Summer 2009: Of Note

Brad Braxton 99PhD

Brad Braxton 99PhD

Annemarie Poyo Furlong 98C

Braxton leaving Riverside Church

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"The Audacious Thing," Emory Magazine, Spring 2009

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By Paige P. Parvin 96G

Brad Braxton 99PhD, who was featured on the cover of the spring 2009 issue of Emory Magazine, recently announced his resignation as senior minister of the Riverside Church in New York City. His decision to leave Riverside after nine months as pastor comes amidst growing discord in the congregation.

“The decision to resign seemed to be a prudent pastoral act,” Braxton says. “By stepping down, I hope the church will be able to address the internal structures that hinder the leadership of any pastor and to resolve the tensions so that the congregation, along with a new senior minister, can move forward in unity.”

Braxton was selected to lead the landmark church last September after an exhaustive search process. But the week before his formal installation in April, a group of members mounted a protest, objecting to Braxton’s compensation package and his leadership style. They went to the State Supreme Court in Manhattan and sought to halt the ceremony, but the judge refused, asking that both sides try to find compromise.

“Any congregation of this size, with nationally renowned pastors who tend to have long stays, is likely to experience tensions in the transition to a new leader of a similar stature,” says Jan Love, dean of Candler School of Theology. “It takes time for the congregation and the pastor to get to know one another and adapt. Sometimes the chemistry just doesn’t work.”

At issue are the core identity and mission of the church, a widely recognized center of liberal activism and progressive theology known for its diverse, interracial membership. According to coverage of Braxton’s tenure in the New York Times and other media, dissidents in the congregation are concerned that the church is drifting away from its social activist history and toward a more conservative, traditional form of religious practice.

Race and generational differences are also at play. Black membership increased markedly under Braxton’s predecessor, the renowned James Forbes, whose preaching style was more evangelical than that of previous Riverside pastors. The shift in tone and direction made some longtime members uneasy.

“I had become the embodiment of long-standing divisions in the congregation concerning governance structures, the balance of power between the laity and the clergy, the relationship between spirituality and activism, and faithful manifestations of multicultural worship,” Braxton says.

“I do think leading a multicultural congregation is a very tough challenge for any pastor,” says Love, who was a member of a historically black church for more than twenty years. “There are multicultural congregations that succeed, and this one has, by and large, but it’s tough to meet everyone’s expectations in a way that will help everybody rise to be their best rather than falling into factions.”

Braxton says he and his family plan to leave New York later this summer and “take a few months for renewal.”

“He’s young and energetic and deeply committed,” Love says, “and I expect him to continue to be one of the nation’s leading pastors and scholars.”

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