By Susan Hill Smith for Island Eye News
As he prepared for one of his last Sunday mornings as pastor of Isle of Palms First United Methodist Church this spring, Thomas Smith texted Laura Canine, who would take over his role once he left for his next appointment in Florence.
“Walking into your new office,” she remembers he wrote, one reverend to another. “This is what will be waiting for you.”
He attached photos of coastal paintings by Canine’s grandmother, Ponnie Holman, who was one of the church’s early members in the 1950s, along with her husband, Theo. The Holmans raised three daughters on the island and often welcomed their grandchildren here. Canine, now 37, easily recalls those childhood visits – swimming and fishing off her grandparents’ dock on the Intracoastal Waterway, cycling around the island and playing on the ballfields. At the church, she and her brother, Jack, would wave fronds at Palm Sunday services when they vacationed over Spring Break and take turns ringing the church bell.
Rev. Canine says she began to feel a call to ministry as early as the age of 7. She spent a lot of her growing up years “praying and trying to figure out what God wanted me to do,” and when she visited Isle of Palms as a teenager, she was encouraged to see a successful woman leading ministry – the Rev. Sara White.
As she prepared for college, Canine looked for guidance from the senior pastor of her home church on Pawleys Island. He had seen ministers who majored in religion as undergrads without learning about finance, how to balance a budget or how to work with a staff. “If I can give you any piece of advice,” she remembers him telling her, “I am going to recommend you get a degree in business, get your base in that, and then when you go to seminary, you’ll get the rest.”
So she earned her bachelor’s at the University of South Carolina in human resource management and marketing, and along the way worked closely with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes program for Irmo Middle School, a natural fit for her after playing varsity tennis, basketball and softball in high school.
She continued on to Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, where she also served as a chaplain for trauma patients at the University of Kentucky hospital, working 24-hour shifts. “It ended up being one of the best experiences I could have done to prepare me for ministry.”
‘Of all the churches’
The South Carolina United Methodist Conference has a practice of moving pastors around within the state so that an appointment often lasts about five to seven years. Starting in the Lowcountry, Canine served as an associate pastor at John Wesley United Methodist Church in West Ashley from 2007-12 and was appointed pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church from 2012-18 in the foothills town of Fountain Inn.
She sought to expand international missions at both churches, organizing trips to spots such as Romania, Costa Rica, Belize, Ecuador and Peru. While finishing her doctorate at Erskine College, she completed her project-based dissertation on servant leadership within the community.
Canine received a short-term appointment to a Darlington church in 2018, and wasn’t entirely surprised to get a call to move a year later. But she was thrilled to learn her new location.
When she called family to tell them she would be moving to Isle of Palms First United Methodist Church, her mom and aunt each cried on the phone. While they hadn’t lived on the island in years, the church is where they were both married and where they remembered their parents after they died. When their mother, Ponnie, the talented artist, was overtaken by dementia the last decade of her life, her circle of church friends had organized visits in which they prayed and read to her from a daily devotional.
“It’s the Holy Spirit – really it is – of all the churches in the conference,” Canine says of her current appointment, which also provides a parsonage for her to live on Isle of Palms, just a mile from where her grandparents had their home. “Everyone has been so warm and welcoming, and it’s been so neat because I’ve had people reach out and say, ‘I remember when you were born.’”
With her grandparents in mind, she looks forward to celebrating the church’s 70th anniversary next year. She’s also looking to the future, happily working on mission opportunities, including a trip to Mexico, and local outreach, for example connecting with college students through the Charleston Wesley Foundation. “We’re just looking to live out our Christian witness as best as we can, and I’m excited to see what that’s going to look like.”