Name: Kally Elliot
Title: Campus Minister, the Presbyterian Center at the University of Tennessee
Thoughts on Faith: “I believe in a God that is bigger than my faith. I don’t think I have all the answers. I don’t think my faith tradition has all the answers.”
Kally Elliot is a California girl, and it doesn’t take long in conversation before her West Coast sensibility presents itself. She just had her fourth child (and first daughter), Eve, and on her Facebook page, Elliot has posted a picture of the days-old tot swaddled and resting in a laundry basket.
“Jesus had a feeding trough. I think this is a step up. At least it’s fairly clean,” Elliot writes.
If you don’t think that’s funny, then Elliot probably isn’t the minister for you, because let’s be clear about one thing—Elliot is wickedly funny. It’s not just that she almost always has a grin on her face or a ready joke or story about one her three boys (Rylan, 9; Spencer, 6; and Kellen, 4), it’s that Elliot really is one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet.
Which is why, when you find out that she’s a Presbyterian minister, you’re more than likely to do a bit of double take. (I know I did. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that Elliot lives around the corner from me, and I first met her at another neighbor’s cookout last spring.)
Elliot is 35 and petite, trim, and athletic; she looks like the runner she is. She’s friendly, but she can be bluntly honest and is often sarcastic. She’s not a preacher who tells corny jokes; she’s not old-fashioned. Elliot is the kind of person who posts quotes on her Facebook page like this one from Anne Lamott, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”
But she’s also the kind of person who post quotes like this one from Frederick Buechner: “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”
Because if there’s anything Elliot is, in addition to being a funny person and a loving mom, it’s that she is a Christian.
“My faith, to me, is hope. It means that I have hope. No matter what, I always know intimately that I am loved. To know that innately frees me up to be more open to other people, more caring, more forgiving,” Elliot says. “It’s trusting that someone bigger than yourself loves you.”
Elliot is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest and most mainstream branch of the Presbyterian Church in the country. It’s the church Elliot grew up in, and it’s one that welcomes women into the leadership roles, which some other denominations do not.
Elliot says she discovered this in college, when she started attending the Baptist campus ministry at the University of California, Davis. She loved the fellowship but became disheartened when she learned that women were not allowed to become ministers. She says at that point she started taking classes in religious studies, and after two years teaching, she entered Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. In 2004, Elliot took a position running the Presbyterian Center on the University of Tennessee’s campus.
“For my particular call, I feel like my role there is to walk with students through their time at the university,” Elliot says. It’s a time, she explains, when a lot of young people start questioning their faith, or the faith they grew up with. “I talk with them through asking those questions. … My job is to prod them to ask those questions … and to be there for them when their boyfriend breaks up with them.”
Elliot says one of her frequent meditations on baptism is Psalm 139, which begins, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” She writes in an e-mail, “I love the thought/theology of the Presbyterian Church, that we are claimed by God before we are ever born. That it is God who forms us/knits us together in our mother’s wombs, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that no matter where we go, God is there with us.
“The Presbyterian theology of baptism is big on God choosing us before we can ever choose God. This is why we baptize infants—because God chooses to make/love/walk with/redeem/etc. us before we can ever ‘choose’ God. God is Sovereign—not us. This is reassuring to me and another place I find grace. I can’t choose God—I’m always choosing other things/gods, but God continually chooses me.”
Elliot says she gets frustrated by the evangelical focus on salvation and is wary of even using the phrase “saved.”
“We don’t do the saving, God does the saving. … That’s between you and God,” Elliot says. “I believe in a God that is bigger than my faith. I don’t think I have all the answers. I don’t think my faith tradition has all the answers.”
But what faith, and Christianity, really means to Elliot is grace. She writes in an e-mail, “For me, Christianity is about grace. I’m not perfect (by far), but God loves me anyway and accepts me for what/who I am. I should do the same for others (and I try). Everyone has struggles and is doing the best they can do in life.
“Grace is freeing because it enables me to not ‘have’ to be perfect or achieve the kind of ‘success’ that our culture tells us we have to achieve. I can rest in grace. It’s not a ticket to be lazy, but a freedom to be myself and to love myself and others for who and where we are in life—and most importantly to rest in the knowledge that God loves me completely.
“A lot of people would say grace is about forgiveness and I agree with them, but the term ‘forgiveness’ just isn’t the term I resonate with. I seem to like ‘acceptance’ more. …
“Grace/acceptance doesn’t mean we just sit back and accept anything and everything. Jesus certainly didn’t do this. We are called to take a stand against injustice, to side with the poor, the oppressed, to challenge the status quo and powers that be. Grace means that I/we am/are still loved when we don’t do these things.”