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The Gods Have Clay Feet: A Few Thoughts About Evangelical Pastors

pastors gods with feet of clay

The Evangelical Christian church has many gods. While Evangelicals will profess to worship the true and living God — the God of the Bible — often their true object of worship is human and not divine. Most Evangelical churches have a congregational form of church government. Some churches have adopted an elder rule form of government. Regardless of what form of government a church adopts, there can be no doubt about who really runs the church. The CEO, the boss man, the head honcho is the pastor — also known as the senior pastor, executive pastor, and prophet, priest and king.

The pastor is the hub upon which the wheel of the church turns. He (there are very few she’s) is the man who runs the show. He sets the course for the church. He is a modern-day Moses leading the church to the Promised Land. He is the visionary with a vision that the church is expected to follow. He is, after all, the man of God. He is divinely called by God, a call that cannot be explained with human words. He is the man of God, given a message by God, to speak to the people of God.

He is a man not to be trifled with. He has been anointed by God. He has been set apart by God to do the most important work in the world. His calling is higher than even that of the President of the United States. The congregation is reminded that the Bible says “touch not mine anointed.” They are also told the story about the Elisha, the mocking boys, and the bears:

And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. (2 Kings 2:23, 24)

You have been warned, says God’s man. Say anything negative about the pastor and you run the risk of bears eating you; or cancer, heart attack, accident, or death.

The pastor is the Lone Ranger’s Tonto. He is the Green Hornet’s Bruce. He is Batman’s Robin. God and the pastor are joined at the hip. After all, the pastor has a divine calling; a calling that can’t be explained or revoked. In fact, the only way anyone knows for sure a pastor is God-called is because he says he is.

Most Evangelical churches are independent. Even those who belong to denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention are independent. Each church is a local, autonomous entity, accountable to no one but themselves. The Southern Baptist Convention has a HUGE sex abuse problem, yet little is done by the Convention because each church governs itself. The convention has no power over churches or pastors, or so they conveniently claim.

Since most Evangelical churches are independent, there are few, if any, standards or requirements for starting a church. Anyone can start a church. Anyone can claim to be a pastor. Anyone, Anyone, Anyone. In most states, there are no legal requirements for starting a church. The Federal government, by default, treats churches as exempt from taxation. By default, they receive most of the benefits of 501(c)(3) status without actually applying for it. Starting a church is a con artist’s dream. Just tune into a Christian TV channel for proof of this. There are no educational requirements; no ordination requirements. Anyone can become a pastor. It really is that easy. (Please see What is a Church According to the IRS) and You Can do It: How to Start an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church.)

In charismatic/Pentecostal circles, some pastors have added titles to their name. Not content to be called pastor, they demand that they be called bishop or apostle. Several apostles have set up shop right here in the county I live in. Once again, a man is an apostle or bishop because he says he is. God has imparted to the man a special anointing, a special dose of Holy G-h-o-s-t power that raises the man to a higher level in the church. Or so he says.

Now let me try to tie all this together. I am writing under the anointing right now, so it is hard to put this all together for you common folks. But I will try.

We have independent churches with independent pastors without any checks or balances. A man can start a church whenever and wherever. The church becomes his church, the religious equivalent of a corporation. The pastor is considered divinely called by God because he says he is. How dare anyone question GOD!

This type of religion flourishes in America. We are a people who applaud the entrepreneurial spirit. Starting a church is akin to starting a business. We worship personalities: entertainers, sports figures, preachers, playmate of the month, et al. We are a lazy people, content to let others think for us.

So what do we have? Churches operated by entrepreneurial pastors. These churches are often filled with people who love to worship personalities, and in this case the personality is the pastor. Content to let the pastor think for them, run the show, and speak to them on God’s behalf, many Christians have surrendered their autonomy for a seat at the feet of the most awesome, most handsome pastor in town. And man, does he have a hot wife!

The pastor, then, becomes a god. He is given so much control and power that it is almost impossible to unseat god when the church finds out the pastor has feet of clay. I said almost… Daily news reports of pastors committing crimes, seducing church members, sexually abusing children, and stealing money are too common to be just aberrations. I could write for hours about pastors I know who have scandalous pasts, yet they are still pastors. They just moved down the road and started a new church or they stood their ground and ran off their accusers. (Please see the Black Collar Crime Series.)

In the 1980s Jack Hyles, at the time pastor of the largest church in the United States, was accused of sexual improprieties with a married woman in his church. The evidence against him was overwhelming. Yet, he successfully withstood his accusers, and when he died two decades later he was still pastor of First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana. The church that Jack built lost thousands of members, but he remained god until he went the way of all humans. (Please see The Legacy of Jack Hyles.)

Jack Hyles’ son David was also accused of sexual improprieties. He left First Baptist and moved on to another church in Texas — a church his father previously pastored. Not one word of his past peccadilloes was shared with the new church. David Hyles continued his sexual exploits and conquests. He had sex with women in the church and was only exposed after compromising photos were accidentally found by someone in the church.

After Jack Hyles died, his son-in-law, Jack Schaap became the Pastor CEO of  Hyles Industries. Like his father-in-law and brother-in-law, Schaap had a problem with fidelity. Schaap was accused of having sex with a church teenager. He was later convicted, and is now serving a twelve-year sentence in a federal penitentiary.

Aberration? Hardly. In many churches, the pastors have incredible power and control. They become gods. The pastor does the preaching, does the counseling, and is the chairman of the board. Everything goes through him. In some churches, the pastor even checks the tithing records to see who is giving and how much they are giving. One pastor I know well was told by the church treasurer that many of the Christian school teachers were not tithing. The next Sunday he publicly berated the teachers and told them that he was going to have their tithes taken out as a payroll deduction if they didn’t start tithing. Never mind the fact the church paid the teachers poverty wages, and if they tithed, they would be well BELOW the poverty line. I know this to be true because my wife worked for the school in the 1980s (this was back in the day when the church paid male teachers more than female teachers).

One pastor here in northwest Ohio decided one Sunday to preach against the evils of attending the prom. When it came time to preach, he instructed the ushers to lock the sanctuary doors so no one could leave. Everyone was going to hear what he had to say. This same pastor had the deacons secretly follow church members to see what they were up to. Young couples considering having children were encouraged (required?) to counsel with the pastor first before engaging in procreation.

Another pastor in Columbus, Ohio had a portrait of him and his wife hung over the water fountain in the church foyer. He joked “that way every time someone gets a drink they have to bow to me.” Funny? Not when you consider the horrific mental and emotional damage caused by these megalomaniacs.

Children who grow up in Evangelical churches are conditioned to accept that the pastor is the final authority. Even in matters of faith, the Bible is not the final authority, the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible is. The church believes whatever the pastor says the church believes. If he started the church, he likely wrote the church’s doctrinal statement, constitution, and bylaws. He determines what is truth and what is error. Remember he is God-called; God speaks through him. End of discussion.

It should come as no surprise, then, that some men aspire to be pastors for reasons other than serving others. It’s the perfect job. No one to answer to but God, and he seems to never have anything to say. Conscientious, faithful men do wonderful work, loving and serving the church; however, far too many men are corrupted by the power they are given. Some men have ulterior motives, and the pastorate becomes a safe place to hide. I know of men who had irregularities in their past and the pastorate allowed them to keep from being held accountable for their past deeds.

One pastor in Columbus had no social security number. He had not filed an income tax return in years. His church paid him in cash. When the IRS changed reporting requirements, requiring evangelists and special speakers to be given 1099s if paid over a certain amount, some churches began giving evangelists and special speakers (pastors) cash offerings. Many a pastor has received a brown-bag offering. Evangelical preachers have incredible, and quite legal, ways to avoid paying income tax. Some incorporate as a charity or a ministry. The ministry has a “board” that is made up of the pastor’s family or friends. By incorporating, they avail themselves of the tax benefits that corporations receive. Pastors buy cars, trucks, travel trailers, and houses and put them in the church’s name. They receive a tax-free housing allowance. Many pastors have little taxable income, even though they live quite comfortably. It is a great gig if you can get it.

One day, the inevitable happens. The pastor — the god — falls from his exalted throne. Over time, people become disillusioned with the pastor. They take issue with his preaching, his vision, his wife, his children, his theology, his suit, his hairstyle, his entertainments, etc. People tire of pastors just like they do the other gods they worship. Perhaps he commits a grievous sin. He has an affair, steals money from the church, or embraces a teaching that the power brokers in the church consider heresy; heresy being anything they disagree with.

All of a sudden, the church remembers that IT has power. Members recall they can take down their god and vote him out of the church. And so they do . . . The god may fight to keep his power, to keep his throne, but most often he negotiates a settlement package, the conditions of surrender, and moves on to another church. The church promises to never let another pastor have the power that he had.

But then a new god comes to the church. A new vision, a new inside track with God. He is a wonderful preacher. His wife and kids are adorable. He is given the reins of the church and once again a pastor is restored to the throne. And so it goes . . .

In no way do I wish to disparage good men and women who conscientiously serve their churches; people who sacrifice and work selflessly day in day out. But they, most of all, should know that what I write is true. The American Evangelical church is overrun with power-hungry, ambitious men who have an eye on their own kingdom and not God’s. They are the god of the church, not the God they preach about. Sadly it seems, in many cases, this is exactly what the church wants.

While I no longer believe in the Christian God, I did spend 50 years in the church. For many of those years, I was on the inside, knowing its secrets, knowing who did what and where the bodies are buried. I know whereof I speak.  I know what I have seen and what I have done myself in the name of God. I know too much and I have seen too much for it to be anecdotal or coincidental.

I am not sure I have any answers. We can’t look to the structured denominational churches for answers.  They too have their own power-hungry gods. They too have scandals, as is clear for all to see with the scandal-ridden Catholic church. It is hard not to at least question whether the Christian church is hopelessly corrupt. Regardless of the good men and women who serve selflessly, perhaps the church is irreparably broken.

Some people, realizing this, start new movements, but, over time, they most often become just like what they opposed and despised. They organize, men gain power, and over time there are new gods to worship. Perhaps the best we can hope for is individuals who take the ethical and moral teachings of Christ seriously and live accordingly. They steer clear of organized religion. They seek no place of power or authority. They seek only to love God and love their neighbor.

I am convinced that Jesus, real or not, has been lost in the mire and corruption of the modern Christian church. I have little confidence that he can be found. He has been swallowed by a Leviathan called Christianity, and if Jesus appeared today, he would most likely be nailed to a cross by those who say they worship him.

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

    I’ve heard one IFB pastor say repeatedly during his sermons, “You didn’t hire me so you can’t fire me!”. Wow!
    Yep, I’ve seen much of what you’ve written about. While there are some good folks in churches, all to on often its the same story, just a different church name.

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    The Calvary Chapel franchise is rivaling almost all other indie groups with the number of bad actor pastors arrested for heinous crimes. The ever growing list includes child physical/sexual abuse, soliciting sex from minors, embezzlement, child porn and now murder. Flanders continued in the pulpit “blessing people with his incredible teaching and leadership”(quote from someone STILL supporting him!!!) while in the midst of his horrible acts.

    I am appalled by how people in the so called inner circle, continued to cover for this man.
    If you have FB, the comments have many examples of folks blind support even in face of all the evidence! Hauling out all the same insane cannards of Judge not and who among us have not sinned. Insanity!!!

  3. Avatar
    Logan G

    Bruce, this was a helluva post. Spot on. I never pastored but I was heavily involved in fundamentalist churches for a long time, and I served on a church board and on lots of committees. Even with that small glimpse behind the curtain that I had, I saw what you wrote about above. It was disturbing to say the least.

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    curious if there are certain archtypes of people in the pews as well.

    eg, you’ve mentioned that there is usually a power crowd of elders, that provide much of the money and threaten to leave if they don’t get their way. do the power crowd people try to control other people in the church? or control the pastor? of just want to be told how important they are?

    and what about others in the pews. i imagine there are some rather powerless people too. why do they show up? were they brought up this way and actually believe it? seems you and others have mentioned that some people take it seriously and get psychotic about their own sins, and others listen for an hour on sunday and then forget about it the rest of the week.

    in other words, i’d be rather curious what the whole ecosystem of a church looks like. eg, 1 pastor and his wife, maybe 5-10 people in the in-crowd of elders and donors, another 10-20 people that are serious but don’t have as much clout, but are trying to get into the in-crowd. a few people that are picked on and looked down up and shamed, and for some reason put up with it. etc etc. what’s it all look like, and what is the motivations of the different players?

    and what about people that come from a mainline denomination? do they usually leave after a while? or is there a certain personality type that fits ifb better than mainline?

      • Avatar

        Please do! Iook forward to it.
        I saw ALL of this while I was at the Richmond Outreach Center. With Geronimo Aguilar’s trial in just a few weeks, I think back to all the people who so so so wanted to be in the “inner circle” only to lay the price later on. Strangely there are still people who follow this pedophile, manipulating creep around.

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        just doing my job to keep you busy so you don’t get yourself in trouble doing another duck photo safari. 😉 (or should i say, “duck die-nasty”)

        people from all over seem to recognize high school cliques of brains, jocks, stoners/rowdies, etc, because we seem to self-sort in very similar ways across the country (and probably the world, altho i don’t know). and even among the brains, there are those that don’t work too hard but are just smart, and those that have to work really hard to keep up, and those that brown-nose the teacher, etc.

        so i figure there’s probably a similar self-sorting process in churches, and having handy names and descriptions of them would be useful and entertaining.

        so, glad you and others like the question, and looking forward to the answer(s).

        • Avatar

          Yes, and this natural sorting of people that you see in any group, the extroverts, the introverts, etc.-this in itself led to much confusion on my part-due to trying to match it up with what was taught.

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      B.E. Miller

      Have you been to a blog titled “No Longer Quivering”?

      They have posts from folks (mostly women) who left abusive churches. Vyckie Garrison (founder of NLQ) says that sometimes the members were made to believe that God wants their abuse or desires it.

      I also found this blog through NLQ “When Church Hurts”

      Perhaps people stay with an abusive church because when they leave, very often they also have to leave friends and family behind. Especially if the friends/family are involved with the church.

          • Avatar

            yes, i’ve heard of NLQ, and read a few of the guest posts by NLQ, but don’t read them regularly. hadn’t heard of when church hurts before tho. thanks for the links.

            certainly both web sites are depictions of when things get really out of hand. however, even in more normal times, there’s still a pecking order, and still certain personality types, etc. essentially an anthropological study of a church was where my curiosity was. eg, as in my second comment about high school and brains, jocks, stoners, etc. how the rowdy people usually sit in the back, and the teacher’s pet sits in the front and take lots of notes, etc. even without rabid abuse, there still seems to be this sort of self-ordering going on, and these same/similar types of behavior occurring.

            despite virtually everyone reading this blog having gone to different high schools, and without any attempt to enforce these norms, i’d guess everyone, when they hear “brains, jocks, stoners” could quickly identify very similar groups at the school they went to. i find that rather intriguing. and i assume something similar occurs in churches (altho not being a church-goer for the last 30 years, i don’t know what those groups would be called or exactly how they act.)

            of course, things can get much worse, as nlq et al show. or read about the milgram experiment, or the stanford prison experiment. or some of the psychology lit re: authoritarian personalities and the people that follow them. (re: in politics, a canadian scholar wrote a book about authoritarian personalities in usa politics: )

            so while the extreme abuse situations are somewhat of interest, personally i’m also quite interested in the everyday type of personalities that make a church function too.

            so thanks again for the links. and thanks to ami for her account of this going on at her church too.

  5. Avatar

    When I read the title of this, I was thinking it would be slanted in a different direction.

    Watching ‘Marjoe’ the other night has triggered a flood of memories and conversations with my husband. He’s astounded that I really grew up that way.

    The ladies in the church vied for the attention of the traveling evangelists. They also did it with our pastor(s). I know I’ve told you before that my family changed churches as often as some people changed underwear.

    Pastor So and So was invited for dinner. Was the guest of honor if he agreed to visit. He was treated as Jesus-by-proxy.

    I always felt really… wrong. Because I mostly hated those “men of God”. Many of them were pervy, and I wasn’t the only teenage girl who thought so.

    My answer to sgl up there ^^^ is

    There was definitely a hierarchy of families in the church, too. The ones who could tithe a little more were quite obviously better liked by our pastors and were the ones pointed out in subtle and not-so-subtle ways all the time.

    And my mom would work really hard to please these guys. Threw herself into churchy things with great enthusiasm. And more than a little pride. “Look at all I do for God!” when it was really “Hey Pastor, notice me!!”

    When my dad started being a pastor, my mom was quite haughty about it. Since I’ve already left a chapter of a book in your comment section, I will stop now.

    Except to marvel that people still fall for all this stuff.

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    As a former ifb pastor myself, I approve of this message.

    The last paragraph is a great summary of the problem of Christianity today.

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    I was only 24 when I left evangelicalism, but my grandparents were heavily involved in the church so I saw some behind-the-scenes action. My grandfather was a good person, outgoing, did a lot of networking in the community to meet people’s needs (people in our church and outside the church, it didn’t matter to him – if someone had a need and he knew someone willing to help if he couldn’t do it himself, he would be there). My grandma was a good person too, but she was more wrapped up in teaching and was more of an introvert. Grandpa had a knack for finding useful things to do during worship service like visiting the nursery and playing with toddlers, fixing a refrigerator, counting the offerings, etc…. Anyway, after grandpa died, grandma was targeted by a jealous Sunday school teacher who convinced the head of the Sunday school committee to “fire” grandma and give her the class. Grandma left that church after serving there for over 35 years.

    As for the pastors at our Southern Baptist church, they did hold power, but our church members had no qualms about running out a pastor they didn’t like. They finally found one they didn’t run out who has been there about 30 years, and his son started a “church plant” not far away.

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    Pretty powerful stuff here, Bruce. When you consider how easily evangelicals are controlled and manipulated it’s no surprise they jumped on and continue to ride the Trump train

  9. Avatar
    Steve Ruis

    Bruce, I recommend to you the book “Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices” which shows that many, if not most, of the religious practices of today’s church were “gifts” from the Romans and other pagans, including … wait for it … pastors. The authors are believers who want Christianity to return to its roots in which a “church” was a congregation and not a building. But “the Church” would have to give up all of its political power to do that, so I suspect the odds of that happening are so close to zero as to be indistinguishable from it.

    I hope that 2021 is a much better year health-wise for you and your family and that you stay healthy and away from COVID-19 and its new, improved version. The world is a better place with you in it.

  10. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce, first of all, I want to wish you and your family a better 2021, health-wise. Steve is right: We are better for having you here.

    And the churches you pastored were, I am sure, better for having you, whether or not people realized it. Even if your views were different from what they are now, I feel certain that you had better motives than the ones of the pastors you describe.

  11. Avatar

    Bruce, I’m guessing that you exhibited the same level of care and concern for your flocks. Seriously, I imagine that you really helped people with their problems. Since it was in the context of religion, they would’ve felt your care and concern while attributing what was good to God. And for those who are still believers, that would create upset over the fact that it was really the man, Bruce, who did good things but no longer believed.

    Anyway, it’s New Year’s Eve…and Trump’s reign is nearly over. (I follow lawyers on Twitter who’ve analyzed the lawsuits and election law, and as of January 20, 2021 at noon, Trump won’t be president, not even under martial law.) So we do have something to look forward to, at least, in the near future a president who seems to care that too many Americans are dying.

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Bruce Gerencser