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New worshiping community charters as church in South Carolina

Prospering during the pandemic, a new church development provides fertile soil for gospel growth

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

Eight new elders were ordained at Parkside Church’s chartering service. (Photo by Valerie & Ed Photography.)

“Did you agree to be dirt?” the Rev. CeCe Armstrong asked commissioners of Charleston Atlantic Presbytery and members of a newly chartered church in Charleston, South Carolina. The members of Parkside Church in Charleston, in accordance with G-1.0201 in the Book of Order, signed a charter that read in response to the grace of God, “We promise and covenant to live together in unity and to work together in ministry as disciples of Jesus Christ, bound to him and to one another as a part of the body of Christ in this place according to the principles of faith, mission, and order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” As a result, the presbytery convened at St. Barnabas Lutheran Church, which is Parkside Church’s place of worship, for a chartering service on Jan. 29 to commission the church, ordain and install elders and fully install their organizing pastor, the Rev. Colin Kerr.

“Did you really feel called to all of this? Because the truth is, you’ve been called to be dirt,” Armstrong preached at the service. “Whenever you become a part of a congregation, you agree to be dirt.” Armstrong then drew on a connection with the parable of the sower and the idea that the seed of the gospel can flourish in the right kind of soil. Armstrong proclaimed that “Parkside is the right kind of dirt for this neighborhood.”

Those who have supported Parkside since its beginning and watched its growth in a short time certainly agree that Parkside’s vision, location and partnerships provide fertile ground for its ministry. The dream of Parkside began in 2016, according to Kerr and new elder Samantha Holvey, who was part of the original wine and cheese Bible study that began to pray about the idea that Kerr described as “a new Presbyterian church focused on reaching younger people and non-Presbyterians.” At the time, Kerr was working with 1001 New Worshiping Communities in the Presbyterian Mission Agency on a collegiate ministry called The Journey, which met in a bar near the campus of the College of Charleston. “Parkside started being dreamed up in 2016, initially as a joke,” Kerr said, but it became a serious idea when he and others started an advisory team. Despite launching during a pandemic, the church reached the 100-member quota required by the Charleston Atlantic Presbytery for official charter in late 2022.

Holvey said she knew when she joined the Bible study that she had “found my people.” She was still recovering from an upbringing in a different denomination, during which she watched her mother be asked to leave her childhood church that did not support women in leadership roles, because they claimed that she “preached from the pulpit” at a church Mother’s Day event. When Kerr asked Holvey to join the advisory team to launch the church in 2019, she was all in: “I was always taught that Jesus loves everyone, and I finally feel like I’m in a community that lives that out.” The move from a new worshiping community to a fully chartered congregation means Holvey was also ordained a ruling elder during the chartering service. “It’s pretty magical that this thing that we’ve been working on for so many years is now official. Personally, it was also deeply meaningful to be ordained as an elder.”

Stories like Holvey’s are one of the many things that Kerr says make Parkside special. “In late 2022, we applied to charter and began elder training. None of our eight new elders have even been elders, and none come from the PC(USA).” Kerr also praises the “unique style of worship that is unmatched in the city” thanks to the leadership of Erin Norton, who according to Kerr is “a former evangelical who brings her progressive feminist convictions to bear” as a leader in their church, a current seminarian, a Presbyterian campus minister and an abuse-awareness advocate.

Erin Norton leads worship at Parkside Church. (Photo by Valerie & Ed Photography)

“Colin asked me to be a part of Parkside in the early planning stages in 2019,” said Norton, “but I was hesitant about getting involved in a church plant because of the amount of work involved.” Kerr promised “that it would be ‘just one Sunday,’” remembered Norton. “Well, the next week rolled around, and he needed help with worship for ‘just one more Sunday.’ Now, three years later, I am leading the congregation as the director of worship every Sunday.”

Becoming a chartered congregation means that Parkside can now sponsor Norton for ordination in the PC(USA), just another step in Norton’s calling that Parkside has seen her through.

“When Parkside first opened its doors, I was involved in a local church that did not affirm the equality and spiritual gifts of women,” said Norton. “It was such a relief to join a church where the spiritual gifts of women were uplifted, celebrated and valued. It is tangibly demonstrated in both our staffing and leadership. The voices of women are heard and honored in all levels of ministry, from both the pulpit to the planning sessions.”

Norton serves as more than a music leader in service, handling transitions and corporate prayer seamlessly between gathering songs and hymns of praise. “Our music ministry is top-notch,” Kerr said. That quality, along with its focus on biblical preaching and inclusion of marginalized communities, attracts younger members seeking refuge from a more restrictive evangelical background and confirms Kerr and the advisory team’s initial sense that Charleston needed a new PC(USA) church that reached out to younger generations unfamiliar with the denomination.

“Worship includes fabulous music and is contemporary, yet observing the traditional,” said Catherine Byrd, the stated clerk of Charleston Atlantic Presbytery, who helped with Parkside’s launch as a new church development and through the chartering process. “The presbytery was thrilled to commission Parkside in an age where many established churches are struggling. There were 121 charter members (meaning adults signed the request to charter promising to support the new church) and there are 70 children in the congregation.” Byrd also noted the symbiotic ecumenical partnership that has also helped the startup congregation. “The use of the historic St. Barnabas Lutheran Church has been an essential part of Parkside’s success.”

Sister Carol Burk is a member of St. Barnabas Lutheran Church and serves as a liaison to the congregation. Burk, a Lutheran deaconess who was working in the church office in 2019, has been a supporter since her congregation first discerned a relationship with Kerr and his team. She is now the chairperson of St. Barnabas’ council and relates to Parkside in many ways. She attends worship every Sunday to assist with Holy Communion and has joined its community group ministry.

The Rev. Colin Kerr prays with worship leaders before a service. (Photo by Valerie & Ed Photography)

“Pastor Colin’s preaching is a perfect fit for anyone who attends worship at Parkside. Everything that Colin and his crew do is linked to Parkside’s vision, such as care of members and friends, providing exciting, but very holy, worship every Sunday, having a love of doing many kinds of ministry, and welcoming all who come to worship or experience love, graciousness and dedication from everyone who is involved in this ministry,” said Burk. “I can see the love and excitement in the eyes of everyone who comes for Holy Communion.”

That excitement rippled throughout January’s chartering service, through the Charleston Atlantic Presbytery and out to the Presbyterian Mission Agency, whose grants first watered the seeds of Kerr’s ministerial vision in Charleston.

“This is a big day in the life of Charleston Atlantic Presbytery, and it is on their behalf that I welcome you all here,” the Rev. Rebecca Albright, bridge general presbyter and pastor to pastors of the Charleston Atlantic Presbytery, said as she welcomed a packed sanctuary for the chartering worship service. “This is a meaningful event not only for the presbytery but for PC(USA) and certainly for Parkside Presbyterian Church.”

The Rev. Nikki Collins, coordinator for 1001 New Worshiping Communities, was able to watch the livestreamed event and celebrate the specialness of this step in their journey. “Watching Parkside grow to this place of maturity and witness, even as its beginning happened during a global pandemic, reminds me that God indeed has a mission, a purpose, a plan — and it is the call of the Church to follow this calling of the Spirit with creativity and relentless hope.”

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