Ellen Barnett: The Extraordinary Life of MTW’s Last Original Missionary

By Andrew Shaughnessy, Aug 31, 2021

Ellen Barnett has served as an MTW missionary to Acapulco, Mexico, for 48 years—the last active missionary of the original 11 who started with MTW at its (and the PCA’s) founding in 1973. 

Back then, Ellen was a 24-year-old teacher, just two years out of college, but determined to dedicate her life to sharing the gospel of grace and advancing the kingdom of God. Over the course of her nearly half-century of faithful service, Ellen has been part of planting churches, starting a presbytery, running an annual church music training program, founding a Christian school, facilitating theological education for local Christian leaders, and even starting a seminary.

She’s seen her team grow and shrink and grow again, weathered organizational changes as MTW evolved over the decades, and has served alongside and discipled four generations of local Mexican Christians. Hers has been an extraordinary life—a joyful witnessing of how God has been at work in MTW, in her life, and in Acapulco —and she isn’t done yet.

The Call

Ellen grew up surrounded by the Bible and missionaries. Her dad was a pastor, while her mom had studied and taught Bible in public schools. According to Ellen, both her parents were very interested in global missions.

“They weren’t able to go, but they had a lot of missionary friends,” Ellen explained. “Missionaries would come to our church to speak, and they always stayed at our house. So as a preschooler, basically the only occupation besides a pastor that I knew about was ‘missionary.’”

One of Ellen’s earliest memories is hearing visiting missionaries talk about children in other countries who didn’t know Christ. Though she was only 4 or 5 years old, Ellen declared: “When I’m big, I can go tell them about Jesus!”

As she got older, Ellen began to have second thoughts. Missionaries told her about jungle bugs and eating strange foods, and as a shy teenager, the thought of talking to strangers about Jesus in another language sounded terrifying. But God continued to pursue her, and over the years that early seed of a call began to grow and take shape. After high school, Ellen attended Wheaton to study elementary education. Her goal: to become a missionary teacher in Latin America.

She got involved with ministry at a nearby Spanish-language church, went on a summer missions trip to Belize, and became more and more convinced that God was calling her to use her skills in Latin America. After college, Ellen spent two years teaching in public schools in West Virginia, gaining experience and paying off student loans­. Simultaneously, she started forging connections with various mission organizations, looking for a way to serve.

Meanwhile, big changes were happening among Presbyterians in the United States. In the early 1970s, the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, a group of pastors and evangelists in the PCUS, saw the need for an alternate option for conservative missionaries from the increasingly theologically liberal PCUS mission board. They formed the Executive Commission on Overseas Evangelism as an answer to that problem. Many of the men who were on the board of ECOE had spoken at “revivals” and evangelistic meetings in churches that Ellen’s father pastored. 

“I went to talk to the board, and I knew half of them,” said Ellen. “They were godly men. I really liked the idea of working with them … and I really liked the idea of going with a group that, if they started a church, it was going to be a Reformed, Presbyterian church.”

ECOE was very small, and the board gave Ellen three options for places to serve: Brazil, Africa, or Mexico. Given her Spanish language skills, Mexico seemed the clear fit, even though the job description was scary and not exactly what she had expected.

“The Lord gave me the push,” Ellen said. “He said: ‘This is where I want you to be.’ So, here I am.”

Ellen was commissioned as an ECOE missionary in 1973, and within months the Presbyterian Church in America officially organized. Since most of the men who started ECOE were also leaders in the formation of the PCA, it only seemed natural to turn the mission board over to the fledging denomination, at which time it received a new name, Mission to the World. In 1974, as the PCA started to find its sea legs and MTW searched for their first coordinator, Ellen was off to Mexico, by way of Costa Rica, where she was able to hone her language skills. At 24 years old, she was a founding missionary of a brand-new global missions organization.

A Pioneer in Mexico

Ellen arrived in Acapulco on December 17, right before Christmas. Jumping into the children’s and music ministry of the church, she got to work immediately—helping to put on a Christmas pageant. In January, her team leader Dick Dye was partnering with the Mexican national seminary to start Theological Education by Extension classes in the state of Guerrero. He asked Ellen to help.

Music teacher

“Instead of teaching in a children’s school I found myself teaching adults,” Ellen laughed. “Some of them just had a third-grade education, so my education background was actually really helpful.”

Very early every Monday morning, young Ellen and her fellow missionaries would drive four hours to two towns in the Costa Chica (Small Coast) to the east of Acapulco for a day of classes for believers from local villages. Every Friday they drove to the Sierra to hold two more days of classes for others. Back in Acapulco there were also TEE classes and work with the local church in music and children’s ministry.

As MTW began to settle into its church-planting identity (an organizational ministry focus that continues to this day), they sent their first church-planting team to Acapulco. By the late ‘70s, the second batch of MTW missionaries had arrived, including Joe Creech, who currently serves as pastor of service and impact at Orangewood Church.

“Our goal was to start five churches, train the leaders, and turn the churches over to Mexican leaders, and then we would leave and go elsewhere and do it again.” Joe explained. “By God’s grace, that and more happened!”

Within 10 years, the young team of pastors had planted five new churches and trained up local pastors. In 1989, they officially formed a new presbytery in Acapulco within the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico.

All the while, Ellen continued to serve: teaching local Christians, discipling the next generation, and serving in the city and the villages. For most of Acapulco’s MTW missionaries, their mission was accomplished. Now it was time to move on—and so they did: some to other cities in Mexico, some to different countries or ministries. Ellen, now a 16-year missionary veteran, stayed behind.

“MTW decided that it might not be a bad idea to have one missionary stay here,” Ellen explained. “I wasn’t pastoring a church. I wasn’t ‘in the front,’ so my work wouldn’t interfere with the local churches’ sustainability. I was doing background things like training, so they said I could stay a little bit longer. But then somehow ‘a little bit longer,’ has just kept going and going and going.”

Patterns of Faithfulness

In the years to come, a pattern emerged. New missionaries, pastors, and members of the churches, brimming with vision and gumption, would start a new ministry, such as a training program, a music institute, or a Bible course. Sometimes it would be a joint project, from the beginning, but at other times, they would notice Ellen’s abilities—to teach, to organize, to make things happen—and they would ask her to help. Together, they would build something remarkable, and then—five or 10 or 20 years later, that leader would leave to retire or take on a new field. And Ellen would stay behind, quietly running the show from the background, keeping everything moving forward.

In 2000, a group of teachers from one of the local churches came to Ellen and asked if she would help them start a Christian school. She agreed. “Missionary teacher” had been her original dream, after all. By September of that same year, New Horizon Christian School opened its doors. They started with seven preschoolers and two primary school kids. Today, they have 114 students from preschool through ninth grade.

Ellen’s adult teaching and administration duties grew over the years as well. The Bible and theology training sessions in the villages evolved into a Bible institute in Acapulco, and Ellen was made the Institute’s administrator. Last year, a steering committee of Ellen and three pastors from the presbytery upgraded the Maranatha Bible Institute into the Maranatha Theological Seminary, enhancing the level of studies and offering formal degrees. The goal is to train local Christians in solid Reformed theology and equip them to be church leaders. Ellen is encouraged by the response of the students in this first year, and thrilled that there are eight men in the pastoral training track.

“I met Ellen in 2003 or 2004,” said MTW Resource Team Director Mandy Massingill. “I went on a short-term trip to Acapulco with the church that I grew up in, working in the Casa Hogar Children’s Home.”

Though Ellen does not work directly with Casa Hogar, many of the home’s kids attend New Horizon. According to Mandy, any time a team would come to volunteer, Ellen would come to meet everyone, get to know people, and share about the other MTW mission work going on across the city.

“She mentioned that they were always looking for teachers to come and teach English at New Horizon,” Mandy said. “In Acapulco, the only industry is tourism. If you know English, you’re going to have a leg up on finding really good jobs … so the school really wants a robust English program.”

On that first trip, Mandy told Ellen that she would pray for her to find a teacher. When she returned the next summer, Ellen said the same thing: the school was looking for English teachers. Once again, Mandy told Ellen she would pray. But then she felt something stir inside her—working through Ellen, God was calling her to Acapulco.

“I reached out to her, and man, she got the ball rolling,” Mandy said. “It was like: here’s who you need to talk to at MTW; here’s the application process; here’s everything you need. … She was very encouraging. Ellen is really interested in helping others find the path that they’re being called to.”

In Mexico, Mandy remembers Ellen’s hospitality best. She would have Mandy over on Sunday afternoons to eat American food and stave off the homesickness. Every year she would work for months to gather all the ingredients she would need to make a Thanksgiving meal for teammates and interns—having visitors from the States bring cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie filling, all in an effort to create a special time for her fellow Americans.

Porch Meal

“Growing up, I thought that to be a missionary you had to be a pastor or a theologian or a super Christian,” said Mandy. “But Ellen is down to earth, and that’s something that really impacted me. I think she would be the same Ellen in the U.S. as she is in Acapulco. She’s just a super authentic, real person that leads this life that she shares with others in a way that really draws them in. She’s really impacted a lot of people, and that has a domino effect.”

An Exponential Impact

Looking back at all that she has been involved in over the years, Ellen is extraordinarily humble. She’ll tell you that the projects weren’t her initiative. That she has “just sort of been around” there to help when people needed it. But when you zoom out and take in the scope of all she has been a part of, you realize that her impact—however quiet, however in the background—has been massive.

“There’s that saying: ‘Wherever God has put you, do what’s in front of you,’” said Mandy. “That’s Ellen. She’s so dependable, so reliable. You can count on her to do whatever is put in front of her, and to do it well. God brought her to Acapulco and she’s going to follow through faithfully on whatever He’s called her to in this moment.”

“Ellen has literally given her life in service to the beautiful people of Mexico,” Joe Creech added. “She has helped probably hundreds of people with music training and has discipled countless women, young people, and Bible students. She has poured herself into the establishment of the New Horizon Christian School, which never would have happened, humanly speaking, without her vision and fundraising.

“Many years ago, the Lord began a good work in Ellen, and He has continued that work in powerful, yet humble ways. Acapulco would not be the same place spiritually if Ellen had not labored there.”

Before living in Acapulco, Ellen never lived in one place for more than four years in a row. Today, she’s lived and served in Acapulco for nearly half a century—and that kind of longevity has allowed her to sink deep roots into the community, bearing fruit for the gospel over decades and generations.

Generational Impact

We often think of missionaries as extroverted visionaries, entrepreneurial leaders with flash and charm who lead gospel movements from the front of the crowd. But God uses the shy and the introverted, working behind the scenes, just as much or more. Ellen, the introverted, shy teen who was once terrified at the idea of talking to strangers about Jesus has faithfully served, discipled, led, and taught four generations of Mexican Christians. Ever in the background, few have heard of her or know about her quiet impact, but God has worked mightily through Ellen Barnett, and both MTW and Acapulco are more beautiful for her having been there.

Andrew Shaughnessy

Andrew Shaughnessy is a long-time word slinger who spent nearly six years as MTW’s staff writer, gathering and telling impact stories from missionaries across the globe. These days, he’s off working as an analyst and editor in the publishing industry, writing fiction, and mountaineering. He holds a B.A. in history and English literature from Covenant College, and an M.S. in political science from Portland State University.

Please login to continue
Forgot your password?
Recover it here.
Don't have an account?
Create an Account
Sign Up for Free
Choose Password
Confirm Password


Teach at New Horizon Christian School
Monterrey, Mexico | Summer Trips
Mission Trips
Durango, Mexico | Summer Trips
Mission Trips

Shattered by Love at Casa Hogar

As our bus wound through mountains and down the bustling coast, we passed slums then hotels, destitution and then luxury.


Short-term Missions in Mexico: A Life Changed

Are short-term trips effective? If you're doubtful, just ask Claudia.


Casa Hogar Film Wins Emmy for Best Director

"Mi Casa Hogar," a short film, about a children's home in Acapulco that MTW partners with, recently won an Emmy for "Best Director."


Pray for the national pastors serving in Mexico and Cuba, many of whom are bi-vocational, and the work God is doing among them.

Pray for church-planting work to increase and bear much fruit in strategic cities around the world that are filling with diverse international populations.

Pray for a small group men's study in the Middle East as men seek to learn truth Scripture while wrestling with the realities of what ISIS has taken from them.

Give thanks for the church leaders that God has been raising up in Bogota, Colombia. Pray that this growth will continue. 

Pray for Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and our church-planting work there. Pray for God to grow, expand, and deepen the churches and draw many to Himself.

Pray for the children at Casa Hogar in Acapulco, Mexico, to know the love of Christ and the hope of family.

Last summer, Claudia came to faith through a summer trip. She has since been baptized. Pray for those who come to faith in Mexico as a result of short-term trips to plug into the church.

Pray for the Center for Church Planting, headquartered in Monterrey, Mexico, to raise up Mexican church planters to serve across northern Mexico.

Pray for the people of Sydney, Australia, a city which has been described as "post-post Christian pagan." Pray that God would open eyes to the truth of the gospel.

Pray for college students around the world to be impacted through MTW’s partnership with RUF.


Good news in your inbox, once per week.