Senior Pastor Dale Thornton, who patiently ministered to his flock at Hinesville First United Methodist Church, died unexpectedly Friday. Members of his congregation and the community are remembering his life as a spiritual guide and servant leader, and mourning his passing.
“He was extremely devoted to his congregation,” First UMC lay leader Peter Clark said, his voice choking with emotion. “He was a loving member of our community and he loved his church. He loved the people of his church. He’s probably the finest pastor as we’ve ever had. He was an extremely patient listener, he was an extreme lover of music. He was fantastic at the organ and the piano. He was looking forward to his retirement. He hoped to be a pianist or organist.”
Clark recalled Thornton’s dedication as a minister, describing how he sat through the night with a congregant at the hospital when the woman’s husband lay dying.
Thornton also gave of himself to the community, according to Pastor Richard Hayes, president of Liberty County Ministerial Alliance. Thornton was involved with the annual “Mayor’s Service of Songs, Prayer and Thanksgiving” during the Thanksgiving holiday, the women’s auxiliary attached to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6602 in Hinesville and the Kirk Healing Center, according to Hayes.
“He was an exceptional guy,” Hayes said. “Dale loved his congregation and loved his church. He was adamant about being a part of something that was doing something for the people of God and taking an active role to impact people’s lives. He was very hands-on.”
Thornton was often involved in community outreach events. The pastor led a blessing of the animals in March with donations benefiting the VFW and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. He was interviewed by the Courier when the church broke ground on an expansion of its social hall earlier this year. Thornton informed the Courier that the hall, once complete, will be a center of operations for the church’s homeless missions.
Thornton is survived by his wife of nearly 42 years, Marlene Nettles Thornton.
He was born on Christmas Day in 1954, at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C. He grew up in Savannah and attended the former Armstrong State College, now Georgia Southern. Thornton earned bachelor’s degrees in music education and music performance. He received a master of divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 1986.
Thornton served numerous congregations across the state, including churches in Albany, Macon, Waycross and St. Marys.
A memorial service for Thornton will be held at 5 p.m. Sunday at First UMC. An obituary for the pastor is on page 5.
Patty Leon and Krystal Hart contributed to this story.