On the last Sunday of November 2008, my wife and I attended a Christian worship service for the last time. This series details how things have changed for us over the past eight years. —
My wife and I are blessed to have six children, eleven grandchildren, three daughters-in-law, one son-in-law, a cocker spaniel, and one overfed, lazy cat. While our dog’s and cat’s lives have changed very little since we divorced ourselves from God, the same cannot be said for our children. This post will detail, from my perspective, how our deconversion affected our offspring.
Our children range in age from thirty-eight to twenty-four. We have two distinct families, three boys ages thirty-eight, thirty-six, and thirty-three and two girls and one boy ages twenty-eight, twenty-six, and twenty-four. Our older children spent most of their younger years in the hills of poverty-ridden Southeast Ohio, while our younger children have spent most of their lives in middle-class Northwest Ohio. The one thing all of our children have in common is that they spent most of their lives attending church three times a week and providing free labor for whatever church their father happened to be pastoring. All of them grew up in a devoutly Christian home, one that demanded fealty to God, submission to parental and religious authority, and centering life around the “work of the ministry.”
I pastored my last church in 2003 — Victory Baptist Church in Clare, Michigan. By the time I took on yet another hopelessly broken church that I was sure could be fixed by the miracle-working power of the one and only Pastor Bruce Gerencser, our oldest three children had left home — remaining in Northwest Ohio — while our youngest three were still at home. When I candidated (the dog and pony show used by Baptist churches to hire a new pastor) at Victory, I told the church that I was not a fighter; and that if there was major church conflict I would resign. Sure enough, seven months later, the church and I butted heads and I resigned.
Someday I will write in-depth about my experiences at this church, but for now let me hit a few of the highlights. In retrospect, I know I never should have become this church’s pastor. I saw the dysfunction, but I thought, as I always did, that I could bring reformation and change. You would think after decades in the pastorate I would have known better, but I didn’t. I never quite learned that most churches will never change; that many congregants view a new pastor with a new agenda as a threat to their power and control; that many churches don’t deserve a pastor and should be left to die.
After a contentious church business meeting in which one leader in the church — a pastor’s wife — informed me that my agenda and vision were not theirs, I resigned and made plans to return to Ohio. On the day we moved, not one church member wished us well or offered to help us load up our things. One family, who lived right across the street from us and to whom we were quite close, left early in the morning on moving day so they wouldn’t have to help. Prior to resigning, I had talked to them about the problems I was facing at the church, and I thought they were at least sympathetic to my viewpoint. Unfortunately, I was wrong. They denied talking to me and sided with the church’s power brokers.
One older man in the church reminded everyone that there were children sitting in the meeting watching what was going on. Some of those children were our youngest three, then aged fourteen, twelve, and ten. They had watched their Dad work eighty-hour work weeks at the church, and their Mom go off to work at a local dry cleaners so she could help supplement their pastor father’s meager pay (no benefits, no insurance, $200 a week). I have no doubt that their experiences at Victory Baptist played a big part in their current views on religion in general and Evangelicalism in particular.
After leaving Victory Baptist, we returned to Northwest Ohio so Polly could resume her job at Sauder Woodworking. We rented a cramped ranch home in Stryker, hoping that we would gain some clarity about what the future might hold. By this time, I was almost certain that I never wanted to pastor again. During the six months we spent in Stryker, my health took a serious turn for the worse. Thinking that warmer weather would improve my health, my sister suggested we move to Yuma, Arizona, so we did. Our stay in the Southwest Arizona last all of seven months. The pull of family became so strong that we decided to move back to Ohio, living for ten months in Newark before moving north to Bryan where our children lived. (During our time in Newark, I did candidate at several Southern Baptist churches in West Virginia and considered an offer to start a new Christian Union church in Zanesville, Ohio. I concluded that whatever ministerial desire I once had was gone, and that my Evangelical traveling days were over.)
By the time we returned to Northwest Ohio, our three oldest children had married. One would soon divorce, and the other two were talking about bringing new little Gerencsers into the world. For the next three years Polly and I, along with our three youngest children, visited numerous churches, hoping that we would find a place to call home; a church that took seriously the teachings of Christ; a church that was willing to use our gifts and talents. Alas, all we learned was that Christian churches are pretty much all the same. The names were different, as were the liturgies and styles of worship, but apart from these things the churches we visited showed little interest in us as people, concerned only with putting five more asses in their pews and more money in their offering plates.
While our children were surprised by their father’s leaving the ministry, nothing prepared them for the nuclear bomb that exploded when we abandoned Christianity, choosing to first embrace agnosticism, then atheism and humanism. (Please see Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners.) These choices of ours caused confusion and upheaval. What do you mean you aren’t Christians? What do you mean you aren’t going to church anymore? These questions, and others, came bubbling to the surface, questions which continue to arise to this day. While several of our children have had multiple discussions with us about our decisions to leave the ministry and Christianity, others have chosen to leave matters alone. One of our children tells people who ask about us that we left Christianity due to burn-out. While certainly our disaffection towards Christianity played a part in our deconversion, saying that the primary reason we are now unbelievers is burn-out does not tell the whole story. I suspect that, for this child, attributing our unbelief to burn-out allows him to stop follow-up questions about our spiritual state and current church attendance.
One thing I made clear to our children: when it came to God, church, Christianity, Jesus, and religion in general, they were on their own. I may have been the patriarch and spiritual head of our home for most of their lives, but now it was up to them to choose which paths they wished to walk. For a time, our children found our unbelieving ways unsettling and confusing, but over time each of them has found his or her own path. (I was criticized for cutting them loose like this, accused of throwing them into the deep end of the pool to teach them how to swim. Perhaps this is true, but all of them eventually learned to swim.) We have made it clear that our children are free to life as they wish. We, for the most part, don’t meddle in their lives. This doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions about the choices they make. We do, but as long as our children are not physically harming themselves, we are content to let them live their lives as they see fit.
While there have been a few religion-related skirmishes, mostly connected to baptisms and first communions, as time as gone along our family has settled into its secular way of life. Several of our children and their spouses attend local Catholic churches, several are atheists or agnostics, and the rest are NONES who are indifferent to organized religion. While Polly and I at first couldn’t bring ourselves to attend anything remotely connected to Christianity, we are now at the place where we are comfortable with attending baptisms, first communions, and the like as long as we aren’t asked to participate. We do so for the sake of our children and grandchildren.
It is not my place to explain the philosophical and religious views of our children. Neither is it their place — as they are often called on to do — to defend our decision to divorce God. During my Christian days, I was quite vocal about my beliefs, writing frequent letters to local newspapers in defense of Christianity. Today, as an atheist, humanist, and democratic socialist, I continue to write letters and I have added blogging to my repertoire. My public expressions of unbelief have put my children in the unenviable position of having to listen to locals — at work, college, and social engagements — express their anger and disfavor towards my viewpoints. While they are free to disown me, so far they have chosen to stand their ground, pointing my critics to the various ways they can contact me to express their outrage first hand.
According to Polly’s parents and our extended families, who are still mired in Christian Fundamentalism, our loss of faith has wreaked untold havoc on our children and their families. More than a few family members, former colleagues in the ministry, and former parishioners have point-blank told me that I have ruined my children. Not Polly, but I, because I am the head of the home, and God holds me accountable for how my godlessness has affected my children and grandchildren. In their minds, if I would just repent and return to the church, all would be well. In their minds, if I came back to Jesus, Polly and our six children and their children would line up behind me and return to the front rows of a nearby Baptist church. Such people fail to see that the children of Bruce and Polly Gerencser are all grown up, free to make their own choices, free to live life as they please. Yes, their lifestyles are considered abominations by some Independent Fundamentalist Baptist family members, but remember, these people live in an alternate universe where normal biological acts and social behaviors are considered vile sins against a thrice holy God.
A non-Evangelical accounting of the lives of our children reveals successes, failures, and complexities — typical of human existence. All of our children are gainfully employed, busy enjoying the fruits of their labors. Rarely does a week or two go by that we don’t see all of our children, either at a family gathering or a school event. Our family is close. Love abounds, and when sibling squabbling causes conflict, it is short-lived. If we have learned anything over the past eight years it is this: family is what matters. For most of my adult life, family was not my first priority. God, Jesus, the ministry, and the church, all came before Polly and the kids. Now I am free to focus the fleeting days of my life on our family. Things are, in every way, better now that God and the Bible no longer dominate our lives. Liberated from religious servitude, we are now free to devote our lives to that which matters most — family. Polly and I know that we are lucky. Our loss of faith could have imploded our family, especially if some of them remained Evangelicals. Fortunately, our children also fled the pernicious clutches of Fundamentalism, and we are now free to build deeper, richer relationships without worrying about what God thinks or what the Bible says. Our family remains a work in progress, but I think Polly and our children would agree with me when I say, life is good. Not perfect, not without conflict, not without loss, but good, nonetheless. I can safely say that if any of us were asked if we are interested in returning to the garlic and leeks of Evangelicalism, we in unison would say H-E-L-L NO!