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Questions: If You Could Travel Back in Time, What Would Sixty-Seven-Year-Old Bruce Tell Young Bruce?

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Every year or two, I ask readers to submit questions they want me to answer. That time has arrived once again. Any question. Any subject. Please leave your questions in the comment section or send them to me via email. I will try to answer them in the order received.

I look forward to reading and answering your questions.

Cubs Fans asks:

And if it were possible for you to time travel back to the 70’s and 80’s and talk to your younger self what would you say to him?

Years ago, I wrote a post titled, Advice for Young Pastors From an Ex-Evangelical Preacher. This post was well-received and has been mentioned several times in books written by Evangelicals. Here’s what I had to say:

1. Don’t confuse your self-identity with the church. Far too many pastors allow themselves to be swallowed up by the church, losing their self-identity in the process.

2. Don’t sacrifice your children or spouse for the sake of the church. Trust me, twenty-five years later, the church will have long since forgotten you and your sacrifice will mean little.

3. Choose which battles are worth fighting. Not every hill is worth dying on, and not every challenge to your authority or leadership is worthy of a fight. Remember, the church is not your church. You, along with people who likely have been there for many years, are simply caretakers of the church.

4. Be willing to say, I don’t know. I realize this puts you at great risk of being unemployed (since church members crave certainty) but speaking with certainty when you know there is none is lying and dishonest.

5. Be aware of the traps that can destroy your ministry, especially the big two – money and women (and men). Never touch the money and never allow yourself to be put in a position where moral compromise is possible.

6. Insist that the church pays you well. Don’t be a full-time worker for part-time pay. It is okay to pastor churches that cannot pay you a living wage, but the church must understand that you have an obligation to your family and you must work a job outside the church to properly provide for them.

7. Make sure there is an annual pay review procedure in place. You should not have to beg for a raise. Make sure you have an employment contract where the job requirements, pay level, benefits, pay review period, and termination procedure are clearly laid out. If a church is unwilling to put all of this in writing, what does that tell you?

8. If at all possible, own your own home. Someday you will not be a pastor. Someday you will be old and retired. Then what? Where will you live? Churches can rent out the parsonage and provide you with a housing allowance. Remember, most of the church members are building equity in their homes and you should be able to do the same.

9. Insist that the church pays into a 401(k) that you own. Do not let anyone convince you to opt out of Social Security. It may sound okay now, but when you are old you will regret it. What happens if you are disabled and have not paid into Social Security? You are out of luck, and God isn’t going to pay your mortgage.

10. Make sure that all sacrifice is shared. Remember, it is not your church and it is not you alone who is responsible for saving the church from whatever crisis it faces.

11. Don’t use your wife and children as gophers and fill-ins every time something needs to be done at the church. Insist that church members take ownership of the church and do the work necessary to maintain the church and do what is required to keep the church functioning.

12. Don’t be in a hurry to find a church to pastor. A lot of churches that are looking for pastors don’t deserve one. They have chewed up and spit out the last five preachers before you and, trust me, they will do the same to you. Let them die.

13. If a community already has X number of churches, don’t delude yourself with thinking that if you started a new, exciting church it would be different from all the rest. It won’t. People are people, and churches are pretty much all the same. Don’t flatter yourself.

14. Focus on people that need help. Focus on the least of these. By all means, offer them Jesus, but do not neglect their physical needs. The greatest difference you can make in a person’s life is to help them when they are suffering. Above all, be their friend.

15. Visit regularly the homes of the people you pastor. Get to know them. Allow them to be honest with you and ask you whatever questions they want. Eat their food, take them out to eat, and pay the bill. Don’t smother them, but don’t neglect them either.

16. Don’t get sucked into buildings and programs that the church does not need. Rather than building a fancy new building, complete with a gymnasium, think about maximizing what you have so more money can be given to the poor. If church members want to play basketball or do Pilates, they can go to the Y.

17. Do everything you can to integrate the youth into the church. They should be stakeholders. After all, they are the future of the church. This does not mean that you must become one of them. There is nothing more embarrassing than a pastor who tries to act like a teenager. Grow up and be a good example.

18. Work hard and be honest. Don’t be the kind of preacher that gives all preachers a bad name. Just because you are the pastor of a church doesn’t mean you are entitled to special treatment. Don’t ask for discounts and don’t expect people to favor you just because you pastor X church on Main St.

19. Don’t tell anyone you are a preacher. Don’t self-promote. Don’t insist people call you Reverend or pastor. Be an authentic human being, complete with faults and frailties. Don’t be afraid to admit to the church that you are a failure, that you are no better than anyone else.

20. Don’t let people put you on a pedestal. Trust me, falls off the pedestal are nasty.

21. Above all, understand that life is more, far more, than the ministry. Stop and take time to enjoy life, to enjoy the world you say your God created.

I stand by these words today. If only someone had told me these things when I was a young, on-fire preacher, I would have avoided some of the costly mistakes I made over twenty-five years in the ministry.

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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3 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Karuna Gal

    “This post was well-received and has been mentioned several times in books written by Evangelicals.” That’s quite a feather in your cap, Bruce. I’m impressed that they acknowledge you in a positive way. Which authors talk about you?

  2. Avatar
    Merle

    I imagine the elder Bruce would also tell the younger Bruce to keep an open mind. The younger Bruce was trapped in a world that prepackaged his worldview for him. The elder Bruce had learned to think for himself on religious assertions and to be open to other views.

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