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Retired Pastor? How Does THAT Happen?

Bruce Gerencser, April 2021

Several years ago, I saw my primary care doctor for a two-month check-up. I have been seeing the same doctor for twenty-five. We’ve become friends, and my appointments are often just as much catching up as they are treating me. My doctor is an Evangelical Christian. While I am sure he has noticed that I don’t talk about God/Jesus/Church anymore, we have never had any sort of discussion about my current beliefs and way of life. We are Facebook friends, so he’s read that I self-describe as an atheist.

For this visit:  scripts were written/called in, CT scan scheduled, blood tests ordered, bitching about how bad the Browns/Bengals are, time to go home. The nurse — also an Evangelical — came into the room with several reams of paper (or so it seems) detailing everything we talked about during my visit. My doctor said to his nurse, Bruce, is a retired pastor. Before I could say a word, the nurse said, Retired pastor? How does THAT happen? Again, before I could say anything, my doctor said, He’s a retired pastor. (This nurse was a fill-in. I have not seen her since.)

I outwardly smiled, and much like Trump changing the discussion from “pussy-grabbing” to Bill Clinton’s dalliances, I said, how many games do you think the Browns will win? My doctor shook his head and laughed, knowing that his Browns suck (and my Bengals weren’t much better).

For whatever reason, when it comes to my medical treatment, I wall myself off from my atheist and humanist beliefs. I don’t disown them, I just don’t talk about them. I do, from time to time, act like a devout, proselytizing Jehovah’s Witness, leaving copies of the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Americans United For Separation of Church and State newsletters in the waiting room. Even with this low-key act of godlessness, I make sure my name and address are blacked out before placing the newsletters among waiting room reading materials.

What did the nurse mean when she said, Retired Pastor? how does THAT happen? Evangelical thinking on this subject goes something like this:

  • God calls men to be pastors.
  • The work of the ministry is far above any other job. In fact, it is not a job, it’s a calling.
  • This calling is irrevocable. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. (Romans 11:29)
  • Pastors should die in the pulpit while preaching the gospel. Going to Heaven with my boots on, old-time preachers used to say.

Thus, being a retired pastor does not compute. God saved and called me, so I should still be preaching. But wait a minute. I am no longer a Christian. I don’t believe in the existence of the God I at one time worshiped and served. My salvation and calling were the results of social conditioning, the consequence of spending fifty years in the Evangelical church. At age five I told my mother that I wanted to be a preacher someday. At age fifteen, I put my faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Two weeks later, I went before the church and told them I believed God was calling me to be a preacher. The congregation praised God for his selection of the redheaded Gerencser boy, and a week later I preached my first sermon. Thirty-three years later I preached my last sermon.

Someday, my obituary will be published in the Bryan Times and Defiance Crescent-News. On that day, my doctor will know the “truth” about my life and loss of faith. Until then, I am content to talk about football, baseball, or family, leaving my godlessness for another day. While I don’t think the fact of my atheism would affect my medical care, I prefer not to complicate my professional relationship and friendship with my doctor. If I Iive longer than expected — which is increasingly doubtful — and my doctor retires before I die, perhaps then we will talk about my journey from Evangelicalism to atheism. Or maybe he’ll stumble upon my blog or read one of the articles I have written for other blogs. I don’t fear him knowing. I just know there’s not enough time in a fifteen-minute office visit for me to explain why I am no longer a Christian.

Do you have certain people you haven’t shared your deconversion with? Why do you keep this to yourself? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

35 Comments

  1. Avatar
    RJW

    I don’t tell too many people I’m no longer a Christian. My good Christian friend seems to think she can talk about Creationism etc and maybe, I’ll change my mind. I told another good friend that I wasn’t a Christian and she stopped seeing me.

    At least my husband and sons are perfectly okay with me no longer being Christian. Husband is all out atheist while one son leans towards pantheism. The older, Christian son is definitely a liberal Christian. So we’re all good! 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Brian

    The fact that I no longer do woo-woo is of little consequence most of the time. When somebody speaks for me without respect and includes me in their Christian speech, then I stop them and caution them to acknowledge that I am not the person about whom they speak…
    My older brother never accepts that and gaslights me to the moon and back: YOu and I both know, is one of his favorite prefaces… My sister just absents herself and does not address the elephant I bring into her comfort zone. The point of helping others in Christianity is to make them know they are worms and Jesus makes good people out of worms. Once you see the basic disrespect and shallowness of such an enterprise, all the rest is just theatre, repetative theatre. People used to burn others at the stake to do them a favor, torture them to death for being who they were.
    I put Jesus on the Cross and need to be hated or if possible saved. I did the whole thing and am not adding any coin to the offering plate each Sunday. Witholding the truth about one’s belief or lack of woo-woo is entirely appropriate. After all, Bruce does not even love God enough to believe in the healing God wants to bestow on him. He instead goes running to doctors. Faithless, he will not be properly healed but wander to and fro in unhappy complaint unlike the church congregation who are going way way up when the time comes….

    • Avatar
      Darcy

      Brian: “My sister just absents herself and does not address the elephant I bring into her comfort zone. ” I believe it’s important to maintain cordial relations with family members who clearly don’t agree on some point. It means that there is something more important in life than breaking up a family relationship. It might be useful to choose a private moment and express gratitude to her for leaving the room when your brother talks like that.

      • Avatar
        Bruce Gerencser

        Generally, I agree with your advice, especially with family. However, I’m at a place in life (as sick as I am) where I am tired of Evangelicals who think it is their God-given right to badger and assault me unprovoked with their beliefs. As an atheist, I keep my beliefs to myself, except when asked. I wish Evangelicals would do the same.

  3. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I never told my parents. I think they figured it out, and it really upset my mother, a devout Catholic. But she talked around it. My dad was always a person who judged others by what they did, not what they said… and I don’t think he gave a rat’s ass about what I might profess to believe as long as I lived a moral life by his standards. And Dad and I happened to share a closely-aligned set of morals.

    Husband and I are both openly atheist to his family, who originally were Evangelical Christians. We’re not the only ones; two of my nephews are open atheists. Dad-in-law never talks about religion. Mom-in-law is troubled, but figures we’re all adults and she’s not in charge. I suspect there are a lot of prayers she says for our salvation. But M-in-L is a much more liberal Christian than she was a few decades ago.

    There is no one else I hide my atheism from, but I’m not an anti-theist, either; I have a somewhat live-and-let-live approach to religious beliefs that don’t result in serious harm for believers. Don’t preach at me and I won’t logic at you. It mostly works. The people who really care about me, still seem to care about me, even the really religious folks. That encourages me. I like to see empathy raised above dogma.

  4. Avatar
    Kingasaurus

    After painfully watching the Browns and Bengals in the recent past, why isn’t everyone in Ohio an atheist?

    Don’t those two teams make it obvious that there’s no God? Or maybe there is one and he hates you.

  5. Avatar
    Melody

    I haven’t told my parents. They know I’m much more of a skeptic now, but not about my deconversion. I sometimes wonder if they know, or suspect. Basically because of this: “While I am sure he has noticed that I don’t talk about God/Jesus/Church any more, we have never had any sort of discussion about my current beliefs and way of life.”

    I used to talk much more about my faith, about the Bible, about Jesus. I used to say Lord Jesus and now I just say Jesus when I mention him. I went from someone who was really devoted and somewhat vocal about it to someone who hardly talks about it and when I do with quite some caveats. But they don’t ask anything, and I don’t tell. I think they believe I’m more of a progressive now, but am not sure what they think. It’s a pretty touchy subject and even being too progressive would already be quite a problem.

  6. Avatar
    JR

    What a rude thing to say to a guy in the doctors. In that position even if I was a committed evangelical I think I would say ‘I’m old and I’ve earned a retirement so fuck off’.

  7. Avatar
    Ami

    I’m out to some people, but I think the majority of people I encounter just assume that everyone is a Christian. Since I don’t have horns or a forked tail, I don’t fry cats or hurt small children and I’m just a regular person they assume I am a Christian.

    Most of the people I encounter don’t talk about their religion…and I don’t talk about mine, either.

  8. Avatar
    Van

    Still not out to anyone anywhere. Except here on Bruce’s blog. Thank you Bruce.

    Then again, if the best explanation for the Cowboy’s resurrection this year is divine intervention, I may have to rethink everything.

  9. Pingback:Retired Pastor? How Does THAT Happen? – FairAndUNbalanced.com

  10. Avatar
    Lydia

    I’ve told everyone other than a few very conservative Christian relatives who would freak out. I don’t lie about my Atheism, I simply don’t bring it up with them.

    Although the liberal Christians on that side of the family know, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the topic comes up one day. If the conservative relatives ever ask, I will be honest with them.

    They haven’t done that yet, though. Who knows if they ever will. Part of me thinks that they’re avoiding the conversation on purpose. We’re not at all close, though, so maybe they’re honestly clueless.

    • Avatar
      Geoff

      It’s astonishing. I am only just beginning to understand the implications in many parts of the US to admitting you are an atheist.

      In the UK there’s still a lot of believers, but atheism, or at least ‘non religious’ is the norm. When the subject comes up, and other than in the confines of their religious groupings, it is the believers who become often a little defensive, as though ashamed of their beliefs. It’s very rarely spoken about for that reason.

      • Avatar
        JR

        Yes Geoff I feel the same. Reading Bruce’s articles and the comments from US folks makes me realise how different the culture is in the UK to parts or most of the US. Go to the most conservative village in the UK and you will find evangelicalism is rare/non existent. ‘Daily mail’ moralism is rife but you tell people you are athiest they won’t care a bit and instead will probably tell you they are too. Coming out as a evangelical christian raises far more eyebrows!

        • Avatar
          Lydia

          I’m completely fascinated by the differences between the UK and the US when it comes to this. What other differences between the two cultures have you both noticed?

          • Avatar
            Geoff

            One thing that is very significant is the UK’s obsession with faith schools, especially Catholic. Education in the UK is mainly state based, in that it is paid for by the taxpayer, and logically one would expect, given our lower propensity to religiosity, that it would discourage faith schools. Far from it and quite the reverse. Faith schools proliferate, and continue to open, mostly paid for by the state.

            The reasons for this vary. I think that the lack of religiosity helps prevent properly considered views on the issue to develop. As people are more ‘without religion’ than ‘anti religion’ there’s a feeling that letting children be educated based on a particular faith is harmless. There’s then the issue of perceived tolerance, in that if we allow this for one faith then all faiths should be allowed. Hence a proliferation of Muslim schools. There’s also a case that faith schools have a better record on both discipline and educational achievement, though there’s debate about the reasons for this. Essentially we have the situation that parents are sending their kids to Catholic schools regardless of their own beliefs, simply because they are often the best schools, perpetuating the perception that they are the best schools. I might also say that our conservative politicians, who form the present government, are more religiously inclined than those of other parties, for reasons of history and privilege.

            It’s the nearest I get to family squabbles over religion. My wife’s family is from Glasgow, a city heavily laden with sectarian history continuing to this day, and some of them are still staunchly Catholic. I have nieces and nephews who attend a local Catholic school and they are great kids, but I cringe at the religious backdrop that they have to endure. The parents know my views, though prefer to avoid discussion, and I’m left, out of politeness, having to limit myself only to occasional comments of disapproval.

            I don’t think there’s going to be any great changes in this area anytime soon, but secular organisations such as the British Humanists Association, are increasingly challenging the status quo.

  11. Avatar
    Troy

    I think the Nurse is right. You’re still a Pastor, well an anti-Pastor.
    It is important to selectively pick battles that are productive. Avoid attempting to teach pigs to whistle. For example your physician is a poor candidate. Such small talk banter is common with medical personnel. It makes the subject less nervous and creates a bit of a bond that will help foster communication. An admission of atheism would only muddy the waters and of course it would likely be a conversation drag. (Of course there is always the possibility one or both is secretly atheist, I doubt it.) You could have casually mentioned that you were a Pastor, but became disillusioned with it and now are an atheist blogger of some renown. Even that isn’t terse enough to achieve the goal of getting your butt out of there as soon as possible.

    As atheists the worst thing to do is attempt to convert people. The process can’t be just a couple of zingers. It is more like a very slow game of Jenga where the tower only comes down after many carefully plotted turns. It also requires a person to tap their seed of doubt with courage, curiosity, and a commitment to seeking the truth. Not everyone is a good candidate since it does require some cooperation on their part. If people ask sincere questions answer them sincerely. Try to avoid being smug or condescending. The time for laughing at religion is when everyone is laughing a the joke.

  12. Avatar
    Melody

    @Geoff

    The same is true for where I live. Taxes pay for religious schools, therefore, there is some inspection and the schools have to teach the subjects of the state exams, so also evolution. But as a faith school they can decide how, so will give the message that it’s just a theory and not to be believed. It is, however, taught, unlike say what happens with homeschooling.

    Jewish and Islamic schools exist as well and especially the latter will sometime worry people. However, because religion (or more specific Christianity) is generally seen as quite irrelevant and relatively harmless, it doesn’t make for a much discussed subject. Except that one party wants to close the schools, and keeps on bringing it up every few years or so. They also tried (not sure if they succeeded) to stop taxes paying for transport to the schools as they can be quite far apart.

  13. Avatar
    Brocken

    When it comes to the remark of the nurse ” Retired pastor, How does that happen” there are several reasons that can happen. One reason is that the pastor no longer believes in what he is doing. Another reason is that after the pastor is forced to leave his or her church because of scandal, very few churches might want to have them serve as pastor. After the pastor of one local church lost his position at a non-denominational church, he bounced around other churches until he settled in at one church. He would sometimes give sermons at that church and he was listed as a “retired pastor”. He was not in any leadership position in that church as far as I know of, he and his wife were just members of that church. If you are interested in listening to this man’s speaking skills or lack of same, his first guest sermon was at the Hudson Christian Church in Hudson Illinois on July 30, 2017. It was entitled Keeping Watch and it is under the guest speakers section of that church. He also did two sermons in June of 2018 at the church. You would have to go the archive to get to his first sermon where he is listed as a member of that church and as a ” retired pastor”.

  14. Avatar
    William

    As regards the above discussion, fundamentalism very much exists in the UK, it has however a very different flavour to American fundamentalism. Cultural preferences aside, the reason for the difference is that UK is predominantly Calvinistic, whereas the USA has a far more Armenian flavour.

    There is an example from around 2 years ago on a Scottish island where there was much protesting and petitioning over the Sabbath day being broken because a cinema opened on a Sunday to show star wars. Church members and many residents were not happy about a business being open on the Holy day, even the local minister picketed outside the cinema.

    For the OP, I don’t share my current position with many people just because it’s not relevant to my relationship with them (work, medical, customer etc). I seen the point in evangelising for Christ but there’s no point in evangelising for nothing, in an inappropriate fashion.

    • Avatar
      Darcy

      William: “I seen the point in evangelising for Christ but there’s no point in evangelising for nothing, in an inappropriate fashion.” When we do talk about about our views, it’s not evangelizing for “nothing.” Not sure what to call it instead of “nothing,” and that’s where Bruce can step in. We have a right to our views, and they are just our views, not dogma. Our views are not something we need to evangelize.

  15. Avatar
    Emersonian

    If being a Bengals or a Browns fan isn’t enough to make one question the existence of a loving god, I’m not sure what is.

  16. Avatar
    leigh

    I have not told my parental units, mainly because I just don’t wanna have that conversation. I don’t fear disowning or the like, because that’s just not who they are, but also because one of their grown grandchildren is an out atheist and is treated no differently. Honestly, I think it’s been a little hard for them to handle how very liberal I’ve become in my middle age so I’m hesitant to drop too much more on them.

    We haven’t told his parental units because they’re missionaries and I’m afraid they’re going to go all in on our kid. I swear to the god I no longer believe in that if they even THINK of mentioning hell as a consequence to her there will be WORDS and they will be sweary blasphemous ones and they will not have a good time.

    • Avatar
      Darcy

      Leigh: “…there will be WORDS and they will be sweary blasphemous ones and they will not have a good time.” Really? In my experience, sometime sweary blasphemous words DO have a VERY good time! 🙂

  17. Avatar
    BJW

    Heh. I don’t usually talk religion or lack of one. Although, I’d probably just say I’m a universalist or humanist. Or agnostic, depending on the day. I did see a new primary care nurse practitioner, and I was able to find out talking about the Covid-19 vaccine, that the nurse assisting the NP was a liberal. So I found ONE liberal.

  18. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    First, a question: Couldn’t a pastor retire if, due to health reasons, he or she can’t carry out pastoral duties?

    As for the issue of discussing my atheism: I rarely do so, simply because I don’t often discuss religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Some people in my life know that I am an atheist; the others probably think I’m simply non-religious or lapsed.

    I have no need to proselytize and, really, doing so is pointless: People are going to believe (or not) whatever they will, for whatever reasons.

    Plus, too many people, in my experience, take it as a personal affront when you disagree with their religious beliefs. While I don’t think much of religion, I respect people’s right to believe it, as long as they don’t use it to cause harm to others. And I don’t make value judgments about people based on whether or, what, they believe in. Some people, though, cannot understand that if you don’t agree with them.

    By the way: I have no idea of what my doctor’s religious beliefs are, or aren’t. All I know is that he’s been good for me: I’ve been going to him for 14 years. He is a gay man who has a number of other LGBTQ patients, which is one reason I feel
    comfortable with him.

  19. Avatar
    Barbara L. Jackson

    I have talked about this in other comments on your articles (is that the correct word?). My brother hardly ever talks to me. I got a suprise call from him during the last week. I think it was to make sure we would send birthday cards to his son and wife.

    We were talking about the semiconductor chip shortage caused by corona virus making factories shut down. I told him the physics of how semiconductor chips work. He was telling me this would cause inflation and did I know what inflation is. Of course I do, I had that figured out in algebra class in junior high school, he knows this. He tried to make it sound like this is all the fault of liberals like me.

    Then he asks if I believe in a world beyond this one and the bible. He has known for years that I am agnostic. I said of course I did not believe in the bible because it is a collection of myths.

    We talked about several other topics. He made it sound go me like he was blaming agnostics for these problems.

    How could my brother do this? He also made it sound like my disabilities are because of my lack of faith in god.

    I will not hide when he directly asks me if I believe in god.

    I was very emotionally hurt by this conversation on the phone with him and talked to my husband and a neighbor.

    I will no longer call him. I will try to send out the birthday cards because his family members are not to blame for his action.

    I have to get my feelings out somehow.

  20. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Barbara, there is no reason to subject yourself to emotional abuse, whoever dishes it out. I, too, have a brother with whom I didn’t speak after I “came out.” After that, he taunted me like a school yard bully and told me, in essence, that my niece’s autism was my fault. Now, I don’t spend my nights perusing Tbe New England Journal of Medicine or the Lancet, so perhaps I am too ignorant to understand the link between my transgender identity or atheism and my niece’s autism.

  21. Avatar
    Noncarborundum

    Speaking of the Browns sucking, one of my favorite lines from the comedy improv show “Whose Line Is It Anyway” came when Colin Mochrie was playing a news anchor with a breaking story: “This just in: Beverly Hills 90210 — Cleveland Browns 3.”

  22. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    I had to laugh at that Christian snark wisecrack coming from that nurse, Bruce !! Because there ARE retired pastors,oodles of them. Whole communities of them, complexes so beautiful and with lots of amenities. You’d see these places advertised in the back of Christianity Today ( the library)lol. That now- dismissed nurse was just a hayseed sounding off. No worries. In Glendale where I used to live, I’d see them tooling around on their bikes. My attitude, as a reluctant misotheist, is live- and-let-live. As long as no religious abuse is çommitted in my presence, I’m not threatened by displays of beliefs. I have my own holdover from active Christian times. Now I’m only private in belief now. Which is quite rocky. Those places in the magazine sound great,as far as facilities go. I wish more apartment complexes were like them, instead of the overpriced dumps that are never repaired that people are so desperate to move into to escape homelessness. If that subject comes up and seems like a source of contention and you prefer not to go there, simply point them to CT😁

  23. Avatar
    Davie from Glasgow

    While I can imagine a competent medical doctor professing to be an Evangelical Christian for a number of reasons, I find it hard to believe that such a professional could be genuine bible literalist. Our whole Western medical treatment model depends on an understanding of the way in which the viruses and bacteria that cause illness EVOLVE. But yeah – I can understand entirely why this isn’t something Bruce wants to challenge his doctor on. I’d be the same.

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Bruce Gerencser