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How to Have a Successful Marriage

cindy and jack schaap 30 years of marriage

It is common for Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers and their wives to reach certain milestones in their lives such as longevity of marriage or ministry and then feel “led” by God to write a book about why they were successful.

Jack Schaap took over the helm of First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana after the death of IFB luminary Jack Hyles. Schaap’s wife Cindy — the author of the above book — is Hyles’ daughter. In this book, Cindy reveals how and why the Schaaps had a successful marriage. Three years after the book’s publication, Jack Schaap was arrested for taking a minor across state lines to have sex with her. Schaap pleaded guilty and was sentenced to twelve years in federal prison. He was released in May 2022. Cindy divorced Jack, wrote a book titled My Journey to Grace: What I Learned about Jesus in the Dark, and based on available public information is still an Evangelical Christian today. Jack Schaap also wrote a book about marriage titled Marriage: The Divine Intimacy.

Biographical or autobiographical books written by IFB preachers and their wives are almost always an admixture of “ain’t Jesus wonderful?” and fiction. The goal is to give God all the glory and present sanitized, PG-rated tellings of their lives in general, and their marriages in particular. Reality is often far different from what is portrayed in their books.

One Sunday evening in the late 1970s, Polly and I visited Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio — an IFB church I attended for forty months as a teenager. After church, the pastor and his wife invited us to their home for refreshments. I had always thought that the pastor and his wife were wonderful people. They had always presented themselves in public as devoted followers of Jesus; a happily married couple. I learned that this was a facade, that things were not as they seemed. Over the next twenty-five years, I would interact with scores of preachers and their wives, learning that there was a big difference between perception and reality; that preachers were not as put-together as they seemed; that their marriages were every bit as challenging, and troubled, as those of the people who looked up to them and called them “pastor.” In other words, they were normal, everyday people, prone to the same frailties as the unwashed masses. The difference, of course, is that these preachers and their wives hid their frailties behind put-together public personas. Spend enough time in the ministry and you learn to play the game.

Polly and I were experts at playing the game. We knew congregants expected us to be winners — victory in Jesus! Church members expected us to have a perfect marriage and well-behaved children. And we gave them exactly what they wanted (needed). However, once in the privacy of our home or automobile, the “real” Bruce and Polly Gerencser came out. There are no deep, dark secrets to be revealed, but both Polly and I were certainly “human.” We had a lot of rough times, especially early in our marriage. After the birth of our second child, Polly gave all of her attention to our two children. In response, I started working sixty-plus hours a week as a general manager for Arthur Treacher’s. Three years into our marriage, we had become busily distant. For a time, both of us wondered if our marriage would survive.

It took us almost thirty years to recognize that we had our priorities wrong; and that putting God/Jesus/Bible/Ministry/Church first was a bad idea. We reprioritized our lives, putting our family and our marriage first. Unfortunately, by the time we were enlightened, our three oldest sons were already adults. While both Polly and I will testify that our marriage is 98.9 percent awesome today, we recognize that there were points in life where we could have destroyed our marriage. Fortunately, we survived and are confident that we will embrace and survive (unless it kills us) what comes our way.

Polly and I have known each other for forty-seven years. Polly was seventeen and I was nineteen when we first met at Midwestern Baptist College. Two years later, we married. By all accounts, we have a “successful” marriage — whatever the hell “successful” means. Over the years, I have had readers ask me to share with them the keys to a successful marriage. Surely, Bruce and Polly Gerencser know what it takes to have a successful marriage, right?

Here’s the truth of the matter: We are lucky that our marriage has lasted forty-five years. Yes, we are committed to one another. Yes, we deeply love one another. Yes, we have built a wonderful life together. Yet, I know couples who had all of these things, but ended up separated or divorced. Married life is a crap shoot. So many variables, so many unknowns. Have you ever played the woulda, coulda, shoulda game? What if I (we) did B instead of A? Would our lives have been different? Maybe, but not necessarily better. I can’t know for sure, so all I know to do is live in the moment, making the best decisions possible on any given day.

Let me conclude this post by giving several pieces of advice; things helped Polly and I as a married couple.

First, don’t let the sun go down on your wrath. Polly and I have fought a time or two over the years. We have had some doozies, often over nothing. Sometimes, we would go to our separate corners for part of a day, but we never sent the other to the couch for the night. We determined to seek forgiveness and make things right between us, never forsaking our shared bed because we were mad.

Second, not only love your spouse but “like” them. Our love was never in question, but it took us years to “like” one another. Now we are best friends. We genuinely enjoy one another’s company.

Third, have your own space; one that is yours alone. Polly and I spend a lot of time together, yet we also have carved out time and space for ourselves, to do the things we want and like to do. Polly and I have completely different reading habits. I read non-fiction, and Polly reads fiction. I used to give Polly a hard time over her book choices, but then I realized she has a right to read whatever she wants. While I may still make a snarky comment now and again over this or that novel Polly is reading, she doesn’t need my approval. And that goes for everything, by the way. As Fundamentalist Christians, we had a patriarchal marriage. I was the final answer to every question — as God ordained. Deconverting forced us to rethink how we wanted our marriage to work. While patriarchal thinking still lurks in the shadows — old habits die hard — we have chosen an egalitarian path; a relationship where each of us has our own space.

Finally, don’t be afraid to turn a critical eye towards your marriage. While most people marry with the intention that their marriages will last “until death do us part,” many marriages fail. Does this mean that these couples were failures? Of course not. Polly and I were naive Independent Baptists with no real-world experience when we married. We had no idea what a “good” marriage looked like. Neither of us would say that what our parents modeled to us was a “good” marriage, especially in my case. My parents divorced when I was fourteen, and remarried several months later. Mom married her first cousin, a recent Texas prison parolee. Dad married a nineteen-year-old girl with a baby; the trophy presenter at the local dirt track. Mom would go on to marry two more times. All I knew was trauma and dysfunction. All Polly knew was emotional distance and secrets. Her parents never argued in public; and never modeled to her how to have a good and happy marriage. We came into marriage ignorant about everything from sex to money. We truly made it up as we went. Fortunately, we kinda, maybe, possibly — hell if I know! — figured it out. Coming to this place required an honest accounting by both of us of not only our personal lives but also of our marital relationship.

Polly and I were lucky that our marriage survived. Many people realize that they married the wrong person or that they are not well-suited. Life is too short to spend it married to the wrong person. Better to get out of the marriage sooner than spending decades persevering, hoping things will change. Sometimes, readers in problem marriages tell me that they wish they had a “successful” marriage like Polly and me. I am quick to deflect, knowing that our success isn’t formulaic; that luck and circumstance had (have) a lot more to do with our success than following certain rules or principles.

For you who have been married for a long time, do you think you have a “successful” marriage? How do you define “success?” What advice would give to a young couple considering marriage? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 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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  1. Avatar

    Would you say your marriage is much happier without having a deity in the middle of it? I’m glad we never were that serious about religion. I’ve seen it mess up a lot of married happiness in others.

    My marriage advice?

    People say ‘marriage is a 50/50 thing’ but that’s not true. Sometimes one of you can only give 3%. And that means the other will have to give 97%. (change those numbers in both directions repeatedly, sometimes multiple times in the same day.)

    The person you marry today will be a different person tomorrow. And the next day. And ten years from now, might be so different that you marvel at how much they’ve changed. Then you realize you’ve changed just as much. Or more.

    It’s you and your partner against the world. Always, always have their back.

    We’re coming up on 43 years married, 45 together. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been incredible. I want to go back and have a redo, only I want to know all the stuff I know now.

  2. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    43 years, as of last June. Were there difficult times? How could there not be? But we finally learned that the way through them was negotiation.

    It is still remarkably difficult for me to say plainly, “I need X”, whatever that is. I was taught from earliest childhood that my expressed needs would be met with anxious pushback, though Husband has never done that. Old scripts die hard. Meanwhile, he can’t read my mind and figure out what I need without some input. So I still often need to remind myself that my need for X is not being met because, and only because, I didn’t express it.

    Humans. Gah.

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    Cindy’s Secret to a successful marriage : “Learn to love his teenage mistress deary, become her friend and drive her to soccer practice. And always make sure she has cigarettes.”

    Sorry Bruce, I couldn’t resist.

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    Dominika Wilson

    Wow. I was married for 25 years, about 15 of them we were IFB‘ers. We always put church first, and on our 25th anniversary I called my divorce lawyer. (if you’re gonna do it, do it in style). That same year a judge asked me if I can swear under oath that the marriage was not salvageable or whatever, and I gave a heartfelt „I do“.
    It was church rules that did us in. Giving was a big one, „you can’t outgive god“, my husband gave away more than we could afford, way more. He also loved being the leader, and pastor as well as husband almost killed me in my position as a slave wife.
    I can completely understand what you are saying, at least I feel that way.

    For a moment allow me to vent about the sad saga of the pastor‘s family in the spotlight. PK‘s have it so rough, right? Makes me mad, because the show they put on comes with the ability to influence mom and dad to change the rules and then blame others. That’s what I experienced. Red carpet and taking advantage. End of TedTalk.

    Advice? I can tell you the marriage advice given to us in a marriage counseling ministry started by Jim Binney. It was 5 whole days long with a married couple that applied Bob Jones brand wisdom. Very conventional IFB. They told us on day six that quite possibly our church leadership we should not follow, and my husband needed to give me space and give up his control over me. I almost fell off my chair. It was a quiet drive home.
    We got divorced 10 years later. My faith was over and we didn’t recover. I have nothing to add to your writing in the area of marriage. Maybe don’t give your husband the god position.

    Hope I didn’t break the rules.

    I accidentally entered the website wrong. It’s

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    ... Zoe ~

    Successful, yes, because we made it through all the shit that came before. That might be my definition for “successful.” Now my definition for “all the shit” well, we don’t have time. grin

    To the young couple. That little blurb the pastor/minister/reverend/guru gives you before marriage is not adequate pre-marital counselling.

    Preacher: Do you drink?

    Respondents: No

    Preacher: There’s nothing wrong with drinking.

    Respondents: Look at each other, purposefully don’t roll their eyes. Who has time to explain to the preacher that your dad is an alcoholic and with good reason the young couple has decided not to drink.

    Continuing on: Avail yourself of therapy if you have a trauma history. If you are unaware of what a trauma history is (we were unaware -but of course Baby Boomers were raised at a time that all trauma was whispered about and then swept under the carpet.) – especially if it was generational . . . maybe all the way back to the good ship lollipop crossing the many oceans.

    Today’s young person has tons of information available to them. Don’t be in a hurry for sex, since you’ve already had it anyway. And don’t feel guilty if you already have had sex because Satan isn’t real and you are not going to hell.

    If you don’t fit in the therapy prior to marriage, consider it before you have children. Try not to pass “all that shit” onto the next generation. If it’s too late, and the shit did hit the fan, well, remind yourselves and them if they’ll listen, that we’re all human. But for Crikey sake, if you screwed up in a major way and know it, apologize.

    Try to get this all dealt with before you go into Menopause.

    Married 46 years. Together 51 years.

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    Married for 27 years. My grandparents stayed married, but my mom was twice divorced and thrice married. My mom’s brother and his wife have been married 50 years. My brother has been married 21 years.

    My husband’s parents are divorced, his father twice divorced. Both of his brothers are currently single. His older brother has 3 divorces, his younger brother one divorce.

    I wouldn’t say we had great models for marriage. We have had ups and downs and have come close to discussing divorce. Neither of us is nearly the same as we were 27 years ago. We have learned that communication is key. Say what you need to say, respectfully, and don’t bottle it up. I don’t have any magic advice – some people just shouldn’t be together, and I tell my young adult kids to stay single as long as possible, for your own thing, and be independent.

  7. Avatar

    Congratulations, Bruce and Polly! Your advice is excellent. I would add, “Let bygones be bygones. Once the blow-up is over, don’t keep bringing it up–unless the same event keeps happening, at which point you probably need therapy. That’s REAL therapy, not the “go talk to your pastor” kind.

    Neither of our parents’ marriages were blueprints for unbridled joy. Mine were loving but distrustful, and his were divorced. It took us a long, long time to figure out how to deal with our own issues, but we were determined to work something out, and eventually, we did. Despite our parents’ backgrounds, we do trust, love–and LIKE–each other.

    It has been 56 years, and we’re still together–and, I think, happier than a lot of the married people I know.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    As someone whose only marriage lasted four years (like a Presidential term!), I know I am utterly unqualified to say what constitutes a “good” or “successful” marriage. I will say, however, that I have enormous respect for you and Polly. My guess is that whether “God” or simply physical attraction —or something else—brought you together, there were underlying qualities—within and between each of you—that helped to keep you together One of those qualities is emotional honesty, which comes through in this blog and my communication with you.

    • Avatar
      ... Zoe ~

      MJ: “My guess is that whether “God” or simply physical attraction —or something else—brought you together, there were underlying qualities—within and between each of you—that helped to keep you together One of those qualities is emotional honesty, which comes through in this blog and my communication with you.”

      Zoe: MJ, this is priceless. For those of us with trauma backgrounds, before we even met our partners. Add fundamentalist/cult-like/extremism/whateverism into it, by the time some of us reach the therapeutic couch, we’re so beat up we don’t realize we have/had “underlying qualities” that kept us going.

      It’s really difficult to be “emotionally honest” when the toxic environments demand silence, denial and look-awayism. So many of us shut down in order to stay safe and some of us speak up and it isn’t safe when we do. When someone tells us we had “underlying qualities” we’re often in shock. What do you mean? we ask. I’ve only heard how wretched I am. I’ve only heard I’m going to hell. I’ve only heard I’m a sinner. I’ve only heard that it’s my fault. I’ve only heard that I’m wrong. (Somebody stop this merry-go-round.}

      I’m not sure if what I shared here makes sense as I’m having an emotionally honest moment. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    As someone whose only marriage is a mere three decades old, I know I remain utterly unqualified to say what constitutes a “good” or “successful” marriage. I will say, however, that I have enormous respect for you and Polly. My guess is that whether “God” or simply physical attraction —or something else—brought you together, there were underlying qualities—within and between each of you—that helped to keep you together. One of those qualities is emotional honesty, which comes through in this blog and my communication with you. (Thanks, MJ… you always say it better than I could!)

  10. Avatar
    Charles S. Oaxpatu

    I wonder if anyone else has noticed this? Look at the graphic Bruce inserted into this blog article. If you were to take Mrs. Schaap’s hair off and set it down like a wig on the head of Jack Schaap, then Jack would look exactly like his former wife. Give her a short male haircut, and she would look exactly like Jack. What is going on with those two? Did they come together via some mutual narcissistic magnetism? As the UFO people say: “The truth is out there.” Somewhere I suppose. Fundies never cease to amaze me.

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Bruce Gerencser