Commuting can be a life-changing experience. Just ask the Reverend Jimmy Cason.
Cason recently retired after 11 years as senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Statesboro, and a total of 38 years in ordained ministry in the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. He’s been looking forward to retirement for a while, but hadn’t always.
Cason grew up in Oak Park, Georgia, which is located between Swainsboro and Lyons. In a town of about 200 people, he says he grew up kind of sheltered. He graduated from high school in Swainsboro, then came to Statesboro to attend college at Georgia Southern. He majored in journalism, and had dreams of becoming a reporter for the Washington Post or the New York Times.
“Journalism has always interested me. Newspapers have always interested me,” he said. “But I can’t really pinpoint that there was a certain time I knew. There was a time that I knew that God was calling me into some kind of ministry, but I couldn’t imagine myself as a preacher.”
It was during the 37-mile commute from Oak Park to Statesboro that Cason says his eyes were opened, and he says those miles “changed my world view on so many, many things. It really opened my eyes to lots of things.”
As he prepared to graduate from Southern, he heard of a job opening in Waynesboro at the town’s First United Methodist Church. He was soon hired as the youth and children’s director, and he remained in the position for four years.
“Those four years probably changed my life more than any period in my life, because that’s when I met my wife, and we got married there. I felt the confirmation that God was leading me into ordained ministry, and there was no bolt of lightning. It wasn’t like one day I didn’t know and the next day I knew. It was just a gradual sense that God was leading me into ministry,” he said.
Cason was raised by his mother, after his alcoholic father left the family. In his early 20s, Cason determined to find his father and reconnect. He found his dad in the Northwest, and decided to attend seminary in Portland, Oregon, to be near his father, so they could get to know one another.
After two years in Portland, Cason and his wife, Susan, determined that the time was right for them to return to Georgia. So the couple made the trek, and Cason attended Emory University, where he earned his Master of Divinity.
“I knew that I was going to be coming back eventually, and I thought it was better for me to come back and be a part of a seminary environment studying with people that I would be colleagues with for the rest of my life,” he said.
Cason says he loved the Northwest — and even embraced the rain. He would have loved to stay there, except that all of his family, and his wife’s, with the exception of his father, were in Georgia.
Cason’s first church was a three-point charge in Burke County, where he already had connections, thanks to his previous stint as youth and children’s director. While still in seminary, he began serving the three churches there and it kept him quite busy. He drove to Atlanta on Monday night, attended classes and studied, then went back to Burke County on Thursday night and ministered there for the weekend. He was in the position there for three years.
After that he was the associate pastor at Isle of Hope in Savannah, where he served for five years. Then the couple went to Lizella for five years, then Leesburg for four years. It was in Leesburg that Cason says he learned firsthand what it’s like to work in disaster relief — they experienced a 500-year flood, and 25 families in his church lost their homes.
“We had relief workers from all over the United States come in to help us. For about a year and a half, that’s what we did,” he said. “We had Sunday school classrooms filled with supplies. We cooked two meals a day out of our kitchen and served about 500 people a day.”
Cason says it was tiring work, but it was also work that opened his eyes.
After Leesburg, the Casons went to Sandersville, where they served for four-and-a-half years. They were there when the bishop called and asked Cason to serve as the district superintendent of the Statesboro district, which would mean supervision of 82 churches. He accepted the position.
After eight years in the district office, Cason was appointed as pastor at First United Methodist in Statesboro, where he served the last 11 years of his career.
“I’ve been blessed, very blessed to have been able to stay in Statesboro for 19 years. It’s the longest we’ve ever lived in a community, and we’re retiring here. Statesboro will continue to be our home,” he said.
The couple has bought a home in Statesboro, a first for them, since they have always lived in church-provided parsonages.
“I am overwhelmed with the generosity of laypeople and congregations I’ve served because I’m able to retire with a great pension, that they’ve pretty much contributed to, and I’ve always been provided with a great place to live,” he said.
Cason says he had always thought he’d “die” in the pulpit, and had no real plans for retirement. But after heart bypass surgery early on in his tenure in Statesboro, he decided that the bucket list he and his wife had just wouldn’t wait. They wanted to be able to enjoy their retirement. So about four years ago, he says, he began actively planning for his retirement at 65. But he never thought he’d be retiring in such strange times.
“I never had an idea that I would be retiring under the, just, unusual circumstances of the virus,” he said.
Cason says that preaching to empty pews has been difficult at times, and he’s had to deal with some depression. But he says that there have been more people tuning in to watch on some Sundays than they’ve had attending in person.
Going to online services and speaking to an empty sanctuary has been different, Cason says, but the church has never closed.
“The building has. But the church hasn’t been closed. We’ve continued to offer our soup kitchen on Saturdays. Our numbers have increased. We’ve not closed,” he said. “It’s just amazing what we’ve been able to do through technology. Maybe it’s good for our people to realize that the walls of the church don’t constitute what the church is, or who the church is.”
Cason preached his final sermon on June 21, and says it was the only time he was glad there was no one in the pews.
“I was not emotional, but if I had been looking at different people, I don’t know that I would have gotten through it without getting emotional,” he said.
Although the Casons will still live in the community, they plan to attend church elsewhere, at least for a year or two. This, Cason says, will give the new pastor a chance to settle in and connect with his people.
“I’m excited about who’s following me. Scott Hagan is the new pastor. I’m sure there will be times I’m going to think, oh, I wish I could be involved in that,” he said. “But there will be a lot of times I will be glad I don’t.”
Retirement will be a real adjustment for Cason.
“For 38 years, I’ve been identified somewhere as the Methodist preacher. Yesterday, I woke up and said, you know, I’m retired. I don’t have to go to any meetings. I can make choices, and I can say no. There’s some freedom there,” he said.
The church had a parade at the church in honor of Cason and his service, in lieu of a large gathering, on June 21. Church members were encouraged to decorate their cars and drive by, while the Casons enjoyed the show from a couple of rocking chairs.
“We were just overwhelmed with the numbers that came out,” he said, adding that the next day, it all became real.
“I’m no longer responsible for what happens here. I’m excited about this new phase of life. I don’t regret retiring this year,” he said. “There is a time for every season. And this is my time to step aside.”