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Bruce, You Ruined Your Children When You Walked Away From Jesus

Oldest Three Boys with Oldest Daughter, Front pew Somerset Baptist Church, Circa 1990

My wife and I have six adult children. Our children are gainfully employed and we have good, close relationships with all of them. Our children were raised as PK’s — preacher’s kids. Growing up as the children of the pastor wasn’t easy. Both congregants and their father held them to a higher standard than that of other children. My children knew that their behavior would directly reflect on me — warranted or not. As a result, my children were generally respectful, polite, and well-behaved. I have often wondered if they liked this life that was chosen for them. None of them has said one way or the other, but I do wonder if they would have preferred a “normal” childhood (however “normal” is defined).  Perhaps, one of these days my daughter or one of my sons will write a guest post for this site, sharing their thoughts about what it was like growing up as the children of Rev. Bruce Gerencser, a devout Evangelical pastor. Or maybe, just maybe, my children prefer to let their childhoods lie buried in the past, never to be resurrected again. Their stories are theirs alone to tell. The same goes for Polly.

After my wife and I divorced Jesus, I heard from former colleagues in the ministry and parishioners who had a message for me from Jesus: YOU ARE RUINING YOUR FAMILY, BRUCE! Polly was never blamed for anything. Always Miss Perfect! 🙂 I was the head of the home, I was told, so I was responsible for how their lives turned out. It’s been eleven years since we attended church for the last time. Our children, at the time, were age 15, 17, 19, 24, 27, and 29.  All of them were old enough to decide for themselves when it when came to God, Christianity, the Bible, attending church, etc. Three of them were married and had children. Yet, according to my critics, it’s my fault for their loss of faith. Granted, Mom and Dad not going to church, Dad not preaching, and Jesus/Bible/church not being the focus of discussion 24/7 certainly confused them. I have been accused of turning my children over to the wolves by just cutting them loose after I deconverted; that I owed it to them to steer them in the “right” direction, even if I didn’t want to head that way myself. Here’s the thing: my children were old enough to think for themselves. Steering them in the right direction meant giving them the freedom to be whomever and whatever they wanted to be — no strings attached. Some of my children were already at the back door of the church, ready to push it open and walk away. All my deconversion did was give them freedom — you’re free, cheezy bread, you’re free!

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Fundamentalist family members believe that if I would have just kept serving Jesus and preaching the Word, that all of my children would still be attending Evangelical churches, would still be worshiping Jesus, and would still be part of the machinations of church life. I can’t help but feel my mother-in-law’s disappointment when she quietly shakes her head over our “worldliness” and that of our children. How worldly are we? Why, we drink alcohol and cuss. That’s about it. Well that, and watch HBO. Yes, two of my sons have gone through divorces, but am I to blame for their failed marriages? I think not. Sure, our family is more boisterous now that Jesus isn’t the center of attention, but we are not degenerates. This Sunday, our family will gather at our home for Christmas — twenty-four, in all.  We will all cram into our 12’x18′ living room to watch the opening of gifts. Someone will suggest, as they always do, that the windows need to be opened and we need to build on an addition to our home. Jokes will follow, and Dad will abused by his sons. One thing is for certain, crammed as the room shall indeed be, it filled with love. The focus will be on family, not religion. “But, Bruce, JESUS is the reason for the Season!” Really? No, he’s not, not even in Evangelical homes. Oh sure, there will be prayers and Jesus talk, but once those things are dispensed with, it’s on to fun, food, and fellowship. The Gerencser family just so happens to enjoy the fun, food, and fellowship, sans Jesus. Several of our children will attend mass over the Christmas season, but for the most part they will focus their time and energy on their families. You see, whatever they think of me leaving the ministry and my subsequent loss of faith, they understand that what really matters is family. And if I can be faulted for teaching my children (and grandchildren) anything it is this: family matters.

Youngest Children, Defiance, Ohio, Circa Late 1990s, Early 2000s.

When the substance of this life is boiled away and you are on your deathbed, what will matter the most to you? Your money? Your car? Your home? Your looks? Your material possessions? I doubt it. I know, for me at least, that what matters are Polly, Jason, Nathan, Jaime, Bethany, Laura, Josiah, Aalyiah, Victoria, Karah, Levi, Emma, Guin, Gabby, Morgan, Charlee, Lily, Alayna, Ezra, my daughters-in-law, my son-in-law, Polly’s parents, and my brother and sister. From there, I have a few friends who are dear to me. These people make up the sum of my life. I labor under no illusions. I will never be an award-winning Sports Illustrated photographer or be remembered for being a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. I know when I die that I will, over time, be forgotten by most of the people with whom I have crossed paths. I will become little more than a historical footnote. Perhaps this blog will live on after I die, but who will pay to keep it operating, and who will take care of its day-to-day administration? It, like everything in life, will eventually fade away. Everything in life is transitory, but a vapor, the Bible says, that appears for a moment and vanishes away. I remember sitting in school classrooms on cold winter days, aimlessly watching the steam from boiler radiators rise up and dissipate. That’s life. When Polly, our children, and our grandchildren share their favorite Bruce/Dad/Grandpa stories at my lakeside memorial, I hope they will have good things to say about me, and a few ribald, silly things too. In that moment, they will learn that all we really have is our memories. Treasure them, for they too, over time, will fade away.

As for former colleagues in the ministry, former church members, and Evangelical family members who continue to paint me as Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa — a man who ruined his family — all I can say is “talk to the hand.” Well, I “could” say a lot more than that — I love the F word these days — but why bother? It’s too late in the game for me to worry about catcalls from the stands; to worry about arrogant, judgmental Christians who cannot or will not see how blessed the Gerencser family really is without Jesus.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

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  1. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Bruce, I speak to you as the son of Baptist preacher who had a lifelong commitment to Jesus. As the years went along, dad became somewhat more liberal, watching sports on Sunday and even looking the other way as some of us played those sports on the Lord’s Day. My dad loved us kids as he was able, in the Lord. It does sadden me that he refused to budge from his rigid faith because I would have dearly loved to sit with him at Christmas and share our lives, our real lives. (Dad always refused to tell me much of his personal history because he felt it did not apply and I would probably use it in a negative way in my writing. He chose to stay in his role as preacher.) So, hearing that you have shared your honest path in life with your loved ones and that it included divorcing Jesus, gives me some solace regarding how we might live as families. I do prefer human love to divine imaginings, as faulty as that human love is. I will endeavor to be honest with my kids now and always and to share as best I can the human love I carry so deeply in me. As I sneak towards 70 years old ( few more years), I realize that my preacher dad loved me with all the heart he had and so, though I feel that the life of ‘faith’ was ruinous to us in so many ways, the human love he had peaked through it all. I felt it even in the midst of primary disagreements about God. Of course, real Christians will go after you to say you ruined your family because that is what they do: They harm in obedience to their Lord (and the local preacher). It could just as easily be posited that you ruined your family when you were a preacher, you see? Which ruination would you prefer? For me, just being able to be me, to be honest and present is sum enough and more. Just I remember my preacher dad being unavailable to me because of his role, I feel that human love overcame that choice of his, to live a life of crime 😉 Finally, after all the scriptures have been read and the hymns sung, we go home, don’t we, and live in love and gratitude to the extent we can allow it. I wish you the very best of family, food and fellowship in the lights of the season, Bruce. May the magic of human love, of family offer you joyful peace. (If that doesn’t work, try some Bailey’s and so on!)

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    Bruce, I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas holiday together. In your writings, it is apparent that you love Polly and your children and grandchildren unconditionally and unapologetically, and you would move mountains if it would make them happy. If that’s “ruining” them, then we should all hope to be so ruined.

  3. Avatar
    Michael Alioto

    I wish you and yours a happy holiday season.
    I’ll do it for you Bruce…
    “Joke ‘em if they can’t take a fuck!”
    “Fuck ‘em!”

  4. Avatar
    dale m.

    Bruce. U remember Victor Belenko, right? From 1975! He was considered the very epitome of what a good communist was. He defected that year in what was then believed the most top secret fighter jet ever assembled to knock out America’s SR-21 Blackbirds. It was a shock to the soviets. At 1st they floated the story that he had gone off course and was “kidnapped” by the West. They knew he had defected but couldn’t bring themselves to believe it. Next they trotted out his relatives and family (some he had never been close with or got along with, all sobbing on soviet TV, begging him to come back into the fold once again). The 3 top soviet leaders took it upon themselves through Shevardnadze to set up a meeting with the Americans to see if he was not being drugged. They brought along a soviet medical doctor who was acutely embarrassed to find nothing wrong with the young pilot. Shevardnadze tried to convince him that everyone missed him. All was to be forgiven. When that didn’t work, the soviets returned home. A new tactic. They now presented him as a traitor. He turned his back on Marx. He was ensnared by the “devil” Americans. It was all about money! About capitalist riches earned from gangsters. He had been lured away from a moral communist life for one of depravity. Belenko’s new family would be thrown to the wolves after they had used him. Belenko himself had a very tough time. He became acutely homesick. It took him years of therapy after his departure from communism. The moral standards were high but their goals were opposite to what they taught. This is what got him. The inherent contradictions. Not unlike your life Bruce. I recommend you read his book. U will C evangelicalism written all through it. Just saying. You’re not alone … even to a once dedicated communist like Belenko. Take heart.

    • Avatar
      Julia M. Traver

      I think it was in 1976 in Japan. We watched part of his flight path as it was being posted on the big board down in the TS bunker Osan AB, Republic of South Korea. I remember it well. (I also remember reading debriefing documents &c.)

  5. Avatar

    I don’t know any preachers’ kids, but I know people raised in a smothering faith – usually the Born-Again or extreme Catholic variety. None of the people I know who were raised in rigid religious homes seem to have a genuine relationship with their parents. Too many rules and unrealistic expectations divide people, and I, like you, believe that human relationships matter more than arbitrary belief systems. We gave our daughter the knowledge of her heritage in Catholicism, but not really a strong belief. We also taught her about other belief systems so she would have some appreciation for how others see the world. Her first year of college she took a course on The Great Books that involved reading sections of the Bible. She was fascinated, but unconvinced. I think knowledge of the world’s belief systems can help us to understand others better on their level. But I still don’t want to be locked into something that seems so incredible. Fortunately, I’m also living a great life without all those rules that separate us and have a close relationship with my only child.

  6. Avatar
    Reverend Greg

    They can’t get on you about your children’s divorces because so many evangelicals are themselves divorced. I’ve heard the stories about how bad divorced people were treated back in the day. Now, because so many have experienced themselves, they’ve let that fade into the sunset.

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    I have been working on my epitaph. The humility of Bruce’s post prompted me to share it:

    Not so important as to be mourned by strangers, nor so inconsequential as to be forgotten by those who knew him personally. 

  8. Avatar

    This is one of the reasons I questioned my faith. Why would God allow children ( who are so gullable and believe most anything their parents teach them) to be led the wrong way? So since God is supposed to know everything (I mean you would think he would know human nature). So then why would the God of the Bible let all the innocent children around the world be deceived by their parents? So you would think a wise God would see this happening and just decide to not create this; or make the creature differently. ?????

    Wishing you all a very Merry Season.

  9. Avatar

    Caption to your photo: “Youngest children Defiance, Ohio, Circa…”
    My initial warped thought was “my, those are unusual names!” …

    Best wishes to you and your family on the holidays!

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Bruce Gerencser