Riverside Church Searches for Its Future
By Daniel Marrin
On Thanksgiving morning 2006, Reverend James Forbes had the Riverside Church congregation all to himself. The pastor of the church, Forbes was running morning mass on his own, without choir or supporting clergy and just a handful of parishioners in the pews. So after his sermon, he came down from the altar with a microphone, and invited the small crowd to share what they were thankful for.
A young black man raised his hand to share. He stood up and then began to weep as he held the microphone. The man said he had once suffered from suicidal depression but had begun to recover thanks to hearing Forbes' sermons over the years. Between tears, he said, “Reverend Forbes, you have restored my faith.” Forbes smiled to him, thanked him and moved on through the crowd.
That Thanksgiving was Forbes' last at Riverside. Having months earlier announced his intent to retire after 18 years as Riverside’s leader, he preached his last sermon in December.
Since Forbes’ exit, Riverside Church has been struggling to re-affirm its identity. Attendance, donations, and volunteerism all declined after he left. Church leaders say many who joined the church for Forbes’ powerful preaching and progressive vision have gone until his permanent replacement is chosen. That search has gone on since December 2006 and is still on. While some say there is growing impatience, search leaders are in no rush, focused on finding the right fit. Meanwhile, the church’s leaders are affirming Riverside’s history and mission, essentials which they hope carry the church through the loss of its leaders.
“We’ve had Reverend Forbes for 18 years, so for a lot of members, that’s all we know,” said Cheryl Wills, director of the senior minister search committee. “We need a leader who embraces our vision, but can also take us beyond that vision.”
Riverside was once called “the Vatican of mainstream Protestants” by the New York Times. A towering Gothic cathedral, Riverside has thousands of members, 130 paid staff and a multi-million dollar budget. It’s a combination of two Protestant denominations, the American Baptist Church and United Church of Christ, but the church has welcomed members and potential leaders from all Christian denominations.
Reverend Forbes had led the church since 1989. A Southern Baptist, he stood out within his conservative denomination for progressive politics including strong stances against the Iraq war and for gay rights. Newsweek named him one of the “12 most effective preachers in the English speaking world” in 1996, and he carried the nickname “the preacher’s preacher.” His prestige attracted hundreds of new members to Riverside along with guests such as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela. When he announced his retirement in September 2006, Forbes said he planned to go into a nationwide social justice ministry, through a non-profit or religious institution.
After his departure that next June, many of Forbes’ followers left the congregation. Regular attendance at mass dropped from 1,000 to 800 people. Along with that dropped donations for church programs, and leaders began announcing they’d be leaving their posts. Out of 18 people on the church council, seven are leaving at the end of this year’s term.
The difficulties were summed up in a sermon last December by Riverside’s Rev. Arnold Thomas. In a sermon called “What Goes Down Can Come Up,” he compared Riverside post-Forbes to a tree hacked down.
“Many have given up on the church in general and this church in particular. They have discarded us like a tree hacked down into a stump of no further use for anyone. But I’m here to tell you that what comes down can rise up again. The realm of God can rise from the stump of The Riverside Church.”
At the head of that effort is the church’s interim leader Rev. Thomas Stiers. As an “intentional interim” pastor, Stiers has been hired to usher the church through its transition to new leadership and is by his very job description ineligible for Forbes’ job.
Stiers, 70, is well acquainted with Riverside, having gone to seminary with Forbes and known four of the church’s five senior ministers. Stiers has brought leading preachers of Riverside’s denominations, the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Church, as guest preachers to bring the church closer to its historical roots. “Seventy-seven years of solid history in this church speaks well to what it has been and will be. It’s a solid institution,” he said.
However, Stiers also acknowledges that most of Riverside’s attendants are commuters, and some won’t make the trip while the church lacks a steady leader. “People who want that kind of immediate relationship with a pastor do say ‘I want to go somewhere else,” he said. There’s a church near me in Jersey, Connecticut, or Westchester County. My neighbors like it. I’ll go there.’ That’s inevitable.” However, he believes other potential members will come curious about his next guest preacher. “Overall, it balances out,” Stiers said.
Some see Riverside’s struggles as a sign that the progressive Protestantism Forbes and his predecessors preached is on its way out. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote on his blog, “The challenge faced by the Riverside Church is indeed the challenge faced by Protestant liberalism as a movement. Once the vital content of the Christian faith is removed, denied, or marginalized, all that remains is a vaguely Christian spirituality and an agenda of social activism.”
The United Church of Christ’s Dr. Barbara Powell replied that Riverside’s political preaching reflected the teachings of the Gospel. “The Gospels were a call to action, they were a call to do something as Christian witnesses,” she said. “Jesus disagreed greatly with the politics of his time and actively challenged the Pharisees who claimed to know religion.” She said Riverside has been a wonderful example for its preaching and activism.
Dr. Leo Thorne at the American Baptist Church, Riverside’s other denomination, said that in the end the church’s future is ultimately not something to be decided by its preachers, leaders or its congregation. Thorne said, “The increase is up to God, not up to us.”