Jimmy Carter’s church in rural South Georgia names its first woman pastor

Plains’ Maranatha Baptist Church, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s home church, often drew hundreds waiting in the predawn darkness for a chance to hear the 39th president teach Sunday School.
The Maranatha Baptist Church.  (Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com AJC File Photo)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Maranatha Baptist Church. (Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com AJC File Photo)

Maranatha Baptist Church, whose most famous member includes a former U.S. president, has named the Rev. Ashley Guthas as its new pastor.

She becomes the church’s first woman pastor.

Most recently, Guthas served as associate minister to Families with Children and Youth, at Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta.

She will deliver her first sermon as Maranatha’s pastor on June 2.

“I look forward to learning from all the current members and attendees and serving alongside of them,” Guthas said in response to emailed questions. “To have a former president as a member is definitely a unique part of the legacy of Maranatha.”

She never met the Carters or heard any of Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School lessons.

However, she did read his best-selling book, “Living Faith.”

“In the stories I am learning about Rosalynn,” she wrote. “I wish I would have had the opportunity to spend time with her.”

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

The Rev. Tony Lowden, who came to Maranatha in 2019 as its first Black pastor, left in October of 2021. Since then services have been conducted by a rotating collection of visiting preachers, which included Guthas. She joined the rotation at the recommendation of one of the visiting preachers.

“I fell in love with the congregation and town almost immediately however I never saw myself as a pastor of a congregation,” said Guthas, 41 and the mother of two daughters. “This is definitely a very big leap of faith for me!”

Both Jimmy Carter and former first lady, Rosalynn Carter, were active members of the Plains church, which was founded in the late 1970s. Rosalynn Carter died Nov. 19 at age 96. Jimmy Carter, 99, is in home hospice care.

Sunday attendance has fallen off at Maranatha but at one time people from all over the world would visit the small town church hoping to hear former President Jimmy Carter teach a Sunday School class and get their picture taken with him and Rosalynn.

“She’s a deep thinker,” the Rev. Scott Hovey, senior pastor at Northside Drive Baptist, said of Guthas. “She is wonderful at connecting with people. She’s a great listener.”

He said Guthas has talked about going to Plains and having conversations on the front porches and listening to people’s stories. “She’s very excited about being there,” said Hovey, whose church has about 100 active members.

The Carters were members of Northside Drive when he was governor, during which he also served as a deacon and occasionally taught Sunday school .

Guthas, who grew up in Carrollton, is a 2023 graduate of the Mercer University McAfee School of Theology and has experience in youth, student and children’s ministry in Methodist and Baptist churches, according to her bio on Northside’s website.

In an April 12 message to Northside Drive members ‚on the church’s website, Guthas talked about going to Maranatha.

" As I weighed the pros and cons of each job offer, I narrowed it down to two,” she wrote. ”One was to be the associate minister here and the other was to be the senior pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. Through prayer and seeking the advice of many trusted voices in my life, I believed that the best decision at that tumultuous time was to choose to be here with you (at Northside).”

When she told the Plains church that she had accepted the Northside Drive offer, she wrote. “They asked me to consider coming the following year. I did not ask them to put their search on hold. I told them I didn’t even know what the next day held, much less the next year.”

Maranatha never gave up.

“I cannot shake the stirring I sense in my soul that I am called to pastor. It has taken many years for me to let go of the theological views that insisted women could not lead. 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.”