Meet Our New Co-Rectors, The Reverends Rachel Wenner Gardner & John B. Gardner….
You notice how much family – specifically and broadly – means to CHT’s new co-Rectors, The Reverend John Gardner and The Reverend Rachel Wenner Gardner, when you talk at any length with them. But you also get a sense of it when you first meet them, and then see how it’s so much a part of who they are and what they do. Family runs from when they met each other their first day at Virginia Theological Seminary to their three children to their parents and step-parents. Knowing more about their family leads to learning more about their formation as pastors, their interests, their strengths, and their beliefs.
After that first day at seminary, Rachel and John were “definitely good friends” and eventually dated off and on that first year, becoming serious their second year and then engaged on a mountain top in Zomba, Malawi, on a mission trip their final year; they were married a year later in Wisconsin after they were ordained. Rachel served as a priest associate from 2002-06 in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and John was a chaplain at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy and then a priest associate, both in Wisconsin. They began serving as co-rectors in 2006 – for six years at Trinity Church in Rocky Mount, Virginia, and then from 2012-16 as priests-in-charge/interim rectors at Church of the Ascension and Holy Trinity in Pueblo, Colorado.
John has a B.S. in psychology from the College of William & Mary; Rachel earned her B.A. in fine arts and sociology from Kalamazoo College. (Rachel speaks and writes “rusty” American Sign Language; John speaks conversational Spanish.)
Describing becoming co-rectors, John says they hadn’t considered working together but re-considered when they led an Advent Quiet Day together at Rachel’s church. He adds, “The experience of sharing worship, leadership, and formation together felt so natural, we decided to go with it!”
Rachel says, “In the beginning it was convenient, but over time we have learned that it is a calling – our merged vocation – and we are better when we work together.”
And now their family is even more of a family with three children: Boyden, nine, and five-year-old twins, Connor and Quinn; they all attend Albert M. Greenfield School. Describing their children, Rachel and John talk about their personalities and their passions. Boyden is very perceptive and doesn’t miss much. “He’ll surprise us later with his insight,” John comments. Rachel adds, “Sometimes I forget that he is only nine.” He enjoys learning anything he can, wanting (since he was two) to be a paleontologist…or, then again, maybe a naturalist.
Connor, Mr. Personality, is very outgoing, including “holding court on the playground” and speaking up when someone is being unfair (even to his siblings). He tries new things, is very interested in language (including definitions and sample sentences), and is the child who seems to have inherited Rachel’s knack for engineering – with Lego creations well beyond his age.
Quinn (“The Mighty Quinn”) is “bold, strong and fierce,” coordinated and athletic, and loves to dance and sing and make any kind of art. Her parents add that “she likes to pick out her own clothes and put her own touches on things.”
About all three children, John comments, “Put together, our kids also enjoy wrestling with their parents, arguing with each other, and making messes.”
The Gardner’s families, of course, include many other people, with the Episcopal Church, education, and the law figuring prominently in their backgrounds. Rachel’s dad is a retired Episcopal priest in Boston, and his wife (Rachel’s step-mother) is also a priest, though not retired. A retired university dean, her mother is married to her other step-mother, a retired hospital CEO in the process of becoming a deacon in the Episcopal Church with a focus on social justice and conflict management; they live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her sister is a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, her step-sister is a psychologist in Michigan, and her step-brother and his wife work for Apple in NYC.
John’s mother (with a Master’s in harpsichord performance and another in organ performance) is the organist and choir director at John’s childhood Episcopal Church in Southwest Virginia, where his father, a lawyer, recently served on their discernment committee. His dad also loves spending time on his tractor and grows hay and keeps a few head of cattle, often sending Rachel and John home from visits with a cooler full of organic grass-fed beef. John’s three younger brothers all also practice law – in Portland, Manhattan, and Roanoke.
Nourished and stretched by their roots in the church and their parents, Rachel and John, still best friends, talk about what formed them. John says, “I was raised by a father who treated everyone around him with integrity and dignity. As a lawyer who defended criminals, handled difficult divorces, and mixed with every level of society, he had quite a challenge–but he managed to respect the dignity of everyone who came to him for help. The way he fulfilled his baptismal covenant outside of the church left a lasting impression on me.” He adds, “Several other childhood influences have stayed with me over the years: comic books, Star Wars, and other formative 1980’s movies left me with a strong sense of justice and fair play. I still have a strong desire to stand up for the oppressed, and to speak for those who have no voice.”
“The church had a profound formational effect on me growing up – it was where I spent most of my life,” Rachel says. “I remember lying in the pews when my mom would practice the organ (she was taking lessons when I was young, but never played in public), and I would press my face into the pew and smell all the smells of candle oil and incense and years of people just sitting there, and I would think about all the people who sat right there over the century or so, and how big it all was. I still feel that way when I sit in a church – and smell all the smells. It never felt like a strange place, it always was just part of my home.”
Her parents divorced when she was 12, and her mother came out as a lesbian. Her sister went to college, and Rachel lived with her father. She remembers, “Those four years in high school were not easy, but it taught me to be self-sufficient, to believe that I can do whatever I set my mind to, and to work through challenges when they come my way. My dad also taught me how to fix anything and encouraged me to take things apart and put them back together. Those have been some of the most useful skills I have had as an adult.”
Place also plays a part in Rachel’s and John’s lives, often tying in with family. Rachel has lived all over the U.S.: the East Coast, Midwest, and West, and has travelled to China, Europe, Central America, and Africa. All these places, she says, have changed her. Mainly a Midwesterner, she talks about the family Minnesota community, where the family recently stayed after leaving Colorado and before visiting John’s parents in Virginia. Her grandmother’s grandparents bought 100 acres on Lake Koronis in Central Minnesota, and Stony Point has grown with each generation, as families inherit or build cabins on the land. The Gardner’s cabin is “very primitive” – 20 by 20 with an outhouse. This haven from the world, Rachel says, is a great place to unplug and be out in nature and to focus only on each other. John’s church trips to Malawi and Haiti taught him to treasure the worship experience in other cultures. He feels that the people he met “took the opportunity to develop a strong faith and a stronger gratitude in the midst of having nothing.”
When (if?) they have a bit of personal time, Rachel loves to read, “pretty much anything she can” and often through audio books; to explore through walking, running, and hiking; and to binge-watch TV series. John enjoys fitness – running, CrossFit, etc. He says, “I love the process of meeting a physical challenge – my ideal workout would be one of the training montages from the ‘Rocky’ films! Running takes on a spiritual dimension for me; during a distance run, I take time for meditation, prayer, and reflection.” He also “loves the mental and social challenge of a good board game or card game” and reading, from the classics to science fiction, mystery, and history. If each could master a skill they don’t now have, Rachel would choose the violin and “to do more than one pull-up in a row.” John’s would be to master the Spanish classical guitar.
They’ve missed living in a big city, looking forward to Philadelphia’s energy and diversity, “being in the midst of a sea of people,” and the new ways of living in community that a city provides. John knows his “preconceptions will be challenged and his perceptions enlarged.”
Like most of us, the Gardners have done a crazy thing once or twice. John – quarry jumping (“dangerous and ill-advised”), Rachel – bungee jumping off a bridge (something she will “never, ever do again”). The stories behind these will be good topics for future conversation….
From danger to greatest achievements, John says, “My family – my marriage to Rachel, and my role as a father – has helped me to be the best, most authentic person I could hope to be. They help me to take life with more joy, take care of myself, and take myself less seriously. This is a lifelong achievement for me – it requires daily work!”
Rachel says their children are her greatest achievement. “They’ve made me a better person, taught me to see myself in a positive and honest light.” Her job, she adds, is to help them to remain good and spread good in this world.
Wrapping up with how/when/what made them know they wanted to be pastors, Rachel said that for a long time she came at religion in a very intellectual way – “wanting to learn more about the history or the literary or the theological meaning behind faith and scripture.” First wanting to go to seminary to learn, she adds, “As I made my way through the process for ordination, and into my first year at seminary, I began to move from my head to my heart. It was a slow process, but in the end I am certain this is the job I am called to do.”
John explains his path, saying various friends and family had told him over the years that he would make a good minister. “I didn’t listen to them; I was 13, and ‘Top Gun’ was playing in the theaters. I thought that being a priest sounded much less exciting than anything Tom Cruise was doing on the silver screen. I first really understood what sacrament and community meant when I took an Outward Bound course in the mountains of North Carolina at age 17….that experience of shared hardship and accomplishment, marked by community meals, felt like worship.” With the encouragement of some of those friends, a seed was planted. Years later, John worked at an HIV clinic. He says, “In the ‘90’s, the drug cocktails were intense, and the disease carried even more stigma than it does today. I found drawn to help the patients – not just in a medical sense, but also to listen to and abide with them. Their stories of isolation, suffering, grace, and healing led to a conversation with my priest, which led me to the ordination process.”