My wife, Polly, and I were raised by parents who believed Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches preached the true gospel and adhered to the right doctrinal beliefs. Both of us spent our preschool years in non-Baptist churches, but neither of us remembers anything about these congregations. Our earliest religious experiences were with IFB churches. Both of us made our first professions of faith as kindergartners. I asked Jesus into my heart during junior church at Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego, California. Polly gave her heart to Jesus by her mom’s bedside. As teenagers, both of us “really” got saved and/or committed our lives to Jesus. I also believed that God was calling me to be a preacher, and Polly believed her calling in life was to be a preacher’s wife.
During our high school years, I attended a large public high school in Findlay, Ohio — dropping out of school after my eleventh-grade year. Polly, at the time, lived in Bay City, Michigan. At the age of thirty-five, her father felt called to preach and moved his family to Pontiac, Michigan to attend Midwestern Baptist College. During her father’s four years at Midwestern, Polly attended Oakland Christian School — a large Fundamentalist high school. Polly’s father graduated from Midwestern in May 1976. He then moved his family to Newark, Ohio, to become the assistant pastor for the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio. The Baptist Temple — as it is commonly called — was an IFB church pastored by Jim Dennis, Polly’s uncle. (Please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis.)
In August of 1976, a full-of-life redheaded boy packed his meager belongings into his beater Dodge Dart and made his way north to enroll for classes at Midwestern. A beautiful dark-haired girl would do the same, making the five-hour trip north in a six-year-old AMC Hornet. God’s perfect will was aligning for both of us, and we soon began dating. It was not long before we both were smitten with the other. Six months later, on Valentine’s Day, I asked Polly to marry me. She said yes, and I put on her ring finger the $225 quarter-caret diamond ring I had recently purchased for her at Sears and Roebuck. We then wonderfully broke Midwestern’s rules forbidding physical contact between unmarrieds. (Please see Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six-Inch Rule.)
Polly and I threw ourselves into our studies, knowing that we couldn’t — thanks to a college rule forbidding marriage as freshmen — get married until the summer of 1978. Polly’s mom used the intervening eighteen months to try to derail our marriage plans. In February of 1978, Polly’s mom let her know that she could not marry me. End of that, I am sure Mom thought. Little did she know that full-of-life Bruce had rubbed off a bit on quiet, reserved Polly. After giving serious thought to eloping, we decided to get married with or without her parents’ blessing. Polly told her mom that she wanted their blessing and very much wanted to have the wedding at the Baptist Temple, but if not, she was marrying her red-headed bad boy anyway. This was the first time that Polly ever stood up to her mom.
In July of 1978, we tied the knot at the Baptist Temple on a ninety-five-degree July day (the church did not have air conditioning). Polly’s dad and uncle performed the wedding. Our wedding entourage was made up of friends from college, close friends, and family members. It was very much an IFB affair, with one exception, anyway. The soloist for our wedding was a college friend of ours. Two of the songs we asked him to sing were We’ve Only Just Begun by the Carpenters and The Wedding Song (There is Love) by Peter, Paul, and Mary. These were the FIRST secular pop songs ever sung at a Baptist Temple wedding, and they were most certainly the last. For the past forty-two years, thanks to us using secular songs in our wedding, Baptist Temple couples must have their wedding music approved before it can be used. We truly made a “mark” on the church.
After our honeymoon in French Lick, Indiana, we returned to Pontiac to begin our junior year of college. The first week of classes, Polly informed me that she was pregnant. How could that be possible? We were using contraception! Of course, we never had any premarital counseling or instruction about birth control. We were just two dumb, naïve young adults who thought reading Fundamentalist Tim LaHaye’s 1976 book, The Act of Marriage, was comprehensive sex education.
Polly was quite sick during her pregnancy. Her obstetrician was a country doctor who thought it was good for her to gain as much weight as she wanted. All told, she gained sixty-eight pounds, some of which is still with her today. Polly’s health problems forced her to reduce her class load. I maintained a full class schedule while also working a second shift job at a Detroit-area machine shop — Deco Grande. In January of 1979, I lost my job, and we were immediately plunged into a financial crisis. Polly and I sought counsel from the college dean, Levi Corey, thinking that it might be best for us to drop out of school for a semester. The dean told us that it was God who led us to Midwestern, and he never uses quitters. We would hear the “God never uses quitters” mantra many times during the next few weeks. He suggested we borrow money to pay our tuition bill. We did, but that only staved off destitution for a short while. In February 1979, we dropped out of college, packed up our belongings in a small U-Haul, and towed them with a 1967 Chevrolet Impala to the place of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. I was twenty-one, and Polly was twenty.
Our experiences at Midwestern generally reinforced what we had been taught as youths. We were taught a John R. Rice, The Home: Courtship, Marriage, and Children patriarchal/complementarian view of marriage. The Sword of the Lord website describes Rice’s book this way:
Too long have people had to depend on lewd and crude books, written by ungodly men or women, people who think more of the body than of the soul, writers who study more to excite human passions than to make godly homes. This book shows the normal plan of God about marriage, about children and the Christian principles of a happy home.
I was the head of the home, and all decisions were to be made by me. Polly’s role was to care for our home and children. A greater burden was placed on Polly because she was taught that since her husband was a pastor, she and her children would always come second to the church. Polly was often reminded, both in classes and from the pulpit, that she would have to make great sacrifices for the sake of the ministry; that she must never complain about her preacher husband’s tireless service to Jesus; that men greatly used by God always had wives who understood their husbands’ supernatural calling; that if she would humbly walk in her husband’s shadow, that God would greatly reward her after death. Being naturally passive and reserved, Polly adapted well to her calling, as did I, an outspoken, passionate, quick-to-make-decisions pastor. These teachings would, over time, turn Polly into a martyr.
After leaving college and moving to Bryan, we lived with my sister and her husband for a few weeks while I secured employment and found us suitable housing. Polly, at the time, was six months pregnant with our first child.
As hardcore Fundamentalist Baptists, our first order of business was to find a church to attend. We had been taught that missing church was a grievous sin, a transgression that brought swift judgment from God. Family and friends thought that we would attend First Baptist Church. After all, it was the church I attended before college, and it was pastored by a distant relative, Jack Bennett. My sister and her husband were attending Montpelier Baptist Church, pastored by Jay Stuckey. Polly thought First Baptist was an aging, dead church, with little to offer a young family such as ours. My feelings were a bit more conflicted because I knew many of the people at First Baptist, but I knew Polly was right. So, instead of going where everyone expected us to go, we started attending Montpelier Baptist Church.
Montpelier Baptist was a young church affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). The church’s pastor and his wife were a few years older than we, and many of the congregants were young adults. The nursery teemed with newborns, and there was an excitement in the air as, week after week, the church continued to grow. Pastor Stuckey was what I would now call a newspaper-headlines-preacher. He preached sermons about the end times, the rapture, and the Illuminati — the things you find in Chick Tracts. For those who were interested in prophecy and evangelism, Montpelier Baptist was the place to be.
Several weeks after we started attending the church, Jay asked me to be his assistant, working with the bus ministry and the church’s evangelistic efforts. The position paid me exactly zero dollars and zero cents, even though I would, in a few weeks, find myself working at the church over thirty hours a week. Fortunately, I had secured a union job working at ARO in the shipping and receiving department, so money was not a concern.
Between the church and ARO, I was gone from home almost eighty hours a week. Polly was left alone most days, rarely seeing me until late in the evening or at church. I quickly became consumed with the work of the ministry, neglecting my wife for the sake of the supernatural call God had on my life. Polly saw my devotion to the church as the way pastors were supposed to be — sold out, on fire for Jesus. As my wife, Polly knew that God, ministry, and church came before her.
No matter how many hours I worked or how long I was away from home, Polly never said a word. She could see that God was blessing my work at the church. Thanks to my labor with the bus ministry and the church’s visitation program, church attendance grew rapidly. We were bringing so many children in on the buses that they had to sit on the floor at the front of the church. The crowded pews lent themselves to the congregation’s belief that God was doing something great at Montpelier Baptist Church. In October 1979, nine months after I started working with Jay, the church had a record attendance of five hundred.
Three weeks later, Polly and I, along with our newborn son, would again pack up our belongings, this time so we could move to Newark, Ohio. During our time at Montpelier Baptist, it became clear that I was a workaholic; that I was unable to rest and relax when there was work to do for God. Shortly after our record attendance, I started having health problems that landed me in the hospital for several days. The doctor determined that my problems were stress-related. During my hospital stay, Jay never came to see me. He never bothered to ask how I was doing. It was during this time that I was also facing a layoff at work. I went to talk to Jay about the difficulties we were having financially — thinking that the church might help us a bit since I was devoting so much of my time to its ministries — and he suggested I apply for welfare. Jay’s indifference towards us was quite hurtful, and later that day, Polly and I decided we would move to Newark. We went over to Jay’s home to tell him, thinking he would understand. He didn’t. Jay became quite belligerent (as did his wife), laying a guilt trip on me for wanting to leave. He so shamed me that I changed my mind about leaving.
A week or so later, it became clear that we were going to have to move. I went to Jay’s office to tell him we were moving, and he looked up from his desk and basically said to me, see ya later, and then went back to whatever it was he was doing. By the end of the week, we had packed up our belongings and moved to Newark to live temporarily with Polly’s parents until I found a job.
In all of this, Polly was a passive bystander. It was my job to be the head of the home, to make all the decisions. She was taught, and believed, that her God-called preacher husband was led by the Holy Spirit and knew exactly what he was doing. I don’t remember her ever questioning our moves from college to Bryan and from Montpelier to Newark. She was content to follow me wherever I went, and whatever difficulties, burdens, and trials came her way, she would gladly bear them without a word of complaint. As far as patriarchal thinking goes, she was the perfect wife.
These experiences, and many others like them, turned Polly into a martyr. No matter what I said or did, she just smiled and obeyed — the perfect IFB pastor’s wife. Instead of giving her opinion or standing her ground, she quietly followed in my footsteps. It was not until we were in our forties that we realized this was no way to live; Polly was supposed to be my partner, not my slave.
The past 20 years of marriage have been transformational, to say the least. Our decision-making process has changed dramatically, and Polly isn’t afraid to express her opinion or say that this or that is a bad idea. Going back to college and graduating in 2012, and being promoted to second shift supervisor for her department at Sauder Woodworking have allowed Polly to step outside of my shadow, be her own person, and make her own decisions. Deconverting in 2008 helped too. Once freed from an authoritarian God and his rule-book, Polly was free to chart her own course and captain her own ship.
There are times when both of us lapse into our former IFB ways. We are not much different personality-wise from when we got married 42 years ago. Sure, we have mellowed with age and our priorities have changed, but what’s really changed is our values and how we treat each other. Both of us can say that our marriage today is better than it ever has been. We deeply love one another and realize that we are lucky that our marriage survived decades of IFB indoctrination. We are far from perfect, but strive to be a better friend, lover, and spouse to each other every day. Now, if we can just quit fighting over the blanket. 🙂
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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I’d love to have gone to Jay Stuckey’s church just long enough to give him a knuckle sandwich- or two !!
The quote from Rice reminds me of what – quite humorously – became the first chink in the armor of my faith 15 years ago. I was 14 or so and in my search for something “deeper” started watching televagelists, who eventually led me to the writings of Herbert W. Armstrong. Armstrong was basically a run-of-the-mill evangelical/fundamentalist pastor/cult leader who managed to build a huge media empire in the 50’s and 60’s predicting a rapture that never came. In his later years Herbert – as the all knowing Man of God he was – wrote books on every subject imaginable, including sex. Being a naturally curious teenager I bought his “The Missing Dimension in Sex”, which was the same sort of hybrid biology textbook and moral tome, and read it voraciously in secret. I was right where he got to the real action of describing how to have sex when I read, “it is not necessary for a man to stimulate his wife’s clitoris, since the natural motion of intervourse shall stimulate it inadvertently.” I remember pausing, flipping over to look at Herbert’s shriveled 90 year old self’s picture on the cover, and realizing that even I knew more about how to please a woman than this guy did. I tossed the book and from then on never quite trusted a Christian “authority” quite the same way…
I’m glad you both triumphed over everything you were taught. I believe marriage is better when both people are equal partners, working together for their lives’ course.
Psssst! Bruce–buy another blanket, so you don’t have to share. Other than that, I’m really glad that your life and Polly’s have changed for the better, after leaving the IFB and its patriarchal view of marriage, for atheism. It’s hard enough to live together, and it’s so much better when you both have a voice in how it’s done.
Your love endured. With apologies to Tina Turner: “What’s God got to do with it?”
Yeah, life is good, Gerencser. We have survived to thrive just as we are! Wonderful writing.
About the blanket thing, the duel is never done… they’re dirty fighters. She’ll wait up till you snore and leave you nekid and shivering! Utterly merciless…