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I Thought Jesus Would Take Care of Me When I Got Old

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I started preaching at age fifteen, enrolled at Midwestern Baptist College to study for the ministry at nineteen, married my wife at age twenty-one, and took my first church job a few months before I turned twenty-two. I was young, full of life, and raring to go for Jesus. I also was clueless about what awaited me in the ministry. Little did I know, that life would not turn out as Polly and I envisioned; that our fairy tale would not be one of love, peace, and potluck dinners; that our vision of a future with a white two-story home with a boy named Jason, a girl named Bethany, and a white picket fence would turn into a 12’x60′ trailer, six children, food stamps, and a $200 station wagon.

It’s common for young marrieds to have all sorts of hopes and dreams. Polly and I thought that God would surely use us in a mighty way to bring countless people to Christ; that we would be respected and rewarded for our hard work; that our children would grow up, get married, and follow in our footsteps. As a young man, I believed Jesus would always take care of me. He, after all, gave me a wonderful wife, blessed us with children, and favored the work we accomplished in his vineyard. Though Jesus never personally appeared to me, I saw all my ministerial success as coming directly from him. Boy, was I wrong!

One Tuesday in the early 1980s, I attended a Buckeye Baptist Fellowship Meeting at High Street Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio. I thoroughly enjoyed the monthly pastors’ fellowships I attended at various Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches. These meetings were a time for me to shoot the breeze with my ministerial colleagues and listen to what I considered, then, to be great preaching. On this particular Tuesday, one of the speakers was Charles Mainous, the pastor at High Street. Mainous was known for his virulent anti-government sermons. At the time, the steeple of his church was red, white and blue, church members carried firearms, and posted warnings on the doors warned government agents of this fact. I had heard him several times before, so I knew what to expect. During his harangue, Mainous said that it was a sin for pastors to pay into Social Security; that it was up to God to take care of his preachers, not the government. If Catholic priests could take a vow of poverty and be tax exempt, so should Baptist preachers. I thought, “he’s right. God called me, God leads me, God talks to me, and God gives me my sermons to preach. Surely, God can take care of me when I get old.” And so, following Mainous’ advice, I filed for exemption from paying social security taxes on my ministerial income (and housing) (IRS Form 4361). I was twenty-five years old. Still physically fit, playing competitive basketball in the winter and softball in the summer, I looked good, felt good, and thought of myself as downright invincible. Jesus and Bruce were ready to take on the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world!

I thought that I would one day set up a retirement plan and the churches I pastored would pay into it, providing for my care when I retired. Not that I ever planned on retiring. My goal was to keep preaching until I died. I even thought it would be an awesome sermon illustration if my appointed time to die (Hebrews 9:27) was right at the end of one of my sermons. What a way to punctuate my message, right?

I am, however, still here, and the only thing that died was my relationship with Jesus. What did change was that the youthful preacher named Bruce Gerencser came down with mononucleosis in 1991 and almost died. For the first time, there was a chink in my supposedly invincible armor. I was sidelined from preaching for over a month, and mono left me with physical problems that I deal with to this day.

In 1997, after a year of unexplained fatigue and muscle pain, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. This forced me to reconsider the naïve notion that Jesus was going to take care of me. In 2000, I decided to opt back into Social Security. Unfortunately, the paltry wages I received from this point to 2005 when I left the ministry didn’t do much to improve the level of social security I would receive at retirement. My health continued to decline, and by 2005 I was totally disabled, unable to find meaningful, paying work that meshed with my disability. Since that time, we have been a one-wage-earner family.

I looked in vain for Jesus. He was there when I was healthy, but nowhere to be found when I was sick. Of course, he was just a figment of my imagination, but I really did believe he was a friend who would stick closer to me than a brother; a supernatural being that would take care of me no matter what I faced in life. You see, religious beliefs are not benign. They can and do have consequences; they can and do cause psychological and physical harm; they can and do make a mess of your life. At least, that was the case for me. Thanks to not paying Social Security for twenty years, the only retirement income I’ll have will be based on the secular work I did on and off while pastoring churches.

In seventeen days, I will file for early Social Security. Come June, I will draw my first check for about $600. I sent a message to Jesus, asking him to make up the difference, but he did not respond. “I know I am an atheist and all that now, but come on Jesus, I worked seven days a week for you, month in and month out for over two decades. Surely the laborer is worthy of his hire, as the Bible you wrote says!”

Jesus is too busy building imaginary mansions in Heaven (John 14:1-6) to be bothered with my needs. He owes me, as he owes billions of people before me, but he’s never paid on his promises. He promised, at least in my IFB-addled mind, to take care of me, and to be my BFF. Instead, as he is wont to do, Jesus left me to fend for myself. And that, my friend, is the point of this post. Each of us is responsible for our own lives. Deep down, at some level, I knew that, but I convinced myself that Jesus would come through for me in the end. The responsible thing for me to have done was to pay into Social Security. The responsible thing for me to have done was to demand the churches I worked for do a better job at providing for my future needs, and those of my family. Of course, I was Head Cheese® at most of the churches I pastored, so to some degree I am to blame for them not taking care of me. I allowed myself to become a cheap whore for Jesus. I allowed myself to be paid poverty wages with no promises for tomorrow.

During my time at Somerset Baptist Church, a man who had pastored a nearby church for decades died. He and his wife (and children), had lived in the church’s parsonage for thirty years. There was an unspoken promise — an assumption — made to the pastor’s wife: “we will take care of you.” Much to her horror, “we will take care of you” meant “you can live in the parsonage for two months and then you will have to move. Our nice, new, shiny young pastor will need the parsonage for him and his wife and children,” And just like that the aged preacher’s wife was out on the street, forced to move in with one of her children. I thought, at the time, “how awful,” but I never considered why she was in that position. Her husband was a church slave. He worked for paltry wages, supplementing his income with side hustles. Living in the church parsonage allowed him and his family to live frugally, yet keep working in God’s coal mine for slave wages. I am sure they had no thoughts of retirement. Jesus promised to care for them too. Imagine the dead preacher’s wife’s surprise when she found out that the people they had labored with and cared for had no interest in reciprocation. “Our pastor is dead. Time for a new one!” End of story.

Over the years, I have given numerous young preachers advice. I tell every one of them the same thing: be bivocational. Get a “real” job, one that allows you to adequately provide for your family’s needs. Don’t let paltry wages from the church keep you on the bread line. Expect the church to pay you a decent salary and provide the same benefits you would have in the secular world. If a church won’t pay you, then don’t pastor that church. (In retrospect, I should have been far pickier about the churches I pastored.) If a church can’t pay you as much as you need due to its size, then get a job and pastor the church part-time. And above all, DON’T let anyone convince you to opt out of Social Security. The government is NOT your enemy!

If I had it to do all over again, I would have been a bivocational pastor. I would have worked jobs that adequately provided income for my family. I would have put my wife and children first, not God. It’s not God who suffers when there’s no money. It’s not Jesus who suffers when the cupboards are bare and your children are wearing bread bags on their feet to keep them from getting wet in the winter. And don’t even get me started on the Holy Spirit. Why that dumb ass “led” me to do all sorts of stupid things, things that caused harm to my health and the financial well-being of my family. I should have listened for the beep-beep-beep of a Brink’s truck backing up to my house instead of just, with a wing and a prayer, “trusting” the triune God of Evangelicalism to take care of me.

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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    Just reading about that ministers wife made my blood boil. What an utter betrayal. I will note my Evangelical Churches oppose any form of public assistance and say churches should handle this. Yet look at how this one handled it for their own member.

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    Ian for a long time

    I’ve always paid into social security, but that was only because I “had” to. I never saved a dime for retirement, because Jesus was coming soon.

    I worked at two different companies that had awesome 401k plans, but didn’t take advantage of them, because investment money was ill gotten gains, or so I was told. You shouldn’t get something for nothing, and that’s all the stock market is, according to many Baptists.

    As I was hittin my mid-30’s, I realized I needed a job with benefits and retirement. I now have some money put away, but nowhere near what I could have had if I hadn’t missed those 15 years.

    Jesus was supposed to come a generation after Israel was made a nation. That was 1988. Then, Jesus was supposed to come back at the end of the sixth millennial day, that was 2000, give or take a couple of years. Jesus isn’t good at keeping his promises, so I had to start looking after myself. There are a lot of us in the same boat.

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    It isn’t just Christians who believe in a deity to take care of what they should take care of themselves. I have a friend from Malaysia whose sister would just take off whenever she wanted leaving her children behind saying, “Allah will provide”. In reality my friend and her other siblings took turns caring for the children whenever their mother took off.

    That’s rough that you were so indoctrinated as to not take care of common sense retirement planning.

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    I just love that phrase, “If I could do it all again…” Kinda odd that you choose to speak as if there is a balanced way to do Christianity. That’s quite a stretch. I guess the balanced Christianity is never evangelical and never fundamentalist, hardly even capital ‘C’ Christian by those terms. The very nature of the evangelical beast is that it devours its prey wthout exception, fully. Like war, Christianity merely levels the field and everybody, everybody discovers that there are so many more ways to lose than they ever dreamed of; nobody wins but God, the Nothing. We begin with nothing and end there too. The clever trick of Christianity is that you are told you will win by losing. Give your life. My dad gave his life to Christ and in doing so, cemented his solitude and depression. Once under God’s thumb, dad could never find a good reason to get help outside the book.
    My younger sister married a preacher because she was afraid of living and needed the script. A priest becomes celebate to desperately demonstrate that it is okay to lie and harm the self, and then others. God’s way or the highway. The highway is a lonely place to be but that is where we find ourselves anyway, don’t we, still making noises into the silence.
    If I could do it all again, I’d release Jesus from the trap I put him in, the lie passed down to me and be free of him and his father. The king has no clothes.
    If we live the lie, we pass on the lie to our progeny. It’s nature’s way. Tupac’s acronym, THUGLIFE: The hate u give little infants fucks everyone.
    How many of us here were lied to from birth, led down the path to admire the king’s clothes, his magnificence, his glory… How many of us learned from the get-go that we did not deserve an opinion, a view except the correct view. How many of us were taught to obey and be quiet about human doubts and feelings, unless they supprted the lie.
    At what point in life does a human being realize that they were loved but that very love is a harmful thing in the legion of the harmed. Regardless the claims, nobody was ever beaten for their own good.
    Jesus will never be sufficient. You will believe he is and then you will further harm the self wiith denial in order to endure. It’s a sickness, a virus whose propagation through churches in America is tax-free.
    And Trump now intends to introduce a ‘Freedom of Speech’ bill to allow the lies to be deseminated further in America. His ‘freedom’ is slavery to ignorance and oppression. His ‘freedom’ is no-charge freedom to harm. Watch out, the preachers are on the march to the schools. You have understand they have given thier lives as Bruce did, as many of us did. It is for your own good. This is going to hurt.

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    Bruce – you displayed a lot of pragmatism in this blog, as usual. Looks like you and I are just days apart in age. We can’t survive on empty promises of Jesus taking care of us. Thanks for the excellent blog.

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    Have you considered applying as a dependent, on Polly’s Social Security? Stay-at-home parents can do that, and I don’t see why you couldn’t.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Polly would have to retire first, I believe, and we are not ready for that due to the medical insurance we receive through her work.

      Here’s what I found:

      “Current spouses and ex-spouses (if you were married for over 10 years and did not remarry prior to age 60) both have eligibility for the spousal benefit. You must be age 62 to file for or receive a spousal benefit. You are not eligible to receive a spousal benefit until your spouse files for their own benefit first.”

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    mary g

    wow, this is so dead on. my own parents gave up college, a good job, a paid for house etc to run off with ministry in the mid 1970’s. they practically starved on the paltry salary and lack of help w/the constant moving expenses. dad moved up to better churches w/more money later on, but the damage was done. they would have nothing if not for the inheritance they received. they view this a god providing, not laziness and ignorance being rewarded. they became upset w/my life choices as I opted for a real job, stability, and wise investing. they see my family as heathens. as a result we are not close. they gave it all up for a false idea of jesus and religion. it all makes me sad.

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    Dave Dubya

    “I already have health care. It’s given to me by God. Eternal health care.”

    This is the vacuous argument against public healthcare from a far Right evangelical.

    Yes, wealthy reality TV stars have healthcare in this life too. Too bad millions of lower-income religious people DON’T have adequate healthcare.

    They suffer and die because of their lower economic status. No God will treat their diseased and broken bodies. Let the “free market” decide. It’s the same thing as “God’s will”, amirite? That is, if Mammon is the god you serve.

    And make no mistake. Mammon is THE god of con-servatism. “In greed we trust”.

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    This is a fascinating website. I was raised in the Catholic Church but never really could be convinced that any aspect of organized religion was for me. I did what my family expected and promptly went my own way as a teenager and adult. Fortunately, most Catholics don’t have an extreme fear of government, public schools, and colleges, and I was encouraged to get a good education in order to be able to take care of myself. My husband and I have raised our daughter this way as well with very little religious teaching aside from making sure she knows that there are many ways of believing , living, and loving. She has chosen to take religion classes in college to expand her knowledge of the world. She’s a thinker and a secure person, and unlikely to fall for the very worst of Christian Fundamentalism. As a woman, I am mostly concerned about the horrible advice given by those so-called Proverbs 31 types who encourage women to stay home, have more babies than they can afford, depend exclusively on their husband, and eschew higher education and employment. My mother always said that God gave you a brain and it was your obligation to use it. Good advice for everyone if you ask me. Thank you for your interesting blog. I’m sorry about your financial situation. You seem like an intelligent and interesting person. Good luck to you, and I’m glad you’re out of such a repressive life style.

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Bruce Gerencser