Shaping Plymouth’s identity
Rev. John Gardner often refers to Fort Wayne as a city of steeples and pole barns.
During his 20-year tenure at Plymouth Congregational Church, he has been able to create an identity for the church, and on Sunday, his time at the church comes to an end.
Gardner, born in Michigan, came to Fort Wayne in 1998. Before that, he served congregations in Ohio and California and had another long-term ministry in Michigan for 17 years.
Once he arrived at Plymouth, his goal was to establish and clarify the church’s identity.
“How does one establish an identity that distinguishes oneself out of the mix?” Gardner said. “Having identifiers, having commitments, having convictions that can be clearly stated so that people cannot be confused.”
To reach his goal, Gardner established four covenants for his church to follow.
In 2001, Plymouth became the 382nd church to be an open and affirming congregation within the United Church of Christ, which means it opened its doors to the LGTBQ community and expanded the roles of women.
There was some resistance within the church. Members agreed the church has always been open, but they did not all want to be affirming. Gardner disagreed and said sexuality was not a sin.
“When God calls to us through the love of Jesus Christ : ‘come unto me’ : that means all of us, and your sexuality has nothing to do with that,” Gardner said.
The church became a Peace with Justice Congregation in 2008, which deals with how the congregation can obtain peace when justice is needed.
Plymouth was also recognized as a Global Mission Church in 2012. By 2015, Gardner declared the church Earth-Wise. Plymouth not only commits to recycling and turning off the lights, it advocates for public policy that will change use of fossil fuels.
Gardner’s congregation has also worked with other local churches in creating a community service for Martin Luther King Jr. in years past.
At 64, Gardner has spent almost one-third of his life at Plymouth.
While he has enjoyed working with his associate pastor, the Rev. Ruth E. Phillips, and with his congregation, he said it’s time to go.
“I know one thing for certain: I will not be involved in another long-term ministry. I have aged out,” Gardner said. “I’m going to step away and do some assessment, and see where I might be in some use or some value.”
Rev. Timothy C. Murphy, who Gardner said has a pastoral heart, will take Gardner’s place after Sunday’s service.
Beth Walker, a third-generation member of the church, said Plymouth has gained a loving church family through Gardner.
“While we hate to see him go, I think we are poised with the next party coming in to take it to the next level,” Walker said. “We’ve walked our walk and talked our talk; let’s do it even more.”
In the future, Gardner hopes Plymouth grows stronger in its liberal identity and social gospel tradition.
“The church has, quite frankly, given me permission to preach without being muzzled or controlled, and that’s been a real blessing,” Gardner said.