PLANT CITY -
Don Mason will deliver his final sermon Sunday as pastor of Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Plant City, the church he founded and has guided through difficult and joyous times.
"No one will ever mistake him for being 'vanilla,'" said longtime parishioner Henry Philpot. "He doesn't put his finger to the wind to determine the flow of public opinion before sharing and teaching."
Mason's thoughtful approach has shaped the church and its sense of self over the years.
"He is known as a preacher's preacher, and Evangelical Presbyterian Church is generally regarded as the thinking man's church," his wife, Jo Ann, said. "Don has always been secure in his preaching style and opens the church to allow other ministers to come and speak from the pulpit. In my experience, very few ministers are comfortable doing that.
"His vision is always biblically-based. A believer in accountability individually and within the church body, he encourages us to pray with humility and regard for each other."
With the national Presbyterian Church becoming increasingly liberal in its views on homosexuality and abortion, Mason's former congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Plant City, elected to break away in 1996, clinging to more traditional views members saw as more in keeping with biblical teachings.
In the end, Mason and more than half the congregation left First Presbyterian, one of the oldest in town, and founded Evangelical Presbyterian. Mason has been there since the very beginning — nurturing the upstart congregation, building a massive new sanctuary and shaping the new church into a force for good and spiritual growth in the community.
To those he leads, Mason is an inspiration — a true man of God.
"He took a strong, courageous, stand when he led our congregation from our former denomination," Philpot said.
"He is very much a man of God with a heart for the lost," said Shaunah Tanner, who, like Philpot, was one of the original members to break away from First Presbyterian. "He is always willing to listen, to commit and discuss. He is fearless about preaching the gospel."
For Mason, 64, the journey toward becoming "fearless" began in an unlikely way.
An accounting graduate of Florida Atlantic University, Mason and a partner started a successful accounting firm in Boca Raton in the 1970s. Five years in, though, he began questioning his path in life after committing his life to Christ during a neighborhood football game.
Encouraged by his pastor, Mason decided to leave his firm in 1979 and drove 1,300 miles to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, despite the advice of a friend, who told him: "If at all possible and you can avoid it, don't go."
But Mason couldn't avoid the change in direction.
"You can't measure everything in the terms of dollars and cents," he said. "As I became successful, I began to realize that people saw me as the answer to financial planning, tax issues, etc., but there was no real relationship.
"If God made me for ministry, at first, I just didn't know it. That feeling and need to serve Him grew, was mentored and finally realized as I grew into His plan for my life."
Mason's first church assignment was with Hope Presbyterian Church in Winter Haven, where he served as the associate pastor of youth and families.
After two and a half years there, First Presbyterian came calling, asking Mason to be its interim pastor.
"I remember the call like it was yesterday," he said. "It was 1984 on Super Bowl XVIII Sunday, and the Washington Redskins were playing the (Los Angeles) Raiders."
The remark says a lot about a pastor regarded as a "regular guy" — a sportsman and a sports fan.
Over the years, Mason has played countless games of football in a traditional church Turkey Bowl competition, pitting the adults versus the kids; he's an avid golfer, tennis player and plays racquetball once a week at the YMCA.
Maybe that's part of why men tend to find Mason approachable; he's been successful in bringing men to Christ and has developed a reputation as a strong mentor and teacher.
"I am a better man because of Don," said Franz Schultheis, a friend and member of Mason's church for 26 years. "He brought me to the Lord. He is a true man of Christ, and I am proud to call him a brother."
Mason's fingerprints can be found outside the lives of his own congregants, too. For many years, he's provided meeting space and support for various groups, including the Boy Scouts, the Heritage Girls and hospice. He's active in service clubs and civic organizations such as the Optimists, Rotary, Kiwanis and the YMCA. He was an early supporter of the Pregnancy Care Center, which provides counseling and other resources to expectant mothers; and he helped start the Bread of Life Mission, which provides afterschool tutoring for migrant kids in Plant City.
Among other help it provides Bread of Life, Evangelical Presbyterian Church donates proceeds from its 19-acre orange grove to the mission, and Mason has mentored the mission's pastor, Julio Santana, for the past 20 years.
"Pastor Mason has been a guiding hand in the work of our mission and always lends his prayerful support," he said.
After Mason steps away from the Evangelical Presbyterian pulpit, another young pastor Mason and his wife have been mentoring, Youth Pastor Scott Lingle, will serve as interim pastor while the church searches for a permanent replacement. A search committee has been culling through candidates and will bring in ministers to see who might be a good fit for the congregation.
Mason, who underwent a quadruple heart bypass in 2009, may be ready to relinquish the heavy load of leading a 500-member-strong church, but he'll remain active in the ministry. The Masons plan on moving to their beach condominium in New Smyrna Beach, allowing them more time to spend with their grandchildren, who live in the Orlando area.
"When you are called to the church as a career, every Sunday, rain or shine, there are no options of 'Honey, what do you want to do today?'" Mason said. "It wasn't always easy, but we have not changed the way we do family in our fishbowl life. We're still regular people."
Now, "we will both be able to have weekends with our grandchildren and be able to spend more time with the family. As a pastor and pastor's wife, you never have weekends while your children work and your grandchildren are in school. Now we will have time to attend the events important in their lives: athletic events, plays, etc."
The move also will enable Mason to mentor another young pastor — a Baptist minister he's befriended, who embraces the Reformed Theology philosophy that has guided Mason's career as a minister. Mason and his wife will attend the First Baptist Church of Edgewater — a small church with no praise music team, no trumpets, guitars, saxophone or drums, no splendidly robed choir or music director.
That doesn't mean Mason is giving up his identity as a Presbyterian, though.
"I was planted as a Presbyterian, and I will be a Presbyterian until I am planted (in the ground) again," he said. "I met this young pastor at a convention who has a small church near where we will be living. I have 30 years of church experience and knowledge to share that transcends any denominational lines."
Mason will continue to serve as a trustee of the Evangelical University & Seminary of Plant City, where he also chairs a development committee and will teach classes Thursday through Saturday. Then he'll drive back to New Smyrna Beach after Saturday classes.
And the Masons won't be strangers at Evangelical Presbyterian Church. They'll be there for special occasions, and Mason expects to return as a guest preacher, from time to time.
"We will keep in touch with those we have had close relationships (with)," Mason said.
Say "goodbye" to the Rev. Don Mason
The Rev. Don Mason, the founding pastor of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Plant City, is retiring and will preach his last sermon at the church's 9:30 a.m. service Sunday. The church will host a retirement reception Saturday.
What: Don Mason retirement reception
When: "Drop in" from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: 1107 Charlie Griffin Road, Plant City