I recently asked readers to submit questions to me they would like me to answer. If you would like to submit a question, please follow the instructions listed here.
Emma asked, “Bruce, How hard was it to change the authoritarian thought patterns that you had as a pastor? Did they affect your family? How have your relationships with your family changed since you became an atheist?”
Authoritarianism is found throughout the Evangelical community. The farther right one moves on the Evangelical spectrum, the more authoritarian churches and pastors become. For a number of years, I was a part of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. In this Evangelical subset, authoritarianism is foundational, both in church and family structures. Much is made of pastoral authority. The pastor or the elders are the governing leaders of churches who control the day-to-day operations, including hiring and firing staff, disciplining church members, and controlling the various activities and programs. Congregants rarely have much to say regarding the operation of the church except when it comes to large expenditures or the hiring and firing of their pastors. Many Evangelical churches are patriarchal, meaning they believe that there is a God-ordained structure and order for the family. Husbands are to be the heads of their homes, and wives are to submit to their leadership. Couple pastoral authority with complementarian patriarchal authority, and what you end up with is a religious culture dominated and controlled by men; a religious culture that marginalizes women; a religious culture that promotes psychological and physical violence towards women and children; a religious culture that can be cultic in belief and practice.
I grew up in authoritarian Baptist churches, attended an authoritarian Baptist college, and was surrounded with people who modeled to me an authoritarian way of life. It should come as no surprise, then, that I was an authoritarian husband, father, and pastor. I did what I was taught to do, and I was in my 40s before I realized how much damage authoritarian thinking had done to my wife, my children, and me personally. I’ve spent the past decade trying to undo the damage I caused. I have learned that it’s hard, at times impossible, to unring a bell. All I can do now is model a better way of life, an inclusive, egalitarian way of living. This does not mean that I no longer have authoritarian tendencies. I do, and I suspect I will continue to battle with authoritarianism all the days of my life. The same can be said of any belief system in which a person is immersed for a number of years. It’s hard to break free, and almost impossible to clear one’s mind of all the damaging beliefs of the past. All I know to do is strive to be better today than I was yesterday.
Being married to an authoritarian pastor and growing up in an authoritarian home deeply affected my wife and children. While our lives have greatly changed since I deconverted, the scars of the past remain. All I can say to my wife and children is this: I’m sorry. That’s all that I can say to anyone who came under my influence as an Evangelical pastor. Since Polly and I left Christianity in 2008, we have embarked on rebuilding our lives according to the humanistic ideal. The goal is to treat each other as equals, mutually respecting the thoughts, beliefs, and spaces of the other. This hasn’t been easy. Both of us can, on occasion, revert to our former ways. I like being the boss, and Polly often likes not having to be responsible for making decisions. When you’ve spent thirty years of married life living a certain way, it’s hard to all of a sudden change course — hard, but not impossible.
My children grew up with a man who is not only their father, but also their pastor. They received a double dose of authoritarianism. As the head of the home and as their pastor I ruled their lives. Now, some readers might think that the Gerencser home was a bad place to live, when in fact we were quite happy. Remember, we were living out what had been modeled to us by others. We did what we had been taught to do and what we had seen others do with their families. Within the bubble, life was enjoyable and satisfying. While I cannot speak for Polly or my children, I can say, generally speaking, that life overall was good. My children are quite fond of telling stories about growing up in a pastor’s home. Most of their stories are amusing and fun, but some of them are dark and dreadful. With authoritarianism comes strict discipline, and as the primary disciplinarian in our home, I did not spare the rod. I took seriously the Biblical commands about child rearing and discipline. As I’ve mentioned before, I now see that such discipline was abusive. I now know that violence is never the answer, be it in the Middle East or in my home.
I frequently talk to my counselor about my authoritarian past. I find our discussions to be quite enlightening as we delve into the reasons why I was drawn to authoritarianism and why my wife and I still fall into authoritarian patterns post-Jesus. I naïvely thought that once we the deconverted, our lifestyle would naturally become egalitarian, with Polly and me equally sharing decision-making responsibilities. There have been times when I told my counselor that I was frustrated with Polly’s unwillingness to make decisions. He told me that demanding she make decisions was authoritarian, and that to truly be free and equal she must have the right to not make decisions. At the heart of authoritarianism is the telling of others what to do. If I want Polly (and my children) to truly be free, that I must allow them the space to determine for themselves how they will make decisions. This complicates things, of course, because there are countless decisions that must be made each day. In our authoritarian days, life was simple. I made the decisions, end of story. Now, I still make a lot of decisions, but I must be cognizant of the fact that I do not have the right to, without permission, make decisions that materially affect Polly.
My counselor suggested to me that perhaps part of Polly’s freedom is her desire for me to make certain decisions; that she doesn’t want to make certain decisions; and that me forcing her to make these decisions is authoritarian. Polly’s personality is very different from mine. I’ve never had a problem being a decision-maker. It should come as no surprise that most of the secular jobs I worked over the years were management level jobs. I like being the boss. Polly, on the other hand, prefers not to make decisions. Do I have the right to force her to behave as I do? Of course not. That said, when it comes to matters that materially only affect Polly, I refuse to make decisions for her. For example, Polly gets her hair cut every six to eight weeks. She will often say to me, I need to get my hair cut. In saying this, she is asking for my approval and permission. I usually tell her that I am not her father, and that she is free to get her hair cut when, where, and how she wants. I remind her that she does not need my permission to get her hair cut. This scenario is played out time and again in the ebb and flow of our home. Much like her husband, she remains a work in progress.
Polly has worked for a local manufacturing concern for twenty years. She is now a supervisor in her department, responsible for a small group of employees on second and third shift. The transformation of her into a competent, assertive, outspoken boss has been nothing short of amazing. My role in all of this has been that of a sounding board. Polly knows that I have a lot of managerial experience, so when she faces certain employee-related issues for the first time, she will ask me for advice. Polly has had to learn that being a boss means she is going to make decisions that upset people. I often remind her of my favorite Colin Powell quote, “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.” Being more assertive at work has spilled over into our marriage. Polly’s assertiveness at work has helped her decision-making at home. She is now much more of an active participant when important decisions need to be made. She often brings a different viewpoint to discussions, and this helps to temper and challenge my thinking. The biggest difference between our authoritarian past and now is that discussions begin with, “What do you think about _______?” Instead of, “We are going to do _________.”
We still have moments when our personalities clash. A good example of this is ordering food at a fast-food drive-thru. I know what I want before we get in line. Not Polly. She hems and haws over her order, increasing my blood pressure exponentially, especially when she orders the same thing she always orders. While I find such moments irritating — “make a damn decision, will ya?’ — once the food arrives all is well. After we finish eating, we do come to common agreement on one thing: why do we keep eating this shit?
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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