Eight Years Later — Part One

bruce and polly gerencser 2015

On the last Sunday of November 2008, my wife and I attended a Christian worship service for the last time. Over the months prior to this, Polly and I spent numerous hours talking about what we believed about God, Jesus, and the Bible. We also spent numerous hours talking about the vapid emptiness of churches and how they were little more than social clubs. Our leftward move politically — we had just voted for Barack Obama — caused us to see Christianity in a different light. While we certainly knew of a handful of churches that were committed to liberal and progressive ideals, these kind of churches were nowhere to be found in rural Northwest Ohio — not that it would have mattered had we found such a church. By November 2008, our political and religious views were such that we believed Christianity was bankrupt and had become a corrosive, dangerous force in American life.

Our decision to stop attending church brought a sense of relief, but it also brought a deep sense of loss. Relief because we no longer had to play the church game, and loss because we were walking away from that which had dominated our entire adult lives. While we knew what we were leaving behind, we had no idea what the future would hold. Six months later, I wrote my infamous letter, Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners. I sent this letter to our family, close friends, and a handful of colleagues in the ministry. I did not mention Polly in the letter. I wanted the disagreement and vitriol that was sure to come to be directed at me, not her. Unfortunately, doing so led people to wrongly conclude that Polly and I were not on the same page about matters of faith. This resulted in me being accused of leading Polly and our children astray, a subtle implication that they could not think for themselves. While Polly certainly processes things in a manner different from the way I do, and our reasons for deconverting were/are not exactly the same, we agreed on one thing: we had no interest in ever attending church again. And eight years later, we still have no desire to attend church. Outside of attending several funerals, weddings, and concerts, we have not darkened the doors of a church. Freed from bondage, oppression, and intellectual superficiality, we have no intention of ever returning.

In future posts in this series, I plan to detail how things have changed for us since our divorce from Jesus and organized Christianity. Before writing about what has changed for us, I want to detail what hasn’t changed. Character-wise, Polly and I are pretty much the same people we were eight years ago. We now enjoy drinking alcohol and using bawdy, colorful language, but outside of that — lifestyle-wise — we are still very much the same people we were when I pastored churches. What has changed is our worldview and how we view other people. I will write more about this in a future post.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is our relationship with Polly’s parents. Outside of telling Polly they are praying for us, Mom and Dad had not said one word about me leaving the ministry and our subsequent deconversion from Christianity. Not one word. Early on, Polly’s mom would invite her to events at the Newark Baptist Temple — their church home for forty years — but Polly’s terse no thank yous quickly put an end to such invitations. It’s been years since Mom has invited us to anything church-related. When we visit them, we make sure that there is no church event going on. We travel three hours one way to their home to tarriance with them, not to be reminded of the intellectual and moral emptiness of Evangelical Christianity. So the obese pink elephant of our relationship with Polly’s parents remains. I highly doubt that its presence will be addressed this side of eternity. And that’s fine. We don’t need them to “understand” as much as we need for them to respect our decision to live our lives sans God, Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity.

Polly and I must also respect her parents’ decisions too, even when they cause deep hurt. Fifteen months ago, Polly’s dad had ill-advised hip replacement surgery. The surgery was a miserable failure, resulting in Dad spending almost a year in the nursing home. Unable to walk for more than a short distance, Mom and Dad were forced to sell their two-story house they had lived in for almost 40 years. Polly suggested to her mom that they could move up here so we could help take care of them.  Polly’s mom replied, we could never do that, our church is here. Ouch. Such is the insidious nature of Evangelical Christianity, especially the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) variety.  The church “family” is Mom and Dad’s “real” family, even though this real family of theirs has largely ignored them during Dad’s recovery from hip surgery (and some of this is due to their unwillingness to ask for help, a fault that Polly and I suffer from too), Polly’s mom has wounded her with words many times over the years, but telling her we could never do that, our church is here was a step above the other in-Christian-love verbal assaults. This one caused a deep emotional wound that has yet to heal. When I suggest that we go visit her parents, I am often met with a frown, a look that says, Why bother. They have their church “family.”

In the next post in this series, I will begin to detail some of the things that have changed for us since we exited stage left from Christianity. Stay tuned.

Eight Years Later — Part Two

bruce and polly gerencser 2015

Bruce and Polly Gerencser, Summer 2015

On the last Sunday of November 2008, my wife and I attended a Christian worship service for the last time. This series details how things have changed for us over the past eight years. —

My wife and I are blessed to have six children, eleven grandchildren, three daughters-in-law, one son-in-law, a cocker spaniel, and one overfed, lazy cat. While our dog’s and cat’s lives have changed very little since we divorced ourselves from God, the same cannot be said for our children. This post will detail, from my perspective, how our deconversion affected our offspring.

Our children range in age from thirty-eight to twenty-four. We have two distinct families, three boys ages thirty-eight, thirty-six, and thirty-three and two girls and one boy ages twenty-eight, twenty-six, and twenty-four. Our older children spent most of their younger years in the hills of poverty-ridden Southeast Ohio, while our younger children have spent most of their lives in middle-class Northwest Ohio. The one thing all of our children have in common is that they spent most of their lives attending church three times a week and providing free labor for whatever church their father happened to be pastoring. All of them grew up in a devoutly Christian home, one that demanded fealty to God, submission to parental and religious authority, and centering life around the “work of the ministry.”

I pastored my last church in 2003 — Victory Baptist Church in Clare, Michigan. By the time I took on yet another hopelessly broken church that I was sure could be fixed by the miracle-working power of the one and only Pastor Bruce Gerencser, our oldest three children had left home — remaining in Northwest Ohio —  while our youngest three were still at home. When I candidated (the dog and pony show used by Baptist churches to hire a new pastor) at Victory, I told the church that I was not a fighter; and that if there was major church conflict I would resign. Sure enough, seven months later, the church and I butted heads and I resigned.

Someday I will write in-depth about my experiences at this church, but for now let me hit a few of the highlights. In retrospect, I know I never should have become this church’s pastor. I saw the dysfunction, but I thought, as I always did, that I could bring reformation and change. You would think after decades in the pastorate I would have known better, but I didn’t. I never quite learned that most churches will never change; that many congregants view a new pastor with a new agenda as a threat to their power and control; that many churches don’t deserve a pastor and should be left to die.

After a contentious church business meeting in which one leader in the church — a pastor’s wife — informed me that my agenda and vision were not theirs, I resigned and made plans to return to Ohio. On the day we moved, not one church member wished us well or offered to help us load up our things. One family, who lived right across the street from us and to whom we were quite close, left early in the morning on moving day so they wouldn’t have to help. Prior to resigning, I had talked to them about the problems I was facing at the church, and I thought they were at least sympathetic to my viewpoint. Unfortunately, I was wrong.  They denied talking to me and sided with the church’s power brokers.

One older man in the church reminded everyone that there were children sitting in the meeting watching what was going on. Some of those children were our youngest three, then aged fourteen, twelve, and ten. They had watched their Dad work eighty-hour work weeks at the church, and their Mom go off to work at a local dry cleaners so she could help supplement their pastor father’s meager pay (no benefits, no insurance, $200 a week). I have no doubt that their experiences at Victory Baptist played a big part in their current views on religion in general and Evangelicalism in particular.

After leaving Victory Baptist, we returned to Northwest Ohio so Polly could resume her job at Sauder Woodworking. We rented a cramped ranch home in Stryker, hoping that we would gain some clarity about what the future might hold. By this time, I was almost certain that I never wanted to pastor again. During the six months we spent in Stryker, my health took a serious turn for the worse. Thinking that warmer weather would improve my health, my sister suggested we move to Yuma, Arizona,  so we did. Our stay in the Southwest Arizona last all of seven months. The pull of family became so strong that we decided to move back to Ohio, living for ten months in Newark before moving north to Bryan where our children lived. (During our time in Newark, I did candidate at several Southern Baptist churches in West Virginia and considered an offer to start a new Christian Union church in Zanesville, Ohio. I concluded that whatever ministerial desire I once had was gone, and that my Evangelical traveling days were over.)

By the time we returned to Northwest Ohio, our three oldest children had married. One would soon divorce, and the other two were talking about bringing new little Gerencsers into the world. For the next three years Polly and I, along with our three youngest children, visited numerous churches, hoping that we would find a place to call home; a church that took seriously the teachings of Christ; a church that was willing to use our gifts and talents. Alas, all we learned was that Christian churches are pretty much all the same. The names were different, as were the liturgies and styles of worship, but apart from these things the churches we visited showed little interest in us as people, concerned only with putting five more asses in their pews and more money in their offering plates.

While our children were surprised by their father’s leaving the ministry, nothing prepared them for the nuclear bomb that exploded when we abandoned Christianity, choosing to first embrace agnosticism, then atheism and humanism. (Please see Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners.) These choices of ours caused confusion and upheaval. What do you mean you aren’t Christians? What do you mean you aren’t going to church anymore? These questions, and others, came bubbling to the surface, questions which continue to arise to this day. While several of our children have had multiple discussions with us about our decisions to leave the ministry and Christianity, others have chosen to leave matters alone. One of our children tells people who ask about us that we left Christianity due to burn-out. While certainly our disaffection towards Christianity played a part in our deconversion, saying that the primary reason we are now unbelievers is burn-out does not tell the whole story. I suspect that, for this child, attributing our unbelief to burn-out allows him to stop follow-up questions about our spiritual state and current church attendance.

One thing I made clear to our children: when it came to God, church, Christianity, Jesus, and religion in general, they were on their own. I may have been the patriarch and spiritual head of our home for most of their lives, but now it was up to them to choose which paths they wished to walk. For a time, our children found our unbelieving ways unsettling and confusing, but over time each of them has found his or her own path. (I was criticized for cutting them loose like this, accused of throwing them into the deep end of the pool to teach them how to swim. Perhaps this is true, but all of them eventually learned to swim.)  We have made it clear that our children are free to life as they wish. We, for the most part, don’t meddle in their lives. This doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions about the choices they make. We do, but as long as our children are not physically harming themselves, we are content to let them live their lives as they see fit.

While there have been a few religion-related skirmishes, mostly connected to baptisms and first communions, as time as gone along our family has settled into its secular way of life. Several of our children and their spouses attend local Catholic churches, several are atheists or agnostics, and the rest are NONES who are indifferent to organized religion. While Polly and I at first couldn’t bring ourselves to attend anything remotely connected to Christianity, we are now at the place where we are comfortable with attending baptisms, first communions, and the like as long as we aren’t asked to participate. We do so for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

It is not my place to explain the philosophical and religious views of our children. Neither is it their place — as they are often called on to do — to defend our decision to divorce God. During my Christian days, I was quite vocal about my beliefs, writing frequent letters to local newspapers in defense of Christianity.  Today, as an atheist, humanist, and democratic socialist, I continue to write letters and I have added blogging to my repertoire. My public expressions of unbelief have put my children in the unenviable position of having to listen to locals — at work, college, and social engagements — express their anger and disfavor towards my viewpoints. While they are free to disown me, so far they have chosen to stand their ground, pointing my critics to the various ways they can contact me to express their outrage first hand.

According to Polly’s parents and our extended families, who are still mired in Christian Fundamentalism, our loss of faith has wreaked untold havoc on our children and their families. More than a few family members, former colleagues in the ministry, and former parishioners have point-blank told me that I have ruined my children. Not Polly, but I, because I am the head of the home, and God holds me accountable for how my godlessness has affected my children and grandchildren. In their minds, if I would just repent and return to the church, all would be well. In their minds, if I came back to Jesus, Polly and our six children and their children would line up behind me and return to the front rows of a nearby Baptist church. Such people fail to see that the children of Bruce and Polly Gerencser are all grown up, free to make their own choices, free to live life as they please. Yes, their lifestyles are considered abominations by some Independent Fundamentalist Baptist family members, but remember, these people live in an alternate universe where normal biological acts and social behaviors are considered vile sins against a thrice holy God.

A non-Evangelical accounting of the lives of our children reveals successes, failures, and complexities — typical of human existence. All of our children are gainfully employed, busy enjoying the fruits of their labors. Rarely does a week or two go by that we don’t see all of our children, either at a family gathering or a school event.  Our family is close. Love abounds, and when sibling squabbling causes conflict, it is short-lived. If we have learned anything over the past eight years it is this: family is what matters. For most of my adult life, family was not my first priority. God, Jesus, the ministry, and the church, all came before Polly and the kids. Now I am free to focus the fleeting days of my life on our family. Things are, in every way, better now that God and the Bible no longer dominate our lives. Liberated from religious servitude, we are now free to devote our lives to that which matters most — family. Polly and I know that we are lucky. Our loss of faith could have imploded our family, especially if some of them remained Evangelicals. Fortunately, our children also fled the pernicious clutches of Fundamentalism, and we are now free to build deeper, richer relationships without worrying about what God thinks or what the Bible says. Our family remains a work in progress, but I think Polly and our children would agree with me when I say, life is good. Not perfect, not without conflict, not without loss, but good, nonetheless. I can safely say that if any of us were asked if we are interested in returning to the garlic and leeks of Evangelicalism, we in unison would say H-E-L-L NO!

Eight Years Later — Part Three

bruce and polly gerencser 1978

Bruce and Polly Gerencser, in front of first apartment in Pontiac, Michigan, Fall 1978 with Polly’s Grandfather and Parents

On the last Sunday of November 2008, my wife and I attended a Christian worship service for the last time. This series details how things have changed for us over the past eight years.

Polly and I will celebrate our thirty-ninth anniversary in July. We first met as college freshman at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Polly was seventeen and I was nineteen. Both of us enrolled at Midwestern to pursue God’s calling on our lives. At the age of fifteen, I felt God calling me to be a preacher. Polly had a similar teenage experience — not to be a preacher, but to be a pastor’s wife. On July 15, 1978, Polly and I stood before family and friends at the Newark Baptist Temple and confessed that we would love each other unto death. In joining together as husband and wife, we were also saying to God and to the church that we were committed to fulfilling God’s calling upon our lives. This commitment of ours to the ministry would take us to seven churches in three states over the next twenty-five years. This post will begin to detail our marriage during our years in the ministry and how it has changed — dramatically so — since we left the ministry in 2005 and left Christianity altogether in 2008. Adequately telling our story will require several posts.

bruce and polly gerencser 1978

Bruce and Polly Gerencser, May 1978, Two Months Before Their Wedding

Both Polly and I were quite naïve about life and the ministry when we married. Our idea of being Pastor and Mrs. Bruce Gerencser proved to be a fantasy. We thought we would, after graduating college, move to a rural Midwestern community so I could either pastor a church or start one. I would be a long-tenured, adequately paid minister, while Polly would be the keeper of our two children — Jason and Bethany —  and our white two-story home surrounded by a picket fence. The only thing that came of our fantasy? We have a son named Jason and a daughter named Bethany. Virtually everything we were told about how wonderful it was to be a pastor and a pastor’s wife proved to be a lie or, at the very least, gross distortions of reality. Much like selling Amway, with those at the top of pyramid getting all the accolades and money, so it was with the ministry. Big-name preachers pastoring churches with large attendances were well-paid and received the loving adoration of those who thronged to hear them preach. Believing that these preachers were the norm, young pastors and their wives would enter the ministry thinking that they too would one day be used mightily by God. The big-name preachers traveled the conference circuit, telling young pastors that if they would just work harder, sacrifice more, and follow their examples, that God would surely bless them and use them to build large, soulwinning churches. John R. Rice, famed Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) evangelist and editor of the Sword of the Lord, was fond of saying, There is nothing wrong with pastoring a small church — for a while. The message was clear: a sign of God’s blessing was a thriving church with an ever-increasing attendance. (In the 1960s and 1970s, most of the churches on the Top 100 Churches in America were IFB churches. Today? Only two or three IFB churches are on the list.)

In the spring of 1979, Polly and I left Midwestern and moved to the place of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. Polly became pregnant six weeks after our wedding, and several months later I was laid off from my machine shop job. With a child on the way, no insurance, and out of money, we decided to drop out of college and move to Bryan so I could find employment. I took a union job in the shipping and receiving department at ARO — a large manufacturing concern that years later was bought by Ingersoll-Rand and closed.

bruce and polly gerencser 1985

Bruce and Polly Gerencser, Somerset Baptist Church Sweetheart Banquet, 1985

Six weeks after moving to Bryan, I became the assistant pastor for nearby Montpelier Baptist Church. The church didn’t pay me a salary, so it was necessary for me to continue working at ARO while I took on near-full-time responsibilities at the church. Believing that God called us into the ministry, Polly and I were willing to make any and every sacrifice to fulfill our calling, even if it meant burning the candle at both ends and being forced to earn a living outside of the church. This thinking would permeate our thoughts and drive our behavior for most of the next twenty-five years.

Polly and I established our marital relationship according to what we believed the Bible taught about marriage and the family. Having a traditional marriage meant that I would be the breadwinner and Polly would care for the children, cook meals, and be the keeper of the home. Complementarian to the core, I expected Polly to submit to my God-given authority in the home. Wanting to be pleasing to God and her husband, Polly submitted herself to what can best be described as an authoritarian ruler. Passive by nature, Polly was fine with me running the show, making all the decisions, including taking care of the finances and disciplining the children. In many ways, we lived lives that were modeled to us by our parents and older ministers and their wives. Little did we know how corrosive and psychologically harmful such thinking was, and to this day we deal with the after-effects of patterning our lives after Evangelical beliefs concerning marriage and the family.

bruce polly gerencser our fathers house west unity

Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio Circa 2000

It was not until the late 1990s — twenty years into our marriage — that Polly and I began to question the foundation our marriage was built upon. As we looked at not only the people I pastored but many of our colleagues in the ministry, we noticed that many of them were building comfortable middle-class lifestyles, complete with all the trappings of American capitalistic culture. Here we were living in poverty, working day and night, and sacrificing our lives for the sake of the ministry while everyone else seemed to be enjoying the good life. Why weren’t these church members and preachers living according to the teachings of the Bible? Why did it seem they loved the things of the world in direct contradiction to what the Bible taught in 1 John 2:15,16:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

Where were the churches and pastors who were willing to sacrifice their lives for Jesus, even unto death? Polly and I had made the mistake of actually believing what we were taught in church and Bible college. We actually took to heart what we read in Evangelical books and heard at conferences. Silly us! we would learn.

In the next post in this series, I want to talk about the subtle marital and family changes we made while still in the ministry, and how these changes laid the groundwork for where our marriage is today.