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Conferences and Fellowship Meetings: Where Evangelical Preachers Go to Gossip and Talk Shop

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Most Evangelical preachers belong to one or more fellowship groups. These groups are usually built around certain doctrinal beliefs — King James Onlyism, Calvinism — or around Evangelical colleges. For example, Midwestern Baptist College men tend to fellowship with Midwestern men; Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF) men tend to associate with BBF men; Bob Jones University men tend to hobnob with Bob Jones men. Preachers who believe the King James Bible is the preserved Word of God for English-speaking people often fellowship with like-minded pastors. Calvinistic preachers often associate with men who are Calvinists or Reformed. The groupings are endless, a reminder of the fractured, exclusionary nature of Evangelicalism. Some preachers will belong to several groups, not wanting to align themselves with any one group.

I was an Evangelical pastor for twenty-five years. I spent the bulk of my ministerial years in Ohio. During this time, I attended the meetings of the Ohio Baptist Bible Fellowship and the Buckeye Independent Baptist Fellowship. I also attended college-associated meetings: Midwestern Baptist College, Massillon Baptist College. I also attended numerous conferences: Sword of the Lord, Bread of Life Camp Meeting (Fellowship Baptist Church, Lebanon, Ohio), Family Camp (Midway Bible Baptist Church, Fishersville, Virginia), and Tri-County Baptist Temple Camp Meeting, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. And then there were Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and Christian Union fellowship meetings. For several years, I drove once a month to Mansfield, Ohio so I could attend a Calvinistic fellowship called the Pastor’s Clinic. As you can see, I did quite a bit of “fellowshipping.”

Most of the aforementioned meetings were geared towards pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. These meetings had four common themes: food, preaching, fellowship, and gossip. The host church would usually provide one or more meals for the preachers (and their wives) in attendance. The focus was always on hearing the preaching of the Word of God. A typical fellowship meeting would feature numerous sermons. Some of these meetings only had big-name preachers preach, while others would allow no-name preachers to strut their wares. Both would deliver what is commonly called “candy stick sermons.” Candy stick sermons are messages preachers have preached before. These are often the sermons preached when a preacher is giving a trial sermon at a prospective new church. Every preacher has an arsenal of sweet-tasting sermons that he knows inside and out. No one wants to preach before his peers and bomb, so candy stick sermons are typical fare at fellowship meetings. It’s all about the show and the approbation of fellow preachers.

During lunch, preachers gather into smaller groups and talk shop. Remember your preacher’s sermons about gossip and speaking poorly of others? Well, while attending fellowship meetings, preachers are exempt from practicing what they preach. Preachers routinely swap war stories — stories about rebellious members, bull-headed deacons, and church business meetings. Preachers also express concern (gossip) over this or that colleague who has left his church, had a split, or found sweet love in the arms of a secretary. Scandals are delectable truffles. Did you hear what happened at Bro. Righteous’ church? whisper, whisper, whisper — I can’t believe Bro. Bombastic is divorcing his wife. I heard he was having an affair with his sister-in-law. whisper, whisper, whisper — I heard Bro. Soulwinner’s church had a split. whisper, whisper, whisper Did you hear ________________? whisper, whisper, whisper — I can’t believe Bro. Doctrine is now a Calvinist/Arminian/Liberal/Southern Baptist, ___________. whisper, whisper, whisper — and on and on the gossip goes. Think what you told your preacher in confidence is safe? Think again. Your pastor might make your “sins” or “problems” a topic of discussion at the next fellowship meeting. The Evangelical version of the Catholic confessional, these lunch discussions are times when preachers can safely share the burdens of their hearts (also known as airing dirty laundry). Their stories are often carried home by other preachers and incorporated into their sermons.

The next time you share your burdens or sins with your preacher, remember that he might make your problems a topic of discussion at the next fellowship meeting. Or he might use you as an unnamed illustration in his candy stick sermon. One thing is for certain . . . preachers will never hear sermons at fellowship meetings on the sin of gossip (or gluttony). Preaching on gossip would ruin lunch, forcing preachers to practice what they preach.

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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.

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17 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Scott

    Bruce this has been my experience too and one of the reasons I gave up on “church” and all xianity. What I’d hear (as an intelligent, well taught, ‘layperson’) didn’t stack up with truth. I had more than 40years of this bullshit before the lights came on. Now I’m warp, bitter and twisted against so called church leadership (in the calvinistic-reformed-presbutton camp). Just keep speaking the truth Bruce!

  2. Avatar
    Troy

    The need for sugar stick sermons means that there must be some measure of esteem given to the more talented members of the clergy.
    This makes me wonder what does the preacher world think of lazy and vapid Ray Comfort? His shtick is always the same (have you ever lied, ever stole something? You’re a sinner! You need a savior! You need Jesus!) and his books don’t vary much either (Comfort himself admits to writing the same book over and over again.) He also makes a ton of money based on his relationship with Kirk Cameron (not his relationsthip with Jesus!)
    (With April Fool’s day coming up Ray Comfort always springs to mind.)

    • Avatar
      J.D. Matthews

      Kirk Cameron is the only reason most people know who Ray Comfort is. Bet he never figured those would be the coattails he would ride.

  3. Avatar
    Randy

    When I was an active pastor of a church I detested these sorts of meetings. I usually only attended an annual one hosted by the SBC in my area. I never enjoyed the company of other pastors. I never felt like I fit. Most of them grew up in Christian homes, attended Christian Seminaries and for the bulk of their lives held ministry related jobs. I grew up in a non-church home, was an atheist until 32 and had only a sprinkling of seminary education. I found these guys way out of touch with the real world.

    What bothered me most were the conversations about “how many are you running?” My church was small and I counted a Sunday with 30 people as a huge turnout. The numbers you were “running” were basically a judge of your success. My focus of creating and building disciples never really mattered. It was how many people in the pews and how many dollars in the offering plate. That facet strangely reminded me of conversations with fellow managers in the sales world – how many customers? How much profit margin? I became disillusioned quite quickly.

    I guess I’ve always had a knack for pissing other pastors off because I just refused to do things their way, speak their language, or play their games. Right now I am happy and content to not have a pastor title of any sort. I do my gig as a volunteer at jail and find the company of inmates much more inviting than that of pastors or typical “church people.”

    • Avatar
      Brian

      Randy, you seem to care about others… what is your gig now? Do you want people who are imprisoned to be free? Do you feel you have some freedom to offer? Are you being helped out of Christianity by inmates of our system?

      • Avatar
        Randy

        I work with the chaplain’s office in our local detention center which has a steady headcount of about 350 inmates. My primary goal is to offer some hope to the men I work with that they can change and live a better life. My second goal is to see their behavior improve in the detention center and that they get straight and don’t come back because I have a deep respect and care for the deputies there (my daughter is one). I do this through the teachings of Jesus. I’m not there to make a notch on my Bible for conversions, but to offer some advice to hopefully result in life change.
        My biggest fear though is that the inmates I work with get out and end up in a church where they get manipulated or hurt. I often tell them I love meeting with them but don’t really like regular church. I say, “I’ve never been shanked in jail, but I get stabbed in the back in church all the time.”
        I don’t approach them as someone superior or with all the answers. I just want to sit and have an open dialogue with them and help them see the potential they have in their lives.

        • Avatar
          Brian

          Jack Henry Abbot wrote a book that would surely interest you in your work., I think: In the Belly of the Beast. He received help while living a life of extended incarceration. Sadly, his long imprisonment made it impossible for him to handle being outside the bars.
          I am not sure that we can be protected from the church; I certainly couldn’t be protected and I see evidence too often that I am only one of the walking wounded, ravaged by salvation. Fundagelical life seems very much like a kind of prison to me.

  4. Avatar
    Appalachian Agnostic

    Oddly, I happened to be eating a candy stick when the candy stick sermon topic came up in your post. Is this a sign from God!? Seriuosly though, every industry I have ever been involved in has had these types of meetings where people vent about all the idiots they have to put up with and gossip. It shows that preachers are human like the rest of us. That they do this actually makes me dislike them a little less.

  5. Avatar
    J.D. Matthews

    I hated these. OK, first let’s wax pretentious about what books we’ve (not) read lately. Then we can complain about our churches. But most importantly of all, we will then dismiss to the Golden Corral and see exactly how much slop each of us can shovel into our mouths. About 20 preachers sitting around a table, all obese with diabetes and hypertension, seeing who can be the biggest glutton of all time while leaving the most miserly tip possible for the poor waitress who has to keep refilling our carbonated beverages and clearing away the devastation piled up on our table.

    I lost 100 pounds after leaving the ministry. Gosh, I wonder why.

    • Avatar
      Brian

      I lost 100 pounds after leaving the ministry.

      I had no idea the human body could contain a hundred pounds of shit! You must have hogged the toilet for weeks at home!

      Assuming that an IFB-type preacher is in the business because the excess appeals to his condition, I wonder what happens to that hunger upon leaving the feed-lot of preaching. I would guess that a good therapist could help in the transition but cold turkey is cold turkey… Even with the great relief of departing the pulpit, there must be a pretty awful kickback, a real hangover.

  6. Avatar
    Benny S

    “The next time you share your burdens or sins with your preacher, remember that he might make your problems a topic of discussion at the next fellowship meeting.”

    ‘the next fellowship meeting’ …aka ‘the prayer chain’. 😉

  7. Avatar
    Jennifer Kunkle-Clark

    This sort of gossip-mongering by pastors who really should know better is one of the main reasons we left Fundamentalism. It was bad enough that my body and intrusive inlaws told their pastor that we were having financial issues, but then he had to announce it to the entire congregation so they could pray (aka gossip) about it. I completely lost my filter and let him have a piece of my mind via email. Of course he didn’t have the balls to respond.
    Jen

  8. Avatar
    Obstaclechick

    A bunch of men who believe that they are called by a deity to be the mouthpieces of said deity, in charge of leading, discipling, and teaching large groups of people, and who love being the center of adulation and attention – no, I can’t figure out how that may be a toxic combo…..

  9. Avatar
    theologyarchaeology

    “I was an Evangelical pastor for twenty-five years. I spent the bulk of my ministerial years in Ohio.”

    everyone in the world already knows this, why do you keep mentioning it?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I want people to think I’m important. Or I love bragging about myself. Or I want to be viewed as an authority/expert. Or, perhaps, dumb ass, I treat each post as a stand alone article. Typically, 1/3 of my daily blog traffic, 400-800 page views, comes from first time visitors. Thus, I don’t assume they know anything about me.

      Another passive-aggressive attempt at character assassination goes down in flames 🔥.

      I sure live rent free in your head, David.

      Thanks 🙏 for vomiting.

      Bruce

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