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I Did It For You Jesus — Crank Windows and Vinyl Floor Mats

1984 chevrolet cavalier
1984 Chevrolet Cavalier

In the late 1980s, while I was the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I purchased a 1984 Chevy Cavalier for $2,900. It had 19,000 miles on the odometer. The car was spartan in every way: crank windows, vinyl mats, AM/FM radio, and no air conditioning. I used the car for my ministerial travels, and we also used it to deliver newspapers for the Zanesville Times-Recorder and the Newark Advocate. If this car could be resurrected from the junk yard, it would have stories to tell about Bruce and Polly Gerencser zipping up and down the hills of Licking, Muskingum, and Perry Counties delivering newspapers. All told, we put 160,000 miles on the car without any major mechanical failures. Tires, brakes, and tune-ups, were all the car required.

If the car could talk it would certainly speak of being abused:

  • Polly hit a mailbox, denting the hood and cracking the windshield.
  • Polly hit some geese, damaging the air dam.
  • Bruce hit a concrete block that had been thrown in the road.
  • Bruce hit a black Labrador retriever, causing damage to the front of the car.
  • Bruce hit a deer, causing damage to the bumper and radiator.
  • A tree limb fell on the car, further damaging the hood.
  • A woman drove into the back of the car while it was parked alongside the road in Corning, Ohio. We found out later that this accident broke the rear frame member.

By the time we were finished with the car, it looked like it had recently been used in a demolition derby. We carried personal liability insurance on the car — no collision — so no repairs were performed after these accidents. We certainly extracted every bit of life we could out of the car. It went to the happy wrecking yard in the sky knowing that it faithfully served Jesus and the Gerencser family.

Our Chevy Cavalier is a perfect illustration of our life in the ministry. Unlike Catholics, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers don’t take a vow of poverty. That said, the eleven years I spent as pastor of Somerset Baptist can be best described as the “poverty years.”  I put God, the ministry, and the church before my wife and children. We did without so the church could make ends meet, thinking that God would someday reward us for our voluntary poverty.

Pastoring Somerset Baptist was a seven-day a week job. I was always on call, with rarely a day off. And as a workaholic, I liked it that way. During the late 1980s, for example, I was preaching on the street two days a week, teaching Sunday school, preaching twice on Sunday and once on Thursday. On Wednesdays, I would preach at the local nursing home. On Saturdays, I would help visit the homes of bus riders and try to round up new riders. I also helped start a multi-church youth fellowship. We had monthly activities for church teens. And then there were revival meetings, special services, Bible conferences, watch night services, pastors’ conferences, and the like. Throw in visiting church members in their homes and when they were hospitalized, and virtually every waking hour of my day was consumed by the work of the ministry.  And lest I forget, we also took in foster children, many of whom were teenagers placed in our home by the court. I believed, then, I could “reach” these children and transform their lives through the gospel and regular church attendance. I was, in retrospect, quite naïve.

But, wait, there’s more! — I am starting to sound like a Billy May commercial. In 1989, I started a tuition-free private Christian school for church children. I was the school’s administrator. I also taught a few classes. Polly taught the elementary age children. Many of these children have fond memories of Mrs. Gerencser teaching them to read. Students have no such memories of me, the stern taskmaster they called Preacher.

somerset baptist church 1983-1994 2
Our hillbilly mansion. We lived in this 720 square foot mobile home for five years, all eight of us.

For the last five years at Somerset Baptist, we were up at 6:00 AM and rarely went to bed before midnight. When I started the church in 1983, we had two children, ages two and four. Eleven years later, we had six children, ages fifteen, thirteen, ten, five, three, and one. Our home was patriarchal in every way. Polly cared for our home — a dilapidated 12×60 trailer — cooked meals, and changed thousands of diapers; and not the disposable kind either. Polly used God-approved cloth diapers with all six children. She also breast-fed all of them.

Why did Bruce and Polly live this way? The short answer is that we believed that living a life of faith on the edge poverty was how Jesus wanted us to live. After all, Jesus didn’t even have a home or a bed, so who were we to complain?  If God wanted us to have more in life, he would give it to us, we thought. Much like the Apostle Paul, we learned to be content in whatever state we were in — rich or poor, it mattered not.

I left Somerset Baptist Church in 1994. I am now a physically broken down old man. The health problems I now face were birthed during my days at Somerset Baptist. There’s no doubt, had I put my family first and prioritized my personal well-being above that of the church, that we would be better off financially and I would be in much better health. As it was, I spent years eating on the run or downing junk food while I was out on visitation. I know we surely must have sat down to eat as family, but I can’t remember doing so. Of course, I can’t remember us having sex either, and our children are proof that we at least had sex six times. All I know is that I was busy, rarely stopping for a breath, and so was Polly. It’s a wonder that our marriage survived the eleven years we spent at Somerset Baptist. It did, I suppose, because we believed that the way we were living was God’s script for our marriage and family. We look back on it now and just shake our heads.

I am sure some readers might read this post and not believe I am telling the truth. Who would voluntarily live this way? Who would voluntarily sacrifice their economic well-being, health, and family? A workaholic madly in love with Jesus, that’s who. A man who believed that whatever he suffered in this life was nothing compared to what Jesus suffered on the cross. A man who believed that someday in Heaven, God was going to say him, well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord. I viewed life as an endurance race, and it was my duty and obligation to keep running for Jesus until he called me home. No one can ever say of Bruce and Polly that they didn’t give their all — all to Jesus I surrender, all to him I humbly give.

beater station wagon
$200 beater. Polly HATED this car. What’s not to like, right?

Of course, my devotion to God, the church, and the ministry was a waste of time and money. One of the biggest regrets I have is that I wasted the prime of my life in service to a non-existent God. While certainly I helped many people along the way, I could have done the same work as a social worker and retired with a great pension. Instead, all I got was a gold star for being an obedient slave. I am not bitter, nor is Polly. We have many fond memories of the time we spent at Somerset Baptist Church. But, both of us would certainly say that we would never, ever want to live that way again. We loved the people and the scenery, but the God? No thanks. We feel at this juncture in life as if we have been delivered from bondage. We are now free to live as we wish to live, with no strings attached. And, there’s not a dilapidated Chevrolet Cavalier sitting in our driveway. No sir, we have electric windows, electric seats, air-conditioning, and the greatest invention of all time for a back ravaged by osteoarthritis — heated seats. We may be going to hell when we die, but me and misses sure plan on enjoying life until we do.

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. Avatar
    Becky Wiren

    I do believe you felt called to serve God and live this way. Bob and I might have ended up this way if circumstances hadn’t intervened. I’m glad you all have a much more comfortable life now! Ours is certainly WAY better than when we were in a trailer park in Minnesota 30 years ago.

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    I believe you, Bruce! Religion does odd things to people, ain’t that the truth?

    Btw, it is only RC priests who belong to religious orders who take a vow of poverty. If a priest is under the official jurisdiction of the bishop (a diocesan priest, in other words) he gets a salary, plus a house to live in gratis, plus a car (expenses paid.) When I grew up in the RC Church (and nothing I see and hear nowadays tells me this has changed in any way) there were priests who had quite a good standard of living, taking several overseas holidays a year, for example. Some of them (this a bit of a cliche!) had seriously expensive whisky habits. But even in the case of religious order priests, there are priests who have access to private income (legacies, etc.) And bear in mind that, officially at least, these priests have no dependents.

    In both cases, there are priests who live very simply because they feel they ought to, and there is the occasional priest who deliberately chooses to live in a very deprived city neighbourhood because he feels that to be his calling. . .There are also diocesan priests, salaried, who have fathered children and refuse to contribute a penny(often with the awareness and actual SUPPORT of the bishop.) But that’s a story for another time.

    It seems that when someone truly believes that “I am doing (whatever it is) for God”, any behaviour is possible. Which is one of several reasons why religion (by definition) is dangerous.

  3. Avatar

    My father in law attended seminary to become a RC priest. Of the 60 men entering the program, only 5 were ordained priests and only 1 remained a priest his whole life. That 1 became priest to the rich inhabitants if the Hamptons. He had a busy summer season but coukd travel the rest if the year – and he was known as a party priest. Anyway, my father in law,was out off by the hypocrisy of the seminary priests whose “no meat Friday dinners” were lavish lobster dinners while regular RC families were eating quite bland meatless fare.

    I am sure you and Polly got some fulfillment from helping your congregation. I can’t help but think of these prosperity preachers and their multi million dollar homes. Too bad Jesus didn’t lead you in that direction!

  4. Avatar

    One thing about being a preacher: If you’re not rolling in tax free money you’re doing it wrong.
    The Chevy Cavalier was actually a pretty good car mechanically. I think 140,000 miles is pretty close to what I got out of mine.

  5. Avatar

    First, and I know this is an oversimplification, may I say that you did NOT waste those years in the ministry. Without that background, you would not be able to continue to minister in your unique and important way today. Second, had you not lived a life of poverty, you might not have seen the futility, irony and dishonesty of it all. You have helped so many people since leaving that life behind, but I doubt you would have been able to be as helpful and relatable without the struggle. That said, I’m sorry that your workaholic and austere life caused unnecessary, ongoing physical pain for you. I also know the frustration of looking back on your younger days and wishing you could relive them so you could actually enjoy life and your family during those years.

  6. Avatar

    Nice post Bruce. I identify, but as the Pastor’s son in this story. I posted your blog page on twitter and have received several responses so I hope it builds traffic for you. All the best!

  7. Avatar
    Steven Tiger

    Interesting, but the two things that would be most meaningful are not addressed: (1) What led to your loss of faith? (2) Though you have no regrets in terms of what your years as a minister cost you personally, do you have any regrets about the fact that you preached religious notions you now see as false?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Thanks for commenting.

      The why question has been extensively answered. You might find these posts helpful:

      As to whether I regret the things I preached? Absolutely. I have apologized to a number of former congregants about some of my preaching. That said, I preached what I was taught and what I believed at the time. It’s difficult admitting that much of my preaching was lies, bullshit, and personal opinion.

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    Ian for a long time

    I wasn’t at the same level as you, but I pissed away many years of my life making very little money and putting nothing up for retirement. I finally got my act together at 35, but there’s no way I can make up for those 15 years.

    May dad lost close to 40 years worth of time and money to churches. He regrets every penny he dropped into the offering. He gave over 30% of his gross income every year, even when he was on unemployment during the winters. He believed the saying “you can’t outgive God”. Well, God let him loose everything we owned in 1985, due to no work. Maybe he hadn’t given God enough. I remember him in front of the church, after we lost the house, telling the church he was still going to give, because God cared about the sparrows, so God cares about him.

    The pastor and most other members of the church did OK, though. They were shrewd men who let a working man basically drown.

    Not good memories.

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    I have many of the same memories of growing up in a parsonage. Mom always managed to create a cozy home anywhere, but I believe much of our comforts came from my grandparents money. Dad was just like you,gone all the time, did not care about finances,etc. He would have nothing now had they not inherited from his side. Maybe he knew all along that he would inherit, but he seemed to view the world as worthless all those years because he believed Jesus was coming any day. The old car pic brought back memories, as my poor mother was constantly put out in junkers for years because he did not want to buy a decent car at the expense of giving all to the ministry. We had to be rescued many times due to car troubles. It is sad to see my now elderly parents still caught up in all of this, knowing they both threw away so much life potential for nothing.

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Bruce Gerencser