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Churches That Abuse: Why Good People Do Bad Things and Why Bad People Do Bad Things–Part One

elmer gantry

Repost from 2015. Edited, updated, and corrected.

Churches attract all kinds of people with varying motivations for being part of a particular religion. I spent fifty years in the Independent Baptist/Non-Denominational/Evangelical church. When it comes to other religions, I only know what I read in the media. The experiences and observations I share in this post come from the fifty years I spent in those churches, first as a parishioner, and later as a pastor. I spent twenty-five years in the pastorate, pastoring churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas.

While I am no longer a Christian or a pastor, I do keep myself informed about Independent Baptist/Non-Denominational/Evangelical Christianity. Just because I no longer believe doesn’t mean that my experiences and observations are now, suddenly, invalid or lack value. Some Christians try to marginalize or invalidate my writing by suggesting that since I am no longer a Christian, or may have never been a Christian (their view), my experiences and observations can safely be ignored or ridiculed. I will leave it to the readers of this blog to decide whether what I write has value. I suspect, knowing my readers as I do, that what follows will resonate with many of them,

The Christian church often attracts people with ulterior motives. Generally, Christian people are very trusting. When someone gives a testimony of redemption, most Christians readily embrace the lost sheep that is now found. Tales of addictions, sexual immorality, prison, violence, and the like find a sympathetic ear with most Christians. The worse the sinner, the greater the testimony of God’s wonderful, saving grace.

There is no doubt that many sinful, fallen people have found deliverance through what they believe is the saving work of Jesus Christ. Many vile people now live productive, grace-filled lives as born-again Christians. They are to be commended for the changes that have taken place in their lives. While I no longer embrace the Christianity and its message of saving grace, I willingly admit that religion transforms and changes multitudes of people.

Because Christian people are trusting and accept people at face value, they are an easy mark for people who have evil intentions. In among the sheep are criminals, thieves, child abusers, and sexual deviants, to name a few. These people make an outward show of Christianity, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves seeking sheep — often children — to devour. This is true not only in the local church, but also in Christian camps, group homes, and Christian schools.

Churches make it easy for deceivers to set up camp in their midst. The deceivers quickly embrace the church family, begin to regularly attend services, and even give money to the church. They are soon embraced as brother or sister. Before too long they are given access to places of responsibility within the church. They now have access to the treasures of the congregation, be it monetary, physical, or spiritual.

Countless churches, after just a short time, readily appoint newcomers to positions of authority. The reason for this is simple. Most churches need a steady supply of new workers. Sadly, many churches practice the four W’s: win them, wet them, work them, waste them. It is not uncommon for Baptist churches to turn over their membership every five or so years. It is common to find new church members quickly appointed as deacons, Sunday school teachers, junior church workers, youth workers, nursery workers, etc. Rarely is the past life of the new church member examined, either through an interview or comprehensive background check. This is especially true in smaller churches. All that matters is that Jesus saved them.

What I have written above also applies to pastors. Over the course of twenty-five years in the ministry, I candidated at a number of churches. Not one church did a criminal background check. Several churches did check my references, but the references they checked were those I gave them. Who would ever give a reference from a disgruntled church member or board member?  Every church I candidated at readily accepted the information on my résumé. I found every church to be trusting, and while this is a trait that should be generally commended, it is this same trait that often results in churches hiring men and women who are deceivers.

Bad people are those who become members of a church for ulterior reasons or those who are pastors with a secret past, who go from church to church preying on unsuspecting congregations. Bad people do bad things to trusting children, teens, and adults. They physically and sexually abuse people. They scam people out of their money — sometimes their life savings. They wreak havoc wherever they go. After getting caught, they pack up their wares and go down the road to another church and set up shop. There is no shortage of supply of sincere, trusting, honorable church members.

There are some things that churches can (must) do to keep themselves from being easy marks:

  • Do not allow newcomers to become members of the church for at least one year. Do not allow them to hold any office of authority or responsibility. Time will likely expose them for what they really are.
  • Require federal and state criminal background checks on every person who will be in a place of authority or will have contact with children or teenagers. This must be a “no exceptions” policy. These background checks should be repeated annually.
  • Pastors should have an open-door policy.  Church members should be encouraged to share any concern they might have.
  • When someone reports abuse of any kind, an immediate investigation must be done. 
  • ALL criminal activity should be reported to the police. ALL abuse should be immediately reported to law enforcement or child protective services. In Ohio, people in places of authority are REQUIRED to report any abuse they are made aware of. They can be held criminally liable if they do not report it.
  • Churches should thoroughly investigate candidates for the pastorate. State and federal background checks should be done. References should be thoroughly checked. Phone calls should be made to the churches previously pastored. I would even go so far as to send people to the churches a candidate previously pastored or is currently pastoring.
  • Candidates for a church’s open pastorate should be just as diligent. Churches are notorious for hiding their dirty laundry. Why did the last pastor leave? What shape are the church’s finances? Churches, as a whole, can be just as abusive as a pastor or an individual church member.
  • Churches must be diligent in their investigation of new church members and prospective candidates for the pastorate. The unasked question is often the very thing that ends up biting the church in the ass. Personally, I would record all interviews, along with ANY meetings the church has. Recordings put an end to the he-said-she-said fights that are far too common in Christian churches.
  • Every church program or class should have a minimum of two workers who are not related. No person should be permitted to teach a class, work with the teenagers, or staff the nursery alone. If possible, every room should have a window in the door or hall wall. This allows people walking by to look in at any time.

Just because someone is a teenager or a pre-teen doesn’t mean he or she should be exempt from the things mentioned above. Many churches staff their nursery, junior church, or vacation bible school with young people from the church (and sometimes from other churches). Churches assume that young people are safe. This assumption can prove to be deadly. Years ago, we had a teenager in our church who was a nice young man. Likable. Easy going. Oh, and, unbeknownst to me, he had spent two years in a juvenile detention center for rape.

The church attracts bad people who do bad things. Unless churches are diligent in protecting themselves, they will continue to be easy targets for abuse. The old adage is true: better safe than sorry. A genuine Christian will not be offended if the church is diligent in its protection of its children and teenagers.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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

    Hmmmm….very interesting. The ROC had, and still has, people employed who should never be around people…. Period. One of them is in charge of finances and he treats people like shit. He admitted to me on several occasions that he hates people. The pastor loved him so….
    There is also the person in charge of the bus ministry there who is a horrible person. Very very legalistic and uncaring. Again, the pastor loved him so…
    Then there is the lady in charge of the women’s home called The House Of Mercy (Which many call The House Of NO Mercy). Very mean spirited and wonders why many don’t like her. Oddly her love interest was, and is, the person in charge of the finances. Again, the pastor loved her…and was screwing her daughter, who was his secretary (You’ll see her in the news in the upcoming trial)…this “lady” is also very close to the main financial provider for the ROC.
    Gawd what a mess!

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    The only people who object to background checks are those with something to hide. Also a Christian or otherwise honorable person who has skeletons to deal with would want to stay away from situations that “would rattle the bones”. For Josh, this means staying away all children and teens ministries and never be alone with any young person whatsoever. A truly honorable person is honest with his weaknesses and keeps away from situations that causes him to
    stumble and do harm.

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    These are very reasonable precautions. Background checks really are routine unless there is something to hide- every job since I got my undergrad degree has required a background check, and it was easy and quick to complete.

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    All wise suggestions, Bruce… My only caveat is that you seem to presume. What is your basis for these suggested safeguards? Do you believe the overall church (I have to address this generally) is there to serve a congregation or to be served a congregation?
    It seems to me that the structure of the church in this world is set up to destroy human freedom, to enhance and support delusional thinking, to strip away human boundaries of decency and especially demean women and children. Do you wish to repair this body of beliefs?
    You laud those multitudes who have had their lives ‘transformed’… I just don’t see that anymore. A drug addict who can stop using hard drugs by replacing that harm with God, may be in a better place, I guess, that is, if the individual is not as actively harming themselves with delusion… The drug addict gives their life to dull the pain. The Christian can be doing the same. There are countless examples of bastards in any church but there are also people who seem decent and try their best to be honest and caring. It seems to be who they are…. Did the big ‘D’ Delusion do that or did they bring their own humanity into the hungry mouth of religion….

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    In our modern age, at the VERY least someone could Google candidates for pastoral or other authoritative positions. A monthly subscription to is also really cheap and reports anything in the public record that could be cause for disqualification for such a position. To not at least make such easy attempts is lazy.

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    Hey Bruce. I have spent the better part of my afternoon reading some of your archives on this blog and I am thoroughly impressed by the information. And in some cases, outright shocked/disgusted by the behavior set forth by supposed “men of God.”
    I guess I am what you call a prodigal daughter in the church. I left because of a much milder experience in the IFB than what has been chronicled here and found my way back to church a few years ago in a more progressive, liberal church.
    It has always amazed me the power people give to a man. Reading about Jack Hyles has given me a fresh perspective on things. I have a lot to think about. While my church is pretty awesome and I have no intention of leaving, I feel like I have found a reason to understand why people do leave. Sometimes, they get hurt so bad they can’t come back.
    They say absolute power corrupts absolutely. What they usually fail to mention is that the power is freely given by those that the leader places under himself.
    So thanks for the hours of reading this blog has given me. Unlike a lot of Christians, I feel like I am willing to be open minded and see other perspectives for what they are.

    • Avatar
      Karen the rock whisperer

      Cool, this commenter found a reason why people leave (the?) (a?) church. I can’t tell if they gave up on and then returned to Christianity or just churchgoing. There are lots of self-identified Christians who’ve given up on the whole church experience.

      So, if they’ve suddenly discovered a reason why people leave Christianity, and boil that down to being hurt, um, that might be true for some people. I can’t see reading much of what Bruce has written and concluding that being hurt was his main reason for his loss of belief.

      Yes, as Captain Cassidy over at Roll To Disbelieve likes to point out, authoritarian power structures favor those who abuse their power. But I doubt that many of us abandoned belief altogether because we had to deal with jerks in power.

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    This is the part of Christianity we should all detest, its the “elephant in the room”, it is a highly relevant topic, that everyone just wants to block out. The very thought of Pedophilia leaves many of us feeling sick to the core…….so we change the subject, or sidestep, or whatever to avoid the brutal reality and actual meaning of it.

    Bishop> “Oh…its only a few bad apples…” NO! ” One bad apple ROTS the whole barrel!!!!”

    Like Bruce has pointed out, many of us , just dont ask WHY? How can a man of god, preaching about sin,evil, and eternal damnation in Hell, then go and sodomize some poor young,innocent and vulnerable choirboy?
    Us non-christians soon realize that this preacher obviously doesnt believe in what he is pushing. He obviously has no regard or guilt of a divine judgement, or a purgatory where he should be sent, let alone a hell.
    In recent years, this is all being exposed. The cover-up is enormous, and INCLUDES govt judges . “SPOTLIGHT” gives a hint, and that is just the Boston area….it is GLOBAL, repeat, GLOBAL.
    Yes, many PROTESTant (Anglican/Evangelical/etc) are guilty, but the vast majority is CATHOLIC…..the church that gave us the Bible.
    Seeking answers, I asked “What is the Catholic Church take on it all?”
    I found a book, called “CELIBACY IN CRISIS”, written by a Catholic Priest/Pscyhe counsellor, that actuallly deals with these predators, when they are moved along from their church….either one to a different area(cover-up)…or give them some counselling in a “reclusive mental hospital”(Catholic run).
    Basically, he admits the Catholic church is full of homosexuals and Pedophiles. It is a male only organization, and this problem comes from the hierarchy. He tries to point the finger at “Celibate for the Kingdom”. The Celibacy, being the reason these priests never sexually mature……seek physical love from other members, or vulnerable choirboys, or gender identity problems admitted in the confession booth….many themselves victims when young.

    CELIBATE FOR THE KINGDOM ? My comment on Bruce’s “Why I Hate Jesus” article is what I have found out researching this topic with a rational,open, evidence seeking mind.
    In the words of Jesus “Accept this if you can”…….and the very next verse >”and Jesus lays his hands on the little children”…….Yes, people, its Biblical….

    • Avatar
      Karen the rock whisperer

      I found this comment interesting. I have no trouble believing that young men who have sexual inclinations that either society frowns upon (like same-sex attraction), or, if acted on, truly harm someone (pedophilia), or have gender identity issues AND feel that they must be celibate to avoid sin could be attracted to the priesthood. I don’t get the connection between that and “sexual maturity”, whatever that is.

      Non-consensual sexual behavior between adults is wrong and harmful. Pederasty is wrong and harmful. Having an uncommon sexual orientation and/or gender identity is not inherently harmful (though such people are often harmed by society). Even having pedophile tendencies isn’t harmful if the person in question is carefully kept away from children. The church harms its priests by denying the legitimacy of uncommon sexual orientations and gender identities as well as by insisting on celibacy. It certainly harms its under-age congregants by allowing pedophile priests in positions where pederasty is easy.

      The celibacy business was imposed to keep inheritance issues out of the church, and I really doubt that having priests who can’t keep it in their pants is a new problem. But it’s a self-created problem by the church, and they’re reluctant to own up to that.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    On my way out of religion, I abandoned Catholicism and spent a couple of years in my early twenties attending an Evangelical church. I remember one Sunday morning, my husband and I arrived for the service (neither of us was into Sunday School) and I was told–not asked, told–that I was working in the childcare room rather than attending the service. I guess the only requirement was being female, because I didn’t have children, had never cared for children, and rarely interacted with children. So I was left alone to keep half a dozen young children from inadvertently damaging themselves or others, while another woman was doing the same thing with toddlers and babies in the next room.

    Then, I was angry at being used. Now, I am aghast that anyone would leave an unvetted adult alone with those children. My own helplessness around them made me a very poor choice of child minder, but what if I was a pedophile? It’s uncommon in women, but not unknown. The possibilities for pederasty were rich indeed.

    (We were already thinking of giving up on the church. That incident was one of the nails in the coffin of our relationship with organized religion, though actual loss of all belief would happen years later.)

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Back in my teen days, I volunteered to watch the nursery — with my girlfriend. Need I say more? The church cared not one bit whether we were qualified or what we were doing while church was going on.

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    In order to coach youth sports in the state of NJ one has to pass a background check, including fingerprinting, and take a course on first aid and general safety. I haven’t been to church since 2008, but I was never asked a single question about my background before working with kids in Sunday school.

  10. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Evangelical faith is about harming self and others. It does not surprise me at all that children are abandoned left and right in this environment. It is designed to do just that….

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