When the Rev. Kally Elliott, the new part-time pastor of Glen Cove’s First Presbyterian Church, was growing up in San Diego, she saw women taking on the role of spiritual leaders at her church. And because her mother was a member of the musical staff, Kally got to know the ministers better than most congregants. “The ministers were my mom’s friends,” she explained. “I saw them as cool people to hang out with.”
One of the first things she did when she attended the University of California, Davis, was to join the campus ministry, which was sponsored by a Baptist church. Elliott was so taken with the experience that although she was a Presbyterian, she considered converting. And she also decided to become a minister. “That’s when I was told I couldn’t be ordained because I was a woman,” she said of a Baptist policy that is not enforced at all of the faith’s congregations.
She majored in human development, but because religion was such a prominent part of her life, she enrolled in religious studies courses as well. “I continued to feel this calling to go into ministry,” Elliott recalled. “It gnawed at me the entire time I was in college. I began to wrestle with other [spiritual] questions, and taking the courses helped me — the academics of it, learning about religion.”
When she graduated, she became a fifth-grade teacher at a Christian school. Even so, her belief that she was meant to become a pastor never subsided.
After two years, she enrolled in the Columbia Theological Seminary School in Georgia. Her husband, Bryce, moved with her, and the couple had their first baby there. While Kally was in seminary, she made a life-changing decision. “I went back to the same faith I grew up in,” she said.
Becoming a pastor was now possible.
A new chapter
Elliott, now 41, came to Glen Cove in September armed with a range of experience. Now the mother of four children, ages 15, 12, 10 and 6, she had been the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Oceanside for two years. Prior to that, she had spent 11 years in campus ministry at the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville. “You do everything in that capacity,” she said, “from programming spirituality programs for college students and faculty to creating opportunities for service trips, both in the community and even Guatemala.”
And she worked on a personal level with students who questioned their faith, as she had while in college. “Students enter college with their parents’ faith,” she said. “In college, their faith gets torn apart and put together in a new way. Walking with them through this was most rewarding. I helped them reconstruct who they are now.”
She left her job at Tennessee, Elliot said, because she was ready for a new adventure. When she arrived in Oceanside, she became part-time pastor of First Presbyterian, and created a new worship community as well, Sacred Space — “a group of people who came together around the Christian faith,” she said. “But there were other faiths represented there, too, that were not Christian.” So Sacred Space became an interfaith group. “It was a group to have conversations about faith and how faith intersects with our life today,” she said. “How faith can be used in today’s world to bring people together.”
Elliott can still remember her first thought when she moved to Glen Cove’s First Presbyterian. “It’s such a small congregation,” she said. “I wondered, how do you do big things with a small group? But then I thought, it can be done.”
The church, founded in 1869, is Tudor in style and large, requiring a great deal of maintenance, she said. “There are budget constraints,” she added. “And at the same time, we help the homeless.”
The church hosts the North Shore Sheltering Program, for homeless men, from Thanksgiving to the end of March. Ordinarily it’s open from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., but during last week’s snowstorm, Elliott asked that it be open all day.
Valerie Michelsen, a parishioner for the past 70 years, wasn’t surprised by Elliott’s appeal on behalf of the homeless men. “We just love her,” Michelsen said. “She’s already gotten so involved, visiting those who can’t get to church and calling parishioners, too.”
Plans for the future
Elliott says she is working with parishioners on ways to get them more involved in the community. “These days, the church and Christians have earned [themselves] a bad name for many reasons,” she said. “Earning the trust of the community is important. We need to show up for each other.”
She says she genuinely likes people, and values being there to help. “I love to lead creative worshipping,” she said. “I love watching people as they experience God and grow in knowing who they are as they realize God loves them so much.”
And although the parish is small, its members are active. “This congregation is involved in the community, in social justice,” she said, adding that the parishioners participate at Planned Parenthood, soup kitchens and LGBTQ marches. “They are politically minded. I want to organize all of this so our church can go out as a community.”
Michelsen said she has already seen positive changes at First Presbyterian. “She’s added new music,” she said of Elliott. “And she has us, at the end of the service, come down together and hold hands for the benediction.”