The Dial Press, 240 pages | Published October 3, 2023
Pastors are keepers of stories. While most are stories of the churches they serve, they have their own stories to tell — experiences of call, ministry and lessons learned through heartache. This is one such story, and it belongs to Amy Butler, the first female senior minister at the historic Riverside Church in New York City. Her memoir reads like a personal journal, each chapter ending in the style of a homily, with a tone of “fingers-crossed-in-prayer” hopefulness. Her preacher voice is undeniable, and her pastor’s heart on full display as she explores the age-old question of what it means to be human. As one would expect from a pastor, Butler’s understanding is theologically Christian and through the lens of her pastoral identity. To be human, she believes, is to be transformed by relationships because “we belong to one another,” and this is the mantra of Beautiful and Terrible Things. Butler is unequivocally certain that, “in increasingly diverse communities, our ability to know and to be in relationships with our neighbors will be the determining factor in our surviving and thriving.” This seems to be a voice of clarity in the storm, anchoring her to the value and practice of staying connected even when the vulnerability to do so hurts.
The climax and crux of her story occurs in her “come to Jesus” chapter — the one readers experiencing disappointment, loss, failure and even humiliation may find most relatable. Butler shares a deeply personal reckoning with the people of an institution and the people (who are often the same) of the community she loves and serves. God is the thread that keeps her together as her personal and professional life unravel. Pastors are not exempt from betrayal and pain; suffering is the grand and common denominator for all. This is, however, a pastor’s story, not a philosopher’s musings, and there is always a note of hope within the despair.
A final note of hopefulness emerges when Butler invites readers to imagine a creative “new way of being a church in the world,” one requiring an “open-minded and open-hearted redirection of resources toward those unexpected glimpses of God.” She offers an example, and it is the creation of her non-profit called Invested Faith, putting her own money where her mouth (and pastor’s heart) is.
As a female pastor who shares an appreciation for a religio-cultural upbringing different than mainstream, mainline denominations, I understand her frustrations about patriarchy, sexism and ageism for women in ministry. Being a female pastor isn’t for the faint of heart. But neither is anything else. If you are curious about the story of a pastor whose journey continues, read this book. You may find yourself saying a prayer for her (and all pastors) whose journey, much like everyone’s, takes a few detours along the way. The good news is the detours are just that — and the lessons are ours for the taking.
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