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Tag: Counseling

Armchair Evangelical Psychologists

armchair psychology

When I started blogging in 2007, I made the decision to use my real name as I attempted to tell my story. I also decided that I would not protect the guilty. Since Evangelical churches, pastors, parachurch groups and the college I attended are a part of my storyline, I decided their names should be part of my story. Doing this has upset a lot of people, especially when a web search for their name, church, or group brings up my blog on the first page.

If you take time to search for websites mentioning my name, you will find sites with articles deconstructing my life. You will also find my name and articles mentioned on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Free Jinger, Reddit, and a number of public/private sites.

Since I write using my real name, and I am the only Bruce Gerencser in the world, it is not hard to find a wealth of information, positive and negative. I knew when I started blogging that I would open myself up to intense scrutiny. I knew that people would lie about me, distort my story, and try to besmirch my character. This is the price I pay for being a public figure.

Those of you who have read this blog for years know I stopped blogging several times when the emotional and mental stress became too much. (That I have been blogging now for six years straight is nothing short of a miracle.) What changed? Thanks to me seeing a counselor on a regular basis, I have learned to handle the stress that comes from having a public blog that is widely read. This doesn’t mean that I plan on blogging until Jesus comes again, but I hope I have enough mental and emotional wherewithal to withstand the pressures that come my way. If anything puts an end to my writing career it will be chronic illness and unrelenting pain. Recent health circumstances have had me circling the proverbial blogging drain, but, so far, I have been able to find the stopper, keeping me from disappearing. No promises, but I live for another day.

Several years ago, a man by the name of Steve Ransom sent me an email that I shared with readers in a post titled Steve Ransom Lays Down a Challenge to Bruce and His Fellow Atheists. He purported to have a new argument that he was sure would set me back on the right path to God. All he really had was a deconstruction of my life, and how I had followed a false God. There was a time such a deconstruction would cause me mental and emotional angst. Not anymore.

When I started blogging, I thought if I just told my story people would understand, even if they disagreed with me. I thought if I just explained myself, that my critics would at least understand my viewpoint. I know, I know, quite naïve of me.

This subject came up one day during counseling. I expressed my dismay over Evangelicals not being willing to accept my explanation of my life. Who knows my life better than me, right? My counselor told me:

Bruce, you think they care what you think? They don’t give a shit about what you think.

And he is right. I know that those who tear into my life aren’t interested in anything I have to say. They have read a handful of posts, maybe even twenty-five or thirty, and they are now ready to render judgment, and render they do. It’s happened countless times over the years, and it will happen in future. Evangelicals can’t help themselves, so I let them have one opportunity to say whatever is on their mind. One comment, that’s it. Then it is time for them to move on.

There was a time when I engaged every Evangelical commenter. I thought if I just explained myself, they would understand. I now know better. Now that I know they don’t give a shit, neither do I.

Of particular note are Evangelical critics who think they have me figured out psychologically. Instead of accepting at face value my explanation for why I left the ministry and left Christianity, they delve into what they believe are the psychological reasons for my divorce from Jesus and my abandonment of the church. According to them, I abandoned all I loved and held dear because I was angry, bitter, jaded, hated God, ad infinitum. Instead of accepting at face value what I say about my Evangelical past, these critics, use a nit comb to go through my life, looking for the “real” reason I am an atheist today. 

I used to try to answer such people, but after years of doing so, I decided to leave them to their own devices. I know that nothing I say will change their minds, so why bother, right? Such people are not my target audience, so why give one moment of my time to them. I remain committed to helping those who have doubts about Christianity and those who have left the faith. They are my church, not those who sit in the back pews throwing horse shit at me as I share my life’s story.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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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Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Bruce, Why Did You Start to See a Secular Counselor?

i have a question

I recently asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question you would like me to answer, please leave your question on the page, Your Questions, Please.

Brian asked:

I admire the personal work that you have done to be able to garner perspective about your directions in life. It sometimes seems that the vast majority of folks are not able to seek professional help in dealing with trauma in their lives.

Very often, when listening to someone tell some personal history, I will use the word ‘trauma’ in expressing sympathy, in acknowledging the tale but so often I am rebuffed with something like: “No, it wasn’t traumatic. So many people have terrible things they have to deal with and mine wasn’t like that at all…” The vast majority, once again, seem pre-therapy and not really ready to make that step to include real feeling, real self-care in their lives. They distance themselves from the heart.

Christianity, particularly evangelical sorts encourages people to look to God for cures, for help, for everything! And unless a therapist is in the bubble, they are of-the-world and thereby suspect in the work they do.

I wonder if you would speak some more to how and why you started to see a counsellor. You have spoken to this issue before in passing but could you share with us some of the feelings that allowed/suggested counselling was a direction to go. You have mentioned being ostracized and alone in your search. You were a hardliner IFB preacher who studied how to become a hardliner’s hardliner. Yet, eventually, your direction brought you to an exit sign. Perhaps you have said all you wish to regarding this matter but I think in these times of trouble, it might be helpful to share some more about your way of healing, the coping with God’s army at your door, the struggle with lonely choices. It’s a lot to ask, I know and feel free to set it aside if that is necessary.

Thanks for the question, Brian.

I grew up in a home dominated by mental illness. My mom tried to kill herself numerous times, finally succeeding in the 1990s. (Please see Barbara.) She was fifty-four. Mom was placed in a mental hospital for two lengthy stints when I was a teenager. To say that Mom’s illness was traumatic for me would be a gross understatement. I still bear the psychological scars from her manic episodes, attempted suicides, and being cruelly asked to perform her funeral after she killed herself with a Ruger revolver. I am weeping as I write this. Oh, how I miss my mother. I grieve the fact that she never got to know most of my children and none of my grandchildren. I told my youngest daughter the other day that Mom would have loved her oldest son, two-and half-year-old Ezra. He is, in every way, a spitting image of his grandfather. He is impulsive, ornery, and rambunctious. I imagined my mom telling Laura, “Ezra’s a little shit just like your dad was.” So many memories left unmade because of mental illness and suicide.

As a teen and a young man, I quickly learned to keep my feelings safely in the arms of Jesus. As a devout Evangelical Christian, and later a pastor, I believed that God was in control of everything and that would never give me more in my life than I could handle. Every bit of trauma and adversity in my life was God testing me, increasing my faith, or chastising me for a known/unknown sin. Whatever came my way, I sucked it up, believing that it was all part of God’s wonderful plan for my life.

Of course, psychologically (and later physically) things were not okay with me. I struggled with deep, long-lasting bouts of depression and on many occasions had thoughts of killing myself. To the outside world and to the churches I pastored, I was the model Christian and pastor, but my wife and our children saw the “real” Bruce Gerencser. No matter how much a depressive tries, he can’t hide his trauma and struggles from those who are close to him. Mom’s mental struggles, my parents’ divorce after 15 years of marriage, moving from school to school and house to house, witnessing Mom being raped by her brother-in-law, finding Mom lying a pool of blood after she had slit her wrists, knowing Mom had been sexually molested by my grandfather, my own molestation by a relative as a young boy, having a father who likely knew I wasn’t his biological son — a father who never said “I love you” or attended one of my ballgames or school events — and spending much of my young life living in poverty, often having to steal money for lunch and shoplift to get school clothes, is it any wonder that I might have a problem with depression; that I might have thoughts of killing myself?

This was a heavy load for a young man to carry, and carry it I did until I was in my forties. I finally reached a place where I recognized I was in trouble; that if I didn’t seek professional (non-religious) help that I was going to become a statistic, a sorry story on the obituary page of the local newspaper. Yet, it took me two more years before I saw a counselor. I made several appointments with one counselor, only to cancel the appointments. I was worried that someone I knew would see my car at the clinic or see me going into the counselor’s office. I couldn’t bear being “exposed” to people who knew me. Bryan is the town of my birth. I have family scattered all over rural northwest Ohio. What if people found out I was a “nutjob”? “Just like his mother!”

It wasn’t until we bought our home in Ney (2007) and we deconverted from Christianity (2008) that I finally sought professional care from a secular psychologist by the name of Dr. David Deal. Past trauma, along with the loss of faith and career had put me in a desperate place. It was David who came along side me for the next decade and helped me to unravel my past and understand my struggles, along with helping me build coping mechanisms in my life. I will be forever grateful for all that he did for me.

The first thing we did in counseling was peel back my life. David likened it to peeling an onion one layer at a time. Painful and teary-eyed to be sure. When I left Christianity, I left all I had ever known. I had been a pastor for twenty-five years. My whole identity was wrapped up in being Pastor Bruce or Preacher. Now that my faith and career were gone, I was left with answering the question, “who am I?” “What do I want in this life?” By this time, health problems had added a whole new layer of complexity. Being in pain all the time is enough to drive anyone to thoughts of suicide, let alone a depressive such as I am.

Over time, I began to understand my past and began building a healthier understanding of self. I like to think I have become a better man, husband, father, and grandfather. Do I still battle depression? Do I still have thoughts of suicide? Yep. As Dexter the serial killer was fond of saying, depression and suicidal thoughts are my “dark passenger.” Recent new health problems and hospitalization drove me to the edge of despair. I told Polly, “I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t . . .” Fortunately, my dark passenger withdrew into the recesses of my mind. I am not better health-wise, but psychologically I am in a better place — at least enough so that I am not dwelling on suicide.

COVID-19 has made it impossible for me to see Dr. Deal. I hope that this pandemic will soon come to an end. He and I have a hell of a lot of stuff to talk about. Until then, I continue to write. David urged me to keep writing; that doing so would help others and also provide an outlet for my passion. I write because I must do so. Without writing for this site, I am not sure I would make it through a typical week. This blog allows me to tell my story. It is, I suppose, a digital journal of sorts, with entries of millions of words since December 2014.

Thank you for “hearing” my story and continuing to support what I do.

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Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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.

Are you on Social Media?

Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Why I Thought I was “Qualified” to Counsel Others

want truth read bible

Recent posts about Christian counseling caused more than a few outraged Evangelical counselors to object to my assertions. (Please see Beware of Christian Counselors, Questions: Should People Trust Christian Counselors with Degrees from Secular Schools?, and Outrage Over Christian Counselor Post.) Of particular note were the people who emphatically said that pastors are NOT counselors; that pastors offer congregants spiritual advice, and not professional counseling (regardless of what congregants believe they are receiving).

Anyone who has attended an Evangelical church knows that such an assertion is false. Pastors routinely counsel people — both inside and outside of their churches — and counselees believe they are receiving professional services. I don’t know of an Evangelical preacher who doesn’t provide counseling services. It is for this reason that I wrote the post Beware of Christian Counselors. Just because a man is a pastor doesn’t make him qualified to counsel people. In fact, I would argue that many pastors cause incalculable harm by posing as trained and qualified counselors — their only qualifications being that they own a Bible and can read.

I was part of the Christian church for fifty years. I spent twenty-five of those years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Over the course of my ministerial career, I counseled hundreds of people. When people walked into my office, they believed — without ever checking — that I was qualified to provide counseling services; that I had all the answers for whatever was ailing them. Why did I think I was “qualified” to counsel people?

I grew up in churches where the pastor (or youth director) was considered God’s Answer Man®. Armed with an inspired, inerrant, and infallible King James Bible, my pastors were ready, willing, and able to dispense supposed life-changing wisdom. I watched my mentally-ill mother suffer through countless pastoral counseling sessions without ever getting the help that she needed. Her failure to respond to their Biblical admonitions was, according to our pastors, a lack of obedience on her part to God/Church/Bible. Her confinements to Toledo State Mental Hospital, drug addiction, and periodic electroshock therapy treatments should have been screaming warning signs to these men of God, but they weren’t. Mom wanted
“God’s best” for her life, so she sought out counseling from her pastors. Every pastor believed he could “fix” Barbara. Arrogant to the end, these servants of God believed they offered the mentally ill the same deliverance Jesus gave the Maniac of Gadara. Mom finally found the deliverance she so desperately sought. One Sunday morning, she turned a Ruger .357 magnum on herself, blowing a hole in her heart. Mom ignominiously died in a matter of minutes. She was 54. (Please see Barbara.) All praise be to Jesus, right? At least she was “saved” and went to Heaven.

I don’t remember a time before her death when Mom’s mental health problems weren’t a part of my life. For the longest time, I shamefully believed that Mom was just a drug addict who loved sin more than she loved Jesus. If she would only repent and follow the teachings of the Bible, all would be well. Oh, how I wish life offered do-overs! I guarantee you that my mom would have received different care; that I would have been a better son. Would the outcome have changed? I don’t know, but one thing is for sure, I will NEVER have the opportunity to find out.

Young preachers tend to model what they see in the lives of their pastors and older colleagues in the ministry. I know I did. I never heard one pastor or colleague suggest that he was anything but competent to counsel church members. I never heard one sermon that ever suggested that anything other than Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible were answers for the human condition. Secular counselors and mental health treatment were routinely ridiculed and condemned. It was even suggested that “mental illness” was nothing more than the result of disobedience to God.

In the mid-1970s, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was an unaccredited Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution. Many of my professors were graduates of Midwestern — quite the incestuous relationship. Professors sporting doctorates were often honorary doctors, having received this recognition from Midwestern or another IFB school. (Please see IFB Doctorates: Doctor, Doctor, Doctor, Everyone’s a Doctor) All told, I took one class related to counseling. Most of the class was spent “debunking” secular psychology and counseling. Everything I experienced at Midwestern taught me that my pastors and colleagues were right: Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible were all that people needed to successfully navigate life.

I entered the ministry believing that I was called by God to “shepherd” his flock (fellow Christians), and offer them infallible counsel and help from the Word of God. I sincerely believed that the Bible was God’s answer book; a divine blueprint for life; a standard by which Christians were to live their lives. I believed the answer to every question was “Thus Saith the Lord!” My past experiences with my mom should have taught me differently, but I viewed her as a rebellious sinner, and not someone who needed physical and psychological help.

As a pastor, I counseled hundreds of congregants and outsiders. Not one time did I say to a counselee, “you need professional help.” How could I? My entire life and ministry were built upon the notion that “With God (and by extension the Bible) All Things Are Possible.” In my mind, Jesus and the Bible were a vending machine. Just push the proper buttons for whatever was ailing a person, and out came the answer. When you believe, as Evangelicals do, in the sufficiency of Scripture, to do anything that suggests otherwise is heresy.

I know that what I have written so far sounds insane to non-Evangelical Christians and unbelievers. However, when you live in the Evangelical bubble, everything makes sense. The Bible as the manual for mental illness? Yes, Praise Jesus! Prayers as a cure for whatever ails you? Absolutely! In a self-contained world — built brick-upon-brick with verses from an ancient religious text — such nonsense seems reasonable. When you are told for years that the “world” is out to destroy you and your family, and that safety and protection can only be found in Jesus, the church, and the Holy Bible, the level of dysfunction and harm should come as no surprise. It was not until I left the ministry (2005) and left Christianity (2008), that I was able to experience life outside of the Evangelical box. (Please see The Danger of Being in a Box and Why it Makes Sense When You are in it and What I Found When I Left the Box.) It was then, as many of you can attest in your own lives, that I realized that I had a lot of bat-shit crazy beliefs. I had caused incalculable harm to people who loved me and called me preacher. While they bear some blame for the damage done (and sadly many former congregants are still being ritually abused in Evangelical churches), I bear the greater burden. I had a duty and responsibility to competently help them. Instead, I arrogantly believed, as the Apostle Paul did, that I could be “all things to all men.” Marital problems? Rebellious children? Substance abuse? Sexual dysfunction? Suicidal thoughts? Mental illness? Financial problems? Praise be to Jesus, I had ALL the answers. Except, I didn’t, and for that, I will forever live with regret. I can’t fix the past, but I sure as hell can warn people about what goes on behind closed office doors in countless Evangelical churches and Christian counseling “ministries.”

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Outrage Over Christian Counselor Post

lord that heals you

Last Friday, I published two posts focused on Christian counseling. The first post, Beware of Christian Counselors, was an expanded repost of an article originally posted in 2015. The second post, Questions: Should People Trust Christian Counselors with Degrees from Secular Schools? was the first answer in the Your Questions, Please series. Thanks to these posts being shared on social media, thousands of new readers came to this site, including many Evangelical Christian counselors. (The first post was also featured on the weekly link round-up published by Infidel753.)  I quickly found out that Evangelical counselors are a touchy lot. I received numerous comments, emails, and social media messages from outraged, butt-hurt counselors who were offended by what I wrote. Several of them took it upon themselves to psychoanalyze me. One Evangelical counselor read all of one post and concluded, “I am concerned that your atheism is more of a result of a wound from fundamentalism than it is rational thought.” Several other counselors told me that my post was harmful to people with mental health problems. Why? According to thse counselors, people needing professional help might read this post and avoid seeking out counseling. Not really. At best, they might avoid seeking out overtly CHRISTIAN therapy, and to that I say, Amen, all praise be to Loki.

These offended counselors assured me that Christian counselors were capable of compartmentalizing their beliefs; of separating their theology from their practice. Now, if these counselors were mainstream liberal Christians, I would be inclined to agree with them. However, if spending fifty years in the Christian church and twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches has taught me anything, it is that most Evangelicals are unable to compartmentalize their beliefs when at work — be they doctors, nurses, school teachers, factory workers, or counselors. I could spend the next several days detailing experiences where Evangelical Christians crossed professional and ethical boundaries, thinking it was their obligation, duty, and responsibility to put in a good word for Jesus. I am sure readers of this blog have stories of their own — times when Evangelicals tried to evangelize them or offer unsolicited Biblical advice. Over the past twelve years, I have received thousands of emails from Evangelicals who took it upon themselves to write me, even after being warned that I am NOT interested in receiving such emails. In their minds, fidelity to Jesus and the Bible trumped personal boundaries and respect.

Beliefs have consequences. What we believe materially affects how we view the world and our place in it. Just as it is impossible to separate a skunk from its smell, it is impossible to separate our beliefs from who and what we are. Granted, we can, at times, set aside our beliefs, choosing not to engage people who believe differently from us. I live in rural northwest Ohio. Evangelical Christianity permeates every aspect of life. Public atheists are almost as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker.

I’ve been encouraged in recent years by younger locals who are more willing to publicly challenge tribal and cultural-religious norms. That said, many atheists and agnostics keep their beliefs to themselves out of fear of losing their jobs or harming interpersonal relationships. I, for one, don’t talk about religion or atheism in public unless asked. The same goes for Facebook. It takes all of ten seconds to plug my name into a search engine and find out all sorts of things about me, including my pants inseam, hobbies, marital status, where I live, and yes, what my beliefs are concerning religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Several weeks ago, a post of mine was shared on a local Facebook discussion forum. Thousands of locals visited this site for the first time. There’s nothing that I can do about such exposure — not that I would want to. I am a writer, so I want people to read my writing. However, I also have to peacefully live amid people who differ from me in virtually every aspect of life. Why do we differ? Our beliefs.

The suggestion that beliefs don’t affect how we look at others and interact with them is absurd. Evangelical Christian counselors are not immune to this either. In fact, I would argue that it is HARDER for them to disconnect themselves from their beliefs than most people. Counselors are in a position to help people when they are most vulnerable. If counselors believe that there is one true God, Jesus is the Way, Truth, and Life, and the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, it is impossible for them to disconnect their lives from these beliefs when entering their places of employment. This is especially so for Evangelical counselors. How can their beliefs not affect their interaction with clients? Of course, some counselors advertise their Christianity, letting believers know that they will receive “sound” Biblical counsel and advice from them. This is no different from some counselors advertising the secular nature of their work. I don’t have a problem with counselors having presuppositions — be they religious or secular. All I ask is that Evangelical counselors make these beliefs known at the start; that they don’t spring on unwary clients their peculiar Bible-based beliefs.

I am sure more than a few Evangelical Christian counselors will continue to assert that they are capable of compartmentalizing their beliefs. I don’t believe this is possible, but let me ask a few questions to see if, perhaps, I am wrong.

  • Do you believe there is one true God — yours?
  • Do you believe that all humans are sinners and in need of redemption through the merit and work of Jesus Christ?
  • Do you believe that humans are born alienated from God?
  • Do you believe it is the responsibility of Christians to evangelize unbelievers?
  • Do you believe there is a Hell where all non-Christians will spend eternity being tortured by God?
  • Do you believe life begins at conception?
  • Do you believe abortion is murder?
  • Do you believe in the Christian concept of sin?
  • Do you believe that all sex activity outside of marriage is sin?
  • Do you believe LGBTQ people choose to be gay, lesbian, etc.?
  • Do you believe homosexuals can sexually change?
  • Do you believe gender reassignment surgery is wrong?

Every Evangelical I know would, with Holy Ghost gusto, answer YES! to these questions. Pray tell, how would such beliefs not materially affect how Evangelical Christian counselors interact with counselees? What if a client wanted to have an abortion, what would Evangelical counselors say? What if a client wanted to change their gender, marry their same-sex partner, have sex before marriage, or engage in any of the numerous behaviors considered sin? Would the best interest of the client be paramount, or would fidelity to Jesus and the teachings of the Bible take precedence?

The Christian counselors who expressed outrage over my posts want me to believe that they can objectively separate their beliefs from their work. I don’t believe that for a moment. Such a disconnect would be akin to an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preacher secretly taking on a part-time job as a bouncer at a strip club. Imagine one night coming face to face with Deacon Bob. The preacher looks at the deacon, the deacon, the preacher, both with a look that says, “what in the Hell are you doing here?” And in Holy Ghost unison, each says to the other, “Brother, I am here to evangelize sinners!” Now, both the preacher and deacon are likely at the strip club for other than religious reasons, but their beliefs are never far away. (Please see The Preacher Goes to the XXX Movie House) So it is with Evangelical counselors. When push comes to shove, if the counselor is a committed follower of Jesus, his or her beliefs are bound to surface.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Questions: Should People Trust Christian Counselors with Degrees from Secular Schools?

i have a question

I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me.  All questions will be answered in the order they are received.

Troy asked:

In a local village forum on Facebook, a local Christian counselor spammed his services. I started a bit of a controversy by linking your warning about Christian counseling. I’m not against such religious counseling, but I do think people need to be warned that they aren’t licensed by the state. This guy retorts that he has a masters from a dual accredited school and offers anecdotes of high success rate with some that have tried secular counseling previously. It isn’t really mentioned in your own blog post, but I’d be interested to see your opinion on it, in particular about the dual accreditation.

Troy asked me this question on Facebook, but I thought it would make an excellent question for me to answer publicly. Before reading this post, you might want to read the post Troy mentions, Beware of Christian Counselors. In that post, I give an in-depth look at how utterly unqualified many Evangelical pastors are to provide counseling services. Thanks to the separation of church and state, the federal government and many state governments take a hands-off approach to what happens at houses of worship. Here in Ohio, pastors are free to provide counseling services to anyone who asks for them. In the early 1980s, I was the assistant pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. I was in my twenties at the time. One young adult — who attended the church from time to time — would frequently stop by my office to talk to me. On numerous occasions, he told me that he was thinking about killing himself. Red light, warning sign, right? This man told me that the only thing holding him back from ending his life was not knowing whether suicide was the unpardonable sin. He was afraid that if he killed himself, God would send him to Hell. This went on for weeks until one day I told him, why don’t you kill yourself and find out? Even now, as I read these words, I am horrified. It matters not whether the man was serious about ending his life or just wanted me to listen to him talk. If the man had actually killed himself, I know that I would have been culpable in his death — but protected by the clergy-congregant seal. Having battled depression and suicidal thoughts much of my adult life, I can only imagine how I might have responded if a pastor told me, why don’t you kill yourself and find out? This is one of those times where the only thing I can say is that I was a stupid young man who allowed my busyness and impatience to affect my relationship with a congregant. The young man, by the way, never “bothered” me again.

Many Christian colleges and universities are accredited. However, it is important to ask who, exactly, is the accrediting body. More than a few Christian colleges are accredited by groups that were established for the express purpose of giving Evangelical institutions cover when being questioned about accreditation. The best way to determine if an institution’s accreditation is of any value is to find out if they accept Pell Grants or VA Education Benefits. If they don’t, it is likely that their “accreditation” is little more than wallpaper covering a hole in a wall.  Looks nice, but structurally there are likely to be problems.

Let me be clear, I am not anti-Christian education. Evangelicals are, for the most part, anti-culture. They have spent the past hundred years building a subculture that caters to the wants, needs, and whim Evangelical Christians. I call this subculture the Christian Ghetto. What Evangelicals do is take what the secular world offers and slap the word Christian in front of it: Christian bookstore, Christian music, Christian coffee shop, Christian TV, Christian radio, etc. Sometimes, the word Christian is omitted, and icons are used instead: a cross or the ichthus (fish) symbol. The icons are meant to say to people, “Hey, I am a member of the Jesus club, spend your money here!” As an atheist, when I see such signs, I immediately look elsewhere. Even as a Christian, I frequented businesses based on the quality of their work, and not whether we shared a common faith.

People who live in areas where Evangelicalism has a strong presence can find it difficult or impossible to find a counselor who is not a Christian or doesn’t use “Biblical” methods with clients. One of my sons is a former drug addict. For several years, he drove to Toledo to attend group therapy. The program director was a state-licensed social worker who also happened to be an Evangelical Christian. Most of her techniques were standard operating procedure. However, on more than a few occasions, the woman would tell the group that if they truly wanted deliverance from their addictions, then JESUS was the answer. She would then invite the group to visit her church, where the — wink-wink — “real” answers could be found.

And therein is the problem when you have Evangelical counselors who have state licensure but also have devout religious backgrounds. Rare are Evangelical counselors who can compartmentalize their religious beliefs. I don’t fault them for being unable to do so. Christianity for Evangelicals is more than clothes you wear on Sundays; it’s a worldview, a way of life. Evangelical counselors can no more separate themselves from their beliefs than skunks can separate themselves from their smell.

If Evangelicals want Christian counselors to talk to, that’s fine. That said, pastors and counselors should be required to tell counselees the extent of their training and licensure. And this goes for Evangelicals who are licensed social workers. Such people can’t work in secular settings unless they are willing to build a wall between their religious beliefs and accepted counseling practices. Unfortunately, many Evangelical social workers feel led by God to reach those in need with the gospel and teachings of the Bible. Evangelical social workers know they can’t outwardly and publicly share their faith, so they, instead, look for low-key, behind-the-scenes opportunities to put in a good word in for Jesus. For example, an Evangelical social worker with the welfare department might have a client whose pregnant and already has five young children. The woman asks the social worker what services and programs are available to her. A conscientious social worker would tell the overburdened woman about ALL her options — including abortion. The Evangelical social worker, however, is anti-abortion, so she refers the woman to the local pro-life crisis pregnancy center.

There are countless ways a counselor’s Evangelical beliefs can get in the way of competently helping a client. In the above-mentioned scenario, the social worker committed malpractice and should be fired and have her license revoked. As for the counselor mentioned by Troy, I would want to know where he received his training and licensure. As far as his religious approach to counseling being superior and producing “better” results than secular counseling, I would want more than anecdotal stories to prove his claims. For Christians, Jesus ALWAYS produces superior results, so I suspect that this man likely doesn’t have empirical evidence to back up his claims. He just knows it to be true!

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Beware of Christian Counselors

bible has all the answers

Originally published in February 2015. Edited, corrected, and expanded.

In communities where Evangelical Christianity dominates the culture, it is often hard to find a counselor/psychologist who is not a Christian. It stands to reason that, in a predominantly Christian culture, most counselors would be Christian. This is not a problem if the counselors are able to compartmentalize their religious beliefs, but many counselors who are Christian can’t or won’t do this.

When counselors believe the Bible is an authoritative text, and the standard for moral and ethical conduct, it’s impossible for them to counsel someone objectively. No matter how much they tell themselves otherwise, sooner or later their religious beliefs will affect the advice they give to their clients. The skunk/smell analogy applies here. You can’t separate a skunk from his smell, and neither can you separate an Evangelical Christian from his or her presuppositions and beliefs.

Back when I was still an Evangelical pastor, I started taking classes to become a licensed social worker. It wasn’t long before my Bible-based beliefs were conflicting with what I was being taught in class. I asked the dean of the department:

Suppose I am a licensed social worker and I am working for the Department of Human Services. The client is pregnant and is thinking about getting an abortion. Since I am a Christian and I think abortion is morally wrong, would I be able to counsel the woman according to my pro-life beliefs?

The department head made it very clear that, based on my religious and moral beliefs, I would have a hard time working in a secular/state environment. She suggested that I might be able to work for a private, religious service provider, but my religious beliefs would likely preclude me from working in a secular setting.

Of course, this offended me. I thought that I should be able to push my religious beliefs on others. I now see that the department head gave me sound advice. Evangelical Christians often demand they be permitted to work any job in any profession and not be forced to compartmentalize their beliefs. (A current example of this is Evangelical pharmacists who want the right to withhold morning-after drugs from women who might be pregnant.) However, there are some professions where people’s religious beliefs would preclude them from working in that field because their beliefs would not allow them to provide a client or a customer certain services or goods.

Many pastors provide counseling services. Here in Ohio, a pastor is not required to have ANY training before counseling someone. The fact that the counseling is done through the church exempts the pastor from any governmental oversight. I knew several pastors who were high school dropouts, with no theological or counseling training, who regularly counseled people — both in and outside of their churches. In the twenty-five years I pastored churches, I never had one person ask me if I was qualified to be a counselor. If asked, I would have told them I took a one-semester counseling class that was more about debunking secular counseling than in techniques to help people. (The professor was a pastor who had no training in counseling.) I did, however, get an A in the class.

Many pastors don’t think they need specialized training to counsel people. After all, the inspired, inerrant, infallible Bible has the answer to every question and problem. All a pastor needs to do is figure out what the problem is and find the appropriate Bible verse that addresses the issue. Every difficultly is reduced to obedience/disobedience, sin/righteousness, God/Satan, flesh/spirit. These kinds of pastors are very dangerous because they give simplistic answers to complex problems. It is not uncommon to find pastors counseling congregants who have medically diagnosed conditions, but want “God’s help” to overcome their mental illness.

Before seeing a pastor for counseling, a prospective client should ask about his training and qualifications. Even if a pastor has college-level training, the value and extent of that training depends on where he got the training. Many Evangelical colleges have counseling programs that do little more than teach pastors how to proof-text any problem. Many Evangelical colleges teach some form of nouthetic counseling:

Nouthetic counseling (Greek: noutheteo, to admonish) is a form of pastoral counseling that holds that counseling should be based solely upon the Bible and focused upon sin. It repudiates mainstream psychology and psychiatry as humanistic, radically secular and fundamentally opposed to Christianity. Its viewpoint was originally articulated by Jay E. Adams, in Competent to Counsel (1970) and further books, and has led to the formation of a number of organizations and seminary courses promoting it. The viewpoint is opposed to those seeking to synthesize Christianity with secular psychological thought, but has failed to win them over to a purely Biblical approach. Since 1993, the movement has renamed itself Biblical counseling to emphasize its central emphasis on the Bible. The Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling states that “The aim of Nouthetic Counseling is to effect change in the counselee by encouraging greater conformity to the principles of Scripture.”

Ponder, for a moment, the aim of nouthetic counseling: “to effect change in the counselee by encouraging greater conformity to the principles of Scripture.” In other words, get right with God, and obey the teachings of the Bible (as interpreted by the pastor/church). Imagine being a woman and seeing a pastor for counseling who just so happens to endorse patriarchal thinking, complementarianism, and quiverfull philosophy.  Women not indoctrinated in such teachings will find themselves at odds with their counselors (pastors) and churches. If a woman has egalitarian beliefs, what should she do? Her trusted advisor’s goal is not to “help” her per se, as much as it is to get her to conform to certain theological beliefs.

Some Evangelical pastors go so far as to say that mental illness is the result of demonic oppression or possession. Again, the Bible becomes the solution to whatever problem a person may be having. Whether the problem is due to sin or a demon, God and the Bible are always the cure for whatever ails the person. This approach rarely addresses core issues and, in some cases, can lead to more problems, including suicide.

Imagine for a moment, an Evangelical woman going to her pastor for help. He listens to her “confession” and then prescribes whatever Bible verse is appropriate. The woman profusely thanks the pastor, and leaves his office determined to put the Word of God into practice. Perhaps this works for a day, a week, or a month, but, sooner or later, the problem returns. She goes back to the pastor, and he reminds her of what the Bible says. He tells her that she needs to repent, walk in the Spirit, be filled with the Spirit, put on the whole armor of God, withstand the devil, etc. The message is clear: If you are still having a problem it is YOUR FAULT!

I know some pastors will be offended by what I am about to say next, but I need to be clear: Most Evangelical pastors are unqualified to counsel people. They lack the necessary training to provide counseling competently, and their commitment to the Bible keeps them from properly helping people. It’s one thing if people have questions about the Bible or are questioning their faith. Certainly, those people should seek out their pastor’s counsel on spiritual matters. However, many so-called “spiritual” problems are actually mental/physical/emotional problems which pastors dress up in religious garb. An untrained pastor has no business counseling people who have mental/physical/emotional problems.

Sadly, many people think pastors are experts on everything. Little do they know that many pastors aren’t even experts on the Bible, let alone anything else. Many Evangelical colleges have turned their pastor-training programs into business and marketing programs. Actual training in the fundamentals of the ministry and the Bible is often quite limited. Many pastors-in-training will graduate from college without ever having studied most of the books of the Bible (and OT or NT survey classes don’t count). Many Evangelical pastors-in-training only take one or two counseling classes. Yet, because they have taken these classes, these pastors think they are qualified to be counselors. They may not be counselors, but they did stay at a Holiday Inn, right?  I know several pastors who got counseling degrees from Christian mail-order diploma mills (along with other advanced degrees, including doctorates). (Please see IFB Doctorates: Doctor, Doctor, Doctor, Everyone’s a Doctor) They proudly let everyone know that they have a degree in counseling and are qualified to counsel all comers, yet truth be told, they are as ignorant as backwoods moonshiners.

Over the years, I counseled hundreds of people. Not one time did I tell people that they needed to see a medical professional or a psychologist. I firmly believed the Bible had all the answers. My judgment was further clouded by the fact that my mother was mentally ill, was on all kinds of drugs, was treated by psychiatrists, and attempted suicide numerous times before eventually killing herself at age 54. (Please see Barbara) I considered psychologists and psychiatrists to be enablers who encouraged people to continue in their sin.

In the late 1980s, I was visiting with a fellow pastor in his office when a severely agitated young man came into the office. The man was either high on drugs or mentally disturbed. I thought my pastor friend would try to calm the man down and offer him some Biblical counsel. Instead, he told the man that he needed medical help. My pastor friend took him to the hospital in Zanesville and dropped him off. I was shocked that he did this. When I questioned him, he told me that he was unqualified to help the man. He was the first pastor I ever heard say such a thing. I now know he was right.

I did have two members who ended up seeking treatment at a stress center. I had tried to help them, and when I couldn’t, they had sense enough to seek out competent help. Both of these women stopped going to church after they got out of the stress center. At the time, I saw this as an example of what happens when you go to the “world” for help. I now know that these women learned for themselves that the Bible was not the answer to their problems.

Most of the people I counseled learned to play the game that long-time Evangelicals are experts at playing; they learn to pretend. The Bible, God, praying, confession, and self-denial, are of little help to them; they can’t seek help outside the church, so they learn to fake having the “victory.” This leads them to live schizophrenic lives. Sadly, the person’s spouse, parent, or children know that their loved one doesn’t have the “victory” because, at home, that person can’t or won’t hide his or her mental health problems. It is one thing to pretend for an hour or two on Sundays, but rarely can a person pretend every hour of every day.

I spent most of my adult life playing the pretend game. I struggled with depression, perfectionism, and OCPD, and while I could hide it while at church, it was impossible to hide it at home. My wife and children suffered because I couldn’t get the “victory” over sin, the flesh, or whatever else the Bible and preachers said was “wrong” with me. I lived this way until 2010, when I finally decided that I needed to see a counselor. Next to marrying Polly, it was the single most important decision I ever made.

The psychologist I see has not “cured” me, but he does help me deal with depression and the mental and emotional struggles I have as a result of being chronically ill and in constant pain. I consider him to be a lifesaver. He has helped me to embrace my life as it is, and he has also helped me come to terms with my religious past. I know that I can talk to him about anything. He listens and then tries to constructively help me. Sometimes, he listens and says nothing. He knows that sometimes the help I need is just having someone to talk to. He doesn’t view me as a problem that needs fixing, and he allows me the space to be my authentic self. If I have learned one thing in counseling, it is who Bruce Gerencser really is. Before this could happen, layer after layer of religious belief and thinking had to be peeled away. At the heart of my difficulties was Evangelicalism and the Bible, and they had to be confronted head-on. Even now, as an atheist, my religious past and the beliefs I once held affect how I think and reason. I now realize that the scars of my religious past will always be there. The longer I live without religion and the Bible, the easier it becomes, but these things can, when I least expect it, come to the forefront and cause emotional and mental problems.

I know that some readers of this blog have similar pasts and are all too familiar with pastoral counseling and how the Bible is not the answer for whatever ails a person. If you are able to do so, please share your thoughts in the comment section. I know that others will be helped by you sharing your story.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Abuse and Alienation: In The Church, Away From Yourself

alienation

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

In a previous essay, I wrote about the conservative blue-collar community in which I was raised. Although it was in one of the world’s major cities, it very closely resembled, in many ways, a small town or village.

For one thing, everyone knew everyone else—or so it seemed. Also, nearly all of us were living at the same social and economic level, and our parents and grandparents had similar backgrounds. Most of them even came from the same places: the grandparents, and in some cases the parents, of just about every kid I knew, were immigrants. They came, not only from the same country, but from a group of towns and villages within a circle of 100 kilometers or so.

That meant we shared the same culture and, if we didn’t speak English at home, we spoke the same language—actually, the same dialect. In my earlier essay, I mentioned that nearly everyone had the same attitude about the Vietnam War, which claimed young men from my neighborhood. Well, there also wasn’t much diversity of opinion when it came to other issues of the day, as well as political figures and other famous people. Even someone like my uncle, who regarded Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero, believed—like most of my family and neighbors—that “Hanoi” Jane Fonda was a traitor or worse.

One more way in which my community resembled a small town in the South or Midwest (or even in the more rural areas of my Northeastern home state) is that on Sunday, nearly everyone went to the same church. While the churches in those far-flung villages and hamlets were, as often as not, Baptist or Presbyterian or of some other mainstream Protestant denomination, ours was Roman Catholic. But the effect it had on us was not unlike that of those small-town denominations on their congregants.

For one thing, going to the same church inculcated us with attitudes and values that some of us still hold to this day. (So, for that matter, did attending the Catholic school I attended along with many of my peers.) Perhaps even more important — at least for a child, especially the sort of child I was — it gave me a sense of belonging that I could find nowhere else. I made some of my first friends in the church, and being an altar boy was really the first experience I had of male camaraderie: not only did we practice and prepare together for the masses, weddings, funerals and other ceremonies in which we served, we also went on picnics and other outings, including ball games, together. It was, I just recently realized, my first attempt — however doomed it was to fail — to forge some kind of male identity.

You see, in the neighborhood in which I grew up, there weren’t many other ways to meet your peers while engaging in positive (or, at least, socially approved and legal) ways besides church. For that matter, it was difficult for people a bit older than myself to meet potential dates or get any sort of guidance about life without going to church, or someone connected with the church. And for adults, there weren’t many other things to do after a day or week of work, paid or unpaid, besides going to the church—or a bar.

That means, in such an environment, that if you are not part of the church, you are not part of the life of your community. It means that you will probably have few or no friends, and may find yourself alienated from family members. Ironically, not having the relationships most people take for granted — or, purely and simply, people to talk to — is just as detrimental to someone who is different and who is bound to leave one day as it is for someone who could, and wants to, be wholly integrated and raise his or her children in such a place.

I came to understand the way alienation — caused by sexual abuse from a priest — affected my own development as a transgender woman only recently, when by chance I found myself talking, for the first time, about my abuse with other survivors—and hearing their stories. One is a gay man from an insular community deep in the center of America. He told me that because he couldn’t talk about the attacks he endured from his parish priest, he essentially couldn’t talk — or learn — about his mind or body. He therefore couldn’t understand, until many years later, why his body reacted as it did even though, as he said, he didn’t feel any sexual attraction to the priest. And it took him even longer to know that there was no contradiction between feeling repulsed by that priest and being attracted to men. Why, even his first therapist told him that because he didn’t enjoy (or consciously elicit) what that priest did to him, he couldn’t possibly be gay.

It took him two more therapists and a failed marriage to understand, finally, that he is gay. Not coincidentally, he came to terms with it only after he was able to talk about his experience with that priest with someone who understood.

As you can imagine, I cried while listening to him. I finally started to clarify, for myself, my own gender identity and take steps to live by it after I told someone about my abuse. Until then, I couldn’t make any sense of how my body responded, involuntarily, to his, and how it — or his actions — had nothing to do with whether I was a girl or boy, or gay or straight, or anything else. Until then, I’d gone through my life trying to live as a gay man — something unsatisfying to me — or asserting a kind of masculinity some would call toxic but which, deep down, wasn’t any more mine than a same-sex attraction to men.

Of course, in the place and time in which I grew up — and in the world in which I’ve lived until recently — sex and gender identity issues weren’t discussed as openly, much less understood as broadly, as they are now. But even by the standards of my schools, communities, workplaces and other environments, I did not talk freely (actually, at all) about my own identity or inclinations. Because the priest who abused me swore me to silence — and because I knew that even if I could talk about it, I wouldn’t, because I would probably be disbelieved or blamed — I learned that talking about such things was not merely taboo: it could end my life. Or so it seemed.

So I kept quiet and, probably as a result, had a roof over my head, food in my mouth and the opportunity and means to an education. But I lived in isolation from all of those people who could talk with their friends, families and others about the issues that, as it turns out, almost everyone faces at some time or another. They learned what it was like to meet people, to form bonds and to support, and be supported, emotionally. Or, through interacting with other people, they realized how and why they were different and figured out what they needed to do before embarking on courses of study, careers, marriages and other relationships — including relationships with themselves — that were bound to fail.

In brief, when your church is the center of your community’s social life — whether in a rural village or an urban enclave — being alienated from it (even when you’re still participating in it) makes it much more difficult to define yourself, whether by or against or outside of it. For people like me and the gay man I’ve mentioned — and, I’m sure, many others who grew up in church-centered communities — that is what is so damaging about being abused by priests or other authority figures — or, more precisely, being sworn to silence and secrecy about it.

Gossip: The Things Preachers Say Behind Closed Doors

men gossip

Recently, Southern Baptist pastor Rick Patrick faced public outrage over comments he made in a private forum about women, sexual assault, and the #metoo movement. His words made it out into the wild, and Patrick was forced to apologize several times for his offensive statements. I am sure that Patrick thought his words would be protected, but as President Trump has learned, offensive words said in private often make their way to the Internet. Such is the nature of the digital age.

Evangelical pastors are noted for preaching sermons against gossip and crude speech. Growing up in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches, I heard numerous sermons about gossip, off-color humor, swearing, and even the use of bywords. (See Christian Swear Words.) My pastors told me that Jesus heard everything I said, and that come judgment day, he would hold me accountable for my words. What these men of God didn’t tell me is that when they were behind closed doors with their colleagues in the ministry, they routinely failed to practice what they preached.

Years ago, I was a participant on a Reformed Baptist discussion group. The group was private and had pastors and elders in its membership. It was common for group members to talk — Greek for gossip — about problems in their churches or the difficulties they were having particular members. We talked about and said things that would have proved to be embarrassing had they been made public. This group, at that time, was the Reformed Baptist version of the Catholic confessional. What was said was considered sacrosanct.

One day, as I was searching the Internet, I came across the “private” discussions from the group. Evidently, a programming mistake had made the group’s posts public instead of private. Horrified, I immediately notified the group administrators, and they fixed the technical problem. I thought, at the time, if church members and non-group clerics ever saw what we said, why, there would be all sorts of outrage and calls for discipline. Fortunately, my find saved the group’s collective bacon.

I was a pastor for twenty-five years. During my teenage years and my years in the ministry, I attended numerous pastor’s fellowship and conferences. These events allowed men of God to hang out with their own kind, giving them opportunities to talk shop and air their grievances. Most of these events featured a meal, either at lunch or before the evening session. It was during these meals that pastors would gather in smaller groups and “talk.” I have heard and shared countless stories about church problems. The gathered pastors where expected to commiserate with gossipers, and, if warranted, offer advice.

Thanks to being in the ministry for so long, I had a lot of preacher friends, including a few men I considered BFF’s. I would often visit my friends at their church offices or we would arrange to meet somewhere for a meal. Without fail, our conversations would turn to this or that problem, this or that contrary member, or one of the never-ending problems facing IFB and Evangelical churches. These discussions were often chock-full of information disclosed in private counseling sessions by church members or things overheard on the grapevine. The thinking was that sharing private information with colleagues in the ministry was okay. Who’s going to know, right?

Of course, I would know, and when I would later be asked to preach at the churches of my friends, I would have thoughts of what they shared with me over lunch or at one of our fellowship/prayer times. One pastor friend kept a dossier on every church member he talked to. He had become the pastor of a church filled with conflict and strife. The previous pastor had been accused of sexual assault (he later left the church and pastored elsewhere) and his wife had been accused of dressing seductively. The deacons ran the pastor off, and in came my friend. As is often the case when young, inexperienced pastors — it was his first and only pastorate — take on troubled churches, they become sacrificial lambs. There was so much lying and deception going on that my friend decided to write reports of every conversation he had with church members. Much like James Comey did with his discussions with President Trump, my pastor friend kept intricate records of every conversation. He would share some of these conversation with me. This, of course, colored my view of these people. I knew many of them by name, so when I was in the presence of such-and-such person, I thought of what my friend had told me about them.

Another pastor told me about a conversation he had with an engaged couple. They wanted to know if having anal sex was a sin. They wanted to “save” themselves for marriage, so they thought having backdoor sex would be okay. No hymen was broken, so the woman would still be a “virgin” when she walked down the aisle. My pastor friend told them that they had to stop what they were doing; that anal sex was indeed a sin against God. My problem, of course, was every time I saw this couple (they never married) I thought of them having anal sex.

I could spend hours giving anecdotal stories about private things I heard and said when I was in the safe circle of my ministerial colleagues. Some of these men would come and preach for me, so I am sure they had the same thoughts I did. Oh, there’s the couple Bruce said hasn’t had sex in five years. Oh, there’s the man who confessed to having secret homosexual desires. Oh, there’s the teenager who got caught getting drunk and having sex in a motel room.

Christian church members should be aware of this fact: most pastors are gossips; most pastors are going to talk out of school; most pastors think sharing secrets with colleagues is all part of effectively “ministering” to others. Unlike professional counselors, pastors are not prohibited from repeating what was said behind closed doors. Many readers of this blog have likely heard sermons that made use of what was said to their pastors in private. Their pastor might not name names, but there’s no doubt about who’s the subject of his sermon/illustration. IFB preachers, in particular, are noted for preaching passive-aggressive sermons using information spoken to them in private. Smart, attentive congregants know when the pastor in his sermon is talking to or about them. Going through a tough time in your marriage and pondering divorce, and you talked to your pastor about your feelings? If, on the next Sunday, he preaches a thundering sermon on the sin of D-I-V-O-R-C-E, who do you think he is talking to? Pastors often use their pulpits as whipping posts, attacking rumors, allegations, and private conversations. In the pastor’s mind, God is “leading” him to share the truth. In fact, he is a gossip or rumormonger sharing things said in private.

I hope you will keep what I have written here in mind the next time you think about unburdening yourself to your pastor. Your troubles may be gossiped about, talked about among his ministerial colleagues, or turned into sermon illustrations come Sunday. While not all pastors have loose lips, many of them do, and since there is nothing that prohibits them from “sharing,” people should weigh carefully what they say to a pastor, understanding that he may not protect their privacy or he may consider shooting the breeze with his pastor friends as a safe way to share secrets and get advice about how best to handle problems. It is on this issue that the Roman Catholics are right. What’s said in the confessional is privileged. When I first started seeing a counselor, I asked him about how he treated our discussions. He told me they were privileged, and he would never divulge what I said to him (and when several of my children saw him, he never divulged to me what they said).

Did you ever have a pastor use what you said in private as fodder for a sermon, or did you find out later that he gossiped about you to his pastor friends or other church leaders? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

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.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.