and two pieces on sexual harassment.  “I had a friend say to me, ‘We’ve never in this country had a woman in the tallest steeple in America talking about women’s issues.  We’ve had some nice men who have done it, but it’s different’.”  Amy feels a deep responsibility to use her platform.  “And I’ve been angry with myself with all this stuff coming out [about sexual harassment], because I should have cared enough about myself that I would’ve spoken up earlier.  But it’s twenty years of ordination of just keeping your head down and taking it.  Because that’s what you have to do.”  She refuses to remain silent any longer.  

“I hate to say it but it was only this past year that I sort of woke up.  I talk about racism all the time, why am I not talking about misogyny and sexism? […]We have to value ourselves enough to say, ‘Hey wait a minute, this is just as bad’.”  Amy’s newfound momentum is on full display from the pulpit (e.g., her Father’s Day sermon on Sarah, entitled “Hysterical,” is a must-see).  Riverside’s laity and staff will undergo a full sexual harassment training program in early 2018.  Riverside is launching a support group for women who need the church to provide a safe space.  And all church bathrooms will display clear placards that contain resources and state the church’s policy. “Isn’t it a shame that the churches, of all places, shouldn’t be the place that says ‘oh no, no’?”

Increased visibility of clergywomen, Amy stresses, helps to crack the foundations of patriarchy and its attendant sins (harassment, abuse, exploitation).   “Any time we can see women in roles of leadership doing good work,” Amy asserts, “we’re changing people’s perception and chipping away at the patriarchy we all live with.  The more we see, the more normal it becomes to us.”  She recounts Children Sabbath services at her previous church in which the little girls wore her stoles and administered communion, and when they would show up on Halloween dressed as pastors.  Once, when Amy was a guest preacher at another church in town, she took her young children with her.  Her daughter, who was seven at the time, noticed the portraits of the former pastors (all men) lining the hallway, and blurted out indignantly: “MOM!  WHERE ARE THE GIRLS?”  Amy laughs, “I remember my kids being stunned to find out that men could be pastors!”

What is the most basic yet profound way Amy challenges patriarchy? “Get up every day and come to work,” she says reflexively, confidently.  Almost on cue, there’s a knock at her office door: Amy’s next appointment is here.  She rises from her couch to open the door. 

There are more questions to ask, more ground to cover, but the pastor must return to her immediate charges, to the daily work of connectional collaboration.  The pursuit of equity, after all, might be this ordinary: answering the knock at one’s door and greeting the next opportunity with unblinking courage and faith.