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As attendance drops, Jimmy Carter’s church hires female pastor

Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, was accustomed to having a lot of visitors when former President Jimmy Carter taught a Sunday School class. But now that Carter is in hospice, the church has hired a female pastor to help build attendance.

The move comes after Carter’s family announced he was in the final days of his life this week. His loss could spell the end of the small church where he’s attended since the early 80s.

“It’s been a little hard on the church to have different pastors that didn’t stay there long,” deacon Nelle Ariail said. “But during the time that President Carter was teaching Sunday school, we had lots and lots of visitors every week.” Church attendance has dropped by 50% since Carter stopped teaching.

The church’s first Black pastor, Reverand Tony Loweden, began preaching in 2019 but quietly left in 2021. The church struggled to attract visitors when the Carters, the main attraction for visitors, could not attend because of health.

Without visitors, Plains has only 575 residents. The population reportedly has been getting older and smaller, and including Maranatha, it divides its allegiance among 11 churches. Maranatha, a former congregation of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination whose guidelines oppose women serving as lead pastors, aggressively recruited the Rev. Ashley Guthas, a divorced mother of two, for the church’s top job.

“A lot of churches are not OK with female pastors, but we are, and we think she’s going to be really good for us,” Ariail said. “She has a heart for the church and for loving people.”

Guthas previously served as associate minister to families with children and youth at Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta. She said she still feels “uneasy labeling myself as a pastor” and struggled with the idea for a long time before agreeing to take on the role.

“It has taken many years for me to let go of the theological views that insisted women could not lead,” she said. “Many of you have offered words that have encouraged me in this calling, and you had no idea of the wrestling taking place inside of me.”

Carter, who grew up as a third-generation Southern Baptist and was the first U.S. president to declare himself a born-again Christian, was previously a member of Plains Baptist. In 1976, that church voted against allowing Blacks to become members. Maranatha formed after several families left Plains Baptist but Carter controversially kept his membership at Plains and attended Sunday School there until 1981.

Carter later parted ways with the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, citing disagreement with the denomination’s position on women and their role as preaching pastors. He never answered questions about why he kept his membership at Plains for five years after they denied Black Christians membership.

He eventually moved his membership to Maranatha and taught Sunday school there, encouraging the church to send half its mission contribution to another Baptist church network, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

“I have seen an increasing inclination on the part of Southern Baptist Convention leaders to be more rigid on what is a Southern Baptist and exclusionary of accommodating those who differ from them,” Carter said at the time. “In the last couple of years, this tendency of the Southern Baptist Convention leadership to ordain their creed on others has become more onerous for me and more difficult for me to accept.”

Carter, 99, is the oldest living U.S. president and has been in hospice care for over a year. His wife, Rosalynn, died last November at age 96.

“My grandfather is doing OK. He has been in hospice, as you know, for some — almost a year and a half now,” Jason Carter, chair of the board of trustees for the Carter Center told the Longview News-Journal last week.

“And he really is, I think, coming to the end that, that — as I’ve said before, there’s a part of this faith journey that is so important to him. And there’s a part of that faith journey that you only can live at the very end, and I think he has been there in that space,” Jason Carter said.

Time will tell if the church is at peace with his abasence.

–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice

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