ATLANTA, Ga. — Mary Gellerstedt is a living example of what it means to press forward with steadfastness in Christ. Her heart, her eyes, her mind are riveted on the Savior. It has been this focus that has given her the strength and desire to press forward in untiring service at First Baptist Church Atlanta for almost eight decades.
First Baptist Pastor Anthony George said the 98-year-old Mary G., as she is affectionately known, started working at the church in 1944 with World War II raging.
“She started serving the church right out of high school and has been here ever since," George said. "I can almost assure you that there is not a church in America with a 98-year-old still on staff. She is as sharp as a tack. She knows everything going on in this building. She knows everything everybody is saying about anything. She is one of my greatest encouragers, but every now and then she will say, ‘You had better straighten up A. G.’ However, she is greatly loved and appreciated by all of us.”
Mary G. grew up in Banks County and was saved and baptized in Webbs Creek Baptist Church near her home. After high school, she came to Atlanta in 1942 with the intention of continuing her education.
“I joined First Baptist on Pastor Ellis Fuller’s last Sunday," she said. "Dr. Fuller resigned to become the sixth president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. I was active in the college department of the church when Dr. Jim Middleton became pastor and when I was 18 years old, I was asked to work at the church during the 1944 Christmas holidays and have served the church ever since.”
Her first full-time role at the church involved keeping records, but through the years her responsibilities increased because of her effectiveness and passion to serve. She invested much of her ministry in high school, college students and senior adults.
The late Charles Stanley, a longtime pastor at First Baptist, had great confidence in her extraordinary abilities. She served as his administrative assistant at a pivotal point in his ministry. In the succeeding years, her heart for missions was honored when she was elevated to the position of global missions director, the ministry role she continues to hold today.
“We have 82 missionaries the church supports through our Faith Promise Missions offerings," she said. "I try to keep up with our missionaries and pray for them as they serve our Lord at home and abroad. We also send out volunteer mission teams all over the world.”
Under Mary G.’s leadership the church has also participated in mission endeavors like Baskets of Hope whereby gift baskets were taken to children in Egleston and Scottish Rite hospitals. They have also participated in causes offered by Food Aid International and under Mary G’s leadership sent 1,250,000 meals to Haiti to help a nation that has suffered from hurricanes and earthquakes on numerous occasions. These are simply random examples of how Mary G. has connected First Baptist with needs locally and internationally.
“Mary has served in most all positions in the church except preaching," said. Barb Sixsmith, who serves in the church’s Missions Engagement Ministry. "She was always willing to do whatever was asked of her. She even mopped floors when umbrellas caused the tile to be wet.”
“Mary was the one who asked me to be the local missions director at First Baptist," said Mary G.'s colleague Paul Diamond. "Mary and I go way back to our downtown location. Dr. Stanley loved Mary. I love Mary. We all love Mary.”
Through the years Mary G. has worked under the leadership of four pastors. Dr. James Middleton was pastor from 1943 to 1952 when he resigned to become pastor of First Baptist Church in Shreveport, LA. Dr. Roy McClain was pastor from 1953 to 1970 when he accepted the call to First Baptist Church in Orangeburg, SC. Dr. Charles Stanley served as pastor of the church from 1971 to 2021. Dr. Anthony George became pastor upon Dr. Stanley’s retirement.
The delightful nonagenarian has high praise for all four of those pastors.
Middleton gave her the opportunity to serve the Lord here. She hails McClain as a great orator. She expresses love for Dr. Stanley as a great man of faith and dear friend. She described George as brilliant.
"He is giving the church wise and God-honoring leadership," she said. " I pray for him every day and will support him all the way.”
As Stanley's adminisrative assistant, Mary G. helped him while he served in a dual role as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. She was an invaluable asset by helping bear the load during what may have been the most tension-filled and significant two years in the history of the SBC Conservative Resurgence.
“Perhaps the greatest joys in ministry have been working with high school and college students,” Mary G. said. ”There were hundreds of wonderful youth and young adults who came through our ministry, many of whom are now serving the Lord as pastors, missionaries and church leaders.”
Mary G. does most of her work with the church remotely from her home in Avondale Estates now because her mobility has been compromised due to spinal stenosis, but she can do more sitting down than most people can do running at full speed. She attributes her long life to God’s goodness; and is determined to keep serving the Lord.