THOMASVILLE — When Milton Gardner was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary he also served as pastor of a rural church in Sulphur, Kentucky. Instead of making the 40-mile drive on Sunday mornings, he and his wife, Nancy, would spend Saturday night with various church members. They’d talk and eat, growing closer in fellowship. It was, describes Nancy, “a wonderful and great opportunity to get to know people.”
Getting to know people was Milton Gardner’s way. With a ministry that spanned 60 years – 32 of them as pastor of First Baptist Thomasville – Gardner left an indelible mark on many. It was that impact for the Gospel many talked about following his death Dec. 17. He was 83 years old.
A native of Americus, his father Milton C. Gardner served as pastor of Central Baptist Church for two decades. After high school the younger Gardner would go on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Mercer University. He was ordained into the ministry at 19 years old while serving as a pastor at a small church in Sumter County. At Southern, he met a pretty girl named Nancy who was completing her training to be a nurse through Kentucky Baptist Hospital. The two married in 1958.
After earning his Master of Divinity at Southern, Gardner moved back to his native Georgia and served as pastor at First Baptist Sylvester and First Baptist Vidalia. In 1969 he answered a call to become pastor at First Baptist Church in Thomasville, remaining there until his retirement in 2001.
“A friend to all, Brother Gardner, often referred to simply as Milton, was known to be humble, gentle, sensitive, playful, creative, and fiercely competitive!” reported the Thomasville Times-Enterprise. “He could comfort a grieving widow with a gentle touch and whisper … and surprise a young basketball player by netting a 3-pointer despite their best defensive efforts.”
“He could comfort a grieving widow with a gentle touch and whisper … and surprise a young basketball player by netting a 3-pointer …
During retirement Gardner served numerous churches as interim, such as: Autreyville in Moultrie, Beacon in Albany, Calvary in Grady County, First Albany in Leesburg, First Baptist Cairo, First Baptist Sylvester, First Baptist Ty Ty, First Baptist Waycross, Salem Baptist in Thomasville, Union Grove in Pelham, First Adel, First Valdosta, and First Baptist Bainbridge. Gardner was also heavily involved throughout Georgia Baptist life, including as a board member for The Christian Index, Georgia Baptist Hospital, and on the Executive Committee that voted in 1992 to bring J. Robert White as executive director.
Gardner’s preaching style carried the message of the Gospel through generations, Nancy attests.
“He was extremely dedicated and committed to being a pastor,” she says. “He treated everyone equally and could sit and have coffee with anyone. I saw him leave in the middle of the night to go visit people in the hospital. He’d pray with them, come home for a little, then go back later and sit with them some more. He really had his desire to preach and minister in the right place.
“He had a laissez-faire approach to leadership, too. Milton believed in surrounding himself with capable people and getting out of the way. Only in the rarest of circumstances did he interject.”
In addition to his wife of 60 years, Gardner is survived by daughters Kathy Allen, Karen Kelso, Kim Pippin, and Karla King; nine grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren in addition to siblings Wilma Kinslow, Dorothy Jordan, and William Gardner. A grandson preceded him in death.
A Celebration of Life service was held at First Baptist Church in Thomasville on Dec. 22. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in his honor to Samaritan’s Purse or the Lottie Moon Mission Offering.