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Tag: Leaving the Ministry

Ten Things I Regret Not Doing as an Evangelical Christian Parent

life is a one time offer

My wife, Polly, and I will celebrate forty-four years of blissful, happy, serene, uneventful — wait for a minute while I get a hysterically laughing Polly off the floor — marriage. 🙂 Life has blessed us with six children, ages twenty-nine to forty-three — damn they are getting old — and thirteen grandchildren, ages two to twenty-one. And I must not forget our son-in-law and daughters-in-law. Without them there would be no grandchildren, and, though we don’t say it enough, we love and appreciate them. On balance we have lived a good life, blessed in every way.

Yet, as a slowly dying, frail sixty-five-year-old man with fibromyalgia, gastroparesis, osteoarthritis, and chronic, unrelenting pain, I can’t help but reflect on my life. My new counselor has told me that I have a good sense of self-awareness. This, of course, can lead to me thinking too much about the past and my culpability in things that did or didn’t happen in the lives of my wife and children. I’ve been faulted for dwelling too much on the past, but this is who I am. Besides, I wouldn’t have much to write about if I let the past be the past. The important thing for me is that I don’t live in the past. I use the past as a teaching tool, as a way to measure progress in my life; as a reminder of what not to do. Being a committed, devoted Fundamentalist follower of Jesus Christ, a man with a slavish devotion to the literal teachings of the Bible resulted in me making choices and decisions I now regret.

While not everything on the list below is religion-related, many of them are. For the nominal, cultural Christian, their faith doesn’t make much difference in their lives. However, for those of us who were saved, sanctified, filled-with-the-Holy-Ghost believers; people who immersed themselves in the Bible, a book they believed was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God; people who governed their thoughts, words, and deeds by the Bible and the leading of the Holy Spirit; people who devoted themselves to the work of the church and the ministry; people who gave thousands and thousands of dollars to their churches and other ministries; people who witnessed to and evangelized unbelievers; people who separated themselves from the world; people who homeschooled their children or sent them to private Christian schools; people who put God/Jesus/church/ministry above their families, friends, and job — their faith and its attendant beliefs and practices made an incalculable mark on their lives. And now that we are no longer believers or have moved on to less demanding expressions of faith, it’s hard not to look back on our lives without regret. In my case, I spent fifty years of my life in the Christian church, and half of those years pastoring churches full-time. It’s hard not to conclude, then, that I spent much of my life devoted to a lie, sacrificing my wife and children for an imaginary deity.

Ten Things I Regret

  1. I regret not teaching my children to swim. We spent very little time at places where our children could swim and I had no time due to my commitment to Jesus and the church to take them to swimming lessons.
  2. I regret not letting my children play organized sports. There was one hard, fast rule in the Gerencser household: the church always, and I mean ALWAYS, came first. Since practice and game schedules conflicted with the church calendar, there was no discussion to be had: no sports for the Gerencser children. Why play baseball when you can go soulwinning and street preaching with your preacher father, right? While I played baseball and basketball in school, I didn’t afford my children that same opportunity.
  3. I regret not taking my family on vacations. The only “vacations” the Gerencsers took were trips to events or churches where I was preaching.
  4. I regret not taking off time from toiling in God’s vineyard to enjoy nature with my children. We lived in a lot of beautiful, wildlife-filled places, yet I was too busy to take the time to enjoy what was right in front of me. Hell was hot, death was certain, and Jesus was coming soon! Who had time for trees, flowers, hills, rivers, mule deer, and bobcats? Souls needed saving and Jesus was fixing to split the Eastern Sky as he returned to earth to judge the living and dead.
  5. I regret using disciplinary methods with my three older children that I now think are child abuse. While I moved away from such disciplinary practices later in life, there’s no other way to view the whippings and beatings my older sons received as anything other than ritual, Bible-inspired, Jesus-approved child abuse. I would not blame my oldest sons if they hated me and wanted nothing to do with me. That they still come around and we have good relationships is a testimony of love and forgiveness.
  6. I regret using my children as unpaid laborers for the churches I pastored. My children spent countless hours working with their father on church projects. While they learned many skills that they still use today, I can’t help but regret viewing my children as construction workers janitors, and groundskeepers. They were never given a choice. Preacher Dad said ______________. End of discussion.
  7. I regret not letting my kids be kids. Certainly, my sons and daughters did plenty of kid stuff — especially when I wasn’t around — but they lived in a glass house where appearance and perception were everything. God, church members, and the “lost” were always watching, I told my children, so we must always be kind and polite — even to assholes — and on our best behavior.
  8. I regret not exposing my children to a secular worldview. Instead, I built a bubble around them, protecting my children from the big, bad, evil world. While they have recovered nicely from the Fundamentalist indoctrination and conditioning of their youth, I can’t help but think these things harmed them as young adults.
  9. I regret not telling my children I loved them. I blame this directly on growing up in a dysfunctional home where my mom or dad rarely, if ever, expressed love for me. While I am a lot better with this now, I still could do even better. When I first embraced my youngest daughter and told her that I loved her, she had a shocked look on her face that said, “are you dying”? I can’t emphasize this enough: emotional distance between parents and children is often generational. I know it was for me. I look at my grandparents and parents and I clearly see this distance. They passed this on to their children. The only thing I know to do is to recognize this and do better.
  10. I regret being a hypocrite. As a pastor, to church members and the world, I was a pillar of morality and virtue, a man who always had his life under control; a man who rarely expressed anger. Behind closed doors, I could be a different man, far more temperamental, more easily provoked to anger. Oh, the stories that could be told to illustrate this point. I hope to get some of my children (and Polly) to come on my podcast and talk about these things someday.) Today, I want to focus on why I was this way. I was a loving, kind, generous man, especially towards church members and unbelievers. Yet, when it came to my family, I could, at times, be unloving, unkind, and lacking in generosity. Granted, I’ve come to this opinion thanks to hindsight. At the time, I thought I was just being a good Christian husband and father. Why was I this way? My version of Christianity demanded that I deny self, take up my cross, and follow Jesus. In doing so, I lost all sense of self. Thus, when I was behind closed doors, pent-up frustrations would come out, often in anger. If I had had a healthy view of self, I suspect things would have been different. I know that TV (which I deemed sinful) wouldn’t have gone flying out the front door. 🙂

The past is the past. There are no do-overs. At best, we get second chances to right the wrongs of the past or at least model and show that we have learned from the bad things we did previously. I know that’s the case for me. I see my grandchildren as an opportunity to do things differently, and I hope in the latter years of my life to forge better relationships with Polly and my children.

Does this mean that I was a bad man, unfit to pastor churches? I am sure some will come to that conclusion — thus finding yet another reason to dismiss my story out of hand — but I see myself as a broken, flawed man, someone deeply affected and scarred by his upbringing and immersion in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Christianity. It would take me five decades before I realized how much harm IFB (and later Calvinistic) beliefs and practices had caused me, harm I passed on to Polly and our children (and Polly had her own dysfunction to deal with). I see that growing up with a mentally ill mother who tried to kill herself numerous times, constantly living in new houses and attending new schools, being sexually abused as a boy, and being left to fend for myself during the most formative years of my life, extracted a horrific price from me. Sure, I survived, but not without lasting scars. All I know to do is make an uneasy peace with the past and try to do better. I will leave it to those I love to decide if I have successfully done so. If not, I will keep trying. What else can any of us do?

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Why Are So Many Evangelical Preachers Arrogant and Full of Themselves? — Part Two

humble pastor

Part One

Part Two

Why are so many Evangelical preachers arrogant and full of themselves? While it would be easy to answer this question simply by saying that these so-called “men of God” are narcissistic Assholes for Jesus®, the correct answer is more complex and nuanced. In both yesterday’s and today’s posts, I will use the fifty years I spent in Christianity and the twenty-five years I pastored churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan as a backdrop in an attempt to answer this question. While no two life stories are exactly the same, I am confident that I can pick things out of my own story that can also be found in the life stories of many Evangelical preachers.

In the 1960s, my parents moved to San Diego, California hoping to improve their lives financially. Unfortunately, their California dream proved to be an illusion. Two years later, Mom and Dad packed up our earthly belongings and moved back to Ohio. The Robert and Barbara Gerencser who left Ohio for the promised land of California were very different people when they returned to Bryan, Ohio. While in California, my parents and I were saved at an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church — Scott Memorial Baptist Church. Overnight, Mom and Dad became devout followers of Jesus. Not long after I asked Jesus into my heart, I told Mom that I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up. I was six years old.

At the age of fifteen, during an Al Lacy revival meeting at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, I made another public profession of faith in Christ. I remember feeling a deep sense of conviction over my sin, and once I prayed to Jesus to forgive me of my sins and save me, the shame and guilt I felt over my sins was gone. Several weeks later, feeling, yet again, a deep sense of God working in my heart, I went forward during an invitation â€” a time at the end of church services where people are asked to come forward to the altar to do business with God â€” and publicly confessed to the church that I believed God was calling me to preach. At that moment, I became the latest member of a special group called “preacher boys.”

Preacher boys, called by God to do the most important job on earth, are viewed by pastors and churches as the future of Christianity. Without a steady supply of preacher boys, churches wouldn’t have pastors, new churches wouldn’t be started, and the lost would go unsaved. Thus, preacher boys are treated in ways that make them feel unique and special. Pastors love to brag about how many preacher boys were called to preach under their ministry. Similar to gunslingers putting notches on their six-shooters’ wooden grips every time they killed someone, pastors see preacher boys as notches on their ministerial guns.

After announcing my call to the ministry, I spent the next four years being handled by pastors who took it on themselves to prepare me for the work of the ministry. In the fall of 1976, at the age of nineteen, I packed my meager belongings into the back of my rust-bucket of a car and moved from my Mom’s trailer three hours northeast to Pontiac, Michigan. Pontiac was the home of Midwestern Baptist College — an IFB institution started in the 1950s by Dr. Tom Malone (who pastored a nearby megachurch, Emmanuel Baptist Church). Midwestern was established specifically for training preacher boys for the ministry. Midwestern was an unaccredited school, so students received no financial aid. Most of the preacher boys had to work full-time jobs while attending classes. These future pastors were also required to work in one or more of the ministries at Emmanuel, along with being in attendance for Sunday school, two worship services, and midweek prayer meetings. Students were busy seven days a week, with little time for relaxation. It should come as no surprise, then, that many students washed out after their freshman year. Men who endured until the end were viewed as battle-tested preachers ready to enter the hard work of the ministry. Filled with pride and given the approval of IFB titan Tom Malone, these newly minted men of God fanned out over the world establishing new churches and pumping new life into older, established IFB churches. Forty years later, most of the men from my class are still plucking grapes in God’s vineyard. I am, as far as I know, the only person who attended Midwestern and later pastored churches who is now an atheist. (Please read The Midwestern Baptist College Preacher Who Became an Atheist.)

Evangelical young men who enter the ministry most often spend their entire lives in what I call “the Evangelical Bubble.” Within this bubble, pastors are sheltered from the world; within the bubble, Evangelical theology and practices make perfect sense; within the bubble, pastors are rarely challenged concerning their beliefs; within the bubble, pastors are viewed as God-called authority figures; within the bubble, pastors receive the praise and adulation of congregants; within the bubble, pastors are revered and treated as demigods; within the bubble, pastors answer only to God; within the bubble, pastors have no equal; within the bubble, pastors put into motion their agendas, their God-given visions for their churches; within the bubble pastors’ birthdays and ministerial anniversaries are celebrated; and within the bubble, God allegedly uses pastors in unique ways to supernaturally advance His kingdom.

Pastors who remain in this bubble are surrounded by like-minded people who believe the same things, sing the same songs, and generally live cookie-cutter lives (at least outwardly). Exposure to the outside world is limited, especially for those who are full-time pastors. I have long advocated for churches forcing pastors to be bi-vocational. Doing so exposes pastors to a world far different from that of the Evangelical bubble. Unfortunately, few churches see the value of having part-time pastors. Churches which, out of economic necessity, pay their pastors part-time wages often demand their pastors give them full-time attention.

Safely ensconced within the Evangelical bubble, pastors go about doing the work of the ministry. These sheltered men frequent pastors’ fellowships and conferences â€” meetings where pastors get together to whine about how evil the world is and how hard it is to be a pastor. These meetings provide pastors yet another opportunity to have their right beliefs and right practices reinforced and approved by fellow clergymen. Such meetings are pep rallies meant to rally and energize the generals of God’s army.

On Sundays, pastors mount the pulpit and preach sermons they believe God has laid upon their “hearts.” Congregants gather to hear the Word of God from the man of God, showing their approval by shouting “amen,” nodding their heads, and raising their hands. After services, pastors stand at the back of their churches, shaking hands and listening to members tell them how wonderful their sermons were. In the twenty-five years I spent pastoring churches, I never had a church member shake my hand and say, Preacher, that sermon sucked or Pastor Bruce, are you sure God told you to preach that sermon?  I preached plenty of bad sermons over the years, but congregants still praised me for giving to them the Word of the Lord. Imagine being in an environment where no matter what you do, everyone tells you what a great job you are doing. Spend enough time being praised and never criticized, and you will begin to think â€” to speak bluntly — your shit don’t stink.

Taking what I have written above, is it any wonder that many Evangelical pastors become arrogant and full of themselves, especially when their churches grow numerically? Outwardly, these men of God are (sometimes) humble, but inwardly they think, Wow! Look at what God is doing through me â€” ME! ME! ME! being the operative word. Praised by congregants and peers alike, preachers find it is easy for them to lose touch with reality.

Rare is the man who can withstand a lifetime of praise and adoration without negatively being affected. Over time, pastors start to believe their press clippings, thinking that they have arrived. Sunday after Sunday, congregants file into services to hear THEIR pastor preach. It is not too much of a stretch for me to say that many pastors begin to develop bigger-than-life personalities, thinking that congregants are there to see them perform. Credence is given to this when pastors leave their churches for new ministries. What happens?  Many congregants stop attending services. If Pastor Ain’t He Awesome isn’t preaching, I’m not going, they say. Let pastors take a sabbatical or vacation and what happens? Church attendance declines. Evidently, while the proverbial cat is away, the mice play.

Throw in certain personality and psychological traits pastors tend to have, and it should come as no surprise that many Evangelical pastors are insufferable, arrogant, full-of-themselves assholes — especially in the view of those who live outside of the Evangelical bubble. Does this mean that Evangelical pastors are inherently bad people? Of course not. But years spent in the Evangelical bubble can change pastors, often for the worse. I have no doubt that some pastors will whine, complain, and howl over what I have written here, saying I AM NOT LIKE THIS!  Others, however, will admit that what I have written here hits too close to where they live.

Pastors can become so immersed in the work of the ministry that they lose all sight of reality. The solution, of course, is for pastors to leave the ministry and devote themselves to reconnecting with humanity by wallowing in the pigsty of the world. As long as they remain in the Evangelical bubble, pastors will not see things as they are. Of course, pastors aren’t going to listen to me. The calling of God is irrevocable, they will tell me, God has CALLED me, and I must not disappoint or disobey Him!  And therein lies the problem. Evangelical pastors believe that God is behind their call into the ministry, and that every sermon preached and every decision made is done by the mighty power of the Spirit of God. Until these Gods become men, I fear there is little that can be done to deliver them from the other-world, rarefied air of the Evangelical bubble.

For me, once I finally admitted that I was not what I claimed to be, that the wizard behind the curtain of Bruce Gerencser’s life was not the Evangelical God, but Bruce himself — then, and only then, could I make sense of a lifetime spent in the ministry. Every decision I claimed was made according to God’s leading was, in fact, influenced not by God, but by my parents, pastors, peers, and my own wants, needs, and desires. I now know that I genuinely want to help other people; that I love trying to fix things that are broken; that I love the thrill of building things from scratch. And yes, I now know that I loved receiving the praise and adoration heaped on me by congregants. I loved being the center of attention, the decision-maker, the man with all the answers. Does this mean I was a bad person? I will leave that to others to decide. All I can do is give an honest accounting of my life. In doing so, I hope ex-Evangelicals and those trying to extricate themselves from the Evangelical bubble will gain a bit of understanding about what they have experienced at the hands of God’s men. While I did many good works as a pastor, things that I am proud of, I must also admit that I was not always a good person; that I was, at times, filled with pride and arrogance. Am I better man today than I was as a pastor? Most certainly. I now know what it means to be human. And in reconnecting with my humanity, I have found that I still have much to offer, without, of course, the baggage of Christianity.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Dear Frank, Is Bruce Backslidden or Was He Never Saved To Begin With?

rick
Rick, 1996, Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio

Several years ago, I received a Facebook notification about approving something Rick, a friend of mine, wanted to post to my wall. Rick is a long-time friend, former parishioner, and frequent reader of this blog. What’s interesting about his request is that he meant his message to be a private one sent to a friend of his by the name of Frank. The reason I got the notification is that he inadvertently tagged me. Here’s the message Rick sent to Frank — also a man I have known for many years.message to frank

Don’t be put off by Rick’s poor language skills. Several years ago, Rick had a major stroke. This affected his ability to write sentences. Best I can tell, the stroke has not affected his ability to study and read the Bible, nor has it affected his ability to read religious materials.

I met Rick in the late 1990s. At the time, I was pastoring Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. Rick, a Calvinist, was looking for a Calvinistic church to attend and someone recommended that he check out Somerset Baptist. Rick joined the church, happy in knowing that he had found a man who was conversant in the doctrines of grace (the five points of Calvinism). For the next five years, I would drive two times a week â€” thirty miles round trip â€” to New Lexington to pick Rick up for church.

rick and frank (2)
Frank and Rick, 1993, Somerset Baptist Church, Sunday Dinner

One Sunday night, while on our way to the church, Rick was waxing eloquently about double predestination and whether children who die in infancy and developmentally disabled people are automatically a part of the elect — those whom God, from before the foundation of the world, has chosen to save. I told Rick, with a slight irritation in my voice, that Calvinistic Baptist great Charles Spurgeon believed such people were numbered among the elect. Rick, not the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to social cues, continued to defend God having the absolute right to eternally torture anyone, including infants and developmentally disabled people, in the Lake of Fire. I could feel anger welling. I thought to myself, has Rick forgotten that I have a developmentally disabled two-year-old daughter with Down syndrome? Doesn’t he care how hurtful his words are? I slammed on the brakes and told Rick to get out of the car. He could walk to church, I told him. I quickly cooled down, telling him, I didn’t want to hear another word from him about whether infants and developmentally disabled people are elect. Rick complied, moving on to other hot button Calvinistic issues.

Let me share another Rick memory, one that I think readers will find funny. Rick worked third shift at a residential home for the developmentally disabled — Mount Aloysius. Unsurprisingly, Rick was quite tired by the time he arrived for Sunday morning church. Try as he might to stay awake, Rick would often fall asleep. Rick snored, so the entire congregation knew when Rick was sleeping. Sunday after Sunday I watched Rick fight sleep, his head bobbing back and forth during my hour-long sermons. One Sunday, Rick bobbed his head back and then forward just as he did Sunday after Sunday. This time, however, Rick’s head traveled forward farther than he intended, smacking the pew in front of him. I stopped preaching and went to Rick to make sure he was okay. Fortunately, the only thing harmed was his pride. After the service, I told Rick that perhaps he should skip the Sunday morning service when he worked the night before. That way he could be rested and mentally fresh for the Sunday evening service. By the way, this was the only time in twenty-five years of pastoring churches that I told someone, please don’t come to church.

I haven’t been Rick’s pastor for over twenty-seven years, and the last time I saw him was in 1996 when he and Frank drove to West Unity, Ohio to attend services at a new church I had planted. Since then, I have traded a few emails with Rick, but nothing of substance.

rick and bruce
Rick, Bruce, Greg, and boy, 1993 , Somerset Baptist Church, Sunday Dinner

Rick’s message is a reminder to me that people still talk about my deconversion. People who knew me well — as Rick and Frank once did — are still trying to square the pastor they once knew with the atheist named Bruce Gerencser. In Rick’s case, he wonders if am just backslidden, or is it possible that I never was saved. I am sure Rick prefers the backslidden explanation. I am sure trying to wrap his mind around the possibility of me never being saved is too much for him to emotionally and intellectually handle. If I was never saved, this means that Rick was taught for five years by an unsaved pastor, a man he heard expositionally preach hundreds of times; preaching that he believed was empowered by the Holy Spirit. I am sure he remembers the countless hours we spent after church talking theology. I am sure he remembers my love, kindness, and compassion, and my willingness to, week after week, drive to New Lexington and pick him up so he could attend church. I am sure he asks himself, how is it possible that the Bruce I knew was never a true Christian.

The easy out for Rick is for him to embrace Arminianism with its belief that saved people can and do fall from grace. Doing so would mean that I once was saved, but now I am not. Of course, Rick’s Calvinism keeps him from believing I have lost my salvation, so he is forced to psychologically torture himself with thoughts about whether I am backslidden or was never a Christian to start with.

I wish Rick nothing but the best. I hope he will, in time, come to terms with my current godless state. I chose to be exactly where I am today. Or did I? Perhaps all of this has been decreed by God, and the person ultimately responsible for my lost condition is the divine puppet master, John Calvin’s God.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Why Our Christians Friends Leave Us When We Deconvert

church is a family

One thing being a part of a church does for us is give us a community through which we find meaning, purpose, and identity. I spent the first fifty years of my life in the Christian church. For many years, I attended church twice on Sunday and on Wednesdays or Thursdays for prayer meeting. These church families I was a part of were central to my life. Most of my friendships were developed in connection with the church and my work as a pastor. I spent twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. I developed scores of friendships, not only with congregants but also with colleagues in the ministry. As a pastor, I would attend pastor’s conferences and meetings. It was at these meetings that I had opportunities to talk with my preacher friends, sharing with them my “burdens.” We would laugh, cry, and pray together, knowing that the bond we had as fellow followers of Jesus and God-called preachers of the gospel was rooted in loving each other as Christ Jesus loved us.  A handful of preachers became close, intimate friends with my wife and me. Our families would get together for food, fun, and fellowship — hallmarks of Baptist intimacy. We saw vulnerabilities in each other that our congregants never would. We could confide in each other, seeking advice on how to handle this or that problem or church member. When news of church difficulties came our way, we would call each other, or take each other out for lunch. These fellow men of God were dear to my heart, people that I expected to have as friends until I died.

As a teenager, I had lots of friends, male and female. Most of my friends were fellow church members, though I did have, thanks to playing sports, a few friends in the “world.” I always found it easy to meet new people and make friendships. I had no qualms about talking to complete strangers, a gift that suited me well as a pastor. As a nineteen-year-old boy, I enrolled in classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. I quickly made a lot of new friends, including one who sleeps beside me to this day. I lived in a dorm room with three other men. Virtually every waking hour of my life was spent with fellow students — at church, school, and social events. As anyone who has ever lived in a college dormitory will tell you, dorm life is busy and full of activity. Practical jokes were an everyday occurrence, and, as a consummate jokester, I found great satisfaction in pulling one over on my fellow students. I lived on a dormitory wing that was labeled the “party” wing. The other dormitory wing was called the “spiritual” wing. My fellow party-wing residents loved Jesus, but they loved having a good time too. The spiritual wing? They loved Jesus too, but frowned on doing anything that might be perceived as bawdy or mischievous.

One day, a pastor by the name of A.V. Henderson preached at chapel (students were required to attend chapel five days a week). I have preached and heard thousands of sermons in my lifetime. I remember very few of them. I do, however, vividly remember Henderson’s sermon, even forty-five years later. Henderson was the pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Detroit. Temple was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) megachurch founded by Baptist luminary J. Frank Norris and later pastored by G.B. Vick. The 1970s were the zenith of the IFB church movement. Most of the largest churches in the United States were IFB churches. Churches such as Temple Baptist were pastored by men who were great orators and pulpiteers. Henderson was no exception. Henderson’s chapel sermon was from the book of Job. It was, by all counts, a thrilling, rousing sermon. However, Henderson said something during his sermon that I didn’t, at the time, understand. He said, with that distinct Texas drawl of his, that people will go through life with very few true friendships; that most people were fortunate to have two or three lifelong friends. I thought at the time, what’s he talking about? I have lots of friends! Forty years-five later, I now know that A.V. Henderson was right; that true friends are rare indeed; that if you have two or three such friends, you should consider yourself fortunate.

It has been almost fifteen years since I last attended church; fifteen years since I have listened to preaching; fifteen years since I have sung the hymns of the faith; fifteen years since I have dropped money in an offering plate; fifteen years since I broke bread with people I considered my family. In early 2009, I sent a letter to my family and friends detailing my loss of faith. You can read the letter here: Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners. I grossly underestimated how people would respond to my letter. In a matter of days, I received angry, venomous emails, letters, and phone calls. One ministerial colleague drove four hours to my home, hoping to turn me back towards the faith. You can read the letter I sent to him here: Dear Friend. I was shocked by how hateful and vitriolic my friends were to me. And here I am fifteen years later, and I still, on occasion, hear from someone who knew me and is shocked over my betrayal of all that I once held dear.

The friendships of a lifetime are now gone — all of them, save my friendship with an Evangelical man I have known for fifty-seven years (we walked to elementary school together). A.V. Henderson’s words ring true. I have one friend who has walked with me through every phase of my life. The rest of my “true” friends have written me off (2 Corinthians 6:14), kicked the dirt off their shoes (Mark 6:10, 11), or turned me over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (I Corinthians 5). I was naive to think that it could be any other way.

Many people believe in unconditional love. I know, at one time, I did. I have learned, however, that unconditional love is largely a myth. (Please read Does God Love Us Unconditionally?) Unconditional love suggests that nothing we do to those we love can break the bond we have with them. Many people carry the notion of unconditional love into their friendships. We think, these people love me, no matter what. They will always be my friends. And then something happens. In my case, I spit in the face of God, pissed on the blood of Jesus, and used the pages of the Bible to wipe my ass, so to speak. I repudiated everything I once believed, and in doing so called into question the beliefs of my friends. The glue that held our friendships together was our fealty to a set of theological beliefs. Once these beliefs were questioned and discarded by me, that bond was irreparably broken. If the connection Christians have with their churches is akin to family, then when people walk away from the beliefs and practices of these families, they are, in effect, divorcing themselves from their families.

Marital divorce tears the bond between husband and wife. When Christians divorce themselves from Jesus, the bonds they have with their friends are ripped asunder. While this divorce can be amicable, most often it is not. My divorce from Jesus and the church was very much like a high-profile tabloid divorce. And even though the judge signed the divorce decree fifteen years ago, repercussions remain to this day.

I have learned that few friendships last a lifetime. Most friendships are dependent on time and location. Remember all your friends who signed your high school yearbook? Are you still friends with them today? Remember the best-buds-for-life from your college days? What happened to those friendships? Were these relationships true friendships? Sure, but they weren’t meant to last a lifetime. And that’s okay.

I don’t blame my former friends for the failure of our friendships. I am the one who moved. I am the one who changed his beliefs. I am the one who ripped apart the bond of our friendship. I do, however, hold them accountable for their horrendous treatment of me once I deconverted. They could have hugged me and said, I don’t understand WHY you are doing this, but I appreciate the good times we had together. I wish you, Polly, and the kids well. Instead, I was treated like dog shit on a shoe bottom; a person worthy of scorn, ridicule, and denunciation. By treating me this way, they destroyed any chance of restoration. Why would I ever want to be friends again with people who treated me like the scum of the earth?

I have spent the past decade and a half developing new friendships. These days, most of my friendships are digital — people who I will likely never meet face to face. This has resulted in Polly and me becoming closer, not only loving each other, but also enjoying each other’s company. For most of my marriage, Jesus, the church, and the ministry were my first loves. (Please see It’s Time to Tell the Truth: I Had an Affair.) It’s not that I didn’t love my children and wife, I did. But they were never number one in my life, and Polly and the kids knew it. I was a God-called man who devoted his life to Jesus and the church. Polly knew that marrying a preacher meant that she and the kids would have to share me with the church. (And her teachers in college and fellow pastor’s wives told her that’s how it had to be. God came first.) Little did she know that she would spend way too many years getting leftovers from a man who loved her but was worn out from burning the proverbial candle at both ends. Now that religion no longer gets between us, Polly and I are free to forge an unencumbered relationship. We have always loved each other, but what has now changed is that we really like each other too and are best friends. And in Polly, I have found one of the true friends A.V. Henderson preached about forty-five years ago. I am indeed, blessed.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce, I Am So Sorry Christians Hurt You

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No matter how many posts I write about the reasons I left Christianity (please see Why?), I still get comments and emails from well-meaning Christians who think that the “real” reason I am not a Christian is that “bad” Christians hurt me. The thinking goes something like this: bad Christians psychologically harmed me in some way, resulting in my rejection of Christianity and my embracing of atheism. It seems that these armchair psychologists know more about me than I do.

I suspect the reason they refuse to accept my story at face value is that they cannot fathom why anyone would ever want to get a divorce from Jesus. In their minds, Jesus is a wonderful friend, companion, and lover, better than any that can be found in the universe or to infinity and beyond (to quote Buzz Lightyear). Who in their right mind would reject the love of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of eternal life in Heaven after death? How about someone who thinks that Jesus was a mere mortal who lived and died; that the need for forgiveness of sins is a religious con game used to prop up church attendance and offerings; that the only thing that awaits humans after death is eternal decay, darkness, and silence?

You see, the reason I am not a Christian today has little to do with whether someone hurt me at some point in time during my fifty years in the Christian church and the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry. Sure, I met a lot of hurt and heartache along the way. Some of the nastiest, meanest, most cantankerous people I’ve ever known, I met in church. But, some of the kindest, nicest, and most loving people I’ve ever known, I’ve met in church as well. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Christian people I’ve known over the years are good people. I may now think that they have some crazy beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they are bad people. I’ve met more than a few atheists who have crazy beliefs, including a few who voted for Donald Trump. I cannot for the life of me understand how atheists could vote for Trump, but they did. Does the fact that they voted for Trump mean that they are now bad people? Of course not! So it is with Christians.

Christians who think my atheism is the direct result of exposure to the wrong kind of Christians must answer me this: since most of the Christians I was exposed to in my life were good people, why wasn’t their goodness enough to keep me on the straight and narrow? Shallow is the belief that rests alone on the goodness or badness of believers. On any given day, Christians can be found doing good and bad things, and the same can be said for atheists. It is impossible, then, to judge the merits of Christianity or atheism based on behavior alone. Yes, I think Evangelical Christianity, with its self-righteous moralizing, promises far more than it delivers. Yes, I think many preachers preach one thing and live another — I know I did and I know many other pastors who did the same. Yes, I have an ax to grind, a bone to pick — or any other metaphor you can think of — with Evangelicals who pontificate about morality and right belief, then ride the moral high horse, only to then be exposed as liars and hypocrites. Yes, I have no patience for denominations, churches, and pastors who turn a blind eye to child sexual abuse and other criminal acts, choosing instead to put the testimony of the church above the harm caused by offenders. Yes, I can find countless things that I don’t like about not only Evangelicalism, but progressive and liberal Christianity too. But, even taking all of this into account, most Christians are good people. I wish Christians would return the favor by saying that most atheists are good people too. I suppose this is too much to ask. Without atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secularists, who would Evangelicals have to fight? As long as they can paint people such as myself as workers of Satan, there will always be a mythical enemy to fight.

Let me, one last time, be clear on why I am not a Christian. While there are certainly psychological reasons that played a part in my decision to walk away from Christianity, they are not the primary reasons I did so. If I had found that the Christian narrative was true, I would’ve kept believing regardless of how people treated me. However, through much study, I determined that the central tenets of Christianity were not true. While I believe that Jesus was a historical person, I do not think that he was God, virgin-born, worked miracles, resurrected from the dead, or ascended to Heaven. The Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Palestine was likely some sort of apocalyptic preacher who lived and died, end of story. I also think that the Bible is not in any way an inspired, inerrant, infallible text written by God, either directly or through men as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. The Bible is littered with errors and contradictions and lacks internal consistency. While certainly the Bible has deeply influenced Western civilization, so have other books, yet we don’t consider these books to be of divine origin. I also reject many of the moral teachings of the Bible. In particular, I reject the notion that humans are broken sinners in need of redemption; that there is any such thing called original “sin.” Sin is a religious construct used to control people through fear of judgment and damnation if they don’t cower before Jesus and the church and ask for the forgiveness of sins. I consider many of the teachings of the Bible to be anti-human, used to subjugate women and control children.

I hope this short post makes it clear to those desperate to suss out the “real” reasons for my deconversion that the primary motivator for my loss of faith is intellectual, not psychological. Sure as the sun rises in the morning, I will get emails apologizing for how “bad” Christians treated me, hoping that I will give Jesus another chance by finding a church of “good” Christians. In responding to them, I will send them the link to this post. There is really nothing more that I can say on this matter.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

A Personal Reflection: Missing Out On Life When Jesus Owns You

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Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. (1 Corinthians 7:23)

Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ. (Philippians 3:8)

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. (i John 2:15)

I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. (John 9:4, Romans 13:12, 2 Peter 3:10)

For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)

For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. (Titus 2:11-14)

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.  And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:1,2)

These verses and others became the primary motivators of my life for much of the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry. My belief that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God — a book written by God, not men — caused me to believe that, as I read these verses, God was speaking directly to me. I knew that God had saved me and called me into the ministry, and that if I devoted every moment of every day to following after Jesus, this would be time well spent. I knew that life was short, death was certain, Hell was hot, and judgment was sure; that soon Bruce Gerencser was going to die and that he was going to stand before a thrice-holy God and give an account for what he did with his life. Using the Disciples as my example, I set out to leave everything that mattered to me and follow Jesus. This meant that, even though I was married to a beautiful, wonderful woman and would over the years have six precious children with her, everything was secondary to my call to the ministry and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. As anyone who knew me in my Evangelical days will tell you, I was a true-blue, on-fire disciple of Christ. My goal in every one of the communities I pastored was to preach the gospel to as many people as possible and to motivate Christians to set aside the things of the world, focusing instead on the present and coming Kingdom of God. I knew that congregants would never be more than what was modeled to them, so I did my best to be a shining example of someone who loved God and took seriously the commands and teachings of the Bible. How this worked out in my life is tragic, a somber reminder of what happens when people give themselves over to fanaticism.

As I contemplated writing this post, I thought about all the things I missed out on or didn’t get to see because my mind was totally focused on the ministry and reaching people with the gospel. Not helping matters was the fact that I was a perfectionist, which later developed into full-blown Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD).  Everywhere I looked there were sinners in need of saving. How could I take time off from work or go on a vacation as long as there were people who needed to hear the gospel? While I certainly would have loved to have spent more time with my wife and children, how could I justify doing so when there were so many people living in sin, seemingly without having anyone in their lives willing to tell them the truth about their eternal destiny. I quickly developed what I call the Elijah syndrome, that I was the only prophet remaining that was willing to do all that was necessary to preach the gospel to lost and dying sinners. It should come, then, as no surprise that I often worked seven days a week, frequently preaching five to seven sermons during that time. When I wasn’t preaching, I was busy knocking on doors, visiting people in the hospital, handing out tracts, working on the church building, transporting people to services, and talking to people in need of my counsel. As Polly will testify, I worked long hours, rarely taking time off for entertainment or personal relaxation.

Here are a few of the things I missed while serving Jesus.

I missed out on watching my older sons play competitive sports. Not because I didn’t have the time to go to their games, but because I wouldn’t let them play sports due to game and practice schedules conflicting with church activities. I fondly remember the days when I played little league and pony league baseball, but my sons never had an opportunity to play baseball because their preacher father thought it more important for them to be sitting in church than playing meaningless, worldly games. I thought, How could I set a good example to the church if on church nights the preacher’s kids were busy playing sports and not in attendance? My children, unfortunately, were never allowed to just be. I expected them to be perfectly behaved, regardless of the fact that other church children were not. I expected my children to set the example, and this meant that they were not going to be able to do some of the other things that “normal” children were allowed to do.

We lived in Southeast Ohio for almost twelve years. During this time, I pastored a fast-growing church that for many years operated a large bus ministry and a private Christian school. If there was one church where my workaholic, OCPD mentality was on display, it was here. During my time as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I took all of one vacation, a trip to Boston Massachusetts, paid for by Bruce Turner. Bruce had been the youth pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay Ohio when I was saved and called to the ministry. One year, I had Bruce come to our church to preach for our anniversary. The building was packed, a not-so-subtle reminder that young Bruce had learned well the lessons taught to him by older Bruce a decade and a half ago. Older Bruce had, however, aged and matured in his understanding of the ministry. As he spent several days observing his protĂ©gĂ©’s ministerial work, he concluded that I was burning the candle at both ends, and that if I didn’t learn to relax and spend time away from the ministry, I was going to cause myself physical harm. And it is for these reasons that Bruce offered to pay for us to take a trip to Massachusetts. This would be the first and last vacation I would take until the late 1990s. While I “heard” what Bruce was trying to tell me, his voice was drowned out by what I perceived to be the Holy Spirit telling me to give my all to Jesus; telling me that if I were a true disciple of Christ, I must be willing to forsake all attachments to this world; telling me that my wife and children were not as important as following Jesus and preaching the gospel; telling me that Jesus was coming soon that I must be about my father’s business, for the night is coming when no man can work.

In the mid to late-1980s, I made three exceptions to my on-call-for-Jesus 24/7 work schedule. The first exception that I carved out of my schedule was three hours once a week to play basketball with a group of men I had met through one of the teenage boys who attended the church. None of these men was Christian, so I suspect deep down I saw playing basketball with them as an opportunity to evangelize them. Ironically, I made very little effort to do so. Over time, I saw these three hours as a refuge away from the pressures of the ministry. In retrospect, this once-a-week full-court workout was likely medicine of sorts that kept me from physically and mentally destroying myself.

The second exception on my schedule was weekly trips during the summer to local dirt race tracks. My best friend in the church, Harold Miller, asked me if I had ever been to a dirt track race. I told him that I had, but I hadn’t attended a race since the mid-1970s. And so we went — Polly and the boys included, along with 2 toddler girls — regularly on Friday and Saturday nights to racetracks such as Midway Speedway, Muskingum County Speedway, R&R Speedway, and Skyline Speedway. On nights that Polly didn’t want to go, I would pack up the boys and we would go to the races. Again, I saw our weekly visits to these racetracks as a respite of sort from the constant — often self-inflicted — demands of the ministry. There were plenty of sinners at the races we attended, but I made no effort to evangelize anyone. For three to five hours once a week I allowed myself to be immersed in a sea of worldlings, observing but never partaking.

When my evangelist friend Don Hardman heard that I was regularly attending local dirt track races, and – say it isn’t so, Bruce! taking my family with me, he rebuked me for attending such worldly events. Fortunately, I ignored him. I have no doubt that going to the races helped me maintain my sanity and allowed me to physically relax. (One humorous story from these days comes from a warm spring day when I was preaching on a street corner in Zanesville, Ohio. Pulling up to the traffic light was one of the regular late-model drivers at Midway Speedway. Seizing the opportunity to “share” the gospel with this man, I began preaching, mentioning him by name. He turned towards me with a look on his face that suggested I had scared the living daylights out of him. Several months later I ran into him, reminding him of my brief sermon on that spring day. He said to me, you scared the shit out of me!)

The third exception came when I would load Polly and the children into whatever beater we were driving at the time and take day road trips to Southern Ohio and West Virginia. All we needed was enough money for gas and off we would go. Polly would pack us food and snacks, so there was no need to stop at restaurants to eat. We traveled countless back roads, often ending up in places that were small dots on a road map. Polly and I, along with our children, have many fond memories of these trips, including the time we drove to southern West Virginia so we could take a train ride, only to arrive just as the last train of the day was pulling out from the station. Boy, there’s a metaphor in this story. 🙂

Three hours of basketball once a week, three to five hours on summer weekends watching dirt track races, one vacation, and occasional road trips…. that’s all the time I took off from serving Jesus. According to the Bible, I was Jesus’ bondslave. The song in my heart was the classic Baptist hymn:

All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give, I will ever love and trust Him, In His presence daily live.

All to Jesus I surrender, humbly at His feet I bow. Worldly pleasures all forsaken, Take me, Jesus, take me now.

All to Jesus I surrender, make me Savior wholly thine. May Thy Holy Spirit fill me, may I know Thy power divine.

I surrender all I surrender all. All to Thee my blessed Savior I surrender all.

There were also church outings to Kings Island, the bowling alley, the roller rink, canoe livery, and a host of other activities, but these events were tools used by me to evangelize unaware sinners. I would encourage congregants to invite their friends and neighbors to these events, telling them to emphasize how much fun these activities were. Once there, I would round everyone up and spend some time sharing the gospel with them. Doing this told congregants without saying a word that having fun for fun’s sake took a backseat to evangelizing the lost.

People who have traveled to Southeast Ohio will tell you about its beauty and rolling hills. It’s too bad that I had no time for enjoying the wonders of God’s creation. All around me was beautiful scenery, but all I could see was sin-stained hearts in need of salvation. Polly and I are planning on taking a trip back to Southeast Ohio this summer to spend a few days visiting all the places that we never got to see because Jesus had other things for us to do. Several days ago, as we were browsing travel literature for Southeast Ohio, we were amazed at how many wonderful things there were to see. Too bad we didn’t take the time to see them when we were young, when our children were home, and when our bodies were better fitted for hiking and visiting such wonders as Old Man’s Cave at Hocking Hills.

The same can be said for the seven months I spent as co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf Texas — a small community just south of San Antonio. While at Community, I spent eight days a week doing the work of the ministry. During my time there I established a Christian school, started two churches, established a nursing home ministry, set up a street-preaching ministry, along with preaching twice a week. As you can see, I was busy, busy, busy for Jesus, with no time for family or relaxation. I suspect I am one of the few people to ever live in San Antonio and not go on the Riverwalk, visit the Alamo, view San Antonio from the towering height of the Tower of the Americas, or see any of the other sites people typically visit when vacationing in San Antonio. I did, however, preach in front of the Alamo, as I did above the walkways that led down to the Riverwalk. All around me was beauty, from the natural landscape to ancient buildings, but I was blind to these things because my eyes were fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of my faith; the Jesus who took my sins upon himself and died for me on the cross; the Jesus who commanded me to be perfect even as his father in Heaven is perfect; the Jesus who commanded me:

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26,27,33)

I am sure that some of the Evangelicals who read this post will suggest that what I needed in my life was balance; that I was too focused on the eternal; that I needed to give myself time to rest and relax. The problem with this type of thinking is that it is modeled nowhere in the lives of Jesus, the apostles, or any of the disciples. I can’t think of one Bible verse that suggests Christians should take it easy until Jesus comes again, or that the followers of Christ should pace themselves as they serve the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Paul spoke of running a race, and I thought, at the time, better to burn out than rust out. Better to live forty years of life as a brightly shining star than eighty years as a dim star that could only be seen with a telescope.

It was in the late 1990s before I finally realized what a fool I had been. By that time, health ruined and diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, I could no longer keep up the pace of previous years. During this time, thanks to the atheist husband of one of the ladies who attended Our Father’s House in West Unity, the church I was pastoring at the time, I developed a love for photography. I am convinced that this one thing saved my life. I began taking time off so we could take day trips and vacations to places that provided opportunities for me to work on my photography skills. Countless hours were spent slowly driving the back roads of Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, looking for photographic opportunities. These trips gave me a psychological break from the demands of the ministry. Thanks to my Calvinistic beliefs, I no longer felt driven to spend every waking hour evangelizing the lost. I was content to preach two sermons a week, take care of the needs of a small congregation, and spend the rest of my time enjoying life. We began taking vacations, attending races at the local dirt track, and visiting nearby attractions. Our oldest three boys were old enough to babysit their younger siblings, so this afforded Polly and me the opportunity to get away from the church and home without our children. By then, our economic position had greatly improved thanks to Polly working full time at Sauder Woodworking and our two older sons paying room and board. Having more discretionary money allowed us to do a lot of things that we never could have done years before. I can honestly say that the seven years I spent as pastor of Our father’s House were the best years of my ministerial career. The church never grew above fifty or sixty people, but I found this particular group of people, with a couple of exceptions, a delight to pastor. I suspect that if I had been able to ignore the nagging voice of the “Holy Spirit,” I could have continued pastoring this church for years.

You might wonder what I mean by the nagging voice of the “Holy Spirit.” As I settled into the life typically led by Evangelical pastors, I found myself increasingly feeling guilty over time spent relaxing. I’m sure Polly could tell stories of her own about the long discussions we had about whether we were doing enough for Jesus. I quite enjoyed our new life with its pleasures and relaxing opportunities, but I never could get out of my head all the things I mentioned above. Never far from my thoughts were my Master and his call to follow after him. I don’t want to give the impression that I was some sort of worldly Christian, I wasn’t. I still spent an inordinate amount of time reading and studying the Bible, praying, preaching sermons, and doing the work of the ministry, but I did give myself space for pleasure and relaxation. This was a step in the right direction, but I would find out a few short years later that if I really wanted to have a life worth living, I was going to have to divorce myself from the ministry and God.

Now that I have liberated myself from the constraints of the Bible, I am free to live life as I see fit. Realizing that life is short and death is certain (sooner than later), I try to spend as much time as possible doing the things I want to do and with the people I love most — my family. My bucket list for the next ten weeks: two Dayton Dragons baseball games, Breaking Benjamin concert, Halestorm concert, and a week’s vacation in Shawnee/Newark, Ohio, (along with having our house painted and carpet installed in several rooms). I no longer hear nagging voices in my head telling me to forsake my family, houses, and lands and follow Jesus. I no longer worry about WWJD — what would Jesus do (or what would church members think). Both Polly and I love where we are in life, though we do wish that we had come to an understanding about what really matters twenty-five years sooner. Sadly, we can’t undo the past, but we can choose to live differently, and that is exactly what we are doing.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Family Driven Faith — Part Three

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Bruce and Polly Gerencser and Family 2018

This article was first published in 2012 on the blog No Longer Quivering. Corrected, revised, and updated.

Seventeen years have passed since I preached my last sermon and Polly was called the “pastor’s wife.” Almost fourteen years have passed since we determined to stop attending church. Now we are “unchurched”, casualties of a lifetime spent in Evangelical Christianity. Worse yet, at least according to our critics, we are now, as atheists, enemies of Christ and his church.

You see, we not only left the Church, we left Jesus. Regardless of how some Christians try to parse our lives through their peculiar theological system, we are two people who once were devoted, committed followers of Jesus. We were saved and now we are lost.

Some people leave Evangelicalism, with its attendant Fundamentalist beliefs and code of living, and try to remake their lives according to a kinder, gentler view of God, the Bible, and their fellow humans. I view this as remodeling a house where the foundation and the basic framework remain the same. What’s changed is the siding and the paint on the interior walls, but everything else is still the same.

Many people leave Evangelicalism and join progressive or liberal Christian churches. They gain new labels for themselves, but, again, the foundation of their faith remains the same. Polly and I decided that we were not willing to slap some new siding on the house and remodel the interior. Instead, we burnt the house to the ground, hauled the debris away, and started over.

Now I say we started over, but I recognize that since we think and remember, there really is no such thing as starting over with a blank slate. Deep in our minds are memories from fifty years spent in the Christian church and twenty-five years spent in the pastorate. These things will forever be with us. The good, bad, and indifferent; the wonderful experiences, and the painful, hurtful experiences too. We are the sum of what we have learned and experienced in the past. While we like to think we KNOW where we will be months or years from now, the truth is we really don’t know what the future may bring or how our lives will be.

If someone told me fifteen years ago that Polly and I would be godless heathens, I would have suggested they seek immediate psychiatric help. As far as Christians go, and as far as Christian pastors and their wives go, Bruce and Polly Gerencser were as devoted and committed as any Christian or ministry couple. Yet, here we are, numbered among the godless, the most despised people in America.

When we decided to start over, we knew that we were going to have to confront many personal and marital issues. Wiping the slate clean forced us to look at what we really believed about most everything. At times, the process made us fearful. What if we decided that we didn’t want to married to each other? Free to think and reason and to decide for ourselves what our moral and ethical foundation was, there was a real danger that this process could lead us apart.

Of great concern was how our children would view the new, and hopefully improved, Mom and Dad. They only knew us as parents who were 100% committed to Jesus and the church. They only knew us as strict, not sparing the rod, homeschooling parents. I can only imagine how great a struggle it was for them as they watched their parents not only leave all they ever knew, but repudiate it and embrace a godless worldview.

Former friends, parishioners, and fellow pastors reacted with horror and anger over our leaving the Christian faith. We have been accused of all sorts of things as our Evangelical past has been dissected, discredited, and discarded. We spent a lifetime building relationships with people, and it only took saying, I don’t believe, or I am an atheist, for all of those relationships to go up in smoke. We paid a huge price for being honest and open about the journey we are on.

Over the past fourteen years, we have slowly built our new home. Our marriage not only survived, but it has thrived. Nirvana, it is not. We still fuss and fight. We still have personality quirks that drive each other crazy. But, at the same time, we are far more accepting and loving, not only towards each other, but towards humans in general.

Our lives are very different these days. My continued physical debility has radically changed how we live, how we earn a living, and what we can and can’t do. Since our “sin” list now fits on a 3×5 card, we are free to do many things and go many places that were verboten in our previous life. We are free to dance, drink, and party, even though we very rarely do so. It is liberating to enjoy life without having to wonder what God, the church, or our Christian friends think. We’ve met new friends, mostly through this blog and social media, who allow us the space and freedom to be who and what we really are.

Some Christians are likely to suggest that we left Christianity because we wanted the freedom to live however we wanted. Some might even suggest that we had a secret desire to sin, to live immorally and that’s the REAL reason we left Christianity. To some degree, they are correct. We now love “sinning.” 🙂  However, we ultimately left Christianity for intellectual reasons. We came to the conclusion that the claims of Christianity were not true and the Bible was not in any way a divine, God-inspired book. We came to see that our lives had been built upon a foundation that was not true. Once the Bible was removed from the discussion, we were free to chart our own course; free to determine for ourselves what is moral and ethical; free to experience things and go places that were considered sinful for most of our lives.

Some readers, thinking we threw the baby out with the bathwater, will say, But Bruce, you were a Fundamentalist Baptist.  Everyone knows how legalistic, how narrow-minded Fundamentalist Baptists are. This claim might have some merit IF we had remained Fundamentalist Baptists over the course of twenty-five years in the ministry. But, we didn’t. By the time I pastored my last church in 2003, I was a social-gospel-progressive-Sojourner-loving-emergent-church-friendly-Democratic-pastor. Many of my pastor friends labeled me a l-i-b-e-r-a-l.

The process that led us to where we are today began in the 1990s. Fundamentalists tend to view things in a black and white manner. Saved/Lost. In/Out. Heaven/Hell. God/Satan. They remember the date/time/place God saved them, and when people who think like this read that we are now atheists, they, judging us through their own experiences, think we had some instantaneous experience where we went from saved back to lost.

That’s not how it worked for us. It was, and remains, a process. We fully expect that the process will continue until we die. We expect our journey will have many bumps, crooks, turns, and reversals. We have no doubt there will be times when we part ways and walk different paths from each other. That’s okay. We are free to be who we want to be. We are free to follow the path wherever it leads. No more thundering sermons telling us NO. No more living a life where the Bible is the compass and guide.

This does not mean that life is now easier for us. If anything, it is harder. When the Bible was the standard by which all things were judged, we didn’t have to think as much. Just Obey. As the old song goes, Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to Trust and Obey. Now we are forced to recognize that life is filled with gray and ambiguity and that sometimes there is no right or wrong answer. We have learned to be indifferent towards many things.

bruce and polly gerencser 2013-2
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, 2013

This is how we have chosen to live our lives. We are happy and our love for one another endures. Our children have embraced the new Mom and Dad, even though some of them might question the path we are on. Each of our six children has charted their own course through life. None of them is Evangelical. To many people, our children are a huge disappointment, and Polly and I will answer to God for what we have done to our family. We, however, are proud of our children, proud of the lives they have chosen for themselves.

Polly and I are grateful that we have been given the opportunity to start again. We are cognizant of the fact that our story could have had a bad ending. But, it didn’t and we hope this new lease on life will be one we do not squander. We hope that our best days lie ahead.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Why Christians Bombard Evangelicals-Turned-Atheists with Repetitive Words

jesus knocking on door

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

— Unknown

As an outspoken atheist and writer, I frequently come in contact with Evangelical Christians who think they have a duty to express their opinions about my past and present life and what awaits me after I die. Couched in Bible verses and regurgitated religious verbiage, their pronouncements are little more gnats flying around my head on a warm summer day. Irritating, to be sure, but nothing that can’t be dispatched with a quick swat of snark or reason. On days that I am in too much pain to snarkily respond, I allow Christian drones to aimlessly buzz around my head, knowing that if I ignore them, they will soon move on, or one of my regular readers will turn them into a splat. On rare occasions, I unsheathe my sword and spend time cutting to shreds Evangelical presuppositions, proof-texting, and sermonizing. What remain the same, regardless of the level of my response, are the repetitive arguments and statements used by Evangelicals to express their dislike/hatred of something I have written or said.

Come November, it will be fourteen years since I darkened the doors of a church; thirteen years since I wrote the infamous letter, Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners, and let everyone know that I no longer considered myself a Christian; thirteen years of being inundated with emails, blog comments, and social media comments from Evangelicals determined to show me the error of my ways. It’s been years now since a Christian has said something related to my deconversion or past life that I have not heard countless times before. After several thousand or more God wants me to tell you __________ emails and comments, I now just shake my head or laugh when I receive such things.

Occasionally, when I need a bit of humorous levity, I will respond, knowing that most Evangelicals interlocutors aren’t really interested in what I have to say. I have long since concluded that many zealots love to hear themselves talk. Such people aren’t really interested in my spiritual state as much as they are reinforcing their own beliefs. My story — fifty years in the Christian church, twenty-five years as a pastor, and now an atheist — is disconcerting and troubling for many people. If someone such as myself can fall away, then so can they. So, when reading my story, they attack me personally instead of wrestling with their own fears, doubts, and cognitive dissonance. This is why several former parishioners have told me that they can no longer talk to me. These people, who once called me pastor, preacher, and friend, find my current godless state so troubling that it causes them psychological pain. Instead of investigating their pain or examining their own beliefs, these former parishioners or friends choose to end our relationship (and I am fine with that).

Several years ago, a woman who was a teenager in one of the churches I pastored in the 1980s messaged me, thanking me for sending her a link to some old pictures I had posted a year ago on Facebook. (Her father is the focus of the post Dear Friend.) Evidently, my message ended up in her spam folder and she did not find it until this week. This woman, now in her forties, made no attempt to talk to me about family or any of the other commonalities we humans share. Instead, she said, WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU? Immediately, my mind went back to the days when this woman was a rebellious, haughty, mouthy teenager — a constant pain in her parents’ asses. I envisioned her with her head thrown back, curling her face into a snarl, saying, WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU? I did not respond to her, choosing not to waste time responding to someone who really isn’t interested in what I have to say. (Years later, we reconnected on Facebook.)

in 2015, my two (now one since one of them died of COVID-19 last year) remaining Christian friends ran into a man I have known since the early 1970s. (I believe he is ten or so years younger than I am. I was mainly friends with his oldest brother and parents.) After trading pleasantries with my friends, this man said, CAN YOU BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED TO BRUCE? I am sure he heard about my deconversion from his parents. After receiving news of me leaving Christianity, his mother had sent me a blistering letter that suggested in no uncertain terms that I was under the control of Satan. A year or so later, I received an apology from her (a rare occurrence). While she could not comprehend how I could ever walk/run away from Jesus, she did accept the fact that nothing she could say would likely change my mind. People who know me well know that I am a man of deep convictions and intellectual acumen. They also know that I am rarely swayed by circumstance or emotion. When confronted with the possibility that I could be wrong, I tend to study the heaven out of the issue. I want to KNOW, so blissful ignorance or “faithing it” is not an option for me.

Several years ago, my doctor told me that my heart is skipping every fourth beat and that I might have an “atrial whisper.” He ordered an EKG and told me to me wait as he consulted with a cardiologist. He smiled and asked me if I had something to read. I laughed, and pointed to my iPhone. Having been my doctor for twenty-five years, he knows that I tend to study the life out of things. By the time he had punched in the phone number of the cardiologist, I was on Web MD and Wikipedia looking up “atrial flutter” and other related heart/health issues. This illustrates perfectly how I tend to go after challenges to my beliefs or understanding. When I don’t “know” something, I make it my mission to increase my knowledge. Despite health problems that increasingly rob me of the physical and mental wherewithal to read, learn, and write, I am still driven to know more today than I did yesterday. This is why people who are close to me know that I rarely speak on a matter before knowing the facts. (I am not suggesting that I can’t be wrong or act irrationally. I can. Just ask Polly.) 🙂

An Evangelical woman (a friend of a friend) left the following Facebook comment for me:

I’m sorry that you have lost your contact with God. He’s still there, if you are interested. You may have stopped believing, but he hasn’t stopped existing or loving you. May God bless you. We have exchanged comments in the past and I don’t want to re-open that debate. This post just struck me as being very sad and empty, so I wanted to give a bit of encouragement. That’s all.

Here’s a woman who is incapable of understanding any other way of life or system of belief but her own. For her, Jesus is the be-all and the end-all, the reason for getting up in the morning. As she looks at my life through her rose-colored Bible glasses, all she sees is sadness and emptiness. She cannot comprehend a good life, an honorable life, a blessed life, and a life of meaning and purpose without knowing her peculiar version of Jesus as Lord and Savior. For her, my life does not compute. If she really cared about me as a person, she would trawl the depths of my story, and having done so she would then know that telling me, “I’m sorry that you have lost your contact with God. He’s still there, if you are interested. You may have stopped believing, but he hasn’t stopped existing or loving you,” will not elicit the desired response, and will likely be viewed by me as the words of yet another tone-deaf Christian.

Evangelicals need to understand that I am immune to their words. I have reached a point in my life where I rarely respond to their comments, sermons, or attacks. I prefer to spend my time writing and hanging out with Polly. If I sense a Christian sincerely wants to “know” then I will send them a few links to blog posts that I think will answer their questions. Sadly, few of these people bother to read the suggested posts. No need, right? They know what they know, even if what they know is dead wrong.

A better use of time for Evangelical zealots would be to seek out those who have no understanding of Evangelical belief and practice. Ignorance is the fertile ground of Christian Fundamentalism. Why tell someone the gospel twice before everyone has heard the gospel once, right? Well, I have heard it and preached it thousands of times, and when Christians continue to spew the same intellectually vacuous arguments and attempt to emotionally manipulate me, I don’t hear a word they are saying. Their lips are moving, but I ain’t listening.

I know that nothing I have written here will ward off garlic-immune Evangelicals who believe they have a God-given duty to put in a good word for Jesus. Until such people can dare to fathom the possibility of being wrong, there is nothing I can say or do that will change their minds. Only unrequited doubt will put them on the path to intellectual freedom. As long as their minds are shackled to God, Jesus, and the Bible they will continue to view me as an enemy that must be vanquished. Little do they know that they are tilting at windmills.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Depression and Lightening the Load

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Updated, corrected, rewritten, expanded

I have battled depression most of my adult life. For many years, I denied that I was depressed, attributing my melancholy to God testing or trying me, Satan tempting me, or God punishing me for this or that sin. My religious beliefs told me that depression was a sign of a backslidden, sinful, or rebellious life. After all, the Bible says in Isaiah 26:3:

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee [God]: because he trusteth in thee.

Psalm 43:5 states:

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.

The Apostle Paul — a First Century Tony Robbins and Wayne Dyer — had this to say:

 Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)

Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. (Philippians 4:11)

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)

And if these verses weren’t enough, there was always the “look at all Jesus suffered on the cross just so you could be saved and go to Heaven someday!” Compared to what Jesus went through, my depression was nothing. (Please see I Wish Christians Would be Honest About Jesus’ Three Day Weekend.)

I had numerous colleagues in the ministry, but talking to them about my depression was not an option. Talking to them meant admitting I was weak or “sinful.” I never considered seeking out the help of a psychiatrist or a psychologist. How could I? I had preached numerous sermons on the aforementioned verses, and on my bookshelf sat books such as Psycho-Heresy: The Psychological Seduction of Christianity by Wayne and Deidre Bobgan and PsychoBabble: The Failure of Modern Psychology–and the Biblical Alternative by Richard Ganz. No, I concluded that I was the problem.

I now know that having a Type A personality and being a perfectionist and a workaholic didn’t help matters. No matter how hard I worked, I never measured up. The church growth craze of the 1970s and 1980s only exacerbated my depression. The ministry was reduced to a set of numbers: attendance, souls saved, and offerings. Push, push, push. Go, go, go. Do, do, do. Much like a crack addict seeking his latest fix, I focused on attendance increases and souls brought to Jesus to push my depression into the background. And as sure as the sun comes up in the morning, declining attendance and a lack of “God working in our midst” forced my depression to the forefront. I spent countless nights alone in the darkness of the church building praying to God, pleading that he would fill me with the Holy Spirit and use me to bring in a large harvest of souls. In the end, no matter how hard I worked or how much I sacrificed— money, family, and health — it was never enough. Success was a temporary elixir that soothed my depression, but its effect soon wore off and I retreated for the thousandth time into the deep, dark recesses of my mind.

depression

In 2005, two years after I left the ministry, I told Polly I needed professional psychological help. It took me another three years before I was willing to pick up the phone and make an appointment. At first, finding a “Christian” counselor was important to me. Once I found one, I then had second thoughts about people seeing me entering his office or noticing my car in the parking lot. I live in an area where almost everyone knows me — both as a pastor and now as an atheist. It wasn’t until I deconverted that I began calling counselors, hoping to find a non-religious, secular counselor. Fortunately, I found just the right person to help peel away the layers of my life, allowing me to finally embrace my depression and find ways of handling what Dexter the serial killer called his “dark passenger.” Late last year, I started seeing a new counselor, a woman. My first counselor and I had become friends (a common problem in long-term counseling relationships), so I knew it was time for me to see someone new.

Readers who have been with me since the days of blogs named Bruce Droppings, NW Ohio Skeptic, The Way Forward, and Fallen From Grace have helplessly watched me repeatedly psychologically crash and burn, only to rise again out of the ashes like a phoenix. Surprisingly, the current iteration of my blog has been active for seven years. I attribute the length of my success to the help I’ve received from my counselors. That said, I can’t guarantee that I might not, in the future, crash. I’ve told myself that if that happens again, I’m done blogging.

Some days, I feel like I have tied a knot on the rope of my life and I am desperately trying to hold on. There are days when I feel my grip slipping, leaving me to wonder if I can make it through another day. I do what I can. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen. Health problems, especially chronic pain and bowel problems, continue to drive my depression and virtually every other aspect of my life. I can’t escape these things. All I know to do is endure.

As depressives will tell you, small problems often pile up for them and turn into full-blown depressive episodes. I mean, suicide level, I can’t deal with this any longer episodes. My counselor is keenly aware of how quickly things can pile up for me. Starting with chronic illnesses, unrelenting pain, loss of mobility, and decreased cognitive function, my plate is quite full before I even get out of bed — that is, if I can get out of bed.

Recent events have filled my plate as I would on Thanksgiving Day. What’s one more helping of ham, turkey, and candied sweet potatoes, right? While I find it too painful to write about many of the things that have been added to my plate, I have talked to my counselor about how overwhelmed I am with life. She encourages me to focus on what is best for me, and not “fixing” the problems of others. I am not sure how well I can heed his advice, but I am trying.

I have written all this to say that I must continue to find ways to “lighten my load.” My health will never be as good as it is today, and someday I will likely be unable to leave my home. In the interest of improving the quality of what life I have left, I must identify the unnecessary things that are weighing me down and cast them aside. This is not easy for me to do. Giving in has never been my strong suit. I hate to let go of things (and people) who have been very much a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Over the past few months, I have made a concerted to downsize and simplify my life. I sold all my photography equipment. Boy, was this hard. Even worse, I am turning my office into a pantry and a storage room. Gone will be the metal desk I’ve owned for almost forty years — a M.A.S.H. era desk. Most of my 4,000+ plus sermons were crafted on my desk. Countless couples and church members sat across from me, telling me their woes. I used this desk every day for most of my adult life — until I couldn’t. Thanks to herniated discs in my back and neck, I can no longer use the desk. Saying goodbye to my dear friend brought tears, but I knew it was the right thing to do. My oldest son will soon move my desk to his home. I wonder if I should tell him what Mom and Dad did on that desk? 🙂

It goes without saying, that above everything I could ever do or own, I deeply love my wife, children, and grandchildren (and yes, my daughters-in-law and son-in-law too). As illness and pain whittle down my life, I am learning that what matters most is love and family. The praise of congregants and the approbation of fellow clergy are but distant memories. I would trade all of them for one day without pain. We silly humans so often focus on things that don’t matter. Age brings perspective, and what really matters — at least to me — fits on a small Post-it note. And even now, I continue to mark through things on my list. I suspect that when death claims me for its own, my list will contain a handful of names and the words “they loved me until the end.”

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce Gerencser