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Short Stories: Somerset Baptist Church: A Trip Down Memory Lane

somerset baptist church mt perry ohio auditorium
Somerset Baptist Church Auditorium after Remodel, 1992

In July of 1983, I started the Somerset Baptist Church in Somerset, Ohio. In 1985, we bought a Methodist church building near Mt Perry, Ohio for $5,000.00. The church building, built in 1831 and one of the oldest Methodist buildings in Ohio, would be the church’s home until Polly and I moved away in March 1994.

During the eleven years I was pastor, hundreds of church members came and went and we hauled thousands of kids to church on one of our four buses. For five years, we operated a private Christian school, open only to the children of the church. It was tuition-free.

bruce gerencser 1983
Bruce Gerencser, Somerset Baptist Church, 1983

This was the church where I came of age as a pastor. In 1983, I was a hardcore, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastor. When I moved away in 1994 to co-pastor Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas, I was a committed Calvinistic, Reformed Baptist pastor. I went through tremendous intellectual and social transformation during these eleven years.

Several years ago, as I scanned the pictures from this era, my mind was flooded with memories of the shared experiences I had with the church family. Yes, there were bad times, stupid times, dumb ass times. Yes, I was a Fundamentalist and that brought all kinds of baggage with it. But, as I looked at the pictures, I didn’t think about beliefs. My thoughts were about people and the wonderful times we had. Yes, Fundamentalism psychologically and emotionally harmed and scarred me (and the people I pastored), but that does not mean there are no good memories. There are lots of them. In fact, the vast majority of the memories I have are good ones. Sometimes, when people deconvert they often become so fixated on the negative which happened that they forget the good times. I know I did.

bruce gerencser 1991
Bruce Gerencser, 1991, Somerset Baptist Academy

As I looked at these photos, I also shed some tears. There were a handful of people in the pictures who are now dead. Cancer, heart attacks, and car accidents claimed their lives and all I have left of them are the pictures and our shared memories. After I posted the pictures to Facebook, I heard from a number of people who were once part of the church. Most of the people I heard from were children when I was at Somerset Baptist Church. They are now middle-aged with families of their own. Their parents, like me, are old and gray. It was nice to hear from them.

The photos aren’t very good – the best a $20.00 camera could offer. Nothing like the photos I took with my professional $4,000 camera years later. In fact, they are down-right terrible. But, infused into the photos are memories, and it is those memories that matter.

bruce and polly gerencser 1985
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, Sweetheart Banquet, 1985

I feel old today — a dying man who has lived a long life. But I also feel blessed to have lived a good life, a life marked by contradiction, conflict, grief, and change, along with happiness, joy, and goodness. It is the sum of my life.

bruce gerencser 1990's
Bruce Gerencser, Somerset Baptist Church, Early 1990s
bruce gerencser 1987
Bruce Gerencser, Somerset Baptist Church, 1987
bruce-gerencser-headshot

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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10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Steve

    Wonderful memories! I’ve been guilty of what you said, so consumed with the bad, I forget the good. There were many good times 🙂

    (Btw, you looked like such an IFBer!! 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Thomas Whitten

    On the contrary. The photos are excellent. Gotta have a closer look. They tell stories. You know the narrative of the photos, I don’t. The door image with the thunderstorm approaching for instance…are the folks running home to get stuff closed off? Tornado warning on the radio? The girl’s face is full of excitement. I’d like to know why. I’m very happy you are back. You get my brain cells going.

  3. Avatar
    Ian

    Your are right, I have forgotten about the good times. As a child during half of my church days, I was sheltered from a lot of the crap- all I had to do was obey and things were pretty good.

    Bruce, thanks for reminding us that there were good days among the bad. I hope the news from the doctor is good.

  4. Avatar
    Doug B

    I look at those pictures and see a pretty little church, a welcoming church that makes one want to find a pew and sit a spell, see what’s going on.

    You really accomplished something there and made an impact on a lot of people. As someone who was once for a brief time a Sunday School Superintendent and Sunday School teacher, I often look back and wonder about the impressions I left. Oh, like you, I regret the way I went about it (fundamentalism), yet my heart was in the right place and I wanted to good.

    Thanks for allowing us to walk down memory lane with you. And will you pardon me for saying I’m praying for you and so much hoping you get good news about the lesion. I’m thankful our paths crossed. You’ve helped me a lot.

  5. Avatar
    sgl

    i saw the american flag prominently displayed below the cross in several of the facebook pics. i’d be curious of your evolution on thinking about that. ie, i presume you had a strong opinion about having it up at first. i’m guessing that towards the end of your ministry, you didn’t have one up, but don’t know for sure. i’d also be curious how common it was among your ifb peers to have a flag that prominently displayed, (right below the cross), vs off to the side, vs not shown at all. just a potential post idea, if it suits your fancy.

  6. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    The people and the relationships you had with the folks in the photos are so important. They weave the rich and beautiful tapestry of your life. Despite the negative aspects of fundamentalism, it’s evident that you were a fun guy who cared about life and those in your circle! That picture of you and Polly where you’re being silly? That conveys so much! Priceless!

  7. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Thank you for sharing these. The experience of belonging to a church is a complicated tapestry. There are harmful beliefs that demand the members be less than fully themselves, or that insist they live in fear. But then there are people, community, a sense of shared purpose, that enrich members’ lives.

    I am very, very over Christianity in all its forms, including the Catholicism of my youth. But I liked and deeply respected the nuns who taught me from first through twelfth grade (with one exception, but it became obvious later on that she was fighting her own internal demons). Their goal was not to raise up an army for Christ, but to raise up an army of social justice warriors (though that meant something a little different in the 1970s than it does today).

    My mother considered Sunday Mass to be simply an obligation rather than an enriching experience. I attended numerous Spanish language services because the timing of that service best fit her schedule, never mind that I speak a dozen words of that language and that was a dozen more than she spoke. But occasionally we would go to a special English service, like at Christmas or Easter, that left me with a strong sense of the presence of God and a yearning to do his work. I don’t remember now if it was the preaching (some priests are excellent preachers, but most are kinda meh) or simply the combination of that, the music, the enthusiastic participation of everyone around me (except for my mother) and so on.

  8. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Regarding photos, one that is packed full of memories is a terrific photo, full stop.

    When I married, I took a man and his cat to be my lawful wedded family. Odetta was the first cat I’d ever had. She was the empress of our household, who at first tried to push me out of the bed at night, but eventually decided that she owned me, too, and that I was doing a reasonable job as her servant. We both loved her dearly, and letting the vet gently end her life when she was old and struggling was an extraordinarily difficult experience for both of us.

    Husband loves to work on mechanical things, and a couple of years after we lost Odetta, he acquired a basket-case ’64 Jaguar, which he rebuilt lovingly. When it was finally together, I found an old, bad, small photo of the cat, put it in a little sterling silver frame, and gave it to him. He carried the photo in his glove box.

    That was long ago, the Jag was eventually sold to an exporter and sent to Russia, and Husband now drives an Alfa-Romeo. The photo of Odetta is in his Alfa glove box, because of the wonderful memories of that terrific cat. I expect that she’ll ride with him for as long as he can drive.

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Bruce Gerencser