Senior Pastor Jim Gaines, First Baptist Church of Dawsonville’s longest serving pastor, is set to retire on Sunday from the pulpit where he has spent the past 20 years.
Gaines, 67, came to Dawsonville in 1998, leaving a job as executive director of missions for the Georgia Baptist Convention.
It was the fine finagling of four local men that brought Gaines to the church originally.
“Don Gordon, Billy Wallace, Herbert Robinson came to me and asked me to come and be their pastor here,” he said. “I had this big convention job and was working all over the state, so they asked me to pray about it. I came and talked to Gordon Pirkle, and I felt like at home.”
In 1998 the congregation of First Baptist numbered 40 people. Under his ministry, the congregation has blossomed to a strong 500.
“We grew really fast, the church has just grown by leaps and bounds since I’ve been here,” Gaines said.
First Baptist is one of the oldest churches in the county, established in 1854. The church gathered in a one-room building for decades before constructing a new facility in 1943 at the corner of Hwy. 9 and Hwy. 53, where Grace Presbyterian sits now.
The church was remodeled and expanded several times until it became apparent the congregation was too large for the small white church in the center of town. In 1999, a year after Gaines took the helm, the church purchased nine acres of land less than two miles north of the downtown facility.
By 2002 they had built a $6.2 million, 750-seat worship center complete with a fellowship hall, classroom space and offices for administration.
When the church moved to the new building, Gaines started looking for a church to fill the old one.
“Part of the vision that God gave me for this community was to have a Presbyterian church, and so I asked the church to try to find a Presbyterian,” he said. “We called their denominational office and said we’d sell (the building) to them for a real good price if they’d start one.”
The man they sent, who would serve as the first pastor of Grace Presbyterian in Dawsonville, was Mark Weaver. He and Gaines had gone to seminary together and immediately struck up a friendship that lasted until Weaver died in 2010.
Highlights of Gaines’ career, aside from the new building, include several mission projects to Alaska and Africa.
The congregation has taken seven trips to Alaska to refurbish churches and even built a church for an Eskimo village.
“I’ve preached in every Southern Baptist Church in the state of Alaska,” he said. “Of course, there’s only 27 of them.”
A Huntsville, Alabama native, Gaines has been married to Debbie for 47 years. They have three children, including County Commissioner Chris Gaines.
“I’m going to miss this place, these people are like family,” Gaines said. “It has been hard for me to retire. All three of my kids have been married since I’ve been pastor of this church, all of my grandchildren have been born since I’ve been pastor of this church.”
Chris Gaines said he wished his dad well on the next chapter of his life.
“I have learned what service truly means from my dad through his commitment and dedication not only to First Baptist Church but to the community,” he said. “I’m proud that he is crossing the finish line of his working years and look forward to seeing him and my mom enjoy their retirement.”
The pastor said it was not an easy decision when he finally made the move towards retirement.
He was on sabbatical at Vanderbilt when one day he had a conversation with an old friend about how he had been thinking about retiring.
“And as we were talking, he said ‘what do you want to do in retirement?’ and I said ‘I want to do some stuff with LifeWay, I’d like to teach and I’d like to do some leadership conferences like I used to do.’ Within three days, all three of those things came together,” he said. “It was just kind of a God thing.”
A longtime academic, Gaines has always taught and plans to continue when he retires. He holds two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree and PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“I’m going to have probably 10 PhD students, and I’ll work with an international mission board doing leadership conferences and work with LifeWay writing curriculum and stuff,” he said.
Gaines said he has no plans to move out of the county and that he will continue to support the church.
“This church and this community has been a blessing to me,” he said. “It has been a dream for any pastor and I envy the new pastor to have a church like this and to have people that are just great, wonderful people. They have always loved their pastor and that is an amazing legacy for a church.”
Church pianist Janice Darnell, a longtime parishioner at First Baptist, said Gaines will be greatly missed.
“One of the things that (Gaines) always teaches is that our outlook on life can be summed up as a "matter of the heart." In the difficult, confusing and wonderful situations we face, our heart, our relationship with God, is what carries us through or makes an experience more joyous,” she said. “First Baptist will never forget (Gaines) sharing his heart with us every week. The kindness and love he has shown to all, along with his amazing gift of knowledge, will be greatly missed.”
Georgia House Representative Kevin Tanner said he considers Gaines a good friend and has known him since he first came to Dawsonville to be the pastor at First Baptist.
“After I got elected to the House he served as pastor of devotion for the day and he did a tremendous job representing the community and meeting the leaders in the house,” Tanner said. “He always led his congregation with integrity and put the Lord first in his life. He will be missed not only by the congregation but by others in the community.”
A Pastor Search Committee has been set up to find a new pastor for First Baptist. Gaines said the new pastor will have to be ready for the future of Dawson County.
“All the projections for the community is tremendous growth,” Gaines said. “The thing that I see that is going to be the big challenge is being able to balance old Dawsonville with the new, what’s coming. I think whoever comes as pastor here is going to have a part in that.”
The longest ever tenured pastor the church has had, Gaines has shattered statistics as surely as he has imbedded himself in the community.
“Less than three percent of Baptist preachers stay at a church over 10 years,” Gaines said. “It’s just amazing, I thought I would come and stay a few years, but I just love Dawson County. I’ve never enjoyed living in a place as much as I have here.”
Gaines’ final service will begin at 11 a.m. Sunday with a reception immediately following. The church is located at 900 Hwy. 9 N in Dawsonville.