Seminary chairwoman: 'God opens the door'
"I have the philosophy that if God opens the door, I need to walk through," Gardner told the Biblical Recorder, newsjournal of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
Gardner was elected to chair Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary's trustees during their April 8-10 meeting at the SEBTS campus in Wake Forest. The vote was unanimous. She is believed to be the first female trustee chair for a Southern Baptist seminary, according to SEBTS' examination of SBC Annuals.
Since joining the board in 2010, Gardner has served as trustee secretary and chair of the campus planning committee.
"Throughout my life, I have tried to be obedient in whatever opportunities God provides," she said in a telephone interview.
Fellow SEBTS trustees and administration officials have made her feel at home, not "forgotten or second-thought."
"I never felt like I was just a check in the box," Gardner said. "They really do value each one of the trustees and the perspectives they bring."
Gardner's experience at Peoria Christian School in central Illinois, where she has worked more than 25 years, seems to fit well with Southeastern's mission and vision.
Peoria Christian, which educates more than 600 students from preschool through 12th grade, has a goal to "produce academically skilled students who are equipped with a biblical worldview and who will impact the world for Christ."
It has been named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education twice in the last 10 years for high test score performance. Gardner has been superintendent for six years, previously serving as principal and an elementary teacher.
"I have really enjoyed seeing God at work in the missions opportunities [at SEBTS] and through their strong academics -- really encouraging their student body and professors to seek God and be on mission wherever He leads them," Gardner said. "It's a blessing to be a part of that."
Asked for her advice to young women who aspire to denominational leadership, Gardner said, "They don't need to put themselves or God in a box."
"What we have comes from Him," she said. "I encourage them to prayerfully look for opportunities and not be afraid to step into those opportunities. ... My life verse is Proverbs 3:5-6, 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.' ... We don't know where God is going to give us opportunities, and many times we don't know the impact we have."
Gardner also highlighted the importance of being a lifelong learner and serving others rather than "seeking some big, great, glorious title."
She said she hopes current discussions about women in Southern Baptist life will avoid quarrels over "men versus women."
She asked, "How can we serve in the places God has called each one of us ... in our local churches, in our communities?" and called all Southern Baptists -- men and women -- to champion the Great Commission.
"We need to come back to what God has commanded us to do as believers," Gardner said. "Let's rally around that."
Gardner and her husband Joe are members of Woodland Baptist Church in Peoria. He is director of missions for the Metro Peoria Baptist Association and a consultant for the Illinois Baptist State Association. They have three children and five grandchildren.