Every Sunday morning, when George Wirth leans over to tie the laces on his black wingtips, he thinks of the man who taught him how to be a minister. It was at the beginning of his preaching career in the early 1970s, and David Watermulder had one piece of advice for his young colleague: Always wear black wingtips on Sundays.
“David taught me to be a minister — how to preach and organize a staff, then to work alongside them,” recalled Wirth. “But I still remember what he said about the shoes.”
For the last 23 years, Wirth, 65, has worn his wingtips in the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in Midtown. May 5 marks the end of his tenure as the longest-serving pastor of the church that was founded in 1848. His retirement caps 40 years of service that includes churches in Pittsburgh and Bryn Mawr, Pa.
Wirth’s career is particularly notable for the impact he made not only on one of Atlanta’s oldest congregations, but on the community it serves. Midtown in 1990 was on the verge of major change, and Wirth felt called to be part of the transition.
“That was one of the primary reasons I came here,” the Long Island, N.Y., native recalled. “I was told this was about to become the most dynamic urban area in Atlanta, and I wanted to be closer to the action. For me, ministry happens where people are in dire straights. The members here took a chance on a Yankee pastor and gave me the encouragement and resolve to develop an urban congregation open to the entire city and reaching out into the world.”
Expanding the church’s mission ministry was another goal Wirth had when he arrived in town with his wife, Barbara, and their two youngsters. Today, the list of outreach destinations includes Brazil, Haiti, Kenya, Jamaica, Honduras and Cuba.
During Wirth’s leadership, the church marked its 150th anniversary in 1998, ran four capital campaigns and erected a much-needed parking deck. It built a community outreach center that houses a shelter where the homeless can find food, clothing, counseling and foot care. Membership grew from 2,000 to 3,000 and became more inclusive, drawing participants from countries around the world. It also launched another congregation, the Grant Park-based Kairos Church.
“I’ve seen the horizons of this church expand because this congregation is willing to try new and different things,” said Wirth. “We do that by making sure one-third of our money goes out into the community, and that’s a great track record to have.”
Wirth counts among his most notable accomplishments his five years co-chairing the Regional Council of Churches with Gerald Durley of Providence Missionary Baptist Church. Another is having a supportive family that now includes four grandchildren. Their story is told in photos lining the walls, shelves, desk, tables and computer keyboard in his office. In the mix are portraits of friends and colleagues and a prized painting of a boy with a fish pole that was a bequest from his friend, the late “Mister” Fred Rogers.
“People ask me what I’m going to do with all these photos, and I’m just not sure,” said Wirth with a smile. “They represent the story of my life, from my early days as a minister, and that’s quite a story journey.”
Along with packing, Wirth plans to stay busy by doing some fly fishing, playing golf and keeping sharp on the squash court. He’s also pondering ways to continue working with Atlanta’s neediest residents. But today, Wirth is giving thanks for the experience of the last 23 years and urging his flock into the future.
“Twenty-three years is a long time for one preacher to lead a congregation,” he said. “It’s time to step aside. This church needs to find a younger preacher to lead them in the next chapter of its history. But I will always be grateful to them for calling me here. It changed my life.”
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