Updated: New Riverside Pastor Steps Down; Where Does That Leave Progressive Christianity?

After weeks of speculation, the New York Times reports today that the Rev. Brad Braxton has resigned his position as pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan.

Just a few months ago, progressive Protestants across the country appeared hopeful about the 39-year-old biblical scholar. The former Rhodes Scholar and professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School seemed a perfect fit. Yet Rev. Braxton’s uncomfortable jaunt through the Upper West Side has been marked by congregational infighting over financial compensation and theological direction.

A small but growing group of dissidents felt Rev. Braxton’s annual $600,000 CEO-like compensation package, though consistent with other tall steeple congregations in the city, belied Riverside’s commitment to social justice. And others, despite Rev. Braxton’s progressive publishing record, argued he was too theologically conservative and evangelical in orientation for Riverside’s commitment to ecumenicalism and inclusiveness.

It’s hard for those on the outside to pass judgment or opine with any real confidence here. There are always multiple sides to a conflict. One can agree, however, that with the waning influence of liberal Protestantism in America, this is a tragedy of epic proportion. When a gifted and well-respected individual like Rev. Braxton can’t survive two months* at a venerable institution such as Riverside, it exposes the theological, ecclesial and even racial fault lines of the Christian progressive movement.

Letters from the Church and Braxton, respectively:

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Dear Riversiders,

It is with sadness and understanding that the Church Council accepts the resignation of the Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton as Senior Minister of the Riverside Church. Dr. Braxton brings a remarkable combination of social justice activism, profound spirituality, and intensive scholarship that complements our institution’s vision of being an interdenominational, interracial, and international faith community, and we have been blessed to have him serve as our Senior Minister.

Dr. Braxton’s decision to step down has illuminated the need for our Church community to gain clarity on our shared mission, and the Church Council is looking forward to engaging with the congregation in the deep soul-searching and conversations that will allow us to move forward as a stronger, more unified congregation.

I hope you will join me and the other Council members in wishing Brad, Lazetta and Karis the best for their journey. And I ask you to participate with the Church Council, the staff, clergy, and commissions as we enter a period of reflection, transition, and renewal.

Blessings,

Jean L. Schmidt
Chair, Church Council

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Dear Riversiders:

After considerable prayer and reflection, I believe that resigning my position as Senior Minister of the Riverside Church is the right thing to do for the congregation, my family, and me at this time. My hope is that the congregation will be able to address its internal tensions so that the church, along with a new Senior Minister, will be able to move forward in unity.

I was honored to be called to serve at the Riverside Church because of the church’s longstanding tradition of robust social activism. As a progressive Christian, I believe that we are called to seek social justice in this world and that there are two ways we can do this: we can do it with deeds, and we can do it with creeds. My entire career has been marked with both kinds of social justice work. As a pastor, I have implemented programs that serve marginalized communities. As a biblical scholar, I have analyzed the scripture to reveal how traditional interpretations of the Bible have led to those communities being marginalized in the first place.

I came to Riverside to serve as a pastor and to promote serious engagement with scripture that would reignite the spiritual inspiration underlying the church’s social activism. My election as Senior Minister by an overwhelming margin indicated a promising relationship based on the congregation’s goals and my gifts of ministry.

Yet in the midst of Riverside’s noble work for peace and justice, the congregation has struggled publicly for decades about the kind of church that it should be and the kind of pastor who should be its voice. In recent months, these struggles have created a level of antagonism within the congregation that undermines the community’s efforts to embody harmony in the name of Jesus Christ. The consistent discord has made it virtually impossible to establish a fruitful covenant between the congregation and me that facilitates the flourishing of the congregation, the broader community, and my family.

I encourage the members of Riverside to strive diligently to heal these longstanding divisions within the congregation. New York City, the United States, and indeed the world need a vibrant, unified Riverside Church. As the Riverside Church journeys onward, may the fruit of the Spirit be in great abundance in the congregation – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

The Church Council and I have begun a respectful process that will enable us to dissolve the covenant in a way that glorifies God and preserves the dignity and Christian witness of all parties involved. Rest assured that I will execute my pastoral duties with diligence, enthusiasm, and professionalism until my resignation takes effect. Lazetta and Karis join me in expressing our gratitude for your support. May God, the eternal and compassionate Shepherd, guide us safely through this season of transition and transformation.

Grace and Peace,

The Reverend Brad R. Braxton, Ph.D.
Senior Minister

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*As commenter Peter Herman notes below, Rev. Braxton has been Riverside’s Senior Minister since last September, roughly nine months ago: “His installation as a formal ceremony only took place about two months ago, but his time at Riverside spanned eight to nine months.”

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