Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler
Along my journey of life, clarity about direction, purpose, and call have often come to me by way of study, reflection, prayer and, most often, my community. One of the most important moments of discernment in my ministry came as I prepared for an interview with The Washington Post shortly after receiving my call to pastor Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., in 2003.
I was 33 years old, entering my first call as senior minister, and the reporter wanted me to define my ministry. The Post wanted to know what priorities I had and how it felt to be the first female pastor of a historic church. I felt conflicted: there were so many members of Calvary deeply passionate about different causes. I myself felt particular issues were especially compelling. And while I could feel the import of being the first woman in the role of pastor of that church, I sensed a call to be more than just that. How could I stay true to my call, help guide and walk in community with my new church, and be a pastor to my new congregation?
It was in that moment that I decided that I wanted to be defined by the gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ had to be my issue and the foundation of my pastoral identity, and I think it's the central focus around which we gather when we call ourselves the Church.
The Church has the challenge and opportunity of prophetically speaking to the issues of our day and the shortcomings of our society - all the while resisting the pull to be defined by them. We become a people reflecting radical gospel when our "activism" blossoms out of a commitment to love our neighbors. As I prepared for that interview with The Washington Post, this truth crystallized for me: when we live in the way Jesus taught us, we can't help but become agents of transformation in the world.
That pivotal point in my life was built on the foundation that came long before, of course, a foundation of countless relationships and experiences that worked to shape and guide me. That foundation has led me to the Riverside community, and it's part of my story, a story shaped in many ways by the rich and diverse culture of Hawaii.
Growing up in Hawaii I learned early the compelling gift of diverse community, the truth that each person is a beloved child of God. We don't always understand each other, but in the practice of learning to love each other we begin to know in deep and experiential ways the depth and breadth of God's love for us.
I am the eldest of five children, raised in a family deeply committed to Christian faith. From a young age I was a very active youth group leader, mission trip coordinator and youth camp attender. I've always been drawn to the Church and my enduring love for this institution is a testimony to the love and nurture I received in my early faith communities.
After high school, I attended Baylor University, where I learned about Baptist distinctives and found a denominational expression for my faith. I cherish ideas like priesthood of the believer, autonomy of the local church, and separation of church and state. I was always enamored of the idea that God's Spirit can and will work anywhere and through anyone. I learned that the gospel calls us out from behind the walls we would set around it, to serve God and form relationships in ways we never dreamed possible. And it was through this conviction about the unpredictable movement of God's Spirit that I first began to discern a call to ministry.
I attended seminary in Europe, with fellow students from many different countries around the world. Life in this diverse, intentional community wasn't easy, but it certainly underscored my conviction that we are shaped in beautiful and wonderful ways when we learn to love people who are different than we are. As I felt God's call continually become more distinct and compelling, I also learned in my own way what it means to be excluded from the Church I loved so much. As a woman in ministry, the reality of exclusion for something about yourself you cannot change is a painful experience.
Just before I left for seminary I was licensed to gospel ministry at Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. Lake Shore was the first faith community that affirmed my call to ministry not in spite of the fact that I was a woman, but because of the fact that they believed in God's call on my life.
My first professional experience of ministry was directing a shelter for homeless women in the City of New Orleans. I like to say that I learned how to be a pastor there, because confronting the raw pain of so many desperate lives day in and day out taught me that we all carry pain - some of us are just able to hide it a little better than others. It also taught me the power of healthy, nurturing, supportive community that can help heal the brokenness inside.
When an opportunity became available to work on the staff of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, I jumped at the chance. I was curious about how one might help build community that reflected these ideas of God's expansive and healing love. During my years on the staff of St. Charles I had many opportunities to begin finding my pastoral voice.
As my experience of pastoral leadership in a church setting unfolded, I learned that preaching and writing are particular passions of mine. Several years and many miles after my first pastoral job at St. Charles, I had the pleasure of studying and writing about preaching and the pastoral persona as the focus of my Doctor of Ministry degree at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
I've always thought it curious how so many come to their experience of church unable to be honest and vulnerable about the pain of human life. I think that kind of authenticity is especially challenging for ministers, as so many look to us for answers to their own questions. The pressure to be perfect can be crippling.
I've found, however, that my personal life experiences are not peripheral to my work as pastor, but are actually some of the most important parts of effective pastoral ministry. I try to bring a genuine expression of who I am and what I love and believe to the work of the pastorate.
I am the mother of three incredible children: Hayden, Hannah, and Sam. There are challenges to parenting, for sure. But as any parent knows, the gifts of love and grace that come through nurturing children are powerful and formational. My family has come to be through many beautiful and painful experiences: birth, death, adoption, divorce - all of these shaping the priceless gift of these relationships.
As I entered into discernment about a call to The Riverside Church, I was reminded how quickly 20, 17, and 16 years can go by. In many conversations over the course of this process, the kids offered their input, support, questions, concerns. When I first got the phone call letting me know I was the final candidate, I tearfully told my kids I was so nervous and worried and scared about what this might mean for them. Hannah immediately said: "Let's just stop with the tears for a minute. This is exciting! It's exciting for us and it's exciting for Mom!" This has definitely been an exercise in collaborative wondering for our family, and the support of my children - all young adults, really - has been one of my anchors throughout this discernment process.
It is one thing to talk about the need for the church to be gospel community for each other and the world. But I have seen and experienced that firsthand. Words cannot express my gratitude for the love of the Calvary community for me and for my children when our family lived through a painful divorce. That community's willingness to share our pain and help us heal together was an example of how the church can bring the gospel to life. Having experienced that powerful expression of gospel community at such a critical time in my own life, I think only God can imagine how great the potential is when we make it our regular practice.
My story, like all of our stories, has highs and lows, moments of light-filled clarity and deep, dark confusion. But this journey has left me deeply convinced that the church can be a place of life and promise in a world desperate for the reconciling love of God.
I hope when people experience me as a pastor they see the same person in the pulpit as they would in the produce aisle. The truth is, I do this work because I am walking the journey of faith, too. I need healthy faith community to help me learn to know God better, to wonder aloud about the hard questions we all ask, to see tangible expressions of faith as we work together to heal a hurting world and step boldly together into a future we cannot see.
In all of these experiences and more, I've come to believe that the call of God is a strange and beautiful thing. It invites us out of our comfort zones, often into places of fear and unfamiliarity. But I've found that these places are most often the places that give birth to things more beautiful than we could ever imagine.
And so, I'm looking forward to walking into an unknown future together with the people of God at The Riverside Church, ever hopeful that God will lead us, shaping us into a healthy faith community that participates enthusiastically in God's healing work in this world.
Read Pastor Amy's letter to the congregation - June 9, 2014
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