Repost from 2015. Edited, rewritten, and corrected.
As long-time readers know, I spend a lot of time writing about my past: people, places, and events that are very much a part of the fabric of my life. I try to be as truthful and accurate as possible when I recount the past, but I am ever aware of the fact that I am giving an account of things as I remember them. Having read a good bit about the brain and memories, I know my retelling of my past may or may not be accurate. As best I can remember, I try to give an honest accounting of my life.
I have a younger brother and sister, and it is amazing how differently we each view events that happened in our childhood. Who is right? I’ve come to understand, we all are. The story we tell depends on where we were standing at the time. As a fifteen-year-old boy and the oldest son, my view of our parent’s divorce is much different from that of my then eleven-year-old sister. The same can be said about many of our shared seminal experiences.
I live with a lot of guilt. I am prone to depression, and I can be quite pessimistic. I have faced long, deep bouts of depression, times where I have felt that death would be too good for me. With my words, theology, and religious practice, I hurt people. I’ve come to have these feelings because I am looking back at my past with the eyes of a sixty-two-year-old man. How could I have been Bruce Gerencser, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher? Who was that man, I ask myself. Thanks be to Loki, he no longer exists, having been slain by reason and maturity, but I still live with the memories of the past.
I am Facebook friends with several of the kids who were members of Somerset Baptist Church — an IFB congregation I pastored from 1983-1994. I was their pastor through the formative years of their lives. Not only did they sit under my preaching at least three times a week, but they also attended Somerset Baptist Academy, a private Christian school I started in 1989. I often feel I hurt them and let them down. I think back to how narrow I was over things like certain kinds of clothing, music, physical contact between the sexes, movies, and TV. If these children hated me, I wouldn’t blame them. Thankfully, they don’t.
When I talk to these former students, I hear their perspective on our shared experiences. All of them are in their late 30s and 40s now, and many of them are married and have children. Several of them are gay. Their religious persuasions run from atheism to liberal Christianity. None of them retained the IFB Christianity of their youth. From their vantage point, they recall things quite differently from the way I do. Several of them recall my wife teaching them to read. One man mentioned going back to the old church grounds and playing another game of kickball for old time’s sake. Again, what we remember depends on where we were standing at the time.
I recently re-read several posts I wrote about IFB evangelist Don Hardman and his wife Laura. (Please see Book Review: Laura’s Light by Laura Hardman and Book Review: The Preacher: The Life and Times of Donald A. Hardman.) As I read these posts, I felt twinges of guilt and sadness. When I was a pastor, I had no closer friends than Don and Laura Hardman. I loved them like they were family. When they came to our church it was the highlight of the year. For fifteen days and seventeen services, we would focus on God and his Word. Every day, Don and I would go out evangelizing and street preaching. The church loved the Hardmans and graciously gave of their money and food to help them.
From my vantage point as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I have nothing but good memories and feelings when I think of Don and Laura Hardman. I never saw them fight, and I never had a cross word with them. Even when we parted company for a few years over my Calvinistic beliefs, we remained friends. In the early 2000s, the Hardmans came to Grace Baptist Church (later named Our Father’s House) in West Unity, Ohio, a church I was pastoring at the time, and conducted a week-long meeting. We had a great time, but I knew that I could not have them back. While they remained right where I met them in 1987, I had changed. My view of God, the Bible, politics, culture, and other Christian sects was evolving. Yet, we remained friends until 2008, when my deconversion permanently fractured the relationship. Laura wrote me a scathing letter after hearing of my deconversion, letting me know that I never was a real Christian.
Here I stand in 2020, no longer a Christian, and now an atheist. My view of the past is clouded with the tincture of time. While I still have fond memories of evangelist Don Hardman’s protracted revival meetings, I have come to see that the preaching and the theology behind it was psychologically controlling and damaging. This is how I view much of my preaching as well, especially the first 15 years or so. Over time I matured. I began preaching expositionally, and I turned from a Bible-quoting, hellfire-and-brimstone-preacher to more of a teacher of the Bible. Oh, I was still quite passionate about God, the Bible, and how we ought to apply it to our lives, but I was much more careful about using the Bible in context and letting the text speak for itself. While the Hardmans remained steadfast and unmovable throughout our friendship, my understanding of them changed. Again, my vantage point changed, resulting in me viewing the Hardmans differently.
My wife and I have known each other for almost forty-four years. This coming July we will celebrate our forty-second wedding anniversary. Several years ago, I uploaded a bunch of old pictures to Facebook: family pictures; pictures from Somerset Baptist Church, and pictures from Our Father’s House. As I uploaded these photos I began to weep. The memories of years gone by flooded my mind; memories of the people I pastored and the children I taught at Somerset Baptist Academy; memories of my wonderful wife and our little babies. Good memories. Wonderful memories.
Now that I have a different perspective, I view the events recorded in these pictures differently. Is this maturity? I don’t know. Time changes how we view the past. What were once wonderful memories are now clouded by what I now know about the emotional and mental manipulation I perpetrated on those who called me Pastor. As I have shared before, I am in a unique position. I am both a victim and a victimizer. I followed in the footsteps of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers who emotionally and mentally scarred my life. Victimized by their manipulation, I in turn victimized those who were members of the IFB and Evangelical churches I pastored. It’s an ugly cycle of abuse, one that I was fortunately able to put an end to during my latter years in the ministry and subsequent post-Jesus life.
So it is with Polly. While she and I walked side by side through the years we spent in the ministry, Polly’s viewpoint is very different from mine. I was the leader of the churches I pastored, the center of attention. People, for the most part, respected me, loved me, and supported my work as a pastor. For Polly it was different. Like many pastor’s wives, she was my gofer. She did what others didn’t or wouldn’t do. No one in the nursery? Polly filled in. Entertain people every Sunday for twenty years? Polly did it without a complaint, even when her pastor husband forgot to tell her so and so was coming over for dinner. She quietly submitted to a life as the helpmeet of a poorly paid, Type A, constantly-working, never-home, Baptist preacher.
Polly did without. Our entire family did without, but Polly more so than the children and I. She never said a word. She quietly lived in ramshackle houses and drove cars that were better suited for demolition derbies. She made do with what she had. This much I know, I do WISH there were a Heaven, because Polly deserves a huge mansion right next door to Dottie Rambo’s Log Cabin.
However, since there is no Heaven, all I can do is make sure that Polly has the best life possible for the rest of this life. She deserves it!
It should come as no surprise then that Polly remembers the past much differently from what I recall. One time I said, wouldn’t you like to go back to __________church? Immediately she replied, No I wouldn’t. I was surprised by her quick and negative response. I asked, why not? I then quickly learned, from where Polly was standing, that her view of this church was very different from mine. Who is right? We both are.
I have written a good bit about the abuse that went on and continues to go on in IFB group homes. (Please see Sexual Abuse in the Name of God: New Bethany Home for Girls, Teen Group Homes: Dear IFB Pastor, It’s Time for You to Atone for Your Sin and The Dogma that Followed Me Home.) The stories that some people share from their time in these facilities break my heart. I want to personally find these abusive miscreants and beat the shit out of them. They deserve to have punishment heaped upon them. They hurt people that I love and respect, and the fact that these dear friends of mine still suffer from the abuse received from men like Mack Ford angers me to this day. Every once in a while, someone will come along and leave a glowing testimony from their time in the same facilities. They loved their time there. They were helped and their life is the better for it. How can this be? Surely, someone is lying, right? Not at all. While it is possible that someone is lying or they are living in denial, more often than not, the difference is simply a matter of where the person was standing in relation to the person, place, or event.
Time shapes how we view the past. For me, I am finding that the further a person, place, or event is in the past, the fonder my memories are. I suspect that’s how we as humans cope with life. The tincture of time often brings healing, and it also allows us to gain enough distance from the negative things in our past that they no longer feel harmful or threatening. While time rarely heals all wounds, it does allow us the space and distance necessary to be at peace with those things that cut us to the quick. Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for.
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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