A year after the Rev. Todd Eklof of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane released a controversial book and a month after he was ousted from a ministerial body over his response to criticism about it, about 50 people from the church have decided to rescind their membership.
Eklof was ousted in June from the Unitarian Universalist Association Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the credentialing body for UU ministers, for refusing to engage in dialogue about the effect of “The Gadfly Papers: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister,” which claimed the church was too politically correct.
“I’ve been banned, condemned, censured and excommunicated for writing a book,” Eklof said. “I see it as a red badge of courage.”
Though many have chosen to walk away from the church, the Spokane church’s board and about 400 members of the congregation have chosen to stay and support their minister.
“It makes no difference to us that he’s been disfellowshipped,” said Julie Rector, who’s been a member of UUCS for about 40 years. “I feel Todd’s my Martin Luther. He’s risked everything to let people know what he felt was wrong.”
The fracture in the church stems not only from the content of “The Gadfly Papers,” which critics say is racist and homophobic, but also over how it was released – unexpectedly last year at the UUA General Assembly in Spokane.
Marilyn Carpenter, who had been a member of UUCS for nine years, said the church has been working to heal these divisions for the past year. But the even larger issue of leadership couldn’t be resolved.
She said when Eklof was approached about the effects of his essays, he wasn’t receptive to feedback. She noted he also wasn’t open to input regarding the shift in his sermons, which Carpenter said have become more academic and philosophical and less spiritual, and for a push for the church to be more active in social justice issues.
“It’s just a really tough situation to have a minister saying we all should be able to disagree and respect each other, yet he’s not exhibiting that,” said Joan Perkins, who attended the church on and off for the past five years.
When approached by the UUA Ministerial Fellowship committee about the controversy, Eklof refused to participate in discussions.
In a letter from the UUA obtained by SpokaneFāVS, Eklof wrote, “With respect, investigating a minister for his writings is a violation of his rights as an American citizen and of his free pulpit. For the sake of our Unitarian Universalist tradition and the future freedoms of liberal ministers, I cannot in good conscience validate such proceedings with my participation.”
Carpenter said seeking consensus should be a priority for a church leader.
“Sometimes you can’t find consensus, but you try,” she said.
Supporters, however, say the congregation went out of its way to appease the 50 or so people who were offended by Eklof.
“The people who were hurt, rather than engaging in conversation on a thinking level, they went right to feelings, and rather than disagreeing with Todd, they decided to dislike Todd,” said 48-year church member Jean Larson.
In response to all this, earlier this year some from the church started an online service called Soul Weaving, as an alternative to Eklof’s Sunday sermons. About 40 people are attending the new service.
The service is similar to a Unitarian one, with music, a homily, an invitation to express joys and sorrows, and the lighting and extinguishing of a chalice.
“In some people’s estimation, it’s much more inspirational than the sermons Todd gives three times a month,” Carpenter said. “He’s stated publicly that he’s not about feelings or emotions. Soul Weaving fills that gap. It’s filling a need for spiritual sustenance, which is really nice.”
Soul Weaving meets Sundays at 9:30 a.m. A Zoom link is available via the email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rector said the congregation has been supportive of the new service.
“Some people don’t want to go to a history lesson,” she said, noting Eklof’s preaching style, “but that’s exactly why I go. His sermons are so intelligent. I love his sermons.”
Eklof said he’s grateful so many continue to support him, but is saddened that people have chosen to leave.
“It hurts that people are leaving – people I love and know, and who have loved me – who now have such animosity for me. I find it difficult to comprehend. I’m not at all the demon they project me to be,” he said.
He said, he respects their decision to find a community that better suits their needs.
“We love them, wish they would be able to stay in a civil matter, but it’s not where they’re at and we respect their right do what’s meaningful for them.”
Tracy Simmons is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 15 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti.
Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. She serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She is also a Scholarly Assistant Professor at Washington State University.