Music + Arts

Janet Gibbs

The Healing Clerk (b. 1923)

Had she been born in another place, another time, Janet Gibbs might have ended up a Presbyterian minister.

That was her dream; but her parents had a clear vision about their children’s destinies, virtually from birth: that her brother Oliver would become a preacher, and she would become a concert pianist. And so he did, and she did.

Oliver grew up to become a Presbyterian minister; Janet attended Juilliard and became a concert pianist. Only after marriage, two children (my brother Christopher and I), a second career as an educator and a third as a psychoanalyst, did Janet find her way to a ministry of her own. She brought to her calling a rare combination of personal, professional and spiritual skills that left their mark on all the institutions of her remarkable life: two New York City Quaker schools, the Chautauqua Institution, and of course, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

My parents joined Fifth Avenue in 1957; he was an usher, an Elder and the superintendent of the Sunday School when we were growing up. Only many years later did my mother leave the family perch in the balcony to play a leadership role of her own. She joined the Women’s Association, began teaching Adult Education classes, was elected to the Session in 1990 and became Clerk in 1992, the first woman to serve in that position.

“God provided exactly the right person at the right time to heal our church.”

—Ken Henderson

A typical term for a Clerk of Session is one year; Janet served for a decade, guiding Fifth Avenue through a tumultuous era of leadership transitions that drew on her deep faith, a gift for building consensus (honed over years working in Quaker education), and her skills as a therapist. As Ken Henderson, another faithful leader of the church, once said about her, “God provided exactly the right person at the right time to heal our church.” Senior Pastor Scott Black Johnston repeated those words when he presented Janet with the Kenneth O. Jones Distinguished Service Award in 2012.

It’s never easy to lead an important institution in a great city; leading one that has been divided so deeply requires both courage and kindness. Janet could preach, and teach, but as much as anything she could listen—eagerly, actively, creatively listen, in ways that made people feel heard and helped them reach a new understanding. “We do not always agree with each other,” she wrote to the congregation during a turbulent passage, “but we can disagree in love. And above all, we love each other as a family of believers.”

Whether chairing a meeting, offering a prayer, or simply being fully present in the presence of people’s pain and doubt, Janet led the congregation and its officers with wisdom, generosity and gentleness. Of all the fascinating chapters in her life, there was none she was more proud of than her service to Fifth Avenue. It was as though she had heard her calling, virtually from birth.

About the Writer

Nancy Gibbs grew up at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, where she served as an Elder and chaired the Board of Deacons. She was the Editor in Chief of TIME (the first woman to lead the magazine) until 2018 and is now the visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.