Was Fundamentalist Pastor Bruce Gerencser Mentally Ill?

bruce gerencser 1991

Bruce Gerencser, 1991, Somerset Baptist Academy. Surely everyone can see from this picture that I was a real Christian.

Telling my story often leads people to surmise that they only way someone could believe and behave as I did was to be mentally ill; that nobody in his right mind would live as I did; that only a crazy person would stand on a street corner and preach at passersby; that only a lunatic would sacrifice his life and that of his family to a non-existent God. Dismissing these things with the wave of a Freudian hand is far too easy, and it allows non-Christians to avoid thinking about how their own behavior might be deemed mental illness by those who do not have their beliefs. For example, countless people believe that essential oils can cure all sorts of diseases, as can chiropractic care. Evangelists from the First Church of Essential Oils and First Subluxation Church of the Spine use blogs, social media, newspapers, and face-to-face encounters to preach their gospel, hoping to convert people to their respective religions. The same could be said about homeopathy, iridology, acupuncture, and herbal cancer cures. Consider also that many political systems of thought, much like Christian Fundamentalists, demand fidelity, purity, and obedience. And we must not forget the God-above-all-Gods, American sports — particularly football and basketball. Spend some time around people whose lives revolve around this or that sports team, and it’s hard not to conclude that these people are delusional members of a cult. Yet, all of these beliefs and behaviors EXCEPT Christian Fundamentalism are considered “normal.” Why is that?

It is not helpful to lazily attach the “mentally ill” label to all Christian Fundamentalists. Now, that’s not to say that some Christian Fundamentalists aren’t mentally ill — they are. What troubles me is when non-Fundamentalists look at Evangelical beliefs and practices and conclude that only insane people would believe and live that way. This is a patently false conclusion. We must either conclude that all humans — yes you — have, to some degree or the other, a mental imbalance, or there are other explanations for why all of us believe and practice the things we do. I would posit that we humans are complex creatures, and our ways of life are shaped, molded, and controlled by our genetics, parents, childhood, environment, economic status, physical health, social strata, and a host of other exposures and variations. Thus, when someone reads one or more of my blog posts — say, posts such as My Life as a Street Preacher, I Did It For You Jesus: Crank Windows and Vinyl Floor Mats, and How the IFB Church Turned My Wife Into a Martyr — without thoughtfully and humbly considering the variables mentioned above, they will not come to a reasoned conclusion.

Part of the problem is that each of us has our own definition of “normal,” and we use that definition as the standard by which we judge the beliefs and practices of others. We rarely ask who it was (God?) that made us the “normal” police or why our standard of normality should be the inerrant, infallible rule (get my point now?) by which we determine whether someone is mentally ill or has a “screw loose.” Atheists love to say “each to his own,” except for religion, of course. Fundamentalists, in particular, have heaped upon their heads by atheists judgment and derision, without atheists making any attempt to understand. No need, many atheists say. Fundamentalists are delusional nut jobs — end of story.

Much of my writing focuses on my past life as a Fundamentalist Christian, especially the twenty-five years I spent pastoring Evangelical churches. I have willingly and openly chosen to be honest about my past, including my beliefs and behaviors. In doing so, I hope my story brings encouragement and understanding, and that doubting Christians or ex-Evangelicals might see that there is life after Jesus. What I don’t want my writing to be is exercises for non-Christians, ex-Christians, liberal Christians, or atheists to practice armchair psychology. Psychoanalyzing me — past and present — is best left to my counselor. Whether I was, in the past, mentally ill is impossible to know. I’m more inclined to think that my past is a reflection of someone who sincerely and resolutely believed certain things, little different from the countless other beliefs embraced by humans.

I have suffered with depression most of my adult life. The reasons for my struggle are many. Certainly, religion plays a part, but I would never say that the blame for my depression rests with Christianity alone. Again, I am a complex being, and the “whys” of my life are many. I left Christianity ten years ago. I pastored my last church fifteen years ago. Yet, here I am long removed from God, Jesus, the church, and all of trappings of Christianity and I still battle depression. Why is that? If Christianity is the root of psychological difficulties, one would think that I would have regained mental health once I was freed from my marriage to Jesus. However, that hasn’t proved to be the case. I have learned that depression can affect believer and unbeliever alike.

I hope readers will see my writing as an opportunity to understand, and not judge. When the day comes that I feel that that is no longer the case, I will have written my last blog post.

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.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

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11 Comments

  1. Ami

    It’s nearly impossible to escape lifetime conditioning. I was raised in churches from infancy and believed everything they told me. That’s not mental illness, that’s brainwashing. Getting past that and finding truth is difficult.

    I’m really glad you are willing to write about your feelings and your journey. From actually admitting to everyone that you no longer believe to explaining everything you can about it and how it’s affected your life takes far more courage than I have, as I haven’t told most people I know that I no longer believe. Too scary for me.

    Maybe *that’s* mental illness?
    Hmm.

    Reply
  2. Becky Wiren

    I think you write with clarity and honesty. I don’t think you are mentally ill at all. And you are still ministering to those of us who can no longer be a conservative/fundy/evangelical Christian.

    I’m not even sure what mental illness is anymore. Don’t we all have something? 🙂

    Reply
  3. Pastor Disaster

    What a beautifully honest post, Bruce. I loved this one.

    The thing that always bugs me about leaving the church and disavowing the god of my forefathers is that those outside the church can be just as dogmatic as those in the church. It’s like it’s almost expected to abandon one set of doctrines and embrace another, less metaphysical set in their place.

    I mean: If I disavow the fundie god of my childhood I’m often expected to become an “atheist” with nothing inbetween… you’re either a “fundie” or an “atheist.” Period.

    I could be nuts… but I’m pretty sure that there just may be some transitional points of belief inbetween.

    Reply
  4. ObstacleChick

    I was a psychology major so i think everyone is mentaly ill, especially myself :-). Seriously, though, I am sorry if I gave the impression I thought you were mentally ill. I thonk my commentbon a previous post that i had blythely assumed the zealous street preacjers in NYC wete memtally may jabe started something, and that wasn’t the intention.

    I have seen something interesting though about certain personalities in different groups I have been in. A few years ago I started exploring Paleo diet when that came out. It seemed interesting though it made wild claims about how it coukd cure a plethora of diseases from acne to diabetes to fibromyalgia to MS (of course it doesn’t but it can help people make better food choices if they weren’t prior). Many of the founders of this have dialed back their claims and changed a few things in recent years, with some prominent folks dropping the term Paleo altogether. Anyway, I did this Whole30 elimination diet in which you give up grains, beans, rice, corn, dairy, alcohol, and added sugar for 30 days after which you do controlled reintroduction to find what foods irritate your system. The toxicity, meanness, and legalism of some folks in the online forums reminded me of some of the worst in fundamentalist Christianity. If someone said they accidentally ate salad dressing that their sister put honey in, trolls would jump in and tell them they failed and had to start over. It was like people were treating diet as a religion. It was interesting and eye opening to see this behavior ooutside religion.

    In obstacle racing I see similar behavior. In Spartan race, if you fail an obstacle, you do 30 burpees as penalty. It is unmonitored except for elite athletes. But invariably someone will go on social media and excoriate someone for not doing all 30 burpees and finishing in 1214 place to the complainer’s 1215 and calling him a cheater. That behavior isn’t mental illness.

    I think that certain personalities are drawn to certain environments. And of course, we are a combination of how, where, in what circumstances we were raised interacting with our innate personalities. Certain people are apt to cause a ruckus in a church, in a food group, in a fitness group, in an art group, anywhere. Others won’t. Some of those people will recognize that they are going over the top and will correct themselves, others won’t.

    Reply
    1. Maloyo

      Speaking of diets, the many of the vegan crowd are nuts. No, not mentally ill but definitely nuts. The 80-10-10 raw foodies take this to a whole other level. I do think people have a basic longing to be part of something, not matter how extreme. At this point in life, I avoid extremes, however.

      Reply
  5. Geoff

    I dont believe Bruce was mentall ill , just consumed with zeal for his cause. When my brother and I were into drag racing cars there were people there whose lives were consumed with racing. They would spend all their income and go into debt to race. All there time and social relations revoled around racing. It was like a cultish club.I new guys whose wives gave birth while they were at the track. I think its some weird trait of humanity to want to belong to something bigger than themselves, to have a label and be part of a group whether it’s religious or secular.

    Reply
  6. ObstacleChick

    Yes, I have found that many people who adhere to elimination diets can be extreme. I came to understand that what works great for one may not work for another.

    And yes, we do like to find am in group, some group with which we can identify and participate. It can take a variety of forms, including but not limited to religion, nationalism, sport team, university, fitness, collecting items, entertainment…..the list goes on and on. Sometimes we can let that identity take over our lives to the exclusion of other aspects like family. There is nothing wrong with obstacle racing (my passion right now) but if I took off every weekend traveling around the world to race and/or train, I would be light in the wallet and miss out on time with my family. So I pick and choose my races, sometimes incorporating them into a family trip that we can all enjoy.

    Reply
  7. Mary Cox

    In defense of chiropractic care, around eight years ago I developed burning bursitis in my hips. It made it difficult to sleep and was a constant annoyance. I tried steroid shots and meds, but they provided little relief. I decided to try a chiropractor and continue to go once a month. My hips are so much better. I no longer need injections or meds. Chiropractic has helped with my other pain areas also. It doesn’t cure my arthritis, but it does keep the pain down to a more manageable level.

    As far as mental illness goes, I believe my mental illness lead me into fundamentalist religion. I was looking for answers and health, but what I found was a replication of my family life with a domineering, authoritarian father who was impossible to please. Patriarchy has infected every aspect of my life. We are tribal creatures by nature and long to belong. I think if we understand that it will help us to choose more wisely what groups and activities we swear our allegiance to. I avoid groups because I tend to lose myself in them and they invariably seem to be lead by the least competent person in the group. I suppose we’re all looking for some sort of meaning and purpose in a crazy, mixed up world. Perhaps Solomon put it best when he said (paraphrasing) that we should eat, drink and enjoy the works of our hands all the (meaningless) days of our lives.

    Reply
    1. Brian

      Hi Mary, I have also had glorious results with chiropractic care but I think Bruce was focussing on it being the be all and end all. He will correct me if I am wrong but he used the word cure. No chiropractor says they will cure. They speak of adjusting the body to be better able to help itself, as I understand the various practitioners I have visited.
      As for mental illness, my experience was similar to yours. Your choice of the word ‘replication’ is very apt to describe what I remember of my family life too and how the tool of religion just fit like a glove.
      Bruce, your opening lines of this blog suggest to me that you have a pejorative attitude towards mental illness and that you perhaps feel ashamed. It is my observation that a good deal of the population has some imbalance in their lives and I call that illness, not just personality or individuality. I think suggesting we are complex and so forth sidesteps the fact that we are not well with the world for reasons. If you are suggesting to me that you see yourself as perfectly healthy in your street-preaching days and that your inability to perceive how shockingly insensitive it was to put your boy on the sidewalk with you, then we will just have to leave it at that, a disagreement. I do not believe we are born bad and mean-hearted but it seems to me that you might be suggesting that the harm you were doing was normal and healthy, was just your personality. Is it just fine to treat children like that? And what is termed ‘normal’ sometimes is hardly something to admire: It was not long ago perfectly fine to assault children but it was never right.
      I am mentally ill and aspire to a fuller life in therapy, not normality. Some depression is a natural response to life but enduring depression is mental illness and I am content with myself for looking after it by therapy and using meds if needed sometimes. I said you were clearly mentally ill in street-preaching and that was a failure of judgement. You found it hurtful and dismissive. I think I cannot ever recall wanting to dismiss you. I respect you and listen carefully to your words. I don’t think of you as normal at all but someone quite unique. Again I am sorry to have made you feel bad by using the term.

      Reply
      1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

        I have seen a chiropractor numerous times over the years. My thinking on their treatment has changed over the years. I would see one for a specific back problem, but not for anything else.

        My concern is with the term “mentally ill” or “mental illness” being lazily used to avoid truly understanding what made a person the way he is today. It is not uncommon for atheists to use these phrases as a way to dismiss religious people — especially Evangelicals — out of hand. Humans are complex beings, and if we truly want to understand people we must see life from their perspective. For some atheists, doing so is problematic because they have never been religious or they were, at one time, members of non-Evangelical sects.

        Reply
  8. Autumn

    I think that high demand groups fulfill a certain need for some folks to have a certain level of order to their lives and some also answer a pull toward asceticism. These are basic needs that some people feel. Does it make them mentally ill? I’m not sure. It’s a case by case thing, does it prevent their function to fulfill other basic needs? Are they imposing it on others? If so, maybe it’s dysfunction.

    Chiropractic care? Well that’s thorny, can it help back pain? It depends on the cause. If the Claims are that it can cure ear infections, erectile dysfunction and the common cold? I’m out of here! Noping away into the sunset! Nope no, grumpy cat no!

    Reply

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