A widow's thoughts on ministry, after an Ashley Madison tragedy

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Christi Gibson knew that her husband, the Rev. John Gibson, was working himself to the point of physical collapse, while fighting depression at the same time.

There was his faculty work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he taught communication in the undergraduate Leavell College, including a "Ministry Through Life Crisis" class. He was served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pearlington, Miss.

As if that wasn't enough, he kept volunteering -- working in New Orleans' brutal heat and humidity -- to repair cars for seminary students and others who couldn't afford mechanics.

"John stayed busy to the point of absolute exhaustion," said Christi Gibson, in a telephone interview. "I often came home expecting to see signs that he had worked himself into the ground and collapsed."

She knew about his struggles, but didn't expect to come home on Aug. 24 and find his body, dead at age 56. There was a suicide note in which he confessed that his name was among thousands released after hackers hit the Ashley Madison website that promised to help customers arrange sexual affairs, with complete anonymity.

Since then, Christi Gibson and her grown-up children, Trey and Callie, have struggled to work through their grief. They have also tried to use their terrible, unwanted moment in the public spotlight -- including a CNN interview -- to urge fellow believers to be more honest about the pain and brokenness found in pews and pulpits.

Meanwhile, Christi Gibson has returned to work at the First Baptist Church of New Orleans, where for six years she has led its "discipleship and missions" programs. She helps people minister in prisons, in juvenile detention centers, in the troubled streets of the Lower 9th Ward and in short-term volunteer projects in Africa.

She also directs "Grace Works" classes that help members strive for spiritual growth while facing the joys, challenges and crises of daily life. Her commitment to those classes is greater now than ever before, said Gibson.

"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."

Based on her own ministry work, and urgent lessons from her family's tragedy, Christi Gibson said she would urge religious leaders to:

* Model for their flocks what it means to be "real and transparent" when dealing with their own struggles, she said. Ministers also must learn that there are ways for them to get help "right at the very start, before things escalate and get out of control."

* Point their people toward confidential programs -- in the church and outside of it -- for those seeking help with depression, eating disorders, alcohol, sexual addictions, workaholism and other personal issues. It's crucial for pastors to help people find professional counseling, rather than attempting to do that difficult work on their own.

In the wake of recent events, she noted, men in her church are working to find ways to "increase accountability and to support each other" on a wide range of hard issues, including stress, depression and pornography.

* Help members, especially parents, openly discuss the power of personal computers, tablets and smartphones in an age in which the first exposure to online pornography among American males is creeping out of the teen years and into childhood. People need positive input on these issues, as well as warnings.

"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."

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