JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–“If I could start over with the body and the energy of a 25-year-old, I would,” mused Guinell Freeman as she contemplated retirement. “If I could know what I know now and do it again, boy, would I get a lot done.”
Most would say Freeman already has “gotten a lot done” as education director at First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla., a 45-year tenure the 70-year-old staffer will conclude in August. A 1999 distinguished alumni award recipient from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Freeman began her work at First Baptist in 1954, when average Sunday school attendance was 1,100; the norm now is 6,000.
When she accepted Christ at 10 years of age, Freeman said she knew immediately that something more was going on. “God put a special love in my heart for him and his church. I knew when I became a Christian that he was calling me into the ministry as well,” she said. “It was a unique call. I never rebelled against it or veered from it.”
Growing up in a neighborhood church of 250 in Hickory, N.C., helped prepare her for her career. “My church in Hickory had all the programs, too. They had Sunday school, church training, WMU, GAs — all of it. So I was prepared for a full program, because I grew up in one.”
After graduating from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., Freeman taught two years in her hometown, allowing her to be with her parents during her father’s last years. She then studied at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where pastor Homer Lindsay Sr. interviewed her for the education position at First Baptist, Jacksonville.
“He wanted me to accept the job on the spot,” she laughed. “But that would be like buying a pig in a sack. I had to come to Jacksonville to see what I was getting into. I admit, though, that such a big church scared me. I did not know churches came any bigger than my church in Hickory.”
She may be the only director of education in Florida who has worked with both a father and son as pastor. Homer Lindsay Jr. currently is co-pastor of First Baptist, a mega-church of 25,650.
She praises both pastors for their unique talents but credits the senior Lindsay with teaching her the ropes of working in a church: “Dr. Lindsay was ahead of his time in many things. He was one of the first in the 1950s to call women to minister on his church staff. When I came, I was one of three — although I worked here for 30 years before I had a secretary.”
Freeman recalled “Mrs. Lindsay grew an adult ladies’ class from eight to 100. She was the model for all the adult Sunday school work. Even then we were adding new classes and departments almost weekly.”
First Baptist pioneered women’s ministry in 1976 when the church separated women and men in Sunday school. Freeman now oversees 13 departments of women.
She acknowledges she has paid a high price in time and energy in directing such a vast program. “Dr. Lindsay used to say that I should slow down,” she remarked, “because God wants living sacrifices, not dead ones.”
As Freeman sees it, “the common denominator in church growth is work. I disagree with the movement toward ‘computerized’ ministry. A computer never built a church; that takes visitation, witnessing, relating one-on-one. Loving people is the key,” she stated.
Freeman acknowledged her ministry has not always been easy. The secret, she said, “is staying on your knees in prayer.”
Though First Baptist officially honored her on June 6, Freeman prefers the word “re-focusing” over “retirement.” And she plans to remain a member of First Baptist. “I’ve poured my life into this place,” she said. “This is my home.”
Initially, she intends to take a few months of rest from her high-energy, demanding career. But after the first of the year, she anticipates getting busy again in church work, perhaps serving as a consultant to local churches or teaching in seminary.
“Some people say that after their working years all they want to do is travel from place to place. I want to go from church to church. God has blessed me with good health to be able to stay in his service. I certainly don’t want to rust. I believe that you come to a work ‘for such a time as this.’ I just want to be re-focused.”
Her dedication and service has been an inspiration to those who have worked with her over the years.
“She has been totally committed to the task the Lord has called her to,” said Fran Hawk, a friend and co-worker. “The Lord has used her to grow this Sunday school. Her whole emphasis has been on evangelism.”
Calvin Carr, high school director at First Baptist, has been influenced by her since he was just a few months old.
“When we first moved to Jacksonville, Guinell and Fran came to visit us,” he said. His family later joined the church. As a 17-year-old, Carr accepted Christ under Freeman’s guidance. Now Carr is serving with her in the church he grew up in.
“It is neat to be back under her leadership,” Carr said, pleased that his five children likewise will have been touched by Freeman’s influence.
“She is one of the most committed Christians I have ever met. There is no question that she is completely sold out to Jesus Christ. From the time she left Southwestern in 1954 to come to First Baptist Jacksonville, she has made evangelism her priority,” Carr said.
Shelley Baumgarner, children’s director at First Baptist, agreed. “She lives a very godly and righteous life,” she said. “She has given her whole life to the church. She is a specialist in every part of the ministry. She has always kept her focus on evangelism and reaching souls for the lost.”
In Hickory, Freeman grew up with Christian parents who raised her with a deep love for the Lord and a high value on education. At 16, Freeman left home to attend Bob Jones University. “My parents sacrificed much for my education and never went into debt,” she said.
Freeman graduated from college when she was 20 and applied to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. After Southern Seminary told her she was too young, Freeman decided to go back to school to get her teaching certificate.
“I was disappointed,” she shared. “But I knew God had closed the doors for a reason.” A few months later her father died, and she could see God’s purpose in the situation. “Sometimes God leads with stops and steps,” she said.
In Freeman’s case, God closed the door to one seminary so that she could apply to another one two years later. When her church in North Carolina got a new pastor, a Southwestern graduate, he convinced her to apply to Southwestern. “He really turned my heart toward Southwestern,” she said.
At 23, Freeman moved to Fort Worth and began attending seminary. Right before her graduation in 1954, Homer Lindsay Sr. came to Southwestern and interviewed her for the educational director position in Jacksonville.
Nichols is a correspondent for the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal; Little is a writer at Southwestern Seminary.