Each week, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister. This week, we are thrilled to introduce LeAnn Gardner. 

Tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served and are serving.
While serving in West Africa as a Journey(wo)man, it became apparent to me that I wanted to study both theology and social work to formally synthesize what I believe to be at the heart of the Gospel, serving people in holistic ways. My greatest joy is when these two paths converge and I can speak the language of the church to help empower people of faith to meet holistic needs. Using relevant social work research coupled with Biblical insight is instrumental in that teaching.

My areas of ministry have been quite nontraditional; Child Protective Services, a non-profit Child Advocacy Center and now in private therapy practice. I have a keen interest in helping people intentionally integrate their faith and spirituality, whatever form that takes in their lives.

The ultimate convergence of my two degrees and passions has been in the creation and delivery of the SAFE Seminar (Sexual Awareness and Family Empowerment). SAFE gives caregivers a safe space within their congregation to talk and ask questions about taboo and tricky topics: how to talk to kids about sex, consent, pornography and intimate relationships. It is holy ground for me to see these conversations happening because they have been neglected for so long. My mentor, Diana Garland, passionately believed the church could and should be a voice in helping families equip their children to be healthy and whole people. Her spirit continues to live throughout my work.

What are the greatest challenges you have faced in ministry?
My greatest challenge has been to live into the non-traditional calling on my life—the convergence of social work and theology. Many churches would not be open to my seminar, for example, because of the taboo nature of the topic of sex and safety. I have learned that it is not my responsibility to make people “ripe” for the hearing of the message of holistic development, but to be available to take it wherever there are ears to hear.

I also think that people have narrowly defined ministry to church staff. Given the rapid shifts and changes in church life, I think this paradigm shift is now essential. If we, as disciples of Jesus, could broaden our worldview to include our day to day service, in whatever capacity that takes, there would a deeper sense of calling and passion on our lives. For example, when a woman takes maternity leave, she often tells herself, “I’m just a mom.” How about a reframe of “I am serving my family by caring for our needs in this chapter of my life.” (see Kathleen Norris’ book The Quotidien Mysteries). Women should feel empowered in whatever decisions they make and limiting paid church jobs to the only “real” vocational calling is at best, limiting, and at worst, harmful.

What do you love best about your current ministry?
I love that my current ministry integrates people’s spirituality and faith. In the social work profession, this has been historically neglected for fear of being unethical. Again, Diana Garland helped the social work profession see faith as an essential component to a person. Conversely, the theological-church world has often been averse to scientific perspectives and talking about social issues. As Brene Brown has said, “I don’t trust any theologian who doesn’t believe in science and any scientist who doesn’t have faith.” The marriage of social work and theology is perfectly represented in the SAFE seminar where caregivers are passionately wanting to pass on their faith perspective to their children while at the same time are seeking to understand what science has taught us about how to communicate those things in the healthiest way possible. I love helping people learn practical tools that will help them in their day to day lives. Whether it is a therapy client or a caregiver, I find great delight in helping empower people to see things in a new way or find courage to take steps into living braver lives. It has taken almost 15 years to see my two degrees and passions collide and I am so excited that it has finally come to fruition!

What ministry advice would you give to a teenage girl?
I would start by sharing one of the greatest quotes of all time which is by Frederick Buechner:

“Vocation is where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

What is it you love to do? What is it that makes your heart sing? Pay attention to the things that give you energy. What does the world need from you? What gifts is the world aching for that only you can provide? Utilization of our gifts is not a form of conceit or boastfulness, it is a mandate from God and a matter of stewardship. Don’t be afraid to claim the unique riches God has bestowed upon you! On a practical level, I would tell a high school student sensing God’s call in her life to seek out older women mentors. This is so important in every stage of life- to see the “great cloud of witnesses” ahead of us who are a little further ahead of us on their journey. We need each other and need to hear one another’s stories.