After an Ashley Madison headline: A widow seeks grace and candor in churches

For decades, I have been interested in issues linked to clergy stress.

This is, in part, because I grew up in a pastor's home and I understand what that's like. Let me stress that my father knew how to mix pastoral duties and family. He was not a workaholic and I learned, early, to thank God for that. When I got to Baylor University and started talking to other "PKs" -- preacher's kids -- I found that my father was not the norm. (Click here to read my tribute to my father, written before his death.)

So stories about clergy stress hit me right in the heart. I recently wrote a post about the death of a pastor and seminary professor, a story that was in the headlines because of its link to the hacking of the Ashley Madison website for people seeking, they thought, anonymous sexual affairs. Let me stress that this was a tragedy that, by all accounts, started with workaholism, then grew into a dark, hidden maze of depression, sexual addiction and finally suicide.

That post about the Rev. John Gibson and his family started a sequence of events that led to my "Crossroads" conversation this week with host Todd Wilken. Along the way, I heard from this man's wife, Christi Gibson and ended up talking with her.

The original post focused on a CNN report in which Christi -- herself a member of a major church staff -- and their children were interviewed. I sensed that there was much more that they said, or tried to say, but their words about faith, divine love, repentance and grace ended up on the editing floor. The CNN report did include this:

In his suicide note, Gibson chronicled his demons. He also mentioned Ashley Madison.
"He talked about depression. He talked about having his name on there, and he said he was just very, very sorry," Christi said. "What we know about him is that he poured his life into other people, and he offered grace and mercy and forgiveness to everyone else, but somehow he couldn't extend that to himself." ...
Gibson said her husband was likely worried he'd lose his job.
"It wasn't so bad that we wouldn't have forgiven it, and so many people have said that to us, but for John, it carried such a shame," she said.

In the on-air television report, even this mild faith reference -- "he offered grace and mercy and forgiveness to everyone else" -- were snipped out. References to the love of God? The Gibsons' defining language about God didn't make the cut, leaving viewers with appeals never to "underestimate the power of love" -- period.

I sensed these gaps and said so at the end of the post.

Raise your hand if you think there is a larger context to this brave woman's reference to "love." Clearly, in the interview, she is talking about the love of this man's family. But is that all she is talking about? I don't think so.

A day or two later, I received this email from Christi Gibson and I share most of it here with her permission:

Name: Christi Gibson ...
Message: Thank you for reading between the lines. 
When we left that CNN interview, we were rejoicing that God had indeed given us the words to speak. We felt certain that there was no way God could be edited out of that interview -- we had spoken his name and his truth too many times. When we saw the end result we were both disappointed and amazed. They had managed to delete any mention of him. But it seemed to us that the Holy Spirit was still present in the interview, so we trusted God to make himself evident in spite of the editor's scissors. 

I'm wakeful tonight and I opened Facebook to see that a friend had shared your article. I read it and wept, because in my weariness, I was feeling the pointlessness of our efforts. It seems what we are trying to say always ends up on the editor's floor. What is the point, then, of exhausting ourselves in the midst of our grief? ...

If I recall it correctly, the unedited version of that last clip was something along the lines of, "Don't underestimate the power of love -- the love of your God, the love of Jesus, the love of your family."

You might also notice that my son is totally mute in the program. In the 35 minute interview, he spoke eloquently about truth, community and the grace of God. I'm guessing he was not so easily edited as I was!

John Gibson, Jr., speaks for himself in the memorial service above. Make sure to hear the end of his presentation, at the 33-minute mark.

I contacted Christi Gibson and requested an interview for my "On Religion" column, focusing on what she has learned -- as someone who leads church programs in discipleship and missions -- from this tragedy that she wanted to communicate, in particular, to church leaders and to their congregations.

Her suggestions are in my column. Click here to read it.

In my talk with Wilken, we focused on the many, many religion stories linked to the Ashley Madison scandal that journalists could be covering.

For starters, were there local clergy caught up in the Ashley Madison scandals? Did any clergy fall? If you doubt whether that's a real story hook, look into the Christianity Today essays of online maven Ed Stetzer.

For example, are any Southern Baptist churches near the local newsroom taking part in the current efforts by this flock -- America's largest non-Catholic body -- to help those, in pews and pulpits, with addictions to online pornography? What are local churches doing to provide confidential and private resources for members struggling with depression, alcohol, abuse, eating disorders and on and on and on? What are local denominations of all kinds doing to help distressed and crashing clergy?

I could go on and on, as you will hear in the podcast.

But in my conversation with Christi Gibson, she had this to say:

"We have to have people in our lives who have permission to ask the hard questions. ... This is something that we have failed to do in many, but not all, of our churches," she said. "We have failed to create that safe place and a climate that lets people know they can be really transparent and open.
"There has always been that fear that if people open up, they will be judged and even pushed out of fellowship. That fear may not be based on what our churches really believe, but that fear is out there, and it's real."

And finally:

"Talking about all of this is a privacy thing, for most people," said Gibson. "We've lost the scriptural image of the church as a body, a body in which we rejoice together and we suffer together and we grow together. People can't live on an island anymore. We need each other. ...
"People have to know that their church is a safe place, instead of thinking of it as the most judgmental place on the planet."

There is so much more. Lives and souls are at stake and there are amazing stories -- tragic and triumphant -- to tell.

Enjoy the podcast, if "enjoy" is the right word. This is a serious one.

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