Still excited about caring for others, Wesley Mission CEO retires

Keith Garner on serving the community in word and deed – for Jesus

What do you hope the CEO of a major Christian organisation would say on the eve of retiring from the role after 15 years?

Perhaps something like this: “I’ve never felt that I’ve had to be ashamed of the gospel.”

So says Reverend Keith Garner, beloved superintendent of charity Wesley Mission who finishes up in the top job this Sunday.

“When I’ve talked with politicians – from prime ministers to premiers – I’ve never felt ashamed of Jesus. That’s very important to me.”

“I want to be a Christian who is living in the reality of the world.”

An ordained Methodist minister from the UK, Garner moved to Australia in 2006 to lead a social welfare service that seeks to “continue the work of Jesus Christ in word and deed”. Replacing Garner will be Stu Cameron, former lead pastor of Newlife Church on the Gold Coast.

Providing national help for the homeless and those with mental health needs, as well as suicide prevention support, are among Wesley Mission’s services of which Garner is most proud. They also are personal passions for an affable, modest man who grew up in the working class town of Bolton near Manchester.

“In the past 15 years, I’ve found that almost all of the work Wesley Mission is involved with involves mental health issues of one type or another.”

When Garner and his wife Carol first moved to take up the Wesley Mission role, they were surprised at the levels of mental health and homelessness in Australia.

Garner doesn’t want to dwell on what causes such ongoing social concerns, though. Instead, he points out how “there is an enormous amount of goodwill among people” to effectively respond, including the relatively recent rise in awareness around the different types of homelessness experienced in Australia.

He has been a champion of calling upon all Australians to be on the look out for mental health issues – at work, family, church or wherever. “And if we really took it that seriously, we could start to address this issue,” says Garner, who was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2015 for his service and advocacy work.

Wesley Mission Keith Garner

Keith Garner being interviewed during Wesley Mission’s Good Friday procession in Sydney. Wesley Mission

Garner’s ‘Closure of Ministry’ farewell at the Wesley Conference Centre in Sydney this Sunday will pay tribute to, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said, a Christian man who has “lived out the ethos of Wesley Mission”. In the footsteps of Methodism founder John Wesley, the outgoing CEO of Wesley Mission strives to model the “word and deed” union of social concern and evangelism.

While Garner feels he was born to help those in need, he wasn’t born into the Christian church. He went to youth group as a teenager, though, “because that’s where the best girls were and the best fun was”. Around the age of 16, he heard the testimony of some Irish Christians who kept their faith – despite living through ‘The Troubles’. They suggested Garner read the account in Acts 16 of a prison guard’s conversion to Christianity.

As he explained last November to ABC Radio’s Indira Naidoo, Garner did read it – and everything began to change. “I found myself in a totally unfamiliar place being drawn to what I believe was God speaking to me. That really turned a light on for me.”

A few weeks later, Garner gave his life to Christ. A lad who already felt drawn to helping others became “energised” by the Christian church to devote his life to such ends – in the name of Jesus. Fast forward to 2021 and Garner reports his continued excitement about Jesus and looking out for others.

“I’m still excited by the thought of caring for other people.” – Keith Garner

“Jesus Christ is a person who is for everybody,” says Garner. “He doesn’t belong to a particular group of people. And I still find myself completely fascinated by the Jesus of the Gospels. By his words and his actions, he shocked and confronted people and, most of all, cared for people.”

“I really am thrilled that here I am at the end of a long ministry and I’m still excited by the thought of caring for other people.”

Compassion is a defining word for Garner. He uses it a lot to describe what he hopes will underpin Christians as they seek to serve Jesus. For someone who has so prominently strived to practice what he preaches, Garner has met many people along the Wesley Mission way who also have spurred him on.

“I’ve been inspired by people who have very little in terms of material benefits. I think of Freddy, who was very much on the edge of homelessness but now lives in a [Wesley Mission accommodation] centre. He’s in his 80s. I’ve learned a lot from people like Freddy who have taught me it is possible that even though you have got very little, practically, in this world, you can be a fine witness for Jesus Christ.”

“I really am thrilled that here I am at the end of a long ministry and I’m still excited by the thought of caring for other people.”

Garner has no plans to cease being such a witness as well. Although immediate plans for travel have been quashed due to COVID restrictions, Garner’s life beyond leading Wesley Mission will involve mentoring Christian leaders and preachers, as well as regular weekly broadcasts on UK radio network UCB (United Christian Broadcasters). Garner already is a seasoned communicator, having presented the weekly Wesley Impact! TV program and been interviewed by mainstream media.

Although Garner keeps giving off the vibe that he isn’t much of a fan of certain types of questions about himself and what he’s done, Eternity still asks him: What do you hope people remember you for as CEO of Wesley Mission?

With only days before he leaves this role to pursue other opportunities to serve in word and deed, Garner offers this humble hope for a legacy.

“If people could remember me as someone who knew what it was to be a preacher of the gospel but, most of all, as a carer for people.”

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