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I Did it All for Jesus, My Life of Self-Denial

somerset baptist church 1983-1994 2
Our hillbilly mansion. We lived in this 720 square foot mobile home for five years, all eight of us.

I spent the first fifty years of my life in the Christian church. Having been baptized a Lutheran and later making a public profession of faith in a Baptist church at the age of fifteen, I have been a part of the Christian church most of my life. I preached my first sermon at the age of fifteen, attended an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) college as a young man, married an IFB pastor’s daughter, and pastored churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan.

I never went through the angst many people go through when determining what to do with their lives. At the age of five, I told my mother I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up. From the age of fifteen to the age of fifty, I was a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I had no doubt that God had called me to preach to sinners the unsearchable riches of Christ.

I am an all-in kind of guy. I have little tolerance for doing things halfway. When Jesus called to me and told me to leave my proverbial nets, I did so immediately. I was a devoted, committed, sold-out follower of Jesus Christ. My passion was for God, his church, and the Word of God. For twenty-five years, my life was consumed by the ministry and the work I believed God had called me to do.

Up until I started blogging in 2007, no one had ever doubted that I was saved, that I was a devoted, committed follower of Jesus. A person who years ago knew me quite well, was shocked when she heard that I was no longer a pastor and that I was now an atheist. She said, Butch (my family nickname) was the real deal. If he’s not a Christian, no one is. It is important to understand this point. NO ONE . . . out of the thousands of people I came in contact with, ever expressed doubt about my salvation, my personal relationship with Jesus. Not one teacher, not one deacon, not one evangelist, not one church member, not one fellow pastor, ever expressed doubt that I was a Christian or that I was a God-called preacher.

Those who now contend I was never a Christian or that I was a false teacher make their judgments based not on the evidence of the life I lived, but on their peculiar interpretations of the Bible. For the Baptists, Calvinists, and many Evangelicals, the only way to square my life with their theology is for them to say I never was a Christian, or that I still am a Christian, just backslidden. Arminians have less of a problem explaining my life. While they are “troubled” by my apostasy, they recognize that I once was a Christian. In their eyes, I fell from grace, and I am now no longer a Christian.

I realize that I am a rare bird. While there are many men (and women) who leave the ministry, few leave it as late in life as I did. Many of the notable preacher-turned-atheists apostatized and left the ministry in their twenties and thirties. I left at the age of fifty. This does not make me special in any way, but it does make me an exception to the rule. And this is why Evangelicals have such a hard time understanding how it is possible for a man to be a Christian for most of his life and to pastor churches for twenty-five years, to then just walk away from it all and renounce Jesus.

Those who know me personally have a difficult time wrapping their mind around Pastor Bruce being an atheist. To quote Nicodemus in John 3, how can these things be? But whether they can understand it or not, here I am. I once was a Christian, I once was a man of God, and now I am not.

My life was motivated by the following verses:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me, For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matthew 16:24,25)

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1,2)

For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (1 John 2:15,16)

For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. (James 4:14,15)

These verses, along with my commitment to follow every command in the Bible, led me to a life of self-denial and economic simplicity. While most people around me were focused on earning a living, providing for their families, and accumulating material goods, I was focused on making just enough money to keep a roof over my family’s head. I took seriously the command to “learn in whatever state I am to be content.” I practiced a Baptist version of voluntary poverty, and as the head of the home, I led my family to do the same. I figured that whatever money and material goods we had were what God wanted us to have. To desire, require, or want more was a sure sign that I was in love with the things of the world, and not God.

somerset baptist church 1983-1994
Our son Jaime, and our two girls, Bethany and Laura.

Over the course of twenty-five years in the ministry, my family and I were economically at or below the poverty line. For many years, we drove junk cars, and for five years our family of eight lived in a three-bedroom (large closets) 12’x60’ mobile home. I paid $2,800 for the mobile home and parked it next to the church. It was a ratty old mobile home to which I had to do extensive work so we could live in it. As I look back on it now, I see this mobile home as a snapshot of my/our life of self-denial.

Somewhere in the late 1990s, I woke up one day, looked around, and realized that our family was the only one living this way. Everyone else, pastor friends included, were busy building their kingdoms on this earth. Their focus was on their jobs, careers, homes, lands, education, and retirement. My focus was on living a voluntary life of self-denial so that I might preach the gospel. I saw myself as following in the steps of Jesus and Paul. Why wasn’t anyone else living this way?

I still think my interpretation of the Bible was essentially correct. It wasn’t that I took Christianity too seriously, it was that most everyone else didn’t take it seriously enough. After all, did Jesus not say:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? (Matthew 6:24, 25)

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:  for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19,20)

My heart was squarely focused on Jesus. I treasured the Word of God and preaching the gospel. I saw the world neatly divided into saved and lost. As a saved man, one who believed in a literal Hell, how could I idly sit by while knowing that most people did not know the saving grace of Jesus Christ? I spent most of my married life hustling for Jesus. Preaching, teaching, witnessing, preaching on the street, preaching at nursing homes, visiting prison inmates, knocking on doors, visiting bus routes, handing out tracts, and starting churches. Like the Apostle Paul, I believed, woe unto me if I preach not the gospel!

I took seriously Ezekiel 3:17-19:

Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me, When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.

I believed that God would hold me accountable for every soul that went to Hell because I did not witness to them. I felt I was duty-bound to warn sinners of their wicked ways and of the judgment to come. My preaching, methodology, and lifestyle reflected this. Even though I was more committed than anyone else I personally knew, I also knew I was far from perfect, that I was far from being as committed as I could be. I pleaded with God to give me more of his power, more of his Spirit, just as he gave to great preachers like DL MoodyHudson TaylorDavid BrainerdJohn WesleyCharles FinneyAdoniram Judson, and Charles Spurgeon.

I left the ministry in 2005, and I left Christianity in 2008. It is hard for me not to look back on my/our life of self-denial without bitter regret. Yes, I helped a lot of people, and yes, in spite of our poverty, we had a good life. But, a lifetime of self-denial has put my wife and me in an economically difficult place. We are by no means poor. We have more than enough money to pay our bills and live a comfortable life. We still live simply, and outside of a 2020 Ford Edge sitting in the driveway, our home and its furnishings are modest. When we bought our home in 2007, we bought a fixer-upper, and we have been fixing it up and down ever since. Our life is comfortable, dare I say blessed. But I can’t help thinking about where we might now be if I had not been so focused on living a life of self-denial. Last year, I officially “retired.” I draw a minimal social security check because I didn’t pay social security tax for most of the years I was in the ministry. I have no other retirement plan. Polly will likely have to work after she reaches retirement age. I deeply regret this, but decisions have consequences, and because I made a decision years ago to not pay social security tax, and because I thought Jesus and the church would take care of me when I was old, I made no other plans for the future. After all, I planned on dying with my boots on.

Life is one long lesson learned. How about you? Were you a devoted follower of Jesus? Did you take seriously the verses I mentioned in this post? If so, what did your life of self-denial look like then and now? Did you do without for the sake of Jesus and the church? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 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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  1. Avatar

    It wasn’t that I took Christianity too seriously, it was that most everyone else didn’t take it seriously enough.

    That jumped off the page at me Bruce. I totally agree. Well, it didn’t work did it? “You’re too literal”, “too serious” , “too black and white.” Perhaps they have forgotten what Jesus said he would do to the lukewarm.

    I was a full time stay at home mom (which I’m glad I did when the kids were small). We homeschooled our kids (fear of the world), didn’t plan for the future, stocked up for “the end times” instead of saving and investing, and let’s not forget all the tithes and offerings. We also let God control our family planning (although I wouldn’t have not wanted each and every one of our kiddos, but realistically we couldn’t afford it).

    Thankfully, we are still relatively young with a little over 20 years till retirement. The kids are in real schools now (at least secular) and I have a job. We are also fixing up our house and seeing ourselves as worthy of living decently well.

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    You would have been right at home in the Central Virginia Grace Presbytery, Bruce. One of the little things that woke me up from that life was when I started to get pushback from others in our old church because my husband worked for the federal government, which was thought to mean we weren’t ‘trusting God’ for everything.

    I hope in your retirement you get the chance to do many new things you would have never considered as a pastor. Have fun. Work your bucket list and freak out everyone in your old churches..

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    Sounds like me, man. I look back on my life & wonder what might have been, had I not took the teachings of Christ seriously. As you learned, we were the only ones that were living this way. All of them now make me want to throw up, with their pious, self-righteousness to ME, who was the REAL Christian back then. To them now I say, no, I SCREAM a resounding: “FUCK YOU!!”. And now, I must admit I take great glee from offending them & being as blasphemous as possible, lol

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    Logan G

    I really enjoyed the post Bruce. I too took those verses seriously but not quite as well. 😉
    Very similar to Alice, my wife stayed home with the kids and we lived paycheck-to-paycheck, with no savings plan. Just more debt (which obviously meant we weren’t trusting in the Lord, lol!). I also remember, like Alice, that the verses in Revelation talked about the Lord spewing out the lukewarm. That used to scare me. I still remember my youth pastor back in 1981, preaching a “spew you out!” message to us lukewarm teens. Ah, ain’t that love?

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    I notice that it’s often those who take the bible most literally and try to live by it as honestly as they can, that walk away from it. They are too honest to fake it until retirement. 🙂 We were very similar to you Bruce. I got lucky and fell into a job with a state retirement system. Barely in time.

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    I’m so happy for you that you have a lovely, warm cozy house to enjoy now. ‘God’ knows (heh) you and Polly deserve it!

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    Like you and others in the comments, I do wonder if taking it too seriously will eventually mean leaving or seriously questioning Christianity….

    I’ve had my share of faith crises where I would helplessly ask for God to provide me with answers and directions (which, more often than not, didn’t come) leaving me to finally (and often far too late) decide for myself. Only to feel very sinful in not having waited for God… and imagining God punishing me for it if it turned out to be a wrong decision.

    Now I’m left wondering if the rare few times I did believe that I received answers were just psycological after all.

    I’m finally allowed to make my own decisions without having to wait. I know that the comfort I thought I felt from God may or may not have been myself comforting myself. Whether or not God is real, I found more freedom to be me, to not lose anymore valuable time waiting for permission to follow my own path. It is very liberating and not half as scary as I thought it would be living so ‘wordly.’ If anything I’m slowly losing more and more fears, not seeing or imagining demons or tempations everywhere anymore.

    Your blog is one of the places where I can learn new perspectives and ideas, and for that I’m grateful.

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    I totally get this post. If it were not for my grandparents subsidizing us, we would have lived just as poor because of the ministry. My parents would be up shit creek if they had not gotten a nice inheritance. Dad had lots of IRS probs for years as church clerks refused to take care of tax matters for him. Kudos for your honesty-you are helping people so much you will never know. Sending good thoughts to you and the family.

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    Oh, yeah, I get this. I was a divorced single parent when I was saved. I always felt SO GUILTY when I wanted something, like help and support and companionship, or a new car that didn’t need $3,000 worth of repairs.

    Eventually, I noticed that the people who kept telling me “be content in all things” when I was struggling financially and trying to get ahead, or “Jesus will be your husband” when I talked about how hard it was to find single men my age to date, were the people who had been married 25+ years, made twice as much money as I did (or more), hadn’t been alone since they were teenagers, and had always been supported by the church. In short, they had no idea what it was like to live my life. But they were sure willing to give advice about it!

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    I guess a part of me wishes I had all that tenacity and forged ahead for Jeebers for a quarter-century plus plus but the truth is that as the son of a preacher, I mostly suffered it all, so to speak. I never felt that I fit in for more than very short periods of time and I constantly doubted the party-line bullshit of Bapturdism. I learned the cycle of self-harm that Christians are taught to see as God working out his plan in your life. The plan is to make you eat your evil heart out of your living chest and hate yourself because you fail over and over in it. You find yourself caring for yourself just a little bit and then have to chew that too. I wish I knew what people are talking about when they say they sat down sensibly and studied the Word for themselves. I was eaten by the Word and my heart was wrecked by it. Mind-rape, heart-rape… Children first… If you were triune lucky (sic) the holy rapists got your body too…. mind, heart, body….
    The love of God via the Church will help you harm others in ways that not even the Hell’s Angels would consider.
    You did it all for Jesus, did you? Well, not me. I was fed to the Word. Now that I am free of it as much as can be, I sometimes fantasize that I never faltered and believed. If only they didn’t get us so young, huh? If only somebody said, you are loved and free to choose. Either way, you are loved. Imagine.
    Don’t get me wrong. My life was a breeze compared to other kids even in my own church. Jus’ sayin’…

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    It all sounds too familiar. Actually, I have ended up in a pretty good place, but that was some kind of accident. It sure wasn’t the result of careful planning. I’m not all that sure I was ever a ‘firm believer,’ but I was committed to my religious community. And I was willing to make the sacrifices. Never even thought about the financial ramifications, but I went to school forever, went into debt, always lived with financial pressure and the resulting depression. And there was pain. Lots of it. It culminated in my wife, the cute little preacher’s daughter I had married, telling me she was embarrassed to tell people she was married to a minister, and finally dumping my ass and running off with her current boyfriend, who coincidentally (?) just happened to make a lot more money than I did. After 25 years and 4 kids. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve moved past regretting the divorce to regretting the marriage.

    As I said, I’m in a pretty good place, but I am wounded, full of regrets and self-doubts and self-recrimination, and resentful that I allowed myself to be so sucked in by religion. It may not have completely ruined my life, but it sure as hell diminished it. I’ll never get back what I lost. And I’m not talking about that wife. I have a better one now.

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    I left the church because I simply could no longer bear the hypocrisy. Your honesty resonates with me – when I asked difficult questions, I would get the standard, rote answers. Not to mention the petty comments because I am 38, have never been married and do not want children. I was a missionary for five years, but left because I could no longer justify “living by faith”. I had no money, had to depend on others for charity as I had no church supporting mee. That being said – Christianity has some serious flaws. One of the questions that always bothered me, was why “God” would answer the prayers of people in different religions,but not mine, since I was a believer in Jesus. Christians never really had any logical, viable answers. “God” did not seem to be having any, either. So I said “fuck all this” and went back to my hedonistic, self-serving life where I have a job, a house and a beer. So sick of the guilt trips that people try to lay on me.

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    Before I begin, I must admit I should be studying for my mid-term in the Italian Renaissance…..but I felt the need to leave a comment. No, I’m not some 20 something. I am well over the age of 50. My husband is “eligible” for social security, but is teaching now. We didn’t have the same situation that you did, but lack of saving gets you to the same place. But it wasn’t my intention to remark on the woes of working past retirement!
    I grew up with a fairly regular indoctrination of the Methodist faith. I’ve always been fascinated with religion (of all types). I felt I had a close personal relationship with Jesus/God. As an anthropology major, I’ve learned a great deal about the evolution of our species. Genetics and social society and how it developed. And during all of this schooling, I began to doubt. I didn’t lose my faith in the same way, but lost it I did. I still try to fool myself every now and again, but I always see my foolishness for what it was ~ just having a difficult time in life and hoping that a deity would help me out of it. I understand that there are a lot of scientists that profess that they still believe. I suppose they have their “faith” that there is a being out there bigger than us. I don’t have that feeling so much anymore.
    I don’t think that you should feel regretful though. It is what you thought was right for you at the time…..and now, it just isn’t. I understand that money and things are difficult, but life isn’t so much what we accumulate, but how we live it. Good luck to you, my friend.

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    This resonated with me! I taught in a Christian school for 25 years making less than $500 a month,working in a moldy, asbestos filled broken down building. I had to pay to put my children in that same school,receiving a subpar education, so made $150 a month take home. Now I’m disabled due to years of black mold exposure. And the same church that told me that I was a soldier for Jesus and acted like we were partners in the war against sin has turned its back on me and said “tough luck” and will give me nothing in support. My husband who decided against becoming a full time Christian teacher long ago has worldly insurance that has saved my life. So the Christians left me on the side of the road, and the world picked me up and gave me succor.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      My wife taught in a Christian school for two years. It paid less than 5k per year with zero benefits. Worse yet, because she was a woman (not the breadwinner) they paid her less than they did male teachers. Fortunately, I managed restaurants, making four times what Polly made and I had family insurance coverage.

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    My faith was a life of torment, in that in addition to the whole sin/repentance cycle I felt so horribly unable to do anything good because of being so introverted and naturally gracious that I would never witness to anyone. I remember caring so much, reading the Bible as a kid, being terrified I had blasphemed the holy spirit and how no one else worried about it, or the horrible shame I felt because I *gasp* jerked off. I think other people simply weren’t so sensitive and anxiety stricken that it didn’t torment them like it did me. Christianity place so much emphasis on relationships and groups, I felt like I needed to be a part of a group to be happy, so I tried to invite people over for dinner and to make pottery from church and half the time no one came (even though those who did had a wonderful time) I gave thousands of dollars worth of pottery in service (or so I thought at the time, no I see I was doing it to fit in some how)
    I tried so hard, but could never escape the fact that, by nature I am like oil, groups of people water. It’s like I wasn’t even human, and I believed that my happiness and efficacy as a Christian was contingent on being something I can never be. In reality,believing that is what made me so miserable. Now I’m so much happier because it’s a carrot I don’t have to chase, and I ask myself if I’m even interested in spending time with people, and I have relationships because I want to, not because I need validation from them. life is so much better now.
    Love your blog btw, thank you so much for giving me a place to work my thoughts out

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    Brian Vanderlip

    Much appreciate having this ongoing review of past posts, Bruce. They are still relevant of course and well worth the rereading! Makes me chuckle a bit, I must say, when I think that you are reposting because WE need to be reminded… a bit of the old obsessive self that never quits?
    Have been thinking again of how IFBism distorted my sense of self even as a youngster and inserted the idea that it was a good thing to not care for yourself, that not caring for yourself is really caring for yourself. Mindfuck. Heartwreckers.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Hey, Bruce, I really enjoyed reading this post about regretting one’s bad decisions made on God’s behalf. I did some real dumb things, believing I had no right to protect myself from toxic people. My mother and I lived like fugitives for decades, because we didn’t get away in time. And, we were taught not to plan for elderhood, as Jesus would come back before we got old. I now know that we were lied to. Nouthetic advice kills people. Certainly it killed my mother and others I know of. You are indeed a rare bird, as most U.S.pasoters live better than average Americans. The way you were living during the time you were in that mobile home is how people live in the 1040 window. Most preachers here aren’t that sincere. I only met one person, just one, in decades of church attendance.

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    Bruce, what was it about being a preacher, from your childhood eyes, that made you tell your mom you wanted to be one when you grew up? Do you remember?

    Given your Type A all-in personality, I have no doubt that you would have driven yourself into the ground no matter what career you chose. If you had been a business owner, you’d have worn 50 hats and fired everyone for not doing their job right. If you’d been a social worker you would have worked 15 hours a day attempting to save all your cases. If you’d been a teacher, you would have been at the school long after everyone else helping students. You are who you are, regardless of whether you thought a deity was holding a whip over you. You even said in a recent post that you get involved in work and come up for air 9 hours later not knowing what time it is. It’s just Bruce being Bruce.

    Too bad you weren’t a prosperity gospel preacher, you might have rivaled Joel Osteen lol!

    • Avatar
      Brian Vanderlip

      OC, I concur on that point completely: Religion is a tool and it was a handy, perfect-fit hammer for Bruce Almighty. What makes us obsessive, multi-hatted, burn-the-candle-at-both-ends types is probably both genetics and our early experience in life. I weigh-in pretty much with childhood experiences being a primary launching pad for this kind of thing but Science is looking closely at human development and discovering so much! A few years ago we did not even know that the human brain can be physically changed by severe emotional trauma. We have also learned, if i am not misinformed, that the brain has the ability to ‘cure’ some of these changes with help, with qualified professional assistance and hard emotional work. I cannot point to the specific post(s) but I think that Bruce has stated that this blog is a kind of ‘therapy’ for him as well as a secular ministry, his Minister of Toxic Faith practice. Is that so, Almighty?

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Another thing is that because most preachers are in this line of work for the money and it’s a sedentary job that comes with many perks,at least in the West, forcing sincere people to do more than their share of the work, heavy lifting for all these other types like ,say, those pastors down in Texas like Pat Horner. They have power over the congregation, but they don’t do any real work. Not do they care about people. They are just foppish geeks who are afraid of a real, male-type job. I would often reflect on this trend, while wondering why I bothered to keep going to church. It was clear that once you got past the church budget, that no one gave a damn, unless you were a moneybags they can coddle and court, for big bucks !

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    Yulya Sevelova

    I kind of suspect that one reason you went through all that stuff is, sadly, you did a lot of the heavy lifting for other pastors. It wasn’t the shared burden it should have been. Whatever town or states you were traveling to, once you got there, all the pastors should have cared enough to make sure you had decent living conditions, as well as saving souls and lives– without all that Southern baggage and neuroticism so prevelent in seminaries and other organizations. No wonder Christianity is so screwed up ! Lots of people go down the proverbial rabbit hole, never escaping in time. Like my mother or myself. Good that you at least aren’t tied up with church drama !

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Bruce Gerencser