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IFB Bullies in the Pulpit

angry preacher

I recently read a blog post on another website that talked about bullies in the pulpit. For those of us raised in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches, we are quite aware of so-called men of God bullying church members under the guise of preaching the Word of God or sharing what God laid upon their hearts. Let me share a couple of illustrations I believe will aptly illustrate my point.

In the early 1980s, my wife and I attended the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark, Ohio. The church’s pastor was James (Jim) Dennis, Polly’s uncle. Jim graduated from Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan in the 1960s. Polly’s father would later attend this college, as did Polly and I. Midwestern was known for producing fire-breathing, authoritarian preachers. Tom Malone, the chancellor of Midwestern and pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church, took a ” my way or the highway” approach to ministry. Legalistic thinking permeated both the church and the college. Run afoul of Malone, and you were shown the door. I vividly remember someone leaving a church service at Emmanuel and Malone stopping his sermon to address the man leaving. Much to the man’s embarrassment, Malone said, with his Alabamian drawl, “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” The only phrase missing was “on the ass.”

Jim Dennis followed in the footsteps of Malone when it came to being a bully. While Jim could have a winsome personality, cross him and he would quickly put you in your place. The Baptist Temple was his church, end of discussion. God had called him to be its pastor, and as God’s chosen oracle, his word was law.

The church was going through a difficult time financially. Jim decided that he would inspect the tithing records to see which church members were giving and how much. Jim was shocked to learn that many of the teachers and staff in the church’s Christian school were not tithing. Never mind that teachers and staff members were paid pathetically low wages and had few, if any, benefits. Polly taught first grade one year at the school. She made $180 a week before taxes. She also worked in the church’s daycare the previous year. Polly’s total gross wages in 1980-81 were $9,111. I made almost three times as much money working for Long John Silver’s (and had full benefits) as Polly did teaching and caring for the church’s children. Worse yet, women were paid less money than men. Why? Because men were breadwinners, not women. Employees were expected to treat their jobs as a ministry of sorts, the equivalent of a Baptist vow of poverty. It should not be surprising then that many teachers and staff members couldn’t afford to tithe and give offerings. When you are in the poorhouse, it is hard to justify giving money to the church.

One Sunday, an angry Jim Dennis — righteous anger, right?— took to the bully pulpit and savaged his selflessly serving teachers. He demanded that they immediately start tithing, and if they didn’t, he would have their tithes deducted from their paychecks. While I’m sure Polly’s IFB family would wish I didn’t write stories such as this, I think it is important to expose this sort of behavior for what it is: bullying.

Let me share another story before moving on to my own abhorrent behavior. In the 1980s, a fire-breathing Fundamentalist named Mike Lee was the pastor of Montpelier Baptist Church in Montpelier, Ohio. Montpelier Baptist was the first church I worked for after leaving Midwestern in 1979. The pastor I worked for, Jay Stucky, later left and Lee became pastor. My sister and her husband were members of the church both while I was there and after Lee took over the helm. After my sister’s marriage fell apart, Lee would have her followed to see what she was up to. Granted, her behavior didn’t measure up to the IFB standard, but deacons following her to the local bar and grill to observe her behavior? My sister, of course, left the church.

Several years later, the good pastor Lee decided to address the burning issue of church teenagers attending their high school prom. In the minds of Fundamentalists like Lee, attending the prom was among the vilest of “sins.” After his sermon was over, Lee told the congregation that he had something he wanted to talk to them about. Wanting to make sure that no one could leave the church auditorium, Lee had the ushers lock the doors. How do I know this happened? A couple who would later join the church I pastored in West Unity were visiting Lee’s church that day. They were scared witless by his behavior. There’s one word to describe this pastor’s behavior: bullying.

These two illustrations likely seem beyond the pale to non-IFB Christians, but trust me, such behavior is quite normal among IFB pastors and churches. Why is that? Most IFB pastors are anti-culture. I suspect most of them voted for Donald Trump in the last election. Authoritarians love other authoritarians. Many IFB pastors run their churches in a fashion similar to the way Trump ran his businesses and the federal government. IFB pastors, to the man, believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Couple this with a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, a belief that pastors are divinely called by God to speak on his behalf, and that their opinions and personal interpretations have the weight of law, is it any surprise that many of them are bullies?

I grew up in IFB churches and attended an IFB college. My pastors, professors, and colleagues in the ministry all modeled bullying behavior to one degree or another. I heard it at pastor’s conferences in the stories preachers told about their churches, and I witnessed it when I visited other IFB churches. People wrongly assume that Steven Anderson, an IFB pastor in Tempe, Arizona, is an outlier, an aberration. He’s not. The same goes for the late-Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church.

It is not surprising, then, that I was an authoritarian and bully as a pastor. I may have been kind, compassionate, and may have gone out of my way to help church members, but I expected congregants to heed my pronouncements. I expected them to recognize and bow what is called in IFB circles “pastoral authority.” This false notion was reinforced in my sermons, private interactions, and church business meetings. Church members were warned that failure to obey the man of God would lead to judgment and chastisement from the Almighty. And surprisingly, hundreds of people bowed to my authority, believing I was in some way or the other chosen by God to be their “shepherd.”

The good news is that I stopped being a bully long before I left the ministry. I came to see that the church didn’t belong to me. It was “our” church, not my personal fiefdom. Did I totally lose my authoritarian bent? Sadly, no. I learned that many church members were quite comfortable with me making all or most of the decisions. They were fine with me telling them what to believe and how to live. I endured countless church business meetings where I would plead with congregants to share their opinions, only to see them stay silent or let me have the final say. This was frustrating, to say the least, but it is hard for me not to conclude that every church I pastored had cultic tendencies.

After leaving the ministry in 2005 and Christianity in 2008, I have repeatedly apologized to former parishioners for my bullying behavior. While I have been forgiven by those I have harmed, it’s hard for me to live with the damage and harm I caused to others. Sure, I was a product of my environment and training. Sure, I did what was modeled to me by my pastors, professors, and other IFB pastors and evangelists. All that is true and makes for a great psych profile, but the fact remains that I was a bully, that I harmed other people, including my wife and children.

Alas, there are no do-overs in life. All I know to do is tell my story and hope that others will be warded off from authoritarian pastors. Not all pastors are bullies, so I suggest potential church members carefully pay attention to how a preacher conducts himself before committing one’s time and money to a particular church. Bullying behavior can be found in other sects too. In general, Evangelicalism has a problem with bullies in the pulpit, men who are engorged with power and control. The only way to end such behavior is to stop giving these bullies an audience. When all the students stay off the playground, the bully has no one to harm. It’s time for Christians to leave authoritarian pastors to their own devices.

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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15 Comments

  1. Avatar
    BJW

    Imagine, having a pastor who wasn’t a bully, and didn’t try to judge everyone? How could fundamentalist Christianity survive? You are right, though, that too many people want to be told what to do. I had a revelation about why Trump has so many sheep, and it isn’t in spite of his good ways, but because he was a bully and they liked it directed at others. I guess that goes along with the idea, expressed by one Trumper who got screwed over something Trump did (tariff?), who said something like, “He was supposed to hurt the people who DESERVE it.”

    You know Bruce, you were living the best way you knew. What shows integrity is that you hit a point where you couldn’t keep going that way. Instead, you examined the evidence and followed your true conscience. I don’t think all the fundies get that your are a man of conscience. They are too lost in anger and hate. They say they want people to honor God, but it’s really them being bullies too.

  2. Avatar
    ... Zoe ~

    This post reminds me of the first post of yours I read where you were apologizing. I just couldn’t believe my eyes and my heart started to cry. A moment of healing began for me as I just never could believe an actual IFB pastor &/or former IFB pastor was capable of apologizing. I felt a sense of hope that though highly unlikely, it was possible that a pastor could say they were sorry. It is at that moment I knew you had integrity and a heart.

  3. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Literal Bible-believing evangelical faith IS bullying. And my exposure from birth to that virus is the reason I saw the one door and only one, the reason I took the childish leap early on! I could see as many of us do, that my mission was impossible but the only choice. My dad promised that God would work it all out. And you can bet I figured that with God’s help I could make a difference and save the/my world from Roman Catholics and commies and well, bad guys. I would be the Lone Ranger for Jesus.
    The point, the whole point of the architecture of The Faith is to leave the hapless victim with no way out but smiling in self-harm, at being disgusted with the self (the sins that are by design infinite and self-replicating, the sins that are not sins at all in decent life but just being human and struggling to live, learning and expressing humanity.)
    As for your statement, “Not all pastors are bullies”, I would further define ‘pastors’ because as I see it, all of those pastors who are IFB-like are indeed bullies with peerhaps a few succeeding in being unsuccessful bullies.

  4. Avatar
    Troy

    Interesting, in particular I find the remark “Authoritarians love other authoritarians”. I wonder why this is so? But yes, (authoritarian) Trump seemed to prefer the company of (our enemies) fellow authoritarians Vladamir Putin and Kim Jong Un. One nice thing about following an authoritarian it means you don’t have the bane of having to actually think. I myself am not exempt, for example I prefer to wait on an empty street for a stop light, rather than have to stop and cogitate about if and when it is safe to proceed into the intersection.

    I’m wondering though, do such every-Sunday bully tactics work to make congregants better people (or at least tow the line)? If you’ve ever read about Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey, one inspiration for starting the church of Satan was the pure hypocrisy as his fellow circus folk would be out sinning on Saturday night, repenting the next Sunday, only to repeat the sinning the next week.

  5. Avatar
    Elaine

    About 30 years ago I attended a “full-gospel” wannabe mega-church whose pastor had delusions of grandeur. He routinely described himself as a prophet and pretended to speak in tongues. What drove me out of there was when he verbally castigated a couple for letting their toddler play quietly with a sock puppet. I was instantly reminded of the mean teachers I’d grown up with. Petty dictators who could not fathom how anyone, even a pre-verbal child, could fail to pay such rapt attention that it bordered on hypnosis. Guess the indoctrination never truly “took.” Thank the Ordered Universe.

  6. Avatar
    apostatedaughter

    There are few things that show the vacuousness of fundamentalism like the behavior of its pastors. It is incredible to have the opportunity to live long enough to break from the indoctrination that locked our minds in this narcissistic system of self promotion and self justification. To be able to say, “I was wrong'” means everything. It is possible to change.

  7. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    Hey, Bruce, I am glad to see you’re up to posting again, and yeah, I can certainly relate to the subject at hand !! Like Elaine here, I’d attended various ” Full Gospel, Four Square, Assembly of God,etc. churches, and they were pretty much alike. Controlling pastors, like that Tom Malone and Jim Dennis, are part- and- parcel. I bet that pastor ranting about the staff not tithing had no deficits in his own effing paychecks and perks ! It’s crap like this that angered and disillusioned the fleeing youths they harp about when lamenting the empty pews and those ” jumping ship.”. I just wish I’d jumped ship when I was young enough to benefit,lol. To fill the churches up again, Big Religion has been courting refugees by making sure the government gives them housing and other benefits, provided they stay settled in their assigned churches. They’re hogging the low- income housing supply, have for decades, like Southern California Presbyterian Church Homes. Now called ” Be. Communities. “. Meanwhile, thousands of homeless die in L.A.County alone. As in 1,400 in 2020. How has this been tolerated ? No doubt fear and superstition play a big part. I remember more than one church where the pastor said that someone would die within three days if they quit the church or refuse to come down in front to that altar, lol !!

  8. Avatar
    dover1952

    Bruce and Commenters.

    I have an “if/then” question. If IFB preachers are bullies, as Bruce says——and I do indeed take his word on it——what then is the best way for an IFB church member or the average person on the street to deal with a bullying preacher? By “deal with,” I mean quickly “get their goat,” put them to shame and silence in public, verbally slug them on the playground with quick words and leave their mouths bloody and their souls hurting in deep personal pain that is going to render them sleepless that night. I am taking about the pewsitter’s and average person’s verbal equivalent of kicking the playground bully squarely in the testicles on the playground for everyone to plainly see. There has got to be a way to do that!!! I have just never known what that way is and how to pull it off as a maser stroke of genius. Having been an IFB preacher yourself, I suspect you know what that unique lightning strike looks like when quickly and effectively applied. What would have thoroughly gotten your personal bully goat if a pewsitter in your IFB church or an ordinary person on the street had fired the magic words at you.

    I shall simply close by saying that I have bested bullies physically on the school playground with a good punch, wrestler’s hold, or Judo throw. Being tall and heavy helps with that. However, I am severely untalented at verbally confronting a bullying IFB preacher or another such person that specializes in bullying with words, verbal threats, and personal manipulation. So, I will ask again. What can a person do against the “Old Bruce” (or similar IFB preacher) to go straight to their personal vulnerability buttons, press down hard on every button at one time, and leave them weeping and suicidal on the street curb for all of the pain and anguish they cause to so very many other people. I think this is something we should all be able to learn how to do so we can send IFB preachers straight to the personal hell they so richly deserve to live in day-in and day-out because of the merciless hell they cause to their fellow human beings. How about it? Let’s hear it straight from the man.

  9. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    It all comes down to authoritarianism. Look at the “umbrella of protection” diagram showing the order of the family. Each person has their authoritarian sphere that gets smaller and smaller based on your role in the order. Children are at the bottom, so their only authoritarian sphere includes the family pets under their control lol. I find that authoritarians are drawn to evangelicalism, conservative Catholicism, and generally any high demand religion where order is clearly proscribed.

    My mom was the biggest bully who was terribly bullied for large periods of her life. She was sexually abused as a child, painfully shy, brilliant, and in times of stress she would either submit to bullying from a “stronger” opponent or bully anyone in her sphere she considered weak. Those were her defense mechanisms. She told me that she wished someone would just tell her what to do her entire life so she didn’t have to make decisions. That pronouncement tore me up inside, but it explained a lot of her behavior and how she ended up in an IFB church. She wanted the preacher to tell her what to do, and she did most of it except wear a dress or skirt to church. She always needed somewhere to rebel lol.

    It’s no wonder that my brother is an authoritarian. He LOVES the mean, angry OT God. He runs his home with an iron fist, though he bows to his wife in whatever they have deemed she is in charge of. The kids are raised under authoritarianism and aren’t allowed any outlet to rebel. It’s no wonder that my brother and sister-in-law are staunch evangelicals.

    Most (if not all) Trump supporters I know are authoritarians too. They desire order and clear cut A or B options. They can’t handle the grey areas. They refuse to believe there are grey areas. They want to be told what to do, and some want to be given segments of people over whom they can set up control.

  10. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Boy oh boy, yer pissed, Charles! I would exercise great caution with such great anger because just your glare might bring on a heart attack and lawsuit!
    Personally, I feel you slightly overstate your case!? I mean, suicidal? C’mon now… Even preachers leave it to somebody else to torture others eternally; they don’t say they dearly wish to harm others themselves!
    I agree that those guys cause unreal and neverending harm to others and that a good ass-kickin’ would probably feel pretty darn good right at the peak of some hateful, stupid sermon but Stand Down, soldier!

  11. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Troy is perceptive to pick up on the phrase, “Authoritarians love other authoritarians. “ And that is their blind spot: One half of the couple, if you will, is smarter, shrewder or simply more ruthless than the other, and takes advantage of that. Also, because authoritarians are narcissists, the one who is being mocked, fleeced or bullied by the other can or does not see it. (Think of Putin and Trump or Hitler and Mussolini.)

    All of this leads me to wonder whether you, Bruce, were actually an authoritarian or bully. You may have behaved in ways you now regret (haven’t we all?) but you also made sacrifices on behalf of others. I can’t help but to think that deep down, you were and are better than the people you mention. Although I also count myself as an atheist, like you, and regard that realization as a turning point in my life, I think it might have been even more important that you wholeheartedly embraced your integrity and generous spirit.

  12. Avatar
    BJW

    Wow OC. Your comment just gave me a small understanding as to why a high-functioning autistic person I care about loves Trump. Person doesn’t see shades of gray and must be attracted to that black and white thinking. The worse part is said person is highly intelligent. And I am too chronically ill to engage in discussions on this topic, so it’s the elephant in the room.

  13. Avatar
    Charles S. Oaxpatu

    Hi Brian. You are right. I did overstate that a bit. However, I sometimes feel that If I do not overstate a matter, my readers will not take the way “you would have stated it” as a matter worth some thought. I was not appealing to physical violence but referring to the infliction of emotional suffering. Over the years, I have observed that Christian Fundamentalist and Conservative Evangelical preachers have no problem whatsoever with inflicting profound emotional suffering on the people in their congregations, They do it without a shred of love or compassion. Maybe what is bad enough for the congregation member is also bad enough for the preacher—–and maybe if the preacher himself feels the heat of the fire-breathing dragon—–he will gain some love and compassion for the people he is torturing and quit doing it.

  14. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    The punishment paradigm belongs with evangelical Christianity. We are beginning to understand that this form of belief has its foundation in collective harm, culture-wide collective harm. When the patriarchal believer sings Ol’ Time Religion at the top of his believer lungs, he is including all the built-in abuse in excessive belief, the demeaning of women and children, the masochistic focus of male believer/sinners, the merry-go-round of self-harm needed. How on earth could anybody become sinless when so much time and effort is put into focussing on sin! In fact, Christians become more sinful by calling more and more behaviour sin. It’s a terrible way to live but chosen by church-goers because it is what they know and reflects the collective harm they carry.
    You suggest that the preacher might benefit from the torture he is paid to dole out to others and that he might quit doing harm if it was done in a like manner to him. I don’t agree, Charles. I think that sometimes when you kick the shit out of the bully, they become a victim in the punishment paradigm and you become the bully. But I completely understand the need to protect ourselves. I don’t think that doing what IFB preachers do (better than they do it themselves) is a viable long-term action.
    We learn to be more human by exposure to more humanity, not punishment for bad behaviour. The prison systems in some European nations are now being designed not to harm and dehumanize (as American prisons do) but to assist, to support, to allow education and recovery from previous harm that has led to illegal acts. Evangelical fundamentalists deny themselves basic humanity and think of themselves as worms without God. When they give a sandwich to a hungry man in the ditch, it is not to help the man be free again but to ensnare him in a punishment paradigm called ‘evangelical belief’. It is all smiles when suckers enter the church and not long after, the punishment begins. Are believers aware of this? Not many but ignorance is not excuse.
    My intent, should I ever be in the presence of a self-harming, bully preacher again, is to look for ways to show humanity, to disagree openly and with respect, to say ‘No’ to offers of a sandwich…. Can I manage that humanity? Or will I end up in a fist-fight with Trump supporters…? Like you, I get very very angry sometimes at the ignorant bully harm done by preachers and their sheep.
    I don’t think the punishment paradigm works Charles. We are incarcerating more and more mentally ill men and women in USA. Our prisons are warehouses for the harmed, the sick. We can do and must do better than this.
    (I am speaking of prisons here because I see them as a direct parallel with fundamentalist churches, sharing many characteristics back and forth.) Churches too are warehouses for masses of people carrying the collective harm done over generations.
    (Now, having gotten the very inconvenient potential-humanity out of the way, I would suggest dealing with preachers by offering them their favourite coffee and spike it with a triune dose of Ex Lax.)

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