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Meet Natarsha

Natarsha Gardner

Since I was a young girl, I dreamed of preaching and singing before large audiences. I would dream complete sermons and about delivering them. I would wake up in tears not sure if it was the emotion of dreaming about preaching or knowing that that could never be a part of my life. I knew God had that plan for me. However, I was raised in a denomination (Baptist) and in a church in particular, that didnít allow women preachers or pastors. They would allow women "speakers" on special occasions, but not in the pulpit. Until a few years ago, I felt that part of my life was stolen from me. My parents didnít believe in women preachers or pastors although they did believe that women could preach, but should be called evangelists. As I said, the church I grew up in didnít even allow women to speak from the pulpit.

Iíve wrestled with this call my entire life; always feeling God urging me forward, and struggling with the traditions of my church and family. Since I was a pre-teen and until a few years ago, I always taught Sunday School or VBS. I led small groups or Bible studies, took continuing education classes at Moody Bible Institute, mentored young women, and sang in choirs or praise teams. It was my ministry of singing that connected me to the power of God and I have been able to minister through my music, but I knew there was more.

Many people through the years have asked me about my call to ministry and I would make light of it, or acknowledge it and make excuses for not pursuing it. It was a few years ago when I thought I would start to pursue this call in a deeper way and make steps in the direction of certified or ordained ministry, but would stop short not knowing how my family would react or out of my own fears.

February 2003, I walked into the doors of Cornerstone Methodist Church in Plato Center, knowing only one person, the pastor. When I walked into the narthex (not even the sanctuary), I was overcome with a sense of belonging in and to a place that Iíd never been before. I felt the presence of God in a way Iíd never experienced. It was as if God said to me, "this is where you belong." Having worked at the Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church Program Office since 1996, I was becoming familiar with Methodist churches and believed they were not my cup of tea, as I came from a more fundamental, evangelical, conservative religious tradition. I say "not my cup of tea" because Iíd been so steeped in my own Baptist traditions that anything outside of that little bubble of belief seemed heretical. I was also used to a more spirit-stirring, outward display of worship. I just assumed that all Methodist churches were quiet worshippers. Since the day I walked into Cornerstone, I began to serve God and the church with the same fervor as I did when attending my previous churches, but this time it is different. I donít feel obligated, but privileged and honored to willingly serve God in this way.

These last 11 years as a Methodist have given me the opportunity to share the gospel more freely than in prior years.

One of the hopes I have for the church is to embrace everyone and let them know that Godís love is free and for us all. If we truly want people to be disciples, sins to be forgiven, lives to be transformed, there has to be a unique and careful balance between discipline and love. The church as we know it and have experienced it will have to change and adapt to the times in which we live without watering down the gospel. People need to feel loved and also challenged to give up the things of this world for the greater eternal things.

I believe God has called me to be a bridge between cultures. Itís difficult to minister to others if youíre not willing to understand who they really are as a people. It is my hope and prayer that we, the church, will see the characteristics in people that make us the same and learn from and about the things that make us different so that we all become true ministers of reconciliation.

Another hope I have for Cornerstone Church and as the people of God, is that we become a congregation that cares for each other and the world around us, creating a Culture of Caring. As I continue to coordinate the email prayer, it is my endeavor to help people make connections, provide resources for ministries and help/health related organizations, work with greeters to offer hospitality from the moment someone enters our doors until they leave, and reach out in as many ways as possible to reach and help the sick and shut in. Big dreams, I know, but we will do all we can to touch as many lives as possible for the transformation of the world, with the Word of God, by the Power of the Holy Spirit and the Love of Christ.

Some people are curious as to why Iíve decided to take the path of licensing rather than ordination. I chose this path not because itís easier or quicker than ordained ministry, but because I am older and believe I could rely not only on the power of God to minister, but my life experiences. I will still have to take seminary courses every year (called Course of Study) for the next 5 or so years. At this point in my life, I felt it prudent not to be saddled with $40,000-$50,000 student loans hanging over my head as I am closer to retirement age than most going into the ministry. Although I am not in a position financially to afford seminary, I believe in my calling just the same.

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