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Tag: Mental Illness

Trauma: 1968-1972: Five Years That Changed My Life

bruce gerencser 1970

It has taken me almost sixty-four years to admit and understand how much trauma I have had in life. In 2009, I saw a counselor for the first time. Over the next twelve years, he helped me understand my past (and present), peeling back the layers of my life one ply at a time. This process was excruciating and painful, but necessary. While we talked about the various traumas I have experienced in my life, no attempt was made to understand them collectively. Left unanswered was how these traumas affected and informed my present, how they affected me psychologically, and how they influenced my decision-making.

Late last year, I started seeing a new counselor. While I talk with her about many of the same things I talked about with my first counselor (both are psychologists), my last session with her showed me how deeply I have been affected by trauma. She recommended I read Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s seminal work, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which I am currently doing.

As I painfully and honestly reflect on my life, I can now see and try to understand past traumas, especially those during a five-year period in my life: 1968-1972.

During this period of time:

  • I attend five different schools.
  • I lived in eight different houses.
  • My parents divorced and remarried (Mom married her first cousin, a recently paroled robber and drug addict, and Dad married a nineteen-year-old girl with a baby).
  • My mother, who had been repeatedly molested by her father and had battled mental illness most of her life, tried to kill herself numerous times. In one year, Mom overdosed on prescription medications, pulled her car in front of a truck, and slit her wrists. At the age of eleven, I came home from school and found Mom lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. (In 1991, Mom killed herself. She was fifty-four. Please see Barbara.)
  • Dad had an affair with an unknown woman.
  • Dad was investigated by the FBI for robbery and the ATF for illegal gun sales.
  • Dad embezzled $10,000 from Combined Insurance Company.
  • I contracted measles, mumps, and chicken pox in one year, missing thirty-nine days of school.
  • I was treated for muscle and joint problems (wrongly labeled “growing pains” at the time).

During this period of time, Mom and Dad stopped being parents, leaving me and my younger siblings to fend for ourselves. My parents didn’t abuse me, per se, they abandoned me, leaving me to fend for myself. Mom tried, when mentally stable, to support me, but such times were rare. Dad? He was AWOL. (Please see Questions: Bruce Did Your Bad Relationship with Your Father Lead to You Leaving Christianity? and Questions: Bruce, How Was Your Relationship with Your Father?)

I came of age in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Trauma was not acknowledged or talked about. In fact, such discussions were frowned upon. I was taught that Jesus changes everything, that he was the answer to every question, the solution to every problem. Instead of dwelling on the past, I was told to move on, let go and let God. Pastor after pastor said that not having victory in my life was a “sin,” a lack of faith, trust, and dependence on God. Imagine being a traumatized child sitting in the pews hearing that your problems were insignificant in light of the suffering of Jesus on the cross; that all your “problems” will magically disappear if you get saved and follow Jesus. I would later learn that the very preachers preaching these things had their own traumas, their own secrets, their own “sins.” As an adult and a pastor myself, I learned that these preachers of holiness and godliness were just as fucked up as I was. In fact, I never met a preacher who didn’t have traumas and secrets, things they hid from congregants because church members expected them to be winners.

By not helping me embrace, understand, and deal with my trauma (and by not encouraging me to get professional help), my pastors, youth directors, and teachers unwittingly furthered the trauma in my life. Their words and behavior towards me left deep, lasting scars. How could it be otherwise? Trauma begets trauma. I entered college, marriage, and the ministry with deeply-seated, unresolved trauma. This, of course, caused all sorts of problems in my marriage, relationships with my children, and the churches I pastored. Is it any surprise that a young life of constant upheaval and moving fueled an adult life of upheaval and moving? That even now, I am restless, a wanderlust spirit?

It’s regrettable that I had to wait until I was almost sixty-five years old to fully understand how trauma has shaped and affected my life. Will I finally put these traumas to rest? Maybe. I now know there is a lot of work I must do, with the help of my counselor and family, to find peace and happiness in my life. Maybe it is too late for me. Maybe not. All I know to do is try . . .

My Evangelical critics will see this post as an admission that I was damaged goods, that I had no business being a pastor. Maybe. I am more inclined to think that my trauma helped me to be more kind, loving, and compassionate towards the people I pastored; people who had their own traumas. I don’t know one pastor who doesn’t have baggage. I spent thirty-five years, both as a teen preacher boy and a seasoned pastor, interacting with pastors, youth directors, evangelists, and missionaries. I know their secrets, their traumas, their sins. Trust me, things are not what they seem. I suspect that can be said for all of us.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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Dr. Patrick Johnston and His Dangerous Advice to Depressives

sin can make you sick

Dr. Patrick Johnston is a former Ohio family practice physician, the founder of the Association of Pro-life Physicians, and the former director of Personhood Ohio (link no longer active). He and his ex-wife Elizabeth have ten children, all of whom are homeschooled. Several years ago, Johnston wrote a rebuttal to a post that I published about my views on abortion and personhood laws. Johnston believes there are no justifiable reasons for women to have abortions. Rape? Nope. Incest? Nope. Life of the mother? Nope or maybe. Severe physical malformation? Nope. Ectopic(tubal) pregnancy? Nope. Huh? That’s right, Johnston does not think women should have access to abortion services if they have ectopic pregnancies. In a December 2015 Personhood Ohio article, Johnston stated (link no longer active):

Many sincere advocates of life fall prey to the argument that abortion is occasionally necessary to save the life of the mother. An example of an ectopic pregnancy is often given. However, a cursory investigation of the evidence reveals that many babies have survived ectopic pregnancies. There are life-saving alternatives to treat the mother and her ectopically-implanted baby. Successful transplantation of the embryo from the Fallopian tube to the uterus has been reported in the medical literature as far back as 1917. We do not have to kill these babies to save the mother. Their cases is [sic] not hopeless.

Johnston also wrote an article for his blog titled Saving Ectopically Implanted Boys and Girls. Yes, really.

Johnston and Personhood Ohio tried for years to amend Ohio’s Constitution. If successful, Article 1, Section 16 would have been amended to say (link no longer active):

(A) The words “person” in Article 1, Section 16, and “men” in Article 1, Section 1, apply to every human being at every stage of the biological development of that human being or human organism, including fertilization.

(B) Nothing in this Section shall affect genuine contraception that acts solely by preventing the creation of a new human being; or human “eggs” or oocytes prior to the beginning of the life of a new human being; or reproductive technology or In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) procedures that respect the right to life of newly created human beings.

So far, right-thinking citizens and politicians have kept the amendment and its subsequent iterations from being enacted.

In an undated article titled Curing the Miseries of the Mind: Anxiety and Depression (link no longer active), Johnston and his now ex-wife Elizabeth offer up advice to those who suffer from mental health problems. According to the Johnstons, the cure for depression and anxiety is found in the Bible:

If you are suffering from severe depression or anxiety, I want to let you know that there is light at the end of your dark tunnel – and it’s not found in a pill! The God who created you loves you, and does not want you to be miserable. I believe that God’s Word – the Holy Bible – holds the key that, if not cures, greatly alleviates psychological symptoms.

Ah yes, the time-tested Fundamentalist maxim: the B-i-b-l-e is the cure for e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Johnston admits that he does “prescribe a lot of medication for anxiety and depression because they help alleviate symptoms,” but he wants people to know that many physical and mental ailments have “spiritual roots.”  The Johnstons list seven reasons people suffer from anxiety and depression:

  • Genetic and social influences (Yea! Dr. Johnston makes an appeal to science.)
  • So that the sufferers faith will be strengthened
  • Punishment for sin
  • Unforgiveness
  • Ingratitude
  • Unbelief
  • Excessive worry
bible the cure for depression
This graphic is not Dr. Johnston’s, but it does show similar “Biblical” cures for depression.

The Johnstons then give their Jesus-infused prescription for overcoming depression. Are you ready to be delivered, fellow depressives? All right, let’s all get h-a-p-p-y! The Johnstons believe that the following tips will help people “overcome the daily onslaught of anxiety and depression”:

  • Write out encouraging Bible verses, quotes, or thoughts, and tape them up at your house or work, or carry them in your purse or wallet. Refer to them and memorize them whenever you are struggling with unhealthy thoughts.
  • Turn on uplifting Christian music. Sing and meditate on the principles of God’s Word. Praise and worship the Lord. Try dancing to praise music! By all means, turn OFF any music or television that saddens you or causes you to focus on your troubles.
  • Make a list of ten things to think about when you are tempted to think things you shouldn’t. Make your list very practical. For instance: “What will I buy at the store?”, “Where will we go on our next vacation?”, “What will I say to my friend/neighbor/family member next time we speak?”, etc. Always have this list on hand to refer to when tempted to be anxious, depressed, or angry.
  • Occupy yourself with a big project or many projects that direct your mind off of yourself and onto others. There is no end to the number of nursing home residents, hospitalized patients, struggling families, volunteer organizations, and ministries who need a letter or a helping hand. Do not sit around and wait for your problems to disappear. Busy yourself with projects and invest your time in caring for others.
  • Always fight the tendency to pity yourself. You will find one hundred reasons to believe that self-pity will make you feel better but it never solves anything. When tempted to pity yourself, think of others you know who are in much worse circumstances (i.e. the paralyzed teenager, the young husband who just lost his wife, Christians who are persecuted for their faith in China, Cuba, or Indonesia, etc.). Make a list of such people and remind yourself of how blessed you are. Stop and take a moment to pray for those who are less fortunate than yourself.
  • Journal!! Write out your thoughts, regardless of how troubling or embarrassing they may be. Often, when you see on paper what is going on in your head, you will be surprised by how manageable your problem is through changing your way of thinking!
  • A few good Scriptures on topics of importance are listed below for your edification. Suffering: 1 Pet. 4:12-16, Rom. 8:17-18, 2 Cor. 4:17, James 1:2-4  Forgiveness/Mercy: Matt. 6:14-15, Matt. 18:21-22, Heb. 8:12, Prov. 11:19, James 5:9 Thankfulness: Phil. 4:11, Heb. 13:5, Rom. 1:21 Fear/Worry/Doubt: Matt. 6:25-34, Phil. 4:6-7, 2 Tim. 1:7, I Cor. 10:13

Certainly, some of the advice offered by the Johnstons can often help alleviate the effects (not the cause) of anxiety and depression. However, make no mistake about it, the Johnstons believe that the Christian God and the Bible are the CURE for those suffering from mental difficulties. I suspect that Dr. Johnston tells depressives who are not Christians that Jesus can and will cure what ails them. For those who are Christians, Johnston tells them to put mind over matter and remember that there are always people worse off than you. Trust Jesus and all will be well.

If Johnston is prescribing God and the Bible as a cure for anxiety and depression then he is committing medical malpractice. His patients should expect treatment by a doctor thoroughly grounded in the scientific method. Using the tips mentioned above to “cure” depression might work for a time, but true healing comes through counseling, behavior modification, and, if warranted, psychotropic drugs. As someone who has suffered from depression for most of my adult life — both as a Christian pastor and as an atheist — I know that the sort of Christian voodoo offered by Johnston does not cure depression. If Johnston objects to what I have said here, he is free to present empirical data that suggests otherwise. Until then, Dr. Johnston’s tips for curing anxiety and depression should be viewed in the same light as the chants and gimmickry of witch doctors.

Note

We know the Johnstons personally. We attended church with them in 2004-2005 at Faith Bible Church in Jersey, Ohio. Faith Bible is a family-centric, Reformed Baptist congregation.

Elizabeth filed for divorce in 2020, saying “he [Patrick] has been repeatedly unfaithful to me, as well as psychologically and emotionally abusive.”

Elizabeth stated at the time:

After repeatedly taking him back, covering for him, preserving his reputation, and forgiving him of adultery, pornography and sexual immorality, which began 16 years ago, I have been forced to come to the harsh realization that I’ve done all I can and am entrusting Him to my Savior! I don’t share this to harm or humiliate, but to help explain why I, a Christian woman who hates divorce, have decided to separate and pursue a divorce.

The deception and aggression has recently gotten very unhealthy, so I am being forced for the sake of my children to make the hardest decision of my life. To stay at this point would be more harmful to my children than to separate. I will be blasted for not staying married. Don’t listen to the critics, and just pray for us instead.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

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 Few Thoughts About Mental Illness and Depression

bruce and mom 1957
Bruce and his mom, July 1957

Originally written 2011, edited, corrected.

At the age of fifty-four, my mother turned a .357 magnum Ruger revolver toward her chest and pulled the trigger. The bullet tore a hole in her heart and in a few moments she was dead. Mom had tried to kill herself many times before. This time she succeeded (please see the post Barbara).

When I was eleven, Dad had to call for an emergency squad because Mom had taken several bottles of prescription drugs. They rushed her to the hospital and pumped her stomach, and she survived to die another day. Later in the year, Mom and the neighbor lady were in a serious automobile accident in Lima. I say accident because it is possible that Mom pulled into the other lane of traffic, allowing the truck to hit them.

Mom made a third attempt on her life that same year. I came home from school and found Mom lying unconscious on the floor with blood pooling around her body. She had slit her wrists. Yet again, the emergency squad came, and her life was saved.

As best I can tell, Mom had mental problems her entire life. She was bright, witty, and well-read, but Mom could, in a split second, lapse into angry, incoherent tirades. Twice she was involuntarily committed to the Toledo State Mental Hospital, undergoing shock therapy numerous times. None of the treatments or drugs worked.

In the early 1960s, my parents found Jesus. Jesus, according to the Bible, healed the mentally ill, but, for whatever reason, he didn’t heal Mom. The mental health crises I have shared in this post, and others that I haven’t shared, all occurred after Mom put her faith and trust in the loving Jesus who supposedly had a wonderful plan for her life. Mom died believing Jesus was her Savior. To this day, I lament the fact that I didn’t do more to help her. Sadly, I saw her mental illness as an inconvenience and an embarrassment. If she just got right with God, I thought at the time, all would be well. If she would just kick her drug habit, I told her, God would be there to help her. What she really needed was for her eldest son to pick her up, hold her close, and love her. I will go to my grave wishing I had been a better son, that I had loved Mom and my family more than I loved Jesus and the church.

findlay ohio 1971-1974
Mom, Bruce, and friend, Findlay, Ohio, summer 1971

Mom was quite talented. She played the piano and loved to do ceramics. Her real passion was reading, a habit she happily passed on to me. (Mom taught me to read.) She was active in politics. Mom was a member of the John Birch Society, and actively campaigned, first for Barry Goldwater, and later for George Wallace.

My parents divorced when I was fourteen. Not long after the divorce, Mom married her first cousin, a recent parolee from a Texas prison (he was serving time for armed robbery). He later died of a drug overdose. Mom would marry two more times before she died. She was quite passionate about anything she fixed her mind upon, a trait that I, for good or ill, share with her. In the early 1970s, Mom was an aide at Winebrenner Nursing Home in Findlay, Ohio. Winebrenner paid men more than they paid women for the same work. Mom, ever the crusader, sued Winebrenner under the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act. The Federal Court decided in her favor.

We moved quite often, and I have no doubt this contributed greatly to Mom’s mental illness. She never knew what it was to have a place to call home. Our family lived in one rental after another, never stopping long enough to buy a home. I lived in sixteen different houses by the time I left for college at the age of nineteen.

I have always wondered if my parents were ever happily married. Mom and Dad were married by an Indiana Justice of the Peace in November 1956. At the time of their marriage, Mom was eighteen and pregnant. I learned a year ago that Dad was not actually my biological father. Dad meant well, but the instability of their marriage, coupled with us moving all the time, caused my siblings and me great harm. Dad thought moving was a great experience. Little did he know that I hated him for moving us around. New schools (seven different school districts). New friends. Never having a place to call home. No child should have to live this way.

From the time I was five until I was fourteen, my parents were faithful members of a Baptist church in whatever community we lived in. The Gerencser family attended church every time the doors were open (I have attended over 8,000 church services in my lifetime). Mom would play the piano from time to time, though she found it quite stressful to do so. One time, much to my embarrassment, she had a mental meltdown in front of the whole church. She never played again. For a time, Dad was a deacon, but he stopped being one because he couldn’t kick his smoking habit. I suspect the real reason was that he was having an affair.

No matter where we lived or what church we went to, one thing was certain: Mom was mentally ill and everyone pretended her illness didn’t exist. Evangelical churches such as the ones we attended had plenty of members who suffered from various mental maladies. For the most part, those who were sick in the head were ignored, marginalized, or told to repent.

In 1994, I co-pastored a Sovereign Grace Baptist church in San Antonio, Texas. (See the I am a Publican and a Heathen series.) One day we were at a church fellowship and my wife came around the corner just in time to hear one of the esteemed ladies of the church say to her daughter, you stay away from that girl, she is mentally retarded. “That girl” was our then five-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. This outstanding church member’s words pretty well sum up how many churches treat those with mental handicaps or illness. STAY AWAY from them!

Many Christians think mental illness is a sign of demonic oppression or possession. No need for doctors, drugs, or hospitals. Just come to Jesus, the great physician, and he will heal you. After all, the Bible does say in 2 Timothy 1:7: For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. If someone is mentally unsound, it’s the person’s fault, not God’s. Get right with God and all will be well.

I have suffered with depression for most of my adult life. I am on the mountaintop one moment and in the valley the next. Plagued with a Type A personality, and being a consummate workaholic, I am often driven to despair. Work, Work, Work. Go, Go, Go. Do, Do, Do. I have no doubt that the way I lived my life as a Christian contributed to the health problems that now plague me. While I was busy burning the candle at both ends for Jesus, my body was screaming STOP! But I didn’t listen. I had no time for family, rest, or pleasure. Work for the night is coming, the Bible says. Better to burn out for Jesus than rust out, I told myself. And now, thanks to living this way for much of my adult life, I am a rusting 1957 Chevrolet, sitting on blocks, awaiting the day when the junkyard comes to tow me away.

For many years, I hid my depression from the outside world. While Polly and my children witnessed depression’s effect on their husband and father, church members never had a clue. I have often wondered how parishioners might have responded had I told them the truth. I suspect some church members would have seen me as a fellow depressive, but others would likely have questioned whether I was “fit” to be a pastor.

In 2008, a few months before I deconverted, I told a pastor friend that I was really depressed. Instead of lending me a helping hand or encouraging me, he rebuked me for giving in to the attack of Satan. He told me I needed to confess my sin and get victory over it immediately. A lot of Christians think just like this (former) pastor friend of mine. (Please see Dear Friend.)  Depression is a sign of weakness, and God only wants warriors and winners.

barbara gerencser 1956
Barbara Gerencser, 1956

Going to see a counselor was the single most important thing I have done in the last ten years. It took me leaving the ministry and departing from Christianity before I was willing to find someone to talk to. Several times, while I was still a Christian, I made appointments with counselors only to cancel them at the last minute. I feared that someone would see me going into the counselor’s office or they would drive by and see my car in the parking lot. I thought, My God, I am a pastor. I am supposed to have my life together.

Indeed, it took me leaving the church, the pastorate, and God to find any semblance of mental peace. I have no doubt some readers will object to the connection I make between religion and mental wellness, but for me, there was indeed a direct correlation between the two.

I still battle with depression, but with regular counseling and a (forced) slower pace of life, I am confident that I can live a meaningful, somewhat peaceful life. As many of you know, I have chronic, unrelenting pain. I have not had a pain-free day in over twenty years (my days are counted as less pain, normal pain, more pain, and off the fucking charts pain). The constant pain and debility (I was diagnosed with gastroparesis, an incurable stomach disease, last year) certainly fuel my depression. My counselor says she would be surprised if I wasn’t depressed from time to time.  Embracing my depression and coming to grips with the pain and debility is absolutely essential to my mental well-being. This is my life. I am who I am. I accept this, and I do what I can to be a loving, kind, and productive human being.

To my Christian readers I say this: sitting near you in church this coming Sunday will be people who are suffering with mental illness. Maybe they are depressed. They hide it because they think they have to. Jesus only wants winners, remember? Pay attention to other people. The signs are there. Listen to those who you claim are your brothers and sisters in the Lord. Embrace them in the midst of their weakness and psychosis. While I don’t think a mythical God is going to heal them, I do think that loving, understanding friends can be just the salvation the mentally ill need.

It is not easy being around those who are mentally ill. Let’s face it, depressed people are not fun to be with. We are not the life of the party. When I am in the midst of mental and emotional darkness, I am not the kind of person most people want to be around. I become withdrawn, cynical, and dark. These attributes, coupled with the physical pain I endure, can, at times, make me unbearable to be around. It is at these moments when I need the help of others. Sadly, most people, including my family and friends, tend to pull away from me when I need them the most. I understand why they do so, but the loneliest place on earth is sitting alone in the darkness of night wishing you were dead.

How do you respond to people who are mentally ill? How do you respond to those who are depressed?  Perhaps you suffer from mental illness or depression. Do you hide it? How are you treated by others? If you are a Christian, how are you treated by your church and pastor? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

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.

Short Stories: A Mom and Her Son — A Perfect Night Long Ago

bill gaither trio

Almost thirty years ago, my mother turned a Ruger .357 handgun towards her heart, cocked the hammer, and pulled the trigger. Mom died moments later, slumping to an ignoble end in her bathroom. Mom had tried to kill herself numerous times over her fifty-three years of life before finally succeeding. (Please see Barbara.) I have written about some of these attempts before, so there’s no need to rehash them here.

Mom and I had a complicated relationship. My Fundamentalist religious beliefs kept me having the relationship I should have had with her. While Mom professed to be a Christian, I didn’t believe her. I genuinely thought that if she would just repent of her sins, get saved, and start following the teachings of the Bible, all would be well. No mental illness, no drug ddiction, just love, peace, and joy. It would be years later before I truly “understood” my mom. It would be years before I understood how being sexually abused by her father affected every aspect of her life. Mom’s life was a trainwreck, but once I understood that abusive, violent men often drove her train, I could then love her as she was. Or try to, anyway.

In early 1976, I decided to study for the ministry. At first, I planned to attend Briercrest Bible Institute — an non-denominational Evangelical college in Canada. But, unable to meet the non-resident financial requirements for crossing the border, I chose to attend Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan instead. This singular choice, of course, changed my life, later affecting who I would marry, where I would live, and how I would spend most of my adult life. There’s a new show on TV called Ordinary Joe. The show details how the choices we make affect the trajectory of our lives. What if I had gone to Briercrest instead of Midwestern? How different would my life be today? Better? Worse? Who can say? Alas, life is what it is.

Mom was quite proud of me. I would be the first person in our family to go to college. While Mom never heard me preach, I know she was delighted that I was a preacher. A few months before I left for college, I asked Mom if she wanted to go to a Christian concert with me at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This would be the first and last time Mom and I did something together. Just Barbara and her oldest son, Bruce.

Mom said yes, so on the appointed day, we drove to Fort Wayne to hear the Bill Gaither Trio — Bill and Gloria Gaither and Gary McSpadden. Also performing were Henry and Hazel Slaughter. Before heading over to the concert, we ate dinner at a restaurant — its name long forgotten. Mom and I would eat dinner together one more time in the spring of 1978, introducing her to Polly, my beautiful bride-to-be.

A perfect night, forty-five years ago. A night when a mother and her son could be just that without Jesus, the Bible, or mental illness getting in the way.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

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.

She Knew Me

guest post

Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

For the past month, I’ve been recovering from a bike crash.

After getting stitched up in a local hospital, I was transferred to a larger facility with a trauma unit. Just after I arrived, a doctor asked me a series of questions about my health: No, I’ve never smoked. Yes, I drink: one or two glasses of wine or beer with supper, and spirits on rare occasions. No serious or chronic illnesses. Two surgeries: the first, twenty-five years ago, for a deviated septum; the second, fifteen years later, to align my genitals with my gender identity.

Thankfully, no one raised an eyebrow over my last answer. I think he, and the nurses in the room, realized that I was speaking slowly because I was tired and in pain, but that I was coherent. Ironically, that may have been exactly what raised that doctor’s alarm when I unequivocally answered one of the mental-health questions: Yes, I have attempted suicide. But, I explained, not recently: I tried to kill and caused other kinds of harm to myself because of some experiences—including sexual abuse—in my childhood.

The doctor called in someone else —a psychiatrist, I believe. They asked, several times, whether my accident was not an accident. I insisted that my mishap was just that: an unfortunate circumstance. One of the nurses, a native of a Caribbean island, looked into my eyes. She interjected: “No, she wasn’t trying to kill herself. And she’s not going to try anything like that now.”

The other nurse in the room—also from the Caribbean—nodded. The doctor and psychiatrist stopped their conversation and note-taking. The psychiatrist glanced toward them, then at me. “I don’t think she needs to be under watch,” he declared. The doctor scribbled something, which I took as agreement.

Then he asked whether I wanted a chaplain. No, I’m not religious, I explained. I didn’t mention my atheism because I didn’t want to risk a debate for which, at that moment, I didn’t have the energy. I glanced back at the nurse who advocated for my sanity. She looked at me, knowingly.

Two days later, I went home. The nurse and I have stayed in touch. “It was a priest, wasn’t it?”

She didn’t have to pose it as a question. She knows; I think she knew it that night we met in the trauma center.

I’d like to know how she knew. Or do I already know?

My Experience with Religious Fundamentalism and Bipolar Disorder

guest post

Guest post by Steve

For 18 years, I considered myself a Christian. My family raised me in the Disciples of Christ denomination, generally known as a progressive and inclusive branch of Christianity. Love, service, and respect for others were baked into the framework of my parents’ religious philosophy. So too were dysfunctional aspects of Christianity, such as taboos around sex, drugs, other religious frameworks, et cetera. For sixteen years I lived relatively peacefully under such a framework and the moderately strict rules it imposed.

That would all change shortly after my sixteenth birthday. For some reason, I felt the urge to dive deeper into the tenets of my faith. Enter the Internet, which, as of 2009, was a long way from the juggernaut it is today. Feeling as though my parents’ and grandparents’ explanations of biblical concepts were lacking, I turned to Internet websites and forums, as well as a teen study bible my grandparents had found on their doorstep one day and given to me as a gift.

That would turn out to be one of the most painful and consequential mistakes I would ever make. After reading through the study bible and its perverted explanations of biblical phenomena and excuses for genocide and murder committed in God’s name — which I didn’t notice at the time but can see oh, so clearly, now — I went down rabbit holes on the Internet, looking up the answers to important questions such as, “Is it a sin to listen to secular music?” among others.

My readings left me isolated from my family, feeling as though I had discovered the truth and could not admit it to them. This caused a great deal of tension in my relationship with them, as I began to believe that if I wanted to be a true Christian, I should cut myself off from my family and their liberal interpretation of the Bible and seek the companionship of others who believed as I did.

However, my beliefs did not usually translate to actions. There was a powerful dissonance between the person I was up until I stumbled upon all of this poisonous fundamentalist posturing and the person I was afterward. I did not think to question my beliefs, thinking that doing so would be a blasphemy towards God. Instead, I lingered in them and the conflict between my two selves — one a burgeoning fundamentalist and one a rational secularist — came to a head. It was truly as if the devil and god were raging inside me, and their warfare tore me apart.

I can vividly remember the crushing pressure in my chest from those early battles, a pain so fierce and unrelenting that I would fall asleep in the middle of class as my body started shutting down to escape it. I was stuck in a limbo, but I could feel the flames of hell eating away at my soul. I vividly believed that if I did not give up everything I once loved, the secular pursuits that did not glorify God, I was hell-bound.

My rational side fought like hell to keep my rising fundamentalist zeal at bay. For the most part, I excelled in school, bringing home As and Bs with every report card. Yet I felt isolated from my peers. I attempted to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but I am so grateful to say that they did not manage to get their claws into me and I bowed out after several meetings.

I cannot pinpoint when exactly my mood started to shift, but after several long and arduous months, I began to feel good again. I started to put myself out there and make friends. By doing my best to intentionally avoid the bible and all forms of fundamentalist rhetoric, I began to feel somewhat normal and happy. However, maladaptations would present themselves. I would become obsessed with certain girls as a coping mechanism, a way to cling onto the unstable safety of my current state. The flames of hell were further below, but I could still feel their heat. Magma still churned in my chest.

I had to cling to something for dear life, and as a male adolescent with a decent sex drive, I chose women. Now mind you, I was 270 pounds at the time, so I didn’t have a good shot at all at getting most of them. My social skills were also substandard. I was definitely what you would call a nerd, maybe a geek, and it showed. Still, for a few months, I felt good enough to resume a normal pattern of activity and engage in the secular pursuits I once felt so guilty about.

In the same vein, I cannot pinpoint exactly what pulled me down again. While this depressive episode was shorter and somewhat milder than the last, I desperately wanted to escape. That escape would come in the form of a forum one of my classmates showed me in the library one day where an “alien” delivered sacred knowledge to the world. After reading this, my mind latched onto it and used it as a weapon to beat back the flames that were once again searing my soul.

This time the depression may have been milder, but the high was even higher. I excelled in my last semester of high school. I visited seven colleges and got accepted to the college I wanted the most. I got all 5s on the three AP exams I took that year. My mind was as sharp as a tack, as clear as a bell. Everything clicked. Things just came to me. I was at my peak level of performance. It was an absolutely thrilling time to be alive and active in the world. I was filled with a spirit of hope and love. I graduated ready to take the world by storm, even if I had no clue exactly what it was I was going to do with my life.

Sadly, this wouldn’t last either. One Bible verse about not cursing later (I don’t remember which one it was and I don’t care to relive that again), I crashed hard. Instead of entering college feeling healthy and alive, I entered college a husk of the self I was just a few short months before, drained and lifeless and struggling to keep up with the myriad tasks and activities that come with the first few weeks of freshman year. I felt so alone and isolated, though I did try to reach out.

Several times, I was awfully close to embracing fundamentalism again, as the college I went to was in a fairly religious city in the southern United States and it was easy to find people who believed passionately in Christianity and to talk with them. I felt I would need to make a decision about what I was going to do soon, and I was leaning heavily towards embracing fundamentalism.

My lowest point in college came when I dropped a class without notifying my professor I was going to do so. I almost lost both my scholarships and had to pay back some $350 dollars to one of them. Thankfully, I was able to keep both of my scholarships all the way through college from that point on.

The end to all of this madness would come swiftly and miraculously. One day, after a three-hour class in which we had been watching a documentary, I decided to browse online to see what other documentaries were out there. That decision would change the course of the rest of my life. I was out of the house. I had my own laptop. I didn’t have parental figures hovering over my shoulder. I was angry as hell about being so depressed again, and felt I had nothing to lose. So I decided to watch the Youtube docuseries by a man named Evid3nc3, Why I became an Atheist.

Video Link

Approximately three hours later, my mind was shattered. Everything I had ever known was wrong. There were good, rational, justified reasons for not believing in God. There were good, kind people who did not believe. Hell, there were thousands of preachers who no longer believed! With this knowledge in mind, the knowledge that I did not need a god to be good or to live a good life, I gave Christianity and the toxicity of fundamentalism and evangelicalism the boot and I have never had good cause to look back since.

I am done with religion, even though religion’s effect on my psyche will always remain to some extent. I am free of the chains of dogma and ideology. I am free of the flames of hellfire, the judgement of a wrathful god, and the intercession of His son, who suffered a needless and preventable death on the cross for something nobody asked him to die for in the first place. Good fucking riddance.

The next time I was home from college, I came out as an atheist to my parents and destroyed the study bible that had sent me down this road to madness. Nobody will ever be infected with its poisonous interpretations again.

But my story is not done. For you see, nearly a decade later I have a new chunk of knowledge, a new insight that has rocked my world just as much as when I found out Christianity was not true.

A few days ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This is a mental illness in which your mood swings between a manic state (a euphoric, happy, joyful, blissful time) and a depressed state. I believe that my bipolar disorder was the cause of so much dysfunction in my life during my late high school and early college years. Looking back, my mood swings make so much sense when viewed through that context as I altered between hypomania (milder than manic) and depression.

One facet of bipolar disorder is that those who have this mental illness often suffer from delusions, which can come in both manic and depressed states. While I have never suffered from delusions in my manic states, I have in my depressive states.

And that has led me to ask myself: would I have been able to catch this disease earlier if not for the Christian framework that I believed for those last couple years of high school? I firmly believed I was in danger of going to Hell. I felt it so vividly. There was no way you could convince me that that belief was not a delusion. It was supported by the Christian cultural framework my life was based around at the time.

Did my Christian worldview mask my delusional depressive symptoms? That is definitely a question that deserves a lot more thought. Who else with undiagnosed mental illness is laboring under a Christian framework that amplifies and exacerbates it? Is it the preacher at the pulpit? The choir director? The youth pastor? The worship leader?

How many religious folks are undiagnosed simply because their worldview masks and adapts to their symptoms, leading them to believe that they aren’t ill in the first place while still struggling mightily through life and sometimes hurting those closest to them with their often inexplicable and unjustifiable actions? What if the true burden of mental illness is not fully known because of how well religion can adapt to it? These are all questions I hope to answer one day, or at least make progress towards answering.

Life after Christianity has not been easy. I’ve been to the psych ward, twice. I missed my college graduation after a major depressive episode that led to multiple suicide attempts before my roommate finally called the police and EMTs. I had a second stay in the ward this past September, due to another suicide attempt. No, life is not a cakewalk.

But that doesn’t mean I need to lean on God or religion to help me cope. I have friends. I have family. I have my own kind of faith in the world. I have myself and all the beauty and confidence I possess. And now I have closure about why I am the way I am and why I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through. I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t need fundamentalism, evangelicalism, or any of the baggage they bring, any less than I do now. All I need is to love — to love myself and to love others zealously. The rest will take care of itself.

If you think you may have a mental illness, I encourage you to seek out a mental health professional and discuss your symptoms as soon as you possibly can. Living with mental illness, especially one as severe as bipolar disorder, is no joke and we must take the needs of those suffering from any mental health condition seriously. For so long, I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and now I do. You don’t have to suffer in silence. It may be a long road to finally get the treatment you need to live a relatively normal life again, but there is hope. And my hope for you is that you keep fighting and realize that you only have one life, one you and you alone can choose how to live.

Do Evangelical Beliefs Lead to Mental Illness?

lisa haven
Charismatic Evangelical and Conspiracy theorist Lisa Haven

Repost from 2015. Edited, rewritten, and corrected. 

Do Evangelical beliefs lead to mental illness? Yes and no. Certainly, Evangelicals, thanks to their religious beliefs, are, to some degree, deluded. They believe things that aren’t true, but I am not inclined to think that this means they all have some sort of mental illness.  All of us are capable of self-delusion. That said, I do think some Evangelicals are mentally ill, and thanks to their beliefs, they see their illness as God giving them some sort of inside information about the world. These Evangelicals are the religious version of Mel Gibson in the movie Conspiracy Theory. Let me illustrate this with a YouTube video put out by a Charismatic Evangelical named Lisa Haven.

The following video details Haven’s belief that the United Nations is a secret front group for the nefarious New World Order. This video has already been viewed almost 270, 000 times (434,000 people subscribe to Haven’s YouTube channel). The video is 11 minutes long, but I do hope you will watch all of it. Doing so will allow you to understand what follows. Be prepared to see lots of air quotes.

Video Link  (Sorry, for some reason embedding this video causes my RSS feed to break, so you will have to view it on YouTube)

As I watched this video, I was, at first, amused, and then quite sad. I told Polly, here’s a young woman whose mind has already been ruined. Imagine, for a moment, where Lisa Haven will be 25 years from now. Will she still be, to use her words, “digging deep and finding truth . . . spread (ing) truth no matter where it lies?” Or will she be taking psychotropic drugs, wondering what went wrong? I’m sure some Evangelicals will object to me categorizing Haven, a mother of four children, as mentally ill, but any non-religious interpreter of her video would come to the same conclusion.  Remove the religious context, and Haven’s rant sounds eerily like the rantings of a crazy person.

In a video titled 18 Unsettling Predictions For 2016: Warning You May Get More Then You Bargained For!, Haven makes 18 predictions (all grammatical errors in the original):

  1. Increased crime and more terrorist threats (due to mass immigration and influx of Refugees, he [Obama] wants to bring in 10,000 alone in 2016)
  2. Rise of Islam and anti-semitism. Christianity will either stay stagnant or decrease.
  3. Economy will continue to falter, maybe even a “Global Recession.”
  4. America will becomes more third world in nature.
  5. More gun laws and restrictions will be enforced.
  6. An Increased amount of race riots and civil riots.
  7. More movement into the New World Order, Pope Francis will continue his push in this direction, likely embolden it.
  8. Increased earthquakes, tsunamis, weather activity as predicted in the Bible and the warning letter sent to FEMA by prior presidential advisor John L. Casey.
  9. More fusion centers, NSA surveillance and more suppression of truth over the Internet (things like Facebook, twitter, Google, will all work together to oust truths and suppress reality).
  10. A move in the direction of policed streets in the name of “safety.” Increased activity of military helicopters, drone activity, domestic military drills, etc. More laws will be passed promoting this.
  11. Possible World War III due to numerous rumors now transpiring with Russia, who is currently preparing for war against the United States and they want the battlefield to be Syria.
  12. Patriots, Christians, Conservatives, Libertarians, Gun Owners and Veterans will become more of a target.
  13. Activity in the Middle East will embolden! More war activity in Jerusalem, more attacks on Israel as the Bible predicts.
  14. If Obama has his way, due his clean power plan, our energy prices will increase.
  15. Increased demoralization done under the banner of “political correctness.”
  16. More technological advancements, including more movement in the direction of a global ID, Mark of the Beast style (however their goal is not to have this fully in place until 2030)
  17. World governments will become bolder in their tyrannical moves.
  18. America will either have a revival or be apathetic.

While there is a minute element of truth in some of Haven’s “predictions,” it should be clear to readers that her conspiratorial thinking is being driven by her Evangelical beliefs concerning the Bible and eschatology (future events). Over the years, I have met numerous people such as Lisa Haven. Every one of them had one thing in common: Evangelical Christianity.

In a 2015 News2morrow interview, Haven shared how she views the world:

Another one – and I just put this story out yesterday, don’t know if you saw it – we could be having a repeat of what had happened in the Soviet Union here in America. And what I mean by that, in order to silence political opposition the Soviets started labeling political dissidents as a psychiatric disorder. The official label was sluggish schizophrenia.

They started labeling people with these titles, basically silencing any opposition that they had.  When I dive through some of the information I see in America, I see some of that being mimicked here. However they’re labeling it as conspiracy theorists and that could open a whole realm. I mean, you can say bible prophecy is a conspiracy theory. You can say a certain realm of patriotism is a conspiracy theory. The term is so broadly used.

There are various reports of research being done at colleges basically studying the minds of conspiracy theorists and labeling them with personality disorders. Again, when something like that happens, I’m like “Ahh!  What is the game here?”

….

I think, what could happen, is that they’re targeting political dissidents, basically the ones that are in opposition to what they want to play out – which would be your patriots, constitutionalists, veterans, Christians. They’ve been specifically targeted on numerous documents. We were targeted on Project Megiddo. There’s the right wing extremist documentation that we have today, and the presentations that they’re giving to our military. These are some of the, quote unquote, “right wing extremists” that are being labeled and targeted.

I think the reason why they’re doing that is, when something happens with the economy and we go into chaos, they’ll have reasons to go round up those dissidents – right wing extremists, as they label a lot of us. They could say that they’re rounding them up to prevent riots, and would send them to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) camps that they’ve set up. And they don’t call them FEMA camps – the official government term is internment camps.

….

Persecution can come in many forms. Right now there is a huge push of persecution against the reality of Christ. Right here in America! — that’s what we’re seeing starting. And that’s being turned into the lunatics that believe a lie. And part of that psychiatric diagnosis is that they are bringing in religion. So you can see what we might be headed in the future with something like that. They’re even claiming in some studies that I’ve read that it could be a medical diagnosis.

….

It’s hard to say, but I think we can push it back. We can delay it definitely. We’ve also seen the leaking of possible false flags that were planned by the government but were diverted because people in media have gotten it out. Sometimes people will say, “Oh but it never happened!” No, it didn’t – thankfully! Because it got diverted through media outlets, especially the alternative media.

The mainstream media seems to be government run. They can’t regulate the alternative media and that’s why they’re pushing that net neutrality (legislation) to put it on the lap of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).  Now if they can silence alternative media, they can implement their plans. But it can be diverted by waking up the masses.

What is it that drives Haven’s thinking? What leads a bright young woman to think that chem trails are poisoning all of us and that drinking tea will cleanse us of its deleterious effects?  What causes Haven to abandon her youth and devote her life to chasing after black helicopters, the New World Order, and Jesus? Two things: her belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Words of God and her literalistic interpretation of these words.

Haven is the poster child for what happens when someone really, really, really believes the Bible. Haven attends a Charismatic church which, week in and week out, reinforces her end-times, conspiratorial beliefs. According to Haven’s website, she is taking classes through the International School of Ministry (ISOM), an online Charismatic Bible college. ISOM is operated by Berin Gilfillan and his wife Lisa. Both have secular degrees (University of Michigan, Michigan State), proving yet again that educated people can be quite deluded.

According to a previous version of ISOM’s website:

Each Trimester of ISOM study consists of 32 teaching sessions of training. You can click on each of the blue buttons below to explore the wonderful content of those five Trimesters. They contain a total of 160 sessions of teaching from 30 renowned instructors such as Jack Hayford, John Bevere, Joyce Meyer, A.R. Bernard, Reinhard Bonnke, Marilyn Hickey, Brian Houston, T.L. Osborn and Bill Winston to name a few.

This ISOM program is tried and tested and has been used around the world by over 330,000 students with wonderful results. Now that ISOM has make-up and review classes online, it is even more friendly for use by pastors and churches. Please note, however, that ISOM is NOT focused on high theology, but on practical training and impartation.

….

Many people who previously graduated with doctoral degrees from another institution have commented on how ISOM was so impartational and so different to their previous studies. It is possible for people to start ISOM at a higher level, but not recommended as ISOM core really contains some classic content. We allow students of any age to participate in ISOM. I have graduated two 11 year old students and one 91 year old.

The Gilfillans also give pastors an opportunity to have an ISOM in their church. According to a previous iteration of the ISOM website, “ISOM is the world’s largest video Bible School and is being used in more than 15,000 locations, in 142 nations and in more than 70 languages.” The skeptic in me says, I would love to see ISOM’s and the Gilfillan’s financials. I suspect a lot of money is being made through “training” gullible Evangelical Christians for ministry. One such person is Lisa Haven.

Will Haven’s ISOM training encourage her to think critically? Of course not. The Gilfillans readily admit that ISOM ” is NOT focused on high theology, but on practical training and impartation.” In other words, all that ISOM training will do for Haven is reinforce her belief that she is called by God to expose the evil New World Order and all its attending conspiracies. Here is a list of some the classes Haven will have to take to get a degree from ISOM:

  • Foundations of the Faith
  • Supernatural Living
  • Praise & Worship
  • Fear of the Lord
  • Old Testament/New Testament Survey
  • Living by Faith
  • Jesus Our Healer, Today
  • Church-based training (or how you can start your own ISOM franchise)
  • Altar Call
  • Spiritual Breakthrough
  • Wilderness Mentalities
  • Spiritual Warfare

I have no doubt that the training provided by ISOM will only increase Haven’s conspiratorial delusions. While it would be tempting to put all the blame on Haven for her craziness, the truth is her church, pastor, parents, husband, ISOM, and hundreds of thousands of adoring YouTube followers have made Haven into the person she is today.

Is Lisa Haven mentally ill? I don’t know. I’m not a doctor, so I am not qualified to make such a diagnosis. I can say, based on the videos I have viewed, Haven does exhibit the signs of someone who is mentally disturbed. Sadly, as many former Charismatics will attest, mental illness is just a typical Sunday night worship service at the local Charismatic Evangelical church.

Unless Lisa Haven has some sort of rational epiphany, there’s little that can be done to help her. Sadly, being deluded is not a crime (even though Haven thinks she will one day be imprisoned for her beliefs). She has been taken captive by her Bible and literalistic Evangelical beliefs. She will remain imprisoned until she sees the light and comes to realize that her entire worldview is based on lies.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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Christians Say the Darnedest Things: The Word of God “Cures” Mental Illness

Prophetess Becky Dvorak, Practices Medicine without a License, Commits Medical Malpractice

The greatest cure for mental illness is the Word of God. And I believe much of what the world refers to mental illness is demonic oppression or possession. I also believe that most deliverance will come by renewing the soul (the mind and the emotions) with God’s healing Word. The Bible tells us in Isaiah 26:3, “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.”

Do you need this perfect peace operating in your life today? If so, you’re not alone; many of God’s people are suffering from attacks on their mind and emotions. But I am a firm believer in the power of God’s Word. If we will keep our thoughts focused on God and His promises, this perfect peace will belong to us.

….

No matter the unwelcoming situation you have found yourself in, there is hope for deliverance and healing in God’s Word. But you have to choose to be free and make quality decisions on a daily basis to get free. If you are standing in proxy for a loved one, you have to fight for the freedom of this person by prayer and fasting and standing on the promises of God.

….

I believe that most deliverance will simply come by staying in the Word of God: living a lifestyle of reading and studying, meditating on the promises of God, speaking these promises aloud over yourself and doing what it says to do. If you will do what I just wrote here, most of you will find your freedom. And the others who are further into the bondage of Satan will need others to fight for them.

— Becky Dvorak, Charisma News, Prophetic Healing Evangelist: Here’s the Greatest Cure for Your Mental Illness, February 23, 2020

Why I Thought I was “Qualified” to Counsel Others

want truth read bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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Bruce Gerencser