Grace Episcopal Church in Clayton growing under new leadership

sgilman@newsobserver.comMarch 24, 2014 

John Gibson, pastor of Grace Episcopal Church, sits in his office on a Wednesday afternoon. His congregation of 30 has grown to 40 in the past several months.

SAMANTHA GILMAN — sgilman@newsobserver.com

On a Sunday morning, the Rev. John Gibson wears a long white robe to preach to a tiny congregation. After the service, he shakes hands with each parishioner and finds out a little about their lives, how their weeks went.

Gibson has brought new energy – and attendance – to Grace Episcopal Church at 111 Lee Court in Clayton. When the Cary resident started preaching there, the congregation had about 30 people. Now it’s roughly 40.

That might not sound like much, but it’s a roughly 30-percent increase. Tina Huber, a member of the church, called the growth and the new priest “a big deal.”

“The prior priest was there about 16 years, so many of our congregation has no recollection of a new priest,” Huber said. “We are basically committing to a new priest and he to our church.”

After getting to know his congregation, Gibson hopes to start more programs. First on the list is a men’s ministry.

“Somebody in the congregation said, ‘You know, we really need some more things for men,’” Gibson said. “Women tend to be involved in the church, so I think it’s important to provide opportunities for men to grow in their faith.”

Gibson is studying Spanish and would also like to start a mass for the community’s Latino population.

“I think there is a real need for that,” he said. “For many Latinos, I think this is a place where they can find a spiritual home. Many of those are also at the lower levels of society, and it’s part of what Jesus called us to do, to serve those in need.”

Gibson holds a doctorate in congregational development, and he loves to see churches grow. He has guided such growth before, though it ended sadly. From 1999 to 2005, Gibson was pastor of Prince of Peace Episocpal Church in Cary, which saw its congregation grow from about 100 to 350 during his tenure.

“We grew very rapidly,” Gibson said. “It was very exciting; we were building.”

Then controversy broke out in 2004, when Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, became bishop of the diocesan of New Hampshire. The Cary congregation split between those who sided with the church and those who opposed the appointment.

Gibson sided with the church. “I’m supportive of gay persons, and the Episcopal Church is very progressive in that way,” he said.

In debt over their building and wracked with schism, the congregation eventually disbanded. Though the church no longer exists, Gibson is grateful he got to use what he learned in seminary.

“I really did get to use all the skills then because the church really did grow,” he said.

Gibson’s next assignment was St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, where he ran the adult ministries for a congregation of more than 400.

In North Carolina, growth might be a challenge for the Episcopal Church, which doesn’t have a strong presence here. The Baptists and Methodists, he said, are the “strong demographic.”

“I think churches in general would look askance at the Episcopal Church because it is openly accepting of gays,” Gibson said. He has never faced opposition directly because of his beliefs, but he added with a smile that in Clayton, “I think a lot of people don’t even know we’re here.”

While the Episcopal Church tends to promote social justice, Gibson has a heart for ministry. “I’m more focused on spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said.

So, in his clerical collar, clear-rimmed glasses and salt and pepper hair, he plans to keep getting to know his congregation in Clayton and serving them as best as he can. After leaving St. Michael’s, Gibson said, he and his wife prayed for “a place where we would be a blessing to the congregation.”

And if numbers speak, he has been a blessing. Connie MacGill, attending a Wednesday contemplative service, certainly thinks so.

“He’s the rock for everyone for whoever is attending his church,” MacGill said. She attended St. Michael’s in Raleigh until recently and knows Gibson well. She said she can call him whenever she needs prayer.

“He’s godlike in my mind,” MacGill said, “full of love, full of prayer, giving.”

And though his contract is for just one year, he hopes to stay if things continue to go well. At 55, Gibson has many years before the mandatory retirement of age 72. At 62, he will have 30 years of service in ministry.

“But I don’t plan to retire,” Gibson said. “One reason is for financial reasons, but also because I enjoy what I do.”

And he looks forward to using his congregational-development skills, the ones that have lain dormant since his days at Prince of Peace.

“I’m excited to use them again,” he said.

His goal is not to overhaul the the church but “simply to grow” in order to reach more people. While some churches might be motivated by status and big salaries, he said he focuses more on spreading the gospel through ministry.

“I just enjoy getting to know people,” he said. “For me, reaching people with the good news of Christ is a priority of the church.”

And ministry to him is based on relationships and comes from how he sees God.

“God is a trinity, one being but three persons,” Gibson said. “There is an incredibly dynamic relationship between God the father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit. It is a very communal view. Ministry is very relational.”

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