It was the spring of 1972, and two rather shaggy college kids stood before Seventh-day Adventist youth leader, Clayton Childs. Childs needed a couple more staff members to fill out the summer needs at Camp Blue Ridge in Virginia, and thus the requisite interview.
One of the two young men was George Gainer, a student at Columbia Union College in Maryland at the time. Outwardly he was an unmitigated success and popular with his peers. Inside, he was an angry man, filled with heartbreak and disillusionment founded in tragedies that had profoundly shaken his confidence in God. With his inner turmoil unabated, he had drifted away from an active faith. He was a history major, planning to work toward a position with the State Department and perhaps even a role in
Russia during what was then still a threatening period of the Cold War.
He hadn’t planned to interview for a position at Camp Blue Ridge. He and his friend had applied for summer jobs at a local shipyard but had received no answer. So, there he was, waiting for the inevitable
question from Childs. Camp was a ministry, and Childs wanted to make sure his staff understood their active role in that ministry. George knew he wouldn’t want to fake an answer about a relationship with God, but when Childs popped the final question, it wasn’t about that at all. Inexplicably, and perhaps providentially, that never came up. Instead, it was a request he could deal with: “Would you guys mind cutting your hair off your shoulders?”
And so, instead of working in the shipyards, George and his friend joined the Blue Ridge staff that summer. On the first night, when Childs handed each of the staff a copy of Steps to Christ, and said, “We’re going to read this together,” it was the beginning of a watershed experience for George. It began to turn his focus from hurt and anger to the grace of God. It changed his life. As he would reflect later, it was as if he had been that proverbial “brand plucked from the burning.” When he returned to Columbia
Union College, he found a new path forward as a theology major, studying to be a pastor.
After his graduation from college and a short stint as a pastoral intern in Worthington, Ohio, George followed the footsteps of many young Adventist pastors before him to the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. There he not only received his Masters of Divinity degree but also a lifelong companion in Leanne who was finishing up her education degree at the university. They were married in August of 1977. While George and Leanne were pastoring in the Barberton and Medina, Ohio, churches a couple years later, an additional “course correction” to his own personal spiritual journey took place from an unlikely source. Norman Meager, an older, wiser pastor, confronted him about issues of anger and control — issues that still troubled George about God. They had led to occasional bouts of depression that hampered not only his ministry but his role in the family. “If God was sitting here right now,” Meager offered, “you’d want to just shoot him, wouldn’t you?” His words confronted and shocked George to the core. Yet they were the catalyst to an additional journey of understanding that he was incapable of saving himself or the world unless he first recognized his need to receive the gift of grace — unmerited, unearned. The pathway of growth that had begun at Camp Blue Ridge and Steps to Christ blossomed
with this new recognition. A lifetime of burdens rolled off and he was set free from all his resentment, free from the recurrent depression, free from the baggage of human effort to earn God’s approval. It would create the vision for his ongoing ministry.
Throughout his years of ministry, which early on focused on youth at Sligo Church and Takoma Academy in Takoma Park, Maryland and then at Columbia Union College as campus chaplain, George and Leanne also fostered their growing family of three children: Matt, Julia and Jonathan. In 1994, they made a huge decision to jump from coast to coast, joining the staff at Sunnyside Church in Portland, Oregon for four years, where George also focused on young adults and youth ministry. Over the years his youth ministry roles found him leading nearly 19 different international short term mission trips. George says, “I cannot recall any short-term mission trip where we didn’t learn some sort of amazing lesson about generosity— and it didn’t start with us. It always came from those we thought we were sent to serve. We thought they were the needy ones, and we were really the ones in need!” Perhaps each was another example of he gospel of grace that George had come to embrace in his own life and ministry.
One day, while George pondered a transition from the Sunnyside Church to a new role as senior pastor at the Pleasant Valley Church in Happy Valley, Oregon, Greg Phillips, a fellow pastor, handed him a Scripture passage on a slip of paper. It was 1 John 1:7: “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” This simple action would help set the theme for the final two-plus decades of his ministry at Pleasant Valley. As he has often said, “Leadership must lead from the circle of light. No lies, no deals with power brokers in back rooms. Everything comes back to His circle of light. From it flows a growing ethos of public trust in which the miracle of a healthy, life-giving church can flourish to the blessing of God’s people and the praise of His glory.” And, by the way, the circle of light on that little slip of paper also drew Phillips to PVC a decade later to join George as a pastoral associate.
From 1998 until the present, George and Leanne have seen this principle at work in their life and ministry for the church. “It’s a miracle every time church works,” he says. “Stuff several hundred egos into a box and shake it up. It’s a flat-out miracle every time it works. And, it can only happen when
leadership and members covenant to operate in the circle of light identified in 1 John 1:7.”
And now, George has decided it’s time to step aside for new leadership to step up within his longtime Pleasant Valley church family. Retirement, it’s called, and on January 1, 2022 he will join Leanne, who made that decision in 2020 following a lifetime of elementary school teaching. He and Leanne have no immediate plans to move away from the greater Portland area. With three grown children and nine grandchildren, they hope to invest in a lot of quality family time. In addition, they have accepted a part time role for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) as Northwest ADRA Ambassadors. This will give George an opportunity to visit churches and schools throughout the Pacific Northwest to share stories of ADRA vision and mission throughout the world. “We’re sort of like Abraham and Sarah,” George quips, “leaving familiar territory, not knowing exactly where we’re headed, but wanting to be of service.”
George’s final Sabbath at the church will be January 8, 2022. Dan Linrud, Oregon Conference president, will be present for the service. Linrud says, “Pastor George and Leanne Gainer have been an exceptional ministry team for many years. Their steady and wise leadership through different seasons of challenging times has been a great blessing. They have led with integrity, dignity and love toward all, while always advancing the core identify of uplifting salvation and life in Christ as the central theme and guiding point
in life. We wish them God’s abundant blessings in the next chapter of retirement and look forward to continued fellowship in the years ahead and throughout eternity.”
Steve and Colette Kirkwood have been Pleasant Valley Church members since the beginning of George and Leanne’s ministry there. “I’m grateful to God for bringing Pastor George and Leanne to PVC,” says Colette. “Each Sabbath, Pastor George has brought us to the foot of the cross, drawing us to the heart of the Savior, inspiring us to grow into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.”
As he steps away from his years at Pleasant Valley Church and into retirement, George has high hopes that the church will grow in its intentions to be gospel-centered in the midst of an increasingly divisive
culture. “I pray this circle of believers will choose to grow in its calling to be a healthy, life-giving congregation within its community,” he says, “living out the promise of 1 John 1:7 and sharing from its foundation in that circle of light — the light of the world, Jesus Christ.”