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1980s: My Weekly Respite From Fundamentalist Christianity

bruce gerencser 1987
Bruce Gerencser, Somerset Baptist Church, 1987

From 1983 to 1994, I pastored Somerset Baptist Church in Mount Perry, Ohio. It was here that I learned the ins and outs of the ministry. From 1986 to 1988, the church grew rapidly, and was, attendance-wise, the largest non-Catholic church in Perry County. Somerset Baptist was a busy beehive of activity. I preached a minimum of three times a week, taught Sunday School, preached at the nursing home, and spent hours each week counseling congregants and evangelizing the lost. The church operated four bus routes, covering upwards of thirty miles one way in every direction. Throw in youth activities, revivals, special meetings, and events, and, well, virtually every day of the week had some sort of church activity going on.

Somerset Baptist was the perfect place for someone such as myself; a type-A workaholic who thoroughly enjoyed the non-stop busyness of the ministry. It was not uncommon for me to work sixty-plus hours a week, taking one vacation in eleven years. Even when I had to work outside of the church, I still pastored full-time, believing the church deserved to have all of me. Of course, I worked myself right into health problems, some of which are with me to this day. If I had to do it all over again, I certainly would have done things differently — or so I tell myself, anyway.

For five or so years, I would once a week play basketball at Somerset Elementary School with a group of men who had no association with the church. One man’s teen son rode the bus to our church, and through this connection I joined these men for a weekly game of hoops. I found that this game was a respite from Fundamentalist Christianity and the stress of the ministry. These men were not Christian in the least. Some of them were Catholics, but as is the case with many Catholics, their religion was in name only. Here I was, a Fundamentalist Baptist preacher in the midst of ten or so unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines, yet they welcomed me into their group, and every week I looked forward to the two hours we played basketball together.

The first week, the men were worried about whether their swearing would “offend” me. I told them, not in the least. You are not going to say anything I haven’t heard before. And so we played, week after week, year after year. Men would come and go, but the games never failed to provide me a moment in time when all I had to concern myself with was my defense and making shots. Physically, I would sweat off five to ten pounds in the two hours we played. Afterward, I would enjoy drinking a sixteen-ounce ice-cold glass bottle of Pepsi; sometimes even two. I still miss the days of popping the cap off a bottle of Pepsi using the car-door latch and guzzling it down. Good times . . .

I now see that this weekly game was a sanctuary I carved out for myself. No preaching, no evangelizing, no inviting anyone to church. Just testosterone and basketball. Many of these men were underground coal miners; physically strong brutes. Our games were quite physical. Each player called his own fouls, but they were rarely called, adhering to the no blood-no foul rule.

Five years into playing games, several of the men moved away or were divorced. This put an end to our weekly event. Thirty years later, I still have fond memories of our games; of being accepted as a man without any religious expectations. I will always be grateful for these men seeing beyond my Christian Fundamentalism and viewing me as a man, as their equal. All that mattered to them was whether I could play the game. There were other “games” I would play the rest of the week, but on basketball nights, all that mattered was the court, the players, and the score.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Oh, our stories are very different, but this still sings to me. It was a time and place where all the accumulated baggage of life could be set aside, with nothing mattering but the players and the game in the here and now.

    When people talk to me about my beading, they always re.ark about how much patience it must take, and that puzzled me for awhile because I’m not a terribly patient person. But then I realized that when I bead, time stops. Not real time, of course, but the constant buzzing of my brain.

    • Avatar
      That Other Jean

      For me, quilting (by hand) is a place to get away from everything. You’re right–time stops when you have to concentrate that hard on what you’re doing. It makes perfect sense that Bruce found the same kind of escape from the pressures of the rest of his life. Everybody needs one, although not everybody finds one.

  2. Avatar

    During my fundamentalist years, I was a child. My respite from church and school was piano. My teacher was a single Methodist who had a male roommate (my mom eventually told me that my teacher was gay – I had no idea). I had lessons once a week, and my teacher was the one person I could talk to during those years outside of a religious affiliation. And at home, playing piano was a way I could express emotion and let off steam. I became accomplished and won 2 state titles among Christian schools.

    After I went to college and started moving away from fundamentalism, I played less and less. I rarely play at all anymore. I think I just associate it too much with the painful days of fundamentalism when I was a depressed, angry teen. Last year my daughter asked me to be her accompanist for her vocal music honor society performance, and it was interesting how easily the structure of practice became though I have lost some ease of technique- it’s like riding a bicycle. But I haven’t played since.

    Anyway, piano was my respite from fundamentalism and I have a hard time going back to it.

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    As a youngster, about 12 or 13, I would join my Catholic neighbour for hunting. He owned a BB gun. We would head for the woods and kill everything, pretty birds on the hydro lines, and any scurrying thing at all. I can’t say exactly why but I guess, both of us suffered under the yoke of extremes, mine hyper-Baptist and his, boozing parentals. So we would load up the BB’s and go kill things. It saddens me now to recall the hundreds of animals we shot but there was some relief in all that murder, some respite. We were the bullies of the woods.
    For me, sports was a big focus before high school but it was not my escape from the stained glass gulag. Mine was becoming a faux-hippy, letting my hair grow, smoking a bit of grass and listening to Hendrix, Dylan, Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and so on… They helped me know there was another world that hurtled through space independently of the gulag, a place of open pain and joy, an alternate way, poetry beyond the Psalms, the Song of Solomon.
    You fit into me like a hook into an eye… a fish hook, an open eye. (paraphrasing Margaret Atwood, Power Politics)

  4. Avatar

    This is such a powerful article. For me, I lost my identity in the ministry for the exact reasons you stated. I worked a full time job and then was doing something at church almost every day. However, I didn’t grow up in a Christian environment. Therefore I developed some hobbies that make Christians uncomfortable. I was a penultimate geek and Dungeons & Dragons (and similar games) composed a great deal of my school and adult days before I became a Christian. I listened to heavy metal, read sci-fi, fantasy and horror books. I watched quite a few rated R content movies. I didn’t have a clean mouth. I had no problem with drinking or smoking. I gave most of it up for my years in ministry. But thankfully I didn’t have that childhood conditioning / indoctrination to keep me going.

    I can vividly remember standing in the middle of a crowd at a metal concert (awesome band The Sword) and having an epiphany – I have more in common with all these headbangers than a single person I go to church with. I tried to let it slide, but it just kept building up. Ministry was costing me my family, my health, my sanity and any fun in my life. So I said goodbye to it this August. I set out to reclaim my life. My stress level went down dramatically rather quickly. I’m beginning to feel freedom. And I’m beginning to find me again. Bruce has been a great inspiration during this process.

  5. Avatar
    mary g

    mtv was my respite from the extreme fundamentalism we were raised in. casey kasem and the top 40 soothed me on sundays between the church services. still find his voice soothing whenever I hear it. parents hated mtv and rock music but never really made much effort to ban it at home. we just had to pretend we did not know about in public. same w/tv shows. mom loved tv at home, but we acted like we only watched educational programs when interacting w/church people.

    • Avatar
      That Other Jean

      It seems to me that fundamentalist Christianity–and probably extreme forms of other religions, as well–turns perfectly ordinary people into hypocrites all too easily.

  6. Avatar

    OTOH, my daughter asked her fundy friend recently, in my hearing, if her husband was enjoying the soccer club he’d joined. The friend said he’d stopped going because he felt he’d ‘got as far as he could’. (implying, with witnessing and inviting members to his church.) He was going to a different sports club instead. I thought that was so sad, the man couldn’t just ENJOY soccer for its own sake, one evening a week. He had to keep beating himself up about ‘witnessing’ there and probably feeling guilty and a failure because he’d got no one converted during soccer practice. (I’m with That Other Jean, patchwork and knitting.)

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Bruce Gerencser