Ken and Mary Ellison reflect on a lifetime of service to Jesus


MARIETTA, Ga. — Georgia residents Ken and Mary Ellison are among Southern Baptists’ most faithful and exemplary career missionaries, having served the Lord in Indonesia for 32 years. However, they will soon be moving to Wisconsin to live near their daughter. It will be Georgia’s loss and Wisconsin’s gain.

Ken, a native of Virginia, and Mary, who was born in Georgia, but grew up in Florida, met at Carson-Newman College (now University) in the 1950s. Ken also holds doctorates from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and the Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary.

Today Ken is 88 and Mary is 87. They will have been married 65 years in June. Ken has been engaged in ministry for 70 years as a pastor, missionary, interim pastor, mentor, and teacher.

Ellison explained, “If you took away my burden for a lost world, I suppose I could sit back in a rocking chair and take it easy. However, the burden is still there, and I feel like there is work for me to do. My mind is good. My heart is good. My body gives me some difficulty, but I want to serve.

He recently preached at Eastside’s homecoming worship service on Tuesday morning; and he preached at Johnson Ferry’s Indonesian Community Church on May 21.

Ken’s early pastorates were in Virginia, Louisiana, and Georgia. Both Ken and Mary sensed God’s call to the mission field, but the Lord arranged a providential detour on the way to Indonesia. While pastoring a church in South Louisiana, Ken and Mary went to Virginia where he had agreed to preach in view of a call to a church in his home state.

On the way back to Louisiana the Ellisons stopped in Marietta on that same Sunday evening and went to Roswell Street Baptist Church. RSBC’s Pastor Walter Sanders had taken sick on Sunday afternoon and an impromptu invitation was extended to Ellison to preach at the evening service. Members of the committee that were seeking a pastor for a new church plant in East Cobb County were impressed with the sermon and recommended Ellison to become the pastor of the mission that became Eastside Baptist Church.

Ken Ellison became a part of the Roswell Street staff for one year and preached his first sermon at the mission on June 18, 1961. There were 170 people present on that first Sunday and 80 of them indicated that they wanted to be a part of the new church plant.

Mary Ellison recalled, “That first worship service was in a cinder block building at the edge of a cow pasture. I was 25 at the time and expecting our first child, and I could not help by wonder what the future held for us.”

Ken added, “Mary and I were missions volunteers before we met, and we knew that we had found our mission field for that particular season of our lives.” Ellison began going door to door to introduce himself as the pastor of the mission church and tell the neighbors about the value the church would bring to the community.

Mary started a Woman’s Missionary Union and a Girl’s Auxiliary to highlight the importance of missions at home and abroad. Ken and Mary worked together beautifully throughout their ministry. In fact, Ken dedicated their autobiography to Mary, writing, “To the only person I know who practices what I preach.”

Eastside began to grow and in six short years the church had more than 1,000 members. In 1967 the door opened for the Ellisons to go to Indonesia with the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board). When Ellison announced to the church that he and his family would be going to South Asia to serve as missionaries, one of the church leaders asked, “Are you sure you should do this? Why would you want to leave 1,000 people and go to the other side of the world?”

Ken responded, “My desire is to obey God.” All their lives the Ellisons have felt like John Wesley who once said, “The world is my parish.”

The Ellisons had a great part in building the foundation for what has become one of Georgia Baptists’ greatest churches. In a conversation with Ellison, current Pastor John Hull stated, “Those of us who have succeeded you have reaped the harvest of what you have done. You are the John the Baptist that has set the tone for more than 60 years of ministry in this city.

“The beauty of what you have done here has produced spiritual children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

In Indonesia, the Ellisons worked in seven of the nation’s many islands, including Java and Sumatra. But through the years they have also ministered in India, Myanmar, the Philippines, Korea, China, Guatemala, and Romania. Other countries could be mentioned, but the Ellisons’ fingerprints of love and grace have touched much of our world for Christ.

In Indonesia, Ken taught at the Indonesian Baptist Theological Seminary in Semarang and he was the director of the Indonesian branch of the Asia Baptist Theological Seminary. They worked in the areas of evangelism, teaching, discipling, and church planting.

Missionary life around the world has its trials and tribulations. In South Asia, the Ellisons encountered mosquitoes, snakes, the heat, monsoons, tsunamis, socialism, government restrictions, the challenge of learning a new language and many other hardships. However, they kept their eyes on Jesus and His call upon their lives. Only eternity will be able to record all the souls saved, lives changed, disciples made, pastors trained, and churches planted because of their great work.

In his book, The Challenge of the Great Commission Obedience, former IMB President Jerry Rankin wrote this about the Ellisons: “They (were able) to continue to fulfill their calling there in spite of government restrictions because they, along with several others, said they were willing to give up their American passports and become Indonesian citizens.

“Now, next to the presence and power of God, there is no greater security than your American passport. No matter what happens, you can always come home. As it happened, they did not have to give up their American passports; but in a willingness to do so, the Ellisons ... recognized it was God who had brought them out from America, and they were faithful to that purpose for which God had brought them.” 

Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta gave the Ellisons a home when they retired, and they have been living in that home for 24 years while continuing to serve wherever opportunities were provided. Both Ken and Mary have been great encouragers of the three pastors who have served Eastside since their return to Georgia. They will be greatly missed, but Wisconsin will be blessed to have them in “Badger State.”

As the Ellisons prepare to leave they commented, “We came back to Eastside, because we wanted to return to a place where we knew we would be loved and appreciated. Now that we are going to Wisconsin, we will miss those who have been such a blessing to us through the years. They never forgot us when we were away.”