Jay Ekman preaches social justice from the pulpit, protests on street corners and wears jeans under his clerical robe on Sundays.
He’ll hang up that robe and step away from the pulpit at the end of this month when he retires after almost 40 years as pastor of the progressive Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church on Circular Street in Saratoga Springs. But Ekman is likely to keep taking a stand in some way after his final sermon ends June 30.
The 69-year-old senior pastor has spoken against wars, stood for gay rights and women’s rights and fought a losing battle 10 years ago to keep video lottery terminals out of the Saratoga Springs harness track.
His views, often more liberal than much of the Christian community, can put people off. But Ekman’s sincerity, love and humor often invite listeners into a discussion instead, said Terry Diggory, clerk of the church’s governing board.
“You know that what he’s saying comes from the heart,” Diggory said. “His humor is able to make it seem that he’s not taking himself super-seriously.”
Ekman’s self-deprecating humor comes through in every conversation, when he makes references to his faulty memory, aging and having to eat his words, such as his youthful opinion about his predecessors working at the church for 25 years: “As a young man, I said, ‘They stayed too long.’ Whoops.”
Ekman acknowledges that his approach to the ministry is unorthodox.
“In many areas of the country, this church and I would not be allowed to exist; we wouldn’t be allowed to do what we do,” he said.
For the most part, the congregation has followed the pastor who as a seminary student in 1967 turned in his draft card in protest.
“The church has never been afraid to tackle controversial issues, even if it means risking membership and money,” he said. And taking progressive stands has pushed some church members away.
In the mid-1980s, during the Iran Contra affair, church leaders weighed whether to provide sanctuary to Nicaraguan refugees. Ekman favored it but was outnumbered; some of those who opposed it left the church even though they had won the vote.
“That really became very divisive in the congregation,” Diggory said.
About 15 years ago the church grappled with gay rights.
“I think we learned from the divisiveness of the sanctuary debate a way to handle the controversy,” Diggory said. “We had a very careful process of examining where the issues were, where we wanted to be as a church.”
The church decided to give gay ministers full rights to the pulpit and allow gay members to serve as deacons.
During the VLT fight, the church stood with more conservative churches and local business leaders, and Ekman forged what some might call an unlikely friendship with the more conservative Joseph Dalton Jr., the now-retired president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
“We disagreed on certain issues, but we agreed on more issues than we disagreed on,” Dalton said. “Even when we were in opposition on an issue, he was always a gentleman.”
Taking action is an important part of the church’s mission, whether it’s speaking out or helping those less fortunate in a concrete way. The congregation, which is a confederation of the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church, is defined more by action than by doctrine, Ekman said.
“Our basic theological tenet is ‘Love God, love one another,’ ” he said.
“If everybody’s made in the image of God, we all have a responsibility to help everybody achieve the fullness of that image.”
Jay Ekman and his wife of 46 years, Judy Ekman, expanded the church youth program in the mid-1980s to include international trips, including a trip to the Soviet Union.
The Economic Opportunity Council began a soup kitchen in the church during Ekman’s tenure.
And some church members have been inspired to change their communities in bigger ways after doing so with the church. Ekman cites Michelle Larkin, who started Rebuilding Together Saratoga County after being a chaperone on a work trip to rebuild houses in Washington. The organization provides volunteers to fix seniors’ homes.
Helping others has been a calling for both Ekmans. Judy Ekman helped found the Prevention Council, which endeavors to keep young people from making poor decisions about drugs, alcohol, tobacco and bullying. She retired as the council’s executive director three years ago.
The couple — Judy is a South Dakota native and Jay is from Minnesota — met while both were students at MacAlester College in St. Paul, Minn., and married after Judy graduated. Jay went to seminary in New York City and first became a minister on Long Island, where they stayed for seven years before Jay took the Saratoga Springs post in 1973.
Stepping back from that congregation now will be difficult, Jay admitted. But a retiring pastor needs to separate from the church to allow the new minister to lead, he said.
Even though they don’t envision joining another local church, the Ekmans plan to keep living in Greenfield and being involved in the community. Judy will remain on the Saratoga Hospital board.
“Things will be different, but we will continue to be around Saratoga,” Judy said. “We’ll keep our fingers in all the pots.”
They also likely will visit their three grown children, who live in Colorado, Ohio and Minnesota, and their six grandchildren, who range in age from 1 1⁄2 to 8 years old.