The Stained Glass Cliff

Post Author: Heidi Carrington Heath

Like many of my fellow clergy women, I was shocked when the news broke last week that the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler was leaving her pulpit at the storied Riverside Church in New York City after only five years. This is a short tenure in the life of such a famed institution, and the announcement of her departure comes on the heels of her serving as one of the featured preachers at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod only a week prior. Riverside has long had a complex and turmoil-laden history, but I joined many who were hopeful things were turning around under Amy’s leadership. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

It was clear to many of us that there were myriad untold stories to her departure, and what we have learned includes only some of the layers of one of those stories. Although stories will continue to emerge, and some may never be told, we can conclude that Pastor Amy was, at least in part, pushed off the Stained Glass Cliff.

The research on this is very clear: women are more likely to rise to positions of leadership and authority in times of crisis or conflict. It’s seen as a “nothing to lose” phenomenon. “We have nothing to lose, so might as well hire a woman.” We often follow charismatic or well-liked men who were behaving egregiously badly, and we often don’t have clarity on how deeply broken the system really is until we’ve already said yes.

Women are held to a different standard (especially when we are the first). We have broken the stained glass ceiling, so we are expected to be exceptional, extraordinary even. We are expected to resolve conflicts, and clean up messes we did not make in half the time it took the men who preceded us to make them. We are expected to effortlessly juggle leadership (but not too much), nurturing (but not be too soft), and family (but without asking for too much time) without complaint.

As soon as we enact too much change, push to make the system healthier, preach a sermon seen as “too political,” or don’t clean up the mess quickly enough, we are pushed right off the cliff. If we dare, as Pastor Amy did, to name patterns of sexual harassment and ask for accountability, we are often painted as the problem and sent on our way. A narrative is then written about how it “wasn’t a good fit” or “she just couldn’t hack it.”

Meanwhile, the toll on us and our families – physically, mentally, spiritually, and beyond – is exhausting. I and others watch this happen over and over again with incredibly gifted colleagues. Oh, and if a colleague is also the first queer person, black or brown person, trans person, or other intersection? The stakes only go up.

White, cisgender women, like me, are also sometimes some of the worst protectors of these systems of power, sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy that perpetuate this kind of harm. We rise to positions of power and we ourselves become agents of the very systems we claim to want to dismantle. We perpetuate cycles of abuse, protecting our own power, out of a false belief that the system will somehow protect us if such a moment arises. Spoiler alert: it won’t. The system will not protect us. The system will continue to only protect itself and its power. We are complicit when we behave this way. The Gospel calls us instead to speak out against it.

Church, this is a crisis. We have to talk about it. We cannot continue to simply watch as women climbing these mountains in ministry are pushed off the stained glass cliff. The body count is simply too high.

Search committees, you have to do your work to understand what it means to call the first woman you’ve ever had in your pulpit, and to see the warning signs if your congregation still has work to do. Our judicatory structures have to actively support churches in what it means when their pastor breaks the stained glass ceiling. Churches need to welcome that support, and be willing to take guidance from their judicatory.

Rev. Dr. Butler is the latest high-profile casualty of a sickness that plagues us as a wider institution. Jesus calls us to do better, church. Will we listen? For the health of so many of my sisters in this work, I pray we will.

The Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath serves as a secondary school chaplain to over 1,000 amazing students and adults in Exeter, New Hampshire. She is also a wife, crazy cat Mom, body positive and fat activist, an amateur runner and yogi, an aspiring writer, an advocate for women and girls, and addicted to all things Bravo TV. She makes her home with her amazing spouse, the Rev. Dr. Emily C. Heath and their two cats, Atticus and Windsor.

Image by: aitoff
Used with permission
2 replies
  1. Jennifer Rutter says:

    I so appreciate this article and completely agree women are more like to reach positions of leadership in times of crisis. I was recently searching for a new position. I got a phone call from a church who had been looking for a Senior Pastor for two years and the committee member said “we came across your resume and figured why not.” Thankfully, I already had a new job and did not have to explain why I would not want the job for the same reasons all their male candidates turned them down.

  2. Tim Magee says:

    I can find plenty of reasons to complain about the theology of victim narratives. As men bail out of the universities and the churches, you’ll have these institutions all to your lonesome. If problems continue anyway, who will be remaining to receive blame?


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *