What follows is a post I wrote detailing the reasons why I retired from the ministry in 2005. When I wrote this, I had not yet declared myself an atheist/agnostic. As you will see, I was still clinging, ever so precariously, to my Christian beliefs. I hope you will find this post instructive and helpful in your own journey.
Originally written in 2008. Slightly edited, revised, and corrected.
I am often questioned about why I retired from the ministry. I started preaching as a teenage boy and I pastored my first church at age 24. Since then I have pastored churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan, with my last pastorate being in 2003 (I candidated for several Southern Baptist churches in 2005). I have been married over 30 years, and I have spent my entire married life in the ministry.
Acquaintances, family, and friends are often miffed about why I walked away from the ministry. Why quit preaching? I am often asked. Surely there’s a church somewhere for you to pastor? Surely you still “want” to pastor? If God called you. how can you walk away from his calling?
Good questions, and quite frankly, I have more questions these days than I do answers. What follows is my attempt to shed some light on the “why” question.
Why did I retire from the ministry?
- I retired because the word “retire” is a better word than “quit.” I don’t want to be known as a quitter. I was told my whole life by my peers that God hates quitters. I can still hear the scathing words of Tom Malone and Jack Hyles ringing in my ears as they skinned quitters alive in their sermons. So I use the word retire but, truth be told, I have just plain quit.
- For health reasons. I have Fibromyalgia. I am in constant pain. Last year I was tested for MS and the tests were inconclusive. I have numbness in my face, hands, and legs. My doctor ruefully told me that he is uncertain as to what my actual neurological problem is. I’ll just have to wait to see what “breaks.” I am a type A, perfectionist workaholic. I worked myself into a physical collapse, foolishly thinking that anyone cared how hard I worked. God didn’t, and neither did the people I pastored.
- For family reasons. I sacrificed my family and my marriage for a mistress called the Church. I lived for the Church. I was willing to die for the Church. I worked long hours for lousy pay. I allowed my family and my wife to become appendages to the work I was doing. They were the default clean-up, tear-down crew and did all the jobs no one else wanted to do. Our family was so wrapped up in the Church that we lost our self-identity. I want my children to know me for more than just being a pastor. I want my wife to have a husband who doesn’t always put her second to the Church. Whoever said “you must sacrifice your family for the sake of your calling” is not only wrong but also a destroyer of families. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that family comes first.
- Changing theology. My theology is undergoing a complete and thorough overhaul. I entered the ministry as a Fundamentalist Baptist. I have become, over time, progressive in my thinking and I now identify with liberal causes and beliefs. I am not the man I once was, but neither am I the man I want to be. As my friend Tammy Schoch told me recently, “it is normal in mid-age to reevaluate one’s beliefs and to readjust or change your beliefs accordingly.”
- Thomas Merton and Wendell Berry. These two writers have fundamentally changed how I look at the world and how I view my place in it. I have come to realize that I spent most of my adult life wasting my time with a religion that made no difference in the world I live in and a religion I have increasingly come to believe doesn’t do much to prepare us for the next life either.
- The meaninglessness of vast parts of American Christianity. I now realize that most of what we do in Christianity doesn’t amount to much of anything. We seem to spend most of our time and effort making sure we have things to spend most of our time and effort on. We collect money so we can spend the money so we can collect money so we can spend the money . . . it seems that much of our work is simply done to keep the Titanic floating. Little progress is made in truly making a difference in the world.
- Changing understanding of the Bible. I started out in the ministry as a King James-Only, every-word-of-the-Bible-is-inerrant believer. I have come to understand that such a belief is not only unsustainable theologically but is absolutely irrational. I no longer use the Bible as a science or history textbook and I no longer need to read any particular systematic theology into the text in order to enjoy reading the Bible. I simply enjoy reading the Biblical narrative for its own sake. It now speaks to me in ways I never thought possible.
- Meeting people of other religious faiths or no faith at all. I was blessed with Catholic daughters-in-law. They forced me to come to terms with my deep-seated hatred for any religion but my own. As you may well know, we Baptists hate Catholics. The big change for me was when I attended a Midnight Christmas mass with my wife and some of our children. What a beautiful and powerful service. It shook my bigoted bones right down to my core.
- Gandhi. Gandhi showed me the way of peace, of non-violent resistance. Of course, according to my Baptist beliefs, Gandhi is burning in Hell right at this moment. I no longer believe that, and I do not believe such vengeful hate by God is consistent with His love and mercy. I have abandoned the classic Baptist understanding of hell and I believe in annihilation. My beliefs are becoming more and more universalist as I go along. I will leave it to God to sort out the “who is in and who is not.”
- For mental health reasons. I came to the realization that I was full of fear and regret. I feared God and I regretted wasting my life serving a deity I only served out of fear. No matter how perfect I was, no matter how much I did, I simply couldn’t meet God’s standard (or that of the men who spoke for God). I despaired for my life. I have since been introduced to a God who loves and has mercy and who does not use fear in his dealings with his children.
- For my kids and grandkids. I want to know my kids and grandkids. I want to be more than just a religious guru to them. I want to be able to enjoy THIS life with them without everything revolving around the NEXT life. I struggle with the “dad doesn’t go to Church any more” . . . but I hope in time I can have a relationship with my kids and grandkids that doesn’t revolve around religion. Yes, I still want to talk about God, but I also want to enjoy the day-to-day things of life and I want to share those things with my kids and grandkids.
- Guilt. This is the biggest problem I face — guilt over how I have lived my life, how I wasted my life, and how I hurt my family. I am sure some pious soul is going to tell me “Get over it and move on with life.” I wish I could, but I can’t. Until I can come to terms with the past 30 or 40 years, I cannot move forward from here. I am sure my wife is tired of me living in 1985 or 1994, but I must resolve the issues that plague me before I can move forward. I am making progress in this area and I plan to start on a book in the new year titled “From Eternity to Here.” Several people, I respect greatly have suggested that writing a book might be cathartic, just what I need to move my life forward.(I still want to write a book, but I fear physically it is an impossible goal.)
- I simply don’t want to be in the ministry anymore. I have no desire for it and I do not want to give the requisite time necessary to be a “good” pastor. I believe I still have good teaching skills and I have a sincere desire to be a help to others, but I do not want to exercise my gifts in a traditional Church setting. I have wasted enough time already and I don’t want to waste anymore.
I could pastor a church tomorrow if I wanted to. Thousands of churches are without pastors. Most of them don’t deserve to have another pastor. They have chewed up and spit out the previous 20 pastors and they will do the same to the next one. Quite frankly, many Churches just need to die. As I look back at how willing I was to sacrifice so small Churches could have a “full time” pastor, I am ashamed of myself. Living on food stamps, with my kids wearing hand-me-down clothes, all so people could say “we have a full-time pastor and he has kids” The most I ever made in the ministry, counting housing, salary and reimbursements, was $26,000. While everyone else progressed economically, my family was supposed to settle for welfare wages and a chicken or two. I never pastored a church that took it upon themselves to offer me a raise. I had to ask, and often plead and beg, to get a raise. I saw their cars and houses. I saw their material stores, yet I was just supposed to sing “Oh how I love Jesus, thank you for keeping me poor.”
The most prosperous times of my life came when I was bi-vocational. I managed restaurants, sold insurance, delivered newspapers, pumped gas, and managed government grant programs. In retrospect, I should have always been bi-vocational. I should not have allowed the church to keep me poor. My problem was that I could never do anything half-way. I still can’t. So while I worked a full-time secular job, I also worked the church job full-time. I often worked 60 or 70 hours a week, rarely taking a day off. Vacations? We only took them if I was preaching a conference somewhere. Dates with my wife? Only if there was a church outing to go to.
I realize some of this sounds like the grousing of a bitter old man. I shall plead guilty to that charge. I am bitter at times, and as the Dixie Chicks said “I am not ready to make nice.” I fully accept my own culpability in the affairs of my life. I write for the sake of my family and for the sake of my own mental health. I also write this as a warning to young pastors who are tempted to take the same path I took.
I will stop writing this with the sharing of the biggest breakthrough in my life over the past few months. I spent my life “living for Jesus and Living for Others.” I bought into the mantra of Jesus First, Others Second, and Bruce doesn’t matter. I spent far too much time worrying about what others thought of me, of how they viewed my ministry and family.
My big breakthrough is pretty simple. I have come to the place where I don’t give a shit about what others think of me or what I believe. I don’t give a shit that you are upset that I wrote the word shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. I simply don’t care. Things matter to me, but what someone thinks of me personally or what they think of my beliefs, I don’t care. It has been liberating to be delivered from the judgments of others.
Have you said WOW yet? I heard you! Let me paraphrase Thomas Merton. People were upset with Merton because his beliefs were always changing, always in motion. He said he frustrated his critics because just when they thought they had him pinned down on an issue, they found out he had already move on to something else.
That’s me, always moving, until the heart stops beating.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.
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Being you, you had to keep learning and investigating and understanding the Bible. And the Bible just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. But learning that the Bible isn’t literal, but largely a myth, would make a person being a Bible-believing Christian impossible.
Learning, growing and changing are exactly what churches (and many other institutions) don’t want people to do.
That was an amazing story.