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The Rev. Brad Braxton, senior minister of New York City’s famed Riverside Church, has resigned just two months after his installation after a nasty fight with his new flock landed the church in court.
Braxton’s abrupt departure comes amidst congregational discord over the church’s mission and the pastor’s compensation package, which critics estimated as high as $600,000. Church officials said the package was consistent with that of similar high-profile pulpits.
Though he was chosen last September out of 200 applicants to be Riverside’s sixth senior minister, the former Rhodes scholar saw strife from day one. In April, four church members unsuccessfully sued to block his installation, alleging violations of church bylaws relating to his compensation package.
The soaring church, built by tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr., on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1927, has become renowned for its interracial and interdenominational brand of preaching and social justice.
Braxton was the second African-American chosen to lead the 2,400-member congregation, following the Rev. James Forbes, who retired June 1, 2007. The church’s changing demographics, from majority white to majority black, has been a source of tension.
Betty Davis, a Riverside member who was on the committee that selected Braxton, told Religion and Ethics Newsweekly recently that “as soon as his name was announced, the attacks started. One of the things that some people are afraid of is that the church will turn black. And, you know, I really resent that.”
Braxton’s evangelical and scripturally focused preaching was also an issue, which some saw as a threat to Riverside’s open and inclusive reputation.
In his letter of resignation to the congregation, Braxton said he came to Riverside “to serve as pastor and to promote serious engagement with Scripture that would reignite the spiritual inspiration underlying the church’s social activism.”
He went on to write: “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.”
The chair of the church council, Jean L. Schmidt, also released a statement, saying, “Dr. Braxton’s decision to step down has illuminated the need for our church community to gain clarity on our shared mission.”
Braxton’s resignation had been rumored for several weeks. A June 21 Father’s Day sermon about leaving lasting legacies to families and institutions only fueled the speculation about Braxton’s possible departure.
Braxton spoke obliquely about feuds within churches and the need to make sacrifices for the sake of peace, saying “our sacrifices to God are never in vain.” Perhaps less obliquely, Braxton hoped for an end to hurtful gossip around the church. He said he hoped that soon, when people are within five blocks of Riverside, “they’ll say, `I smell peace there.”‘
By Tiffany Stanley and Chris Herlinger
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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