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Why Are So Many Evangelical Preachers Arrogant and Full of Themselves? — Part One

humble pastor

Part One

Part Two

Why are so many Evangelical preachers arrogant and full of themselves? While it would be easy to answer this question simply by saying that these so-called “men of God” are narcissistic Assholes for Jesus®, the correct answer is more complex and nuanced. In what follows, I will use the fifty years I spent in Christianity and the twenty-five years I pastored Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan as a backdrop as I attempt to answer this question. While no two life stories are exactly the same, I am confident that I can pick things out of my own story that can also be found in the life stories of many Evangelical preachers. Readers who were long-time members of Evangelical churches or once in the ministry themselves will likely agree with much of what I have written here. Try as we humans might — thinking we are special, unique snowflakes — to frame our stories as different from the rest, certain sociological, psychological, biological, and tribal influences directly affect how we live our lives, revealing that none of us is as radically distinctive as we think we are.

In the 1960s, my parents moved to California, hoping to find a pot filled with gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow. While they never found great wealth, my parents did embrace certain religious and political beliefs that would dramatically change not only their lives, but mine. Mom and Dad both found Jesus at Tim LaHaye’s church — Scott Memorial Baptist Church — and while attending Scott Memorial, were exposed to the uber-right-wing anti-communist group The John Birch Society. My parents, overnight, became Fundamentalist Christian zealots and defenders of right-wing political extremism. While in California, Mom campaigned for Barry Goldwater, hoping that he would unseat incumbent Democratic president Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. Goldwater lost the election, garnering only thirty-eight percent of the popular vote.

Not long after my parents became born-again Christians, I too gave my heart to Jesus. This youthful, uninformed, manipulated-by-children’s-church-workers decision was the first step of many I would take as I followed after and served the Evangelical Jesus. Not long after asking Jesus into my heart, I told Mom that I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up. A decade later, as is common among Independent Fundamentalist Baptists (IFB), I made another public profession of faith, and a few weeks later I informed the church that I believed God was calling me to preach. This one moment, publicly saying that Jesus wanted me to be a “man of God,” would color and affect virtually every important decision I would make for the rest of my life.

A week or so after I let the church know I was called to preach, I preached my first sermon. I was fifteen. I would preach my last sermon thirty-three years later. All told I preached 4,000+ sermons. During this span of time, I attended an IFB college to study for the ministry, married an IFB pastor’s daughter who was looking to marry a preacher, was the assistant pastor of two churches, and pastored five churches. I also started four new churches, two Christian schools, and a multi-church youth fellowship. While at the various churches I pastored, I started street preaching ministries, nursing home ministries, and youth groups, along with preaching numerous special meetings (revivals, conferences, etc). I also attended pastors’ fellowship meetings, and supported fellow pastors when their churches had revivals and conferences.

In the mid-1970s, I spent three years at Midwestern Baptist College training for the ministry. I met Polly there, and during the summer between our sophomore and junior year years, we married, excited that God had called both of us to into full-time service — me to a life of praise and adulation and Polly to a life of watching the nursery and dutifully modeling the patriarchal way of life. It should come as no surprise then, that Polly’s view of the twenty-five years we spent in the ministry is very different from mine.

During the three years I spent training for the ministry, I taught Sunday school, worked in the bus ministry, helped with the youth group, and held services at a drug rehab/halfway house in Detroit. Unlike many of the men who attended Midwestern, I actually gained a lot of preaching experience by the time I left Midwestern in the spring of 1979. It was not uncommon for men to graduate from Midwestern having only preached sermons in their homiletics class and infrequent services at their home churches.

While attending Midwestern, it was drilled into my head that it was GOD, not MAN, who had called me to preach; that no one but God could tell me what to preach. I was also taught the importance of following the leading of the Holy Spirit, not only in my preaching, but also in determining whether I should start a new church or become the pastor of an established church. As a preacher, according to what was modeled to me by my pastors and what I was taught in college, I answered to no one but God. Jesus may have been head of the church, but on earth I was the final authority on spiritual and theological matters.

Baptists love to attack the Roman Catholic Church with its Pope and his infallible pronouncements, yet they seem blind to the fact that in their churches, every church has its own little pope — the pastor. Saved by God, called by God, filled with the Spirit of God, led by God, and given absolute authority, these Evangelical chosen ones rule their churches as kings and potentates. Pastors, commanded by God to “humbly” sit at the head of the table, expected congregants to submit to their God-given authority, obeying those that have the rule over them (Hebrews 13:17).

Some Evangelical churches, hoping to correct the excesses of single-pastor church rule, have a plurality of pastors (elders) or have governing boards.  All these polity changes do is increase the number of bwanas. The end result is the same: a man or small group of men rule over the church. And more often than not, in churches with governing boards, there is one man, the senior/preaching pastor, who is the hub around which the church turns. As is clear to anyone who is paying attention, Evangelical churches are all about the man who stands at the front of the church and preaches and teaches the Bible. Whether intentional or not, Evangelical churches become Pastor So-and-So’s church. His name is on the sign, bulletin, and every piece of advertising put out by the church. It is not uncommon for congregants to say when asked where they attend church, I go to Pastor Ain’t He Awesome’s church. Churches pastored by men with John Holmes-sized oratorical prowess take great pride in having a pastor who is a great pulpiteer.

I preached thousands of sermons during my time as a pastor, and, hopefully without coming off as braggadocios, was considered by the people I pastored and my peers to be an excellent public speaker. My sermons were well-crafted, steeped in study and prayer, and delivered with passion and animation. I expected every sermon I preached to be used by God to save the lost and motivate the saints. I expected to see visible human responses — be it nodding heads, shouts of “amen,” raised hands, or tears — during my sermons, and at the end, I expected to see movement towards the front during altar calls. I was of the opinion then, and am still of this persuasion today, that public speakers should always bring audiences to a place of acting on that which they have heard — be it getting saved, getting right with God, or advancing this or that political cause.

Evangelical preachers believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God. Every word is straight from the mouth of God, and with rare exception, these God-breathed words are meant to be understood literally. This way of reading the Bible forces Evangelical preachers to defend all sorts of absurd beliefs; things such as the idea that the universe was created in six twenty-four-hour days and is six-thousand and twenty-four years old. Ministries such as Answers in Genesis and Creation Research Institute were established to give literalism a veneer of respectability, and countless apologetical books are published in the hope that pastors will read them so they are better equipped to defend Evangelicalism’s literalistic view of the Bible.

Let me conclude this post by tying everything together, setting the foundation for what I will write in Part Two. Evangelical preachers are saved and called into the ministry by God. They are viewed as people uniquely qualified to teach and preach the Bible. From the moment Evangelical preachers are called into the ministry until they preach their last sermon, they are treated as special and placed in positions of honor, power, and authority few Christians ever experience. Evangelical pastors who go off to college to be trained for the ministry are reminded by their professors and chapel speakers that God has given them the greatest job on earth; that becoming president of the United States would be a step down for them; that God will greatly reward them in heaven if they give their hearts, souls, and minds to the work of the ministry; that if God so chooses, they might even see Him use them to reap harvests of souls and build large churches.

Trace the life of the typical Evangelical preacher and you will find a lifetime of adulation, praise, and being in the spotlight. Even in small country churches deep in back-woods hollers, preachers are honored and revered. Is it any wonder, taking all that I have said in this post, that many Evangelical preachers become arrogant and full of themselves? Rare is the man who can handle a lifetime of praise and adoration, coupled with absolute power, control, and authority, and not be adversely affected, particularly when you factor in the Type-A, narcissistic, workaholic, driven personalities many preachers have. And rarer still is the man who is willing to admit these things.

I am sure some Evangelical preachers will self-righteously and indignantly say that they were NOT like me, but with their protestations they will only prove my point. I hope, at the very least, Evangelical pastors, evangelists, and missionaries will shut up and listen to what this old curmudgeon has to say. I may now be an atheist, but my leaving the ministry and Christianity has allowed me to have a unique view of Evangelical preachers and the work of the ministry. Perhaps I yet have a sermon to preach to those who claim by their words and actions to be know-it-alls for God.

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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
    MJ Lisbeth

    From what you’ve said, I can’t help but to think Evangelical churches, and many others, neglect or are wholly ignorant of human nature. Giving individual people power and showering them with adulation–especially if they have a gaping need inside them–is a recipe for the arrogance you describe–and corruption.

  2. Avatar
    BJW

    Re: your last sentence especially, and the piece in general…”AMEN.” (This is only about half joking, as when I read something as powerful as you’ve written I feel moved to assent to how good it is.)

    On a side note: Tim LaHaye wrote a book, I don’t know the title and can’t be bothered to search it now. But in the book, one of the things he mentioned was that depressed people didn’t need medications. Oh no, what they needed was to change their way of thinking through the power of God. What an asshole. It was years before I considered an anti-anxiety/anti-depressant, which helped me immensely.

  3. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    The pastor is mirroring the evangelical God. This God always demanded worship, adulation, praise, fealty, and submission. People’s idea of a deity reflects what they desire or respect most. (No offense, Bruce – you have examined your life and changed course).

  4. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Bruce, I am interested in hearing more about your time at the rehab center/halfway house. My knowledge of AA is that it mirrors evangelicalism – labeling people as addicts and that every week they’re still an addict, they must appeal to an outside locus of control (higher power) for help, that they need a close mentor to whom they are accountable, that they are forever helpless in the presence of their substance or behavior…… There are less well known secular treatment programs that teach coping skills and tools based on cognitive behavioral therapy to help people deal with urges and behavior, that don’t label someone by the substance or behavior, and that teach that you choose to have control, using skills, over the substance or behavior.

  5. Avatar
    Troy

    Following GOP politics, I noticed the Republican candidate for governor is very much a provincial pope and a right wing nut case. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is a certain swagger in his speech patterns that convey an insane certainty in his spoken absurdities.

  6. Avatar
    JW

    My initial response to the title question was “not my pastors”. I still sort of think that, at least compared to some churches I’ve visited or heard of where the pastor ruled like a king. Maybe I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I have clashed with a pastor when I was on a board of trustees and opposed certain uses of funds, but it didn’t rise to a level I thought of as toxic at the time (maybe I would feel differently now). And I do recall a conversation where I asked my pastor why things in the Bible he could not explain were a “mystery” whereas I was “wrong”. He chuckled at that, though I don’t remember him conceding the point.

    Perhaps I am describing arrogance. I think my pastors believed they were honestly serving their congregations, I want to give them the benefit of doubt, but there was very little dissention within the church. People who didn’t agree with the pastor usually just left. I don’t think the pastors intentionally surrounded themselves with “yes men” but eventually that’s the majority position in a church and it’s hard to be wrong when most everyone agrees with you. It’s probably worse when the pastor is also the founder of the church, or part of a church leadership dynasty.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I certainly had a servant’s heart. I sincerely wanted to help people, both spiritually and temporally. That said, you raise a good point about being a church planter. All of the churches I pastored, save one, were new church plants or young churches. I loved church planting, the newness of everything. I loved the excitement, the thrill of birthing a new business, uh, I mean church.😂 But, I was the CEO, the man in charge, the final answer to every question or problem. Having this power and control is not healthy. Even when I tried to cede power, church members were content to passively just let Bruce do his thing. Church businesses were the worst. Very little participation or public disagreement? Voting became a rubber stamp on anything I wanted to do. I had good intentions, but there were times the church should have slapped my hands and said no. Part of the problem is that preachers are a professional class, hired by churches to manage them. Thus, congregants have no sense of ownership.

      • Avatar
        BJW

        Now, in the Adventist denomination, power is actually in the hands of the main elders, who are usually influential and affluent. The pastors are encouraged to change churches every several years. So instead of the pastors having the power, the main elders (and wealthiest families) do. So instead of the pastor calling the shots, the elders do and the pastor had better shape up to what they want. Oh, pastors have some power. So each pastor isn’t the most powerful person in a church, but then the ones who have the power end up abusing it. I don’t know the solution either.

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Bruce Gerencser