When Claire Gardner was a teenager, she was worried that becoming a Christian would ruin her rep at school. But all that changed one night … now she is a passionate youth worker, and the new Salvation Army Territorial Youth Programme Coordinator.
As I arrange my interview with Claire Gardner, I get an immediate sense that she is an exceptionally humble person. Claire tells me she’s not too comfortable yarning about herself for half an hour, yet I insist everyone has a great story to tell.
Since February, Claire has been The Salvation Army Youth Programme Coordinator at Territorial Headquarters in Cuba Street, Wellington. ‘In a nutshell, I plan events and help to facilitate education for youth leaders,’ she explains to someone unfamiliar with the inner workings of Salvation Army youth.
Originally born in South Africa, Claire moved to New Zealand at age five and has been a Wellington girl ever since. Her family landed at The Salvation Army Johnsonville Corps in the early 2000s.
‘I was very blessed that I grew up with Christian parents, so I’ve always had a Christian house and home environment,’ she says.
‘I’ll Follow God When I’m Old’
However, as a teenager, Claire had very little interest in God and church. ‘It was the classic, “I’ll follow God when I’m old because I want to have fun when I’m young”,’ she laughs.
‘In college, being cool was way more important than anything else, so that was what I wanted—not to know Jesus, just to be cool.’
Claire thought being a Christian was about pleasing your parents and following an ancient rule book that didn’t have any relevance to teenagers in the 21st century.
‘People would say, “Oh you have freedom when you’re a Christian!” and I would say, “No you don’t because you can’t do all the things you want to do!”.
‘My whole thing was, “I’ll wait till I’m old because it’s for old boring people. It’s not for us young people who want to have fun”.’
At this stage, Claire was a typical suburban teenager—she loved parties and life was good. There was no need for a lord and saviour.
A Word from God
However, one day she began to notice how many of her friends’ parents had yet to leave the party stage and seemed to be stuck in it.
‘Looking at them, I thought: “They haven’t decided to turn it around, so if I know it’s the right thing to do, then when am I going to do it?” And that sort of played in my head.’
Then, at an evening service at Johnsonville Corps, God decided to move.
When Claire’s future mother-in-law Raewyn Gardner finished preaching, Gavin Knight from the band had a word for someone in the audience—yet he didn’t know who.
‘He just said, “There’s no time like now. Stop waiting”. And I thought, “I suppose that’s for me then”.
‘For three or four years I’d been knowing that I should take it seriously and just kept waiting for “later”. So, that was the night I decided, “Ok I’ll make the call now”.’
Having decided to follow Jesus, Claire was worried about what her friends and peers would think of her. ‘I thought, “People are going to ask me questions and I’m going to have to know what to say”.’
Yet, Raewyn told her finding faith wasn’t about having all the answers. ‘She said you don’t actually have to know what to say. It’s your life, you can do what you want with it.’
Despite putting off faith for a number of years, Claire says she never really struggled with the idea that God existed. ‘I guess God was with me the whole time,’ she says. ‘Some people struggle with that, but that was never my struggle—I always felt like I knew that God was real.
‘So, when I was not believing in him, it’s not that I didn’t believe he existed, it was rather that I was actively ignoring him because I knew that he wanted me to do something else. And at that time, I wanted to rule my own life.’
Being There for Youth
After finishing school at Tawa College in 2008, Claire studied to become a hairdresser. But after several years it was clear the clippers weren’t for her. ‘The work environment in the salon I was working in was pretty crushing. If there was something you did wrong, you’d hear about it.’
Eventually, a youth pastor role opened at Johnsonville Corps. Yet she was adamant she wasn’t the right person for the job.
‘I thought, “I won’t get it, but here’s my CV with WelTec hairdressing”,’ she laughs.
But, sure enough, at 22 she was hired. With a natural love for young people, the role was certainly made for her. ‘As an adult, where else can you go and play the Amazing Race or Family Feud?’ she laughs. ‘Youth group is pretty special, kids and teenagers just go out and have clean fun and really enjoy themselves.’
Claire loved that she was able to be there for young people in what she describes as a challenging and transitory stage of life. ‘Anybody in those years will go through so many changes and new stresses. I really cared that they would have somebody there supporting them.
‘There are so many different new things happening to them. And young people are pretty receptive as well—what a time of life, I don’t think that really happens again.’
This was a role Claire would hold for five and a half years before coming into her current position at THQ.
Now commuting into the city every day, Claire feels privileged to be able to support and connect with youth leaders across the country. Yet she’s well aware of the responsibilities involved and has even set herself a particular challenge:
‘When I was a youth pastor, I didn’t always see THQ as a great resource I could call on. Not because THQ is bad, but I didn’t see it as this approachable place where I could go, “Oh yeah, I have a question, I’ll ask THQ”.
‘But now I’m here and my role is actually to support youth work on the front line; I want nothing more than for my phone to ring and for it to be a youth pastor with a question.
‘I want people to get to know me. I don’t want to just sit here and do “THQ work” while people all over the country are doing their “church work”. We’re all working toward the same goals. I want to contribute with everyone else.’