BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Unity of Traverse City near Acme took months to choose a new minister and then waited patiently for her to fulfill her previous assignment.
“We did it over the course of a year,” said Libby Robold, chairman of the church’s search committee. “There was a lot of anticipation and excitement about this person but we made it clear that we were going to take our time and get the person we wanted and know that we made the right choice.”
Eileen Stulak, 53, finally will preside over her first service as Unity senior minister at 10:30 a.m. Sunday. She will be the church’s first permanent senior minister since the Rev. Crystal Yarlott left in Nov. 2011.
“My lesson Sunday is entitled ‘Ready or Not,’” said Stulak, formerly associate minister of Congregational Care and Ministry Programs at Unity Church of Overland Park, Kan. “It’s going to be a celebratory day to kick off the next chapter of this (church) community.”
Robold said Stulak was selected for the position from about a dozen applicants based on her administrative and speaking skills, her compassion and other personality traits, her interest in community outreach, and her ability to establish rapport and work with people of all ages, backgrounds and learning styles.
But it was her unique nature that ultimately made her the clear choice.
“She is warm, receptive and has a calm, peaceful nature,” Robold said. “These are stressful times mentally. We’re bombarded with news that’s not all positive. We need to digest that, and it helps when you can go to a spiritual center or church where there is someone who exudes a sense of calm, groundedness and confidence.”
A Pittsburgh native and grandmother of two, Stulak moved to Houston in 1983 to work in commercial insurance and risk management, training and development. A long-time Catholic, she said she began to question her faith after having reached a point that she did not agree with Catholic theology. She accepted a friend’s invitation to a Unity church and 16 months later “received that inner call to be a minister.”
In 2006, she entered Unity Institute in the Kansas City, Mo., area and was ordained in 2009. Stulak said she was drawn to Traverse City after receiving an application packet from the search committee.
“It painted a beautiful picture of the town, a beautiful picture of the people,” she said, adding that she was also attracted by the region’s four seasons. “It spoke a lot to me of the folks I’d worked with in the Midwest: friendly, multicultural.”
Early this year, she came to Unity for a trial weekend and conducted a service for about 100 congregants.
“We had the congregation fill out surveys and they and the board really liked that she had a strong pastoral care background,” said former Unity president Sheila McRae. “They liked her energy, her professionalism, her speaking and mannerisms from the pulpit.”
For her part, Stulak said she was immediately impressed with those she got to know.
“This congregation spoke to me in terms of what I would call spiritual seekers,” she said. “They are not only open to their own spirituality, but open to learning about other faith cultures.”
Robold said Stulak’s new responsibilities include presiding over the Sunday service and overseeing the church’s administration and programs, from music to youth education, and teaching classes and programs.
Stulak, who now lives in Traverse City with her dog, Michelle, said her immediate focus will be on ministering to congregants and reviving some evening classes that had been on hold until a permanent minister came on board. The church had been served by interim minister Linda Wilson for several months. Other goals include attracting younger families and children to the church and getting involved in the greater Traverse City community.
“We want to have our presence expand beyond our campus out here through anything we can do to reach out to the community beyond the Sunday service and make the church a good neighbor,” Stulak said.
She also hopes to be involved in the area’s interfaith community and has already received an invitation to a meeting of the Area Council on Religious Diversity, a monthly gathering of clergy from different faith traditions.
“Unity prides itself in a humble way of being an inclusive spiritual community. We have our own theology and teachings, but we very much respect other faith traditions and the paths people walk,” she said. “To know there are other faith communities wanting to do the same speaks to me.”
Robold said Stulak’s transition to her new job confirms what the search committee and one of the minister’s groups in Kansas already knew.
“The chaplain group she was responsible for there sent a note saying what a wonderful person she was and what a great choice we made — and I thought that was really nice,” Robold said.
“The transition has unfolded with such ease and grace that it keeps telling us we made the right decision,” Stulak said.