Charles Stanley steps down as senior pastor at First Baptist

In this file photo, First Baptist Church Atlanta Senior Pastor Charles F. Stanley (right) announced his succession plan, naming Senior Associate Pastor Anthony George to replace him when the time comes. Stanley announced Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, he was becoming pastor emeritus and George would become senior pastor at the church. (AJC file photo)
In this file photo, First Baptist Church Atlanta Senior Pastor Charles F. Stanley (right) announced his succession plan, naming Senior Associate Pastor Anthony George to replace him when the time comes. Stanley announced Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, he was becoming pastor emeritus and George would become senior pastor at the church. (AJC file photo)

Fifty-one years ago, the Rev. Charles F. Stanley became the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Atlanta.

Then, the church, with its growing congregation, was located on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. It later moved to a sprawling property in Dunwoody.

On Sunday, the 87-year-old Stanley announced to the congregation that he was stepping down and turning the reins over to his already designated successor, the Rev. Anthony George.

Stanley, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, will become pastor emeritus and plans to remain active with In Touch Ministries, which was founded in 1992.

“Earlier this month, I informed the board that I felt the time had come for me to step down as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta to become pastor emeritus” Stanley said in a pre-recorded message.

Alluding to his upcoming 88th birthday, Stanley said “to say, I didn’t rush this decision would certainly be an understatement.”

The decision to step aside was difficult, he said, because he loves the church, the congregation “and I love all that God has done through our partnership together.”

He said as much as he loved being the senior pastor, “I know in my heart this season has come to an end.”

George, who has served as Stanley’s assistant and First Baptist’s associate pastor since 2012, said one of his goals is to “do some serious strategic planning for updating our church’s organizational structure and ministry model.”

He said after Stanley was hospitalized twice in 2019, the two spoke “very seriously about stepping down” on two different occasions.

“After coming home from the hospital each of those times, he (Stanley) had me over to his house to tell me it was time for him to step down. As he recovered and regained his strength following each of those conversations, he let me know that he had changed his mind and planned on remaining as senior pastor. Then at the beginning of this year, he had me over to discuss it, only to back down again and say that the timing wasn’t right. So, even with the back and forth, I knew it was weighing heavily on his mind. And for the record, I have always discouraged him from stepping down.”

Before coming to Atlanta, George served as senior pastor of the Aloma Church in Winter Park, Florida, for 15 years.

Charles F. Stanley, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Atlanta and founder of In Touch Ministries, will become pastor emeritus of the church. CONTRIBUTED BY IN TOUCH MINISTRIES
Charles F. Stanley, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Atlanta and founder of In Touch Ministries, will become pastor emeritus of the church. CONTRIBUTED BY IN TOUCH MINISTRIES

Stanley came to First Baptist Church of Atlanta from a rural church outside of Tampa, Florida. He admits that he wasn’t sure about the move.

“When the call came (from First Baptist Atlanta), I resisted,” he said in the message. “But when God asks us to do something uncomfortable, it’s usually because He wants to do something remarkable.”

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ExploreEarlier coverage: Succession plan announced for Charles Stanley at First Baptist Church Atlanta

David P. Gushee, a professor at Mercer University and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life, called Stanley “one of the giants of conservative Southern Baptist life for the last generation or more.”

Stanley’s commitment to staying in “one place and serving as a faithful pastor in that one community is just something you don’t see anymore.”

Unlike many other conservative pastors of his generation, Stanley was somewhat less political and partisan than a lot of his peers, said Gushee.

“He was always conservative, but you don’t think of him exactly the same way as a Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson or Robert Jeffress in Dallas,” said Gushee, author of “After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity.”

“He seemed to be more interested in being an effective pastor than trying to shape American politics. It’s important for that distinction to be drawn and protected.”

Though his role is now as pastor emeritus, Stanley will still have a very active schedule with In Touch Ministries, which built a studio several years ago for live broadcasts on DeKalb Technology Parkway in Doraville.

In his Sunday video message, Stanley told the congregation that he didn’t believe in retirement. The church has 12,000 members, according to a press release.

He said he planned to focus the “next season” of his life at In Touch and “continue to preach the Gospel as long as God allows.”

“When COVID hit, it really gave him a different perspective on how he could continue to preach and let the church continue to grow locally,” said Seth Grey, executive director of corporate communications for In Touch. “The church’s focus is local and the In Touch focus is getting as far as possible.”

The broadcast ministry is translated into 60 languages around the world each week on radio and television.

Grey, said Stanley has a 365-day devotional coming out on Oct. 13 and a new book, “Can You Still Trust God? What Happens When You Choose To Believe,” which will be released next spring.

He’s also beefed up his presence on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, although he does not directly post himself.

Just last week, Stanley, who has authored more than 70 books, sat down with his son, Pastor Andy Stanley, who leads an Alpharetta-based mega-ministry, to record an interview, where the two talked about, among other things, fatherhood and being a pastor. The interview will air on Sept. 27, two days after the elder Stanley’s 88th birthday.

Stanley is also a passionate photographer and has published two books of his work.

That is not far from his mind.

Grey said Stanley has been talking about “going out West a lot lately,” at some point to take photographs, but is also following his doctor’s and CDC’s guidance.

In a statement, the church’s board of trustees said it was grateful for Stanley’s leadership.

“When Dr. Stanley came to First Baptist in 1969, no one but God could have predicted the indescribable impact that his ministry would have — one that has continued to expand with each passing year.”

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