How the IFB Church Turned My Wife Into a Martyr — Part One

polly bruce gerencser cranbrook gardens bloomfield hills michigan 1978

Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Cranbrook Gardens, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Spring 1978, two months before wedding.

My wife and I were raised by parents who believed Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches preached the true gospel and adhered to the right doctrinal beliefs. Both of us spent our preschool years in non-Baptist churches, but neither of us remembers anything about these congregations. Our earliest religious experiences were with IFB churches. Both of us made our first professions of faith as kindergartners. I asked Jesus into my heart during junior church at Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego, California. Polly gave her heart to Jesus by her mom’s bedside. As teenagers, both of us “really” got saved and/or committed our lives to Jesus. I believed, then, that God was calling me to be a preacher, and Polly believed her calling in life was to be a preacher’s wife.

During our high school years, I attended a large public high school in Findlay, Ohio — dropping out of school after my eleventh-grade year. Polly, at the time, lived in Bay City, Michigan. Her father, at the age of thirty-five, felt the call and moved his family to Pontiac, Michigan to attend Midwestern Baptist College.  During her father’s years at Midwestern, Polly attended Oakland Christian School — a large Fundamentalist institution. Polly’s father graduated from college in May 1976. He then moved his family to Newark, Ohio so he could become the assistant pastor for the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio. The Baptist Temple — as it is commonly called — was an IFB church pastored by Jim Dennis, Polly’s uncle.

In August of 1976, a full-of-life redhead boy packed his meager belongings into his beater Dodge Dart and made his way north to enroll in classes at Midwestern. A beautiful dark-haired girl would do the same, making the five-hour trip north in a six-year-old AMC Hornet. God’s perfect will was aligning for both of us, and we soon began dating. It was not long before we both were smitten with the other. Six months later, on Valentine’s Day, I asked Polly to marry me. She said yes, and I put on her ring finger the $225 quarter-caret diamond ring I had recently purchased for her at Sears and Roebuck. We then wonderfully broke Midwestern’s rules forbidding physical contact between unmarrieds. (Please read Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six-Inch Rule)

Polly and I threw ourselves into our studies, knowing that we couldn’t — thanks to a college rule forbidding marriage as freshmen — get married until the summer of 1978. Polly’s mom used the intervening eighteen months to try to derail our marriage plans, In February of 1978, Polly’s mom let her know that she would not be permitted to marry me. End of that, I am sure Mom thought. Little did she know that full-of-life Bruce had rubbed off a bit on quiet, reserved Polly. After giving serious thought to eloping, we decided to get married with or without her parents’ blessing. Polly told her mom that she wanted their blessing, and very much wanted to have the wedding at the Baptist Temple, but if not, she was marrying her red-headed bad boy anyway. This was the first time that Polly ever stood up to her mom.

In July of 1978, we tied the knot at the Baptist Temple on a ninety-five-degree July day (the church did not have air conditioning). Polly’s dad and uncle performed the wedding. Our wedding entourage was made up of friends from college, close friends, and family members. It was very much an IFB affair, with one exception, anyway. The soloist for our wedding was a college friend of ours. Two of the songs we asked him to sing were We’ve Only Just Begun by the Carpenters and The Wedding Song (There is Love) by Peter, Paul, and Mary.  These were the FIRST secular pop songs ever sung at a Baptist Temple wedding, and they were most certainly the last. Forty years later, Baptist Temple couples are still required to have their wedding music approved before it can be used.

After our honeymoon, we returned to Pontiac to begin our junior year. The first week of classes, Polly informed me that she was pregnant. How could that be possible? We were using contraception! Of course, we never had any premarital counseling or instruction about birth control. We were just two dumb, naïve young adults who thought reading Fundamentalist Tim LaHaye’s 1976 book, The Act of Marriage, was a comprehensive sex education.

Polly, Jason, Chevrolet Impala, 1979

Polly was quite sick during her pregnancy. She was also being treated by a country doctor who thought it was good for her to gain as much weight as she wanted. All told, she gained sixty-eight pounds, some of which is still with her today. Polly’s health problems forced her to reduce her class load. I maintained a full schedule of classes while also working a second shift job at a Detroit-area machine shop — Deco Grande. In January of 1978, I lost my job, and we were immediately plunged into a financial crisis. Polly and I sought counsel from the college dean, thinking that it might be best for us to drop out of school for a semester. The dean told us that it was God who led us to Midwestern and he never uses quitters (we would hear the “God never uses quitters” many times during the next few weeks). He suggested we borrow money to pay our tuition bill. We did, but that only staved off destitution for a short while. In February 1979, we dropped out of college, packed up our belongings in a small U-Haul and towed them with a 1967 Chevrolet Impala to the place of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. I was twenty-three and Polly was twenty-one.

Our experiences at Midwestern generally reinforced what we had been taught as youths. We were taught a John R. RiceThe Home: Courtship, Marriage, and Children, complementarian view of marriage. The Sword of the Lord website describes Rice’s book this way: Too long have people had to depend on lewd and crude books, written by ungodly men or women, people who think more of the body than of the soul, writers who study more to excite human passions than to make godly homes. This book shows the normal plan of God about marriage, about children and the Christian principles of a happy home.) I was the head of the home and all decisions were to be made by me. Polly’s role was to care for our home and children. A greater burden was placed on Polly due to the fact that she was taught that since her husband was a pastor, she and her children would always come second to the church. Polly was often reminded, both in classes and from the pulpit, that she would have to make great sacrifices for the sake of the ministry; that she must never complain about her preacher husband’s tireless service to Jesus; that men greatly used by God always had wives who understood their husbands’ supernatural calling; that if she would humbly walk in her husband’s shadow, God would greatly reward her after death. Polly, being naturally passive and reserved, adapted well to her calling, as did I, an outspoken, passionate, quick-to-make-decisions pastor. These teachings would, over time, turn Polly into a martyr.

Please read Part Two.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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  1. ObstacleChick

    This just makes me sad. You can see that Polly has a backbone but she will rarely be allowed to use it. I couldn’t stomach the concept of complementarianism. Every day, there is a message of women being lesser. For myself was also the realization that I was “created wrong” as an analytical think we who is as nurturing as a dead cat. I got out before I ended up in that kind of marriage which I never would have survived anyway. Fortunately, Polly gets to be herself now.

  2. Trenton

    Hard to believe that people would have a problem with The Wedding Song(There is Love) at a wedding considering that it mostly is a run through of a, wait for it, wedding. Then again a book with incest, genocide, debauchery, polygamy, murder, and several other nsfw stories was sitting in every pew and is even called the good book.

    1. Brian

      This is a good point, Trenton but seriously, the mall-music Carpenters were present in song and therefore the whole service is null and void! These two young and vulnerable Christians were never properly married and that explains their finally falling away from the Lord. Sure it took some years for the sin to fester but one little seemingly innocent song gets sung and two more souls burn eternally. Tricky devil! Let us prey…

  3. Troy

    I’m just curious is the ONLY reason girls attend Midwestern Baptist is to find a preacher husband and be a preacher’s wife? It’s always been a joke that some women attend college to get a M.R.S. degree…but I have to imagine there would be some other options for the girls (and boys I might add).

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Male students generally became pastors, evangelists, missionaries, or Christian school teachers. Preparing men for the ministry was the schools emphasis. Female students generally became pastors’ wives, Christian school teachers, church secretaries, or missionary helpers (only men were allowed to train to be missionaries).

      Many girls were indeed there to get themselves a man, so the MRS degree idea is factual. The drop out rate was high. Roughly 60-75% of entering freshman classs dropped out before reaching their senior years. The academics were not overtly difficult, but since Midwestern was not accredited, no student aid/loans were available. Thus, most students worked a job, often full time. Then there was four church services a week, along with working in various ministry positions. A typical Sunday for me went like this: work/drive bus route, teach Sunday school, attend morning service, preach at drug rehab/halfway house in Detroit in the afternoon , attend evening service, go on a date after service, and dorm devotions. Work, school, church, and two dates a week took up 90 or so hours each week. That doesn’t include study hours, playing basketball, etc. Many students couldn’t handle the pace/work, so they dropped out.

      I should add that some students got jobs in local auto/truck plants. These union jobs paid quite well. Come graduation, “calling” went out the window and money replaced it. These men would seek churches to pastor, only to find out they paid pauper wages. Not wanting to leave the good life a General Motors job provided them, these men abandoned their ministerial aspirations.

  4. Brian

    Troy, I would hazard that after a long prison term, even a transfer to a new prison would be welcome.

  5. ObstacleChick

    Bruce, that is interesting. At my Christian school in the 80s where all newer teachers were required to have a degree from BJU, Pensacola Christian, TN Temple or the like, there was a high turnover rate among teachers. All of them had to get a summer job. All of them taught at least 4 preps (contrast that to union member public school teachers who had 2 maybe 3 preps but 3 preps garnered more pay), and most had a side job during school like coaching. It was typical for a teacher especially middle school or high school level to leave after a year. The teachers had no lives. Plus male teachers had to preach at school too. I can’t imagine what a preacher’s life was like so thank you for sharing.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Midwestern had a high turnover rate too. Professors were paid poverty wages. Many of them were area pastors, so teaching at the college part-time was a side gig. Then there were the teachers dismissed for heresy (saying the NIV was the Word of God) or sexual misconduct.

  6. Matilda

    As the wife of a then-pastor, I always thought Princess Diana said it best. In a very frank interview she gave on national TV, she said ‘There were 3 people in our marriage from the start’. She meant Charles’ mistress, Camilla. Committed as I was to my complimentarian marriage, I couldn’t help but think, secretly, she’d decribed being a pastor’s wife perfectly. The church was, for me, far more demanding than any human mistress. I pushed those thoughts to one side and jesus-d on, probably like Polly did, that telling myself this was god’s perfect plan for my life, and self-denial and submission showed my obedience. So glad to be out of all that now.

  7. Rebecca

    It definitely sounds like unrealistic expectations to me. Yet, people are different, and some thrive in situations where others will flourish. I never thought I would do great in pastoral ministry because even though I care for people deeply, I also can be a more private person, and need alone time.

    Many people are young when they go into these situations, and haven’t had time to really experiment or to know themselves on a deeper level.

    I have a young adult son who while very spiritual is not a Christian believer. His wife is a committed Christian. Her grandma who was very instrumental in rearing her was actually a Methodist minister. They are up there in Alaska, the frigid north working in the schools. Both of them are basically living in one room on a virtual shoe string, happy as clams. They actually feel that these close and simple living quarters has worked to improve their marriage all the more.

    My husband and I dont’ think we could do it. God would have to appear in the burning bush. LOL Bless their hearts.

    1. Rebecca

      Yikes, I should have said some people might thrive in situations where others will find them impossible and beyond challenging.

      All empathy for you and Polly, Bruce, I certainly could not have done it.

    2. Becky

      Rebecca, your son and wife are amazing. But my husband was a pastor briefly 30 years ago. And if things had turned out differently I could’ve lived in that trailer in a cold Minnesota trailer for several more years. But the church did a typical thing and made our financial situation worse by cutting off a significant amount of support. (They wanted me to go get a full time job with a small baby. I had health problems but I didn’t really want to share them with the church…I didn’t feel it was the church’s business. C’est la vie.)

      Now my husband and I are no longer Christian, he’s an atheist and I’m an agnostic universalist. (I mean I hope there is a God and I pray to God, but I know I cannot PROVE there is a god.) I certainly couldn’t cope now with living in a trailer in a cold, cold winter LOL.

      1. Rebecca

        Thanks, Becky.

        My youngest son has always been super adventuresome, loves to travel, and to experience other cultures. But, now he and his wife are thinking of starting a family. I definitely think that a baby will add a whole other dimension to living in one room. 🙂 We’ll see.

        After recently visiting the tropics, I was hoping for a call to somewhere, say, like Hawaii or the US Virgin Islands. Racing with the reindeer at the Fur Rondy is not doing it for me. Teasin folks…

  8. Jono

    That sounds positively gruesome. I went to a small Midwestern Lutheran college. By the time I was through I had gotten pretty good at avoiding the “math” building altogether. It was the one with the big plus sign (+) on top. I only go into those buildings for very special occasions, like funerals, and I have yet to be struck by lightning.


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