Menu Close

Tag: Ministry

How Evangelicals Convince Themselves That What They Do Matters

the lite church

Several years ago, I attended a sporting event for one of my grandchildren that brought me in close contact with a large group of Evangelicals. Over the course of ninety minutes, as I stood there photographing the game, I listened to these Evangelicals talk about their churches, other churches, summer missionary trips, and helping the poor, homeless, and downtrodden. I later told my son about my eavesdropping and how their discussions were very much like the discussions we would have had a decade or two ago. These Evangelicals spoke as if they and their churches were doing monumental works that were making tremendous differences in the lives of those they came in contact with. And from their seat in the pew, I’m quite sure it “seems” like they are doing things that matter, but when considered in a broader context, their mighty works for Jesus amount to little or nothing. Certainly, to the person given a meal or coat, their acts of charity made a difference, but when taken as a whole, the charitable works performed by Evangelicals are little more than a drop of rain in the ocean. Within the Evangelical bubble, these acts of compassion often become larger-than-life. Evangelical teenagers raise money to take mission trips to so-called third-world countries. While no one would say that nothing good comes from these mission trips, when the work done is compared to the money spent, it becomes quite clear that money spent on travel, meals, and entertainment would be better spent by locals instead of Evangelical do-gooders from afar. The returning teens and adults have wondrous testimonies to share, but rarely will anyone bother to consider if any real, lasting good was done.

On the home front, Evangelical churches proudly speak of their ministries to those whom the Bible calls “the least of these.” Again, my purpose here is not to criticize Evangelicals for the good that they do, but I think is important to view their acts of charity in context and judge them according to overall church and ministry budgets. Jesus made clear in the Gospels that what Christians spend their money on shows what really matters to them. Matthew 6:19-21 states:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

And in Matthew 25:31-40, we find these words:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

While Evangelical churches have food pantries, clothing rooms, and ministries that help the poor and homeless, when the money spent on these programs is compared to the overall budgets, it becomes clear that what matters to Evangelicals the most is salaries, benefits, insurance, utilities, buildings, and programs geared towards keeping well-fed sheep comfortable, content, and happy. The overwhelming majority of budgeted money is spent within and not without the walls of the church. And this is fine if Evangelical churches are what I have long claimed they are — social clubs. However, most Evangelical churches, pastors, and congregants believe that the works they do in Jesus’ name are monumental in nature. So, because their works are often viewed as larger than life, it is fair for us to judge their actions in the larger context of how church offerings are spent. Churches are, by default, considered charitable, tax-exempt institutions. The difference, however, between churches and other charitable organizations is that churches are exempt from reporting requirements. When charitable groups are granted tax exemptions, we as taxpayers have a right to know whether they are actually spending most of their money on acts of charity. Most people likely think that religious institutions spend most of their money helping out the downtrodden, but the fact is very little money actually goes towards caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, paying rent and utility bills, or providing clothing and shelter to those in need. Over the years, I have touched on the issues raised in this post numerous times, often raising the hackles of offended Evangelicals. How dare you say that Evangelicals don’t do much for “the least of these.” Why, my church does ________________ . Fine, I say to them. Show me your church’s budget. Not the generic, one-page summary. I want to see the entire budget, complete with statements of income and expenditures. I want to see exactly how much money is taken in and the percentage of that money that is spent doing actual works of mercy and charity outside of the four walls of the church. I’ve yet to have a church or a pastor provide me with these documents. Why? Because they know, truth be told, that very little of their income actually goes towards helping those in need. The overwhelming majority of income keeps the machinery running. This is why it is laughable when Republican Evangelicals suggest that churches can take on meeting the needs of the poor. Cut taxes, they say, and let God’s people care for the sick, hungry, and impoverished. Imagine how much higher the poverty rate would be if it were left up to Evangelicals to take care of the welfare needs of others. They can’t even take care of their own, let alone those who live outside of their four walls.

Our local mall is in a steady state of decline, with store after store closing its doors or moving to cheaper locations. I told Polly that perhaps Evangelicals could get together and purchase the mall, turning it into a multi-denomination worship center. Every sect could have its own storefront. People visiting for the first time could choose from any of a number of ice cream flavors. Wouldn’t such a facility be a wonderful testimony to the unity that Christians are supposed to have? Expenses could be shared, and there would be no need to keep up one hundred separate buildings, each with its own pastor. Think of how much more money these churches would have to minister to the disadvantaged and marginalized. Yet, I know that having a one-stop church shopping center would never work. Why? Because every church thinks that they are special, and without them, bad things would happen in their communities. I have had more than a few Evangelicals argue that without churches, communities would become dens of iniquity and immorality. Churches are lighthouses in their communities, these Evangelical defenders say. I am convinced, however, that most churches could close their doors and no one outside of the membership would even notice. There are six churches within three miles or so of my home. These churches are filled with decent, kind, loving Midwestern farm folks, much like the people I mentioned at the start of this post. To them, their churches matter, but for those of us who sit outside of the church, we wonder what community good is being done by these churches? I suspect if these six nearby churches closed tomorrow, there would be no qualitative difference in the community in the weeks and months that follow.

For Evangelicals who stumble upon this post, I would ask them to be honest. Take a hard look at what your church does ministry-wise, and ask yourselves, are we doing anything that really matters? Are we doing anything outside of the four walls of our churches that justify us receiving a tax exemption and being financially supported by taxpayers? Well, indignant Evangelicals might say, our churches are focused on getting people saved. We don’t worry about temporal needs. Better to go to heaven hungry, than to hell with a full stomach. But even here, most Evangelical churches fail in their mission. Church baptismals are used to store Christmas decorations, with many churches rarely baptizing new converts. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest non-Catholic denomination in America — largely Evangelical — is known for its evangelistic efforts. Yet, most SBC churches baptize a few or no new converts. When new Evangelical churches are planted, most of their attendance growth comes, not from people getting saved, but by people leaving their churches and joining the new one. In nearby Defiance, there are several hot-to-trot Evangelical churches that are growing by leaps and bounds. Most of the people flooding into these churches come from nearby established congregations. We Americans are never satisfied with what we have. We are always looking for the latest and greatest whatever, and this applies to churches too. Bored Evangelicals seek out new thrills, using excuses such as “my needs are not being met” or “I’m not being fed” to justify their wanderlust. New churches grow, and established churches decline. While it seems that God is “moving “in these new churches, what’s really happening is that people are just changing pews.

While there certainly are a small number of churches that take seriously Christ’s command to minister to “the least of these,” most are social clubs that exist for the benefit of their membership. I don’t have a problem with this. People should be allowed to belong to whatever club they want. But I do object to taxpayer money being used to support these clubs. Churches should be required to fill out annual reporting forms that justify the tax exemption they receive. If most of their income is not being used for charitable means, then they should not be tax-exempt. Personally, I would like to see the Johnson amendment (please read The Johnson Amendment: I Agree With Donald Trump.) revoked. Churches and their ministers should be treated like any other business, with their income subject to taxation. Only congregations that can demonstrate that they exist for charitable purposes would be granted tax exemption. Like other charities, these churches would annually be required to justify their continued tax exemption. I suspect that less than ten percent of churches would qualify for tax exemption. Out of the almost three hundred churches in the Tri-County area where I live, I don’t know of one church that would qualify. No matter how many youth groups return from mission trips with stories of mighty works done for Jesus, and no matter how many “ministries” churches list on their website, the fact remains that most of the money collected goes toward making sure pastures are maintained and sheep are well fed.

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 contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

Evangelicals Ask, “What Should We Do About Bruce?”

what happened to you

It has been seventeen years since I last pastored a church. While I had many opportunities to pastor again in the years before my deconversion, I was no longer willing to go through the dog-and-pony show required to get a new gig. I was unwilling to put my family through any more new church experiences. I came to see that I sold my services too cheaply. I allowed churches to take advantage of the Gerencser family. Churches were quite willing to keep us in the poor house for the sake of the kingdom of God and the churches’ checkbook balances. I also came to the conclusion that many churches deserve to die, and, quite frankly, many of the churches that contacted me about becoming their pastor didn’t deserve the dedication and effort I would give them.

Long before I made an intellectual decision about the truthfulness of the Bible and Christianity, I lost faith in the church and the work of the ministry. I am now an atheist because I no longer believe Christianity’s central claims to be true, but in 2003 I still loved Jesus but I didn’t love his church. I lost heart for that which I had spent most of my adult life doing. As is the case for many atheists, especially those who were once devoted followers of Jesus, my intellectual journey out of Christianity began with a crisis of faith.

I was a good pastor, a hard-working man who rarely took a day off. I always put the church first. The church bills always got paid before I did.  I worked seven days a week for poverty wages, with no benefits or insurance. Not one of the churches I pastored ever offered any form of benefit package or insurance. One church even expected me to pay special speakers out of my own pocket. After all, I wasn’t working on that Sunday, the speaker was.

Granted, I willingly lived this way. No one forced me to do so. I want to be clear, lest anyone should say I’m whining or bitter. I CHOSE to live this way. While I think some of the churches I pastored were indifferent or callous toward the needs of their pastor and his family, I could have decided to leave the ministry and take a secular job. I didn’t because I felt a sense of divine calling, and if suffering and doing without were a part of fulfilling that calling, so be it.

People I once pastored or were friends with continue to be shocked when they find out that I not only have left the ministry, but I am also an atheist.  Some people are so shocked that they can’t even talk to me about it. Several former parishioners have told me that they find my deconversion quite unsettling to their own faith, so they stay away from me.

Often, these people turn to religiously praying for me. One church, after its pastor heard that I had left the faith, held regular prayer meetings on my behalf. They stormed the portals of Heaven for the sake of my soul, all to no avail. Other people resort to sending me letters, emails, books, tracts, etc. Somehow, they naïvely think that they or some author is going to tell me something that I’ve never heard before. Solomon was right when he said, There’s nothing new under the sun. I can’t imagine what a Christian could say or show me that would cause me to say, Wow! I’ve never seen that before. Jesus, I’m sorry for my unbelief. Please save me, amen. It’s not going to happen.

Several years ago, I stumbled upon a discussion that those involved thought was private (a friend of mine emailed me about the discussion. I signed up for the forum where it was taking place using a fake name). The discussion centered upon, as one man put it, What should we do about Bruce?

No one had yet put forth an answer to his question, but having had lots of experience with people trying to figure out what to do with me, I thought I would venture a few answers of my own.

  • By all means, gossip about me and question my salvation, ministry, and life. Just do what Jesus would do.
  • By all means, write cryptic blog posts about me in the hope of making yourself feel better about my defection from the faith. Nothing like straightening out a heretic to make oneself feel better.
  • By all means, send me religious books. They sell well on eBay.
  • By all means, pray night and day for me. Keep begging God to bring me back into the fold. I know how important this is to you. If I remain an apostate, it calls into question your faith. After all, you were saved under and baptized by a God-called preacher who may have NEVER been saved. This is kind of like having Judas for your pastor.
  • By all means, mention me in your sermons. I know how much a good illustration can spice up a sermon.
  • By all means, keep doing all these things, forever reminding me of some of the reasons I left the ministry and ultimately abandoned Christianity.

I am convinced that most Evangelicals cannot truly be friends with someone such as myself. The urge to evangelize, witness, convert, call to repentance and straighten out is just too great. Evangelicals are like a teenage boy browsing the pages of Hustler magazine. The urge to masturbate is too great for the boy to refrain. So it is with God’s chosen ones. They have a pathological need to fix what they perceive is wrong with me, regardless of the fact that I am fine, not needing repair.

Their world has no place for people like me. It has no place for those who are not just like them. Their world is a narrow, homogeneous place, neatly divided into saved and lost. While Evangelicals will make forays into the world to evangelize, to do necessary secular business, and to earn a living, once their work is complete, they retire to the safe, Jesus-protected confines of their homes and churches. They dare not linger in Sodom lest they be tainted by sin and worldliness.

Fortunately, the world has made inroads into their homes. The Internet, with its websites and blogs, gives them a front-row seat to the world. Those who once knew me will type “Bruce Gerencser” in a search box and hit enter (which people do multiple times a day). And once they do, they are one click away from this blog. Their search began with the thought, I wonder what happened to Bruce?  It’s not long, then, before their thoughts turn to LOOK AT WHAT HAPPENED TO BRUCE!!!

These Bruce-sleuths continue to read, and thanks to the server logs, I know what they have read. I now know that they are aware of what has happened to the man they once called pastor, preacher, or friend. What will they do now?

Pray? Call me to repentance? Call me out on their blogs? Leave a comment on this blog? Try to evangelize me or win me back to Jesus? Think of what a prize I would be: an Evangelical-pastor-turned-atheist reclaimed for the glory of God. In fact, I bet I could make a lot of money with a shtick like that.

It’s been twelve years now since I said to the world that I was no longer a Christian. Millions of Christians (according to page views) have read my writing, and some of them have tried to reclaim me for Jesus. While their attempts certainly provide me with writing opportunities, their efforts have miserably failed. Perhaps Evangelicals need to change their approach. Forget trying to evangelize me or show me the error of my way. Instead, listen carefully to my story. Attempt to understand and learn. I still have much to offer the Christian church, as do many of my fellow apostates. We’re still preaching and maybe, just maybe, we’ve got something to say.

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 contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

Advice for Young Pastors From an Ex-Evangelical Preacher

bruce polly gerencser our fathers house west unity
Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio Circa 2000

Years ago, I wrote the following post for the Ex-Pastors website. I thought readers of this blog might find it interesting, so I am re-posting it here. Recently, I noticed that an Evangelical writer quoted this article several times in his book. I wonder if he knew I was now an atheist? Regardless of my “relationship” with God, what follows is still good advice for men and women who desire to serve God and man in the ministry.

Young preachers begin the ministry with a lot of fervor and idealism. They go to their first church believing they are going to make a difference, that they are going to be able to do what others before them have not done.

For a time it may seem that they are succeeding in changing the church but then the honeymoon period ends and the preacher realizes that being a pastor is not what they thought it would be. Sometimes this is so devastating to the young preacher that they leave the ministry. The number of one and done pastors is quite high. Being a pastor over a long period of time requires a preacher to lose their idealism and forces them to temper their fervor.

Why?

There are several things that every young preacher must understand about every church: People are people.

There is a power base in every church.

Problems in the church are rarely exposed to prospective pastors.

Moderate, incremental change is difficult. Dramatic, instant change is almost always impossible (because people are people and the power base will resist any change that robs them of their power).

Here are a few suggestions that I hope will be a help to every young preacher that reads this post:

1. Don’t confuse your self-identity with the church. Far too many pastors allow themselves to be swallowed up by the church, losing their self-identity in the process.

2. Don’t sacrifice your children or spouse for the sake of the church. Trust me, 25 years later, the church will have long since forgotten you and your sacrifice will mean little.

3. Choose which battles are worth fighting. Not every hill is worth dying on and not every challenge to your authority of leadership is worthy of a fight. Remember, the church is not your church. You, along with people who likely have been there for many years, are simply caretakers of the church.

4. Be willing to say, I don’t know. I realize this puts you at great risk of being unemployed (since church members crave certainty) but speaking with certainty when you know there is none is lying and dishonest.

5. Be aware of the traps that can destroy your ministry, especially the big 2 – money and women. Never touch the money and never allow yourself to be put in a position where moral compromise is possible.

6. Insist that the church pay you well. Do not be a full-time worker for part-time pay. It is OK to pastor churches that cannot pay you a living wage, but the church must understand that you have an obligation to your family and you must work a job outside the church to properly provide for them.

7. Make sure there is an annual pay review procedure in place. You should not have to beg for a raise. Make sure you have an employment contract where the job requirements, pay level, benefits, pay review period, and termination procedure is clearly laid out. If a church is unwilling to put all of this in writing, what does that tell you?

8. If at all possible, own your own home. Someday you will not be a pastor. Someday you will be old and retired. Then what? Where will you live? Churches can rent out the parsonage and provide you with a housing allowance. Remember, most of the church members are building equity in their home and you should be able to do the same.

9. Insist that the church pays into a 401K that you own. Do not let anyone convince you to opt out of Social Security. It “sounds” OK now but when you are old you will regret it. What happens if you are disabled and have not paid into Social Security? You are out of luck.

10. Make sure that all sacrifice is shared. Remember it is not your church and it is not you alone who is responsible for “saving” the church from whatever crisis it faces.

11. Don’t use your wife and children as gophers and fill-ins every time something needs to be done at the church. Insist that church members take ownership of the church and do the work necessary to maintain the church and do what is necessary to keep the church functioning.

12. Don’t be in a hurry to find a church to pastor. A lot of churches that are looking for pastors don’t deserve a pastor. They have chewed up and spit out the last five preachers before you and, trust me, they will do the same to you. Let them die.

13. If a community already has X number of churches, don’t delude yourself with thinking that if you started a new, exciting church that it would be different than all the rest. It won’t. People are people and churches are pretty much all the same. Don’t flatter yourself.

14. Focus on people that need help. Focus on the least of these. By all means, offer them Jesus but do not neglect their physical needs. The greatest difference you can make in a person’s life it to help them when they are in the gutter and help them rise out of poverty. Above all, be their friend.

15. Visit regularly in the homes of the people you pastor. Get to know them. Allow them to be honest with you and ask you whatever question they want. Eat their food, take them out to eat and pay the bill. Don’t smother them but don’t neglect them either.

16. Don’t get sucked into buildings and programs that the church does not need. Rather than building a fancy new building, complete with gymnasium, think about maximizing what you have so more money can be given to the poor. If church members want to play basketball or do Pilates, they can go to the gym.

17. Do everything you can to integrate the youth into the church. They should be stakeholders. After all, they are the future of the church. This does not mean that you must become one of them. There is nothing more embarrassing than a pastor who tries to act like a teenager. Grow up and be a good example.

18. Work hard and be honest. Don’t be the kind of preacher that gives all preachers a bad name. Just because you are the pastor of a church doesn’t mean you are entitled to special treatment. Don’t ask for discounts and don’t expect people to favor you just because you pastor X church on Main St.

19. Don’t tell anyone you are a preacher. Don’t self-promote. Don’t insist people call you Reverend or pastor. Be an authentic human being, complete with faults and frailties. Don’t be afraid to admit to the church that you are a failure, that you are no better than anyone else.

20. Don’t let people put you on a pedestal. Trust me, falls off the pedestal are nasty.

21. Above all, understand that life is more, far more, than the ministry. Stop and take time to enjoy life, to enjoy the world you say your God created.

The advice I give here flows out of a lifetime in the Christian church and 25 years in the pastorate. I hope some young preacher might find what I have written above helpful.

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 contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

Why I “Retired” from the Ministry

i quit

What follows is a post I wrote detailing the reasons why I retired from the ministry in 2005. When I wrote this, I had not yet declared myself an atheist/agnostic. As you will see, I was still clinging, ever so precariously, to my Christian beliefs. I hope you will find this post instructive and helpful in your own journey.

Originally written in 2008. Slightly edited, revised, and corrected.

I am often questioned about why I retired from the ministry. I started preaching as a teenage boy and I pastored my first church at age 24. Since then I have pastored churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan, with my last pastorate being in 2003 (I candidated for several Southern Baptist churches in 2005). I have been married over 30 years, and I have spent my entire married life in the ministry.

Acquaintances, family, and friends are often miffed about why I walked away from the ministry. Why quit preaching? I am often asked. Surely there’s a church somewhere for you to pastor? Surely you still “want” to pastor? If God called you. how can you walk away from his calling?

Good questions, and quite frankly, I have more questions these days than I do answers. What follows is my attempt to shed some light on the “why” question.

Why did I retire from the ministry?

  • I retired because the word “retire” is a better word than “quit.” I don’t want to be known as a quitter. I was told my whole life by my peers that God hates quitters. I can still hear the scathing words of Tom Malone and Jack Hyles ringing in my ears as they skinned quitters alive in their sermons. So I use the word retire but, truth be told, I have just plain quit.
  • For health reasons. I have Fibromyalgia. I am in constant pain. Last year I was tested for MS and the tests were inconclusive. I have numbness in my face, hands, and legs. My doctor ruefully told me that he is uncertain as to what my actual neurological problem is. I’ll just have to wait to see what “breaks.” I am a type A, perfectionist workaholic. I worked myself into a physical collapse, foolishly thinking that anyone cared how hard I worked. God didn’t, and neither did the people I pastored.
  • For family reasons. I sacrificed my family and my marriage for a mistress called the Church. I lived for the Church. I was willing to die for the Church. I worked long hours for lousy pay. I allowed my family and my wife to become appendages to the work I was doing. They were the default clean-up, tear-down crew and did all the jobs no one else wanted to do. Our family was so wrapped up in the Church that we lost our self-identity. I want my children to know me for more than just being a pastor. I want my wife to have a husband who doesn’t always put her second to the Church. Whoever said “you must sacrifice your family for the sake of your calling” is not only wrong but also a destroyer of families. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that family comes first.
  • Changing theology. My theology is undergoing a complete and thorough overhaul. I entered the ministry as a Fundamentalist Baptist. I have become, over time, progressive in my thinking and I now identify with liberal causes and beliefs. I am not the man I once was, but neither am I the man I want to be. As my friend Tammy Schoch told me recently, “it is normal in mid-age to reevaluate one’s beliefs and to readjust or change your beliefs accordingly.”
  • Thomas Merton and Wendell Berry. These two writers have fundamentally changed how I look at the world and how I view my place in it. I have come to realize that I spent most of my adult life wasting my time with a religion that made no difference in the world I live in and a religion I have increasingly come to believe doesn’t do much to prepare us for the next life either.
  • The meaninglessness of vast parts of American Christianity. I now realize that most of what we do in Christianity doesn’t amount to much of anything. We seem to spend most of our time and effort making sure we have things to spend most of our time and effort on. We collect money so we can spend the money so we can collect money so we can spend the money . . . it seems that much of our work is simply done to keep the Titanic floating. Little progress is made in truly making a difference in the world.
  • Changing understanding of the Bible. I started out in the ministry as a King James-Only, every-word-of-the-Bible-is-inerrant believer. I have come to understand that such a belief is not only unsustainable theologically but is absolutely irrational. I no longer use the Bible as a science or history textbook and I no longer need to read any particular systematic theology into the text in order to enjoy reading the Bible. I simply enjoy reading the Biblical narrative for its own sake. It now speaks to me in ways I never thought possible.
  • Meeting people of other religious faiths or no faith at all. I was blessed with Catholic daughters-in-law. They forced me to come to terms with my deep-seated hatred for any religion but my own. As you may well know, we Baptists hate Catholics. The big change for me was when I attended a Midnight Christmas mass with my wife and some of our children. What a beautiful and powerful service. It shook my bigoted bones right down to my core.
  • Gandhi. Gandhi showed me the way of peace, of non-violent resistance. Of course, according to my Baptist beliefs, Gandhi is burning in Hell right at this moment. I no longer believe that, and I do not believe such vengeful hate by God is consistent with His love and mercy. I have abandoned the classic Baptist understanding of hell and I believe in annihilation. My beliefs are becoming more and more universalist as I go along. I will leave it to God to sort out the “who is in and who is not.”
  • For mental health reasons. I came to the realization that I was full of fear and regret. I feared God and I regretted wasting my life serving a deity I only served out of fear. No matter how perfect I was, no matter how much I did, I simply couldn’t meet God’s standard (or that of the men who spoke for God). I despaired for my life. I have since been introduced to a God who loves and has mercy and who does not use fear in his dealings with his children.
  • For my kids and grandkids. I want to know my kids and grandkids. I want to be more than just a religious guru to them. I want to be able to enjoy THIS life with them without everything revolving around the NEXT life. I struggle with the “dad doesn’t go to Church any more” . . . but I hope in time I can have a relationship with my kids and grandkids that doesn’t revolve around religion. Yes, I still want to talk about God, but I also want to enjoy the day-to-day things of life and I want to share those things with my kids and grandkids.
  • Guilt. This is the biggest problem I face — guilt over how I have lived my life, how I wasted my life, and how I hurt my family. I am sure some pious soul is going to tell me “Get over it and move on with life.” I wish I could, but I can’t. Until I can come to terms with the past 30 or 40 years, I cannot move forward from here. I am sure my wife is tired of me living in 1985 or 1994, but I must resolve the issues that plague me before I can move forward. I am making progress in this area and I plan to start on a book in the new year titled “From Eternity to Here.” Several people, I respect greatly have suggested that writing a book might be cathartic, just what I need to move my life forward.(I still want to write a book, but I fear physically it is an impossible goal.)
  • I simply don’t want to be in the ministry anymore. I have no desire for it and I do not want to give the requisite time necessary to be a “good” pastor. I believe I still have good teaching skills and I have a sincere desire to be a help to others, but I do not want to exercise my gifts in a traditional Church setting. I have wasted enough time already and I don’t want to waste anymore.

I could pastor a church tomorrow if I wanted to. Thousands of churches are without pastors. Most of them don’t deserve to have another pastor. They have chewed up and spit out the previous 20 pastors and they will do the same to the next one. Quite frankly, many Churches just need to die. As I look back at how willing I was to sacrifice so small Churches could have a “full time” pastor, I am ashamed of myself. Living on food stamps, with my kids wearing hand-me-down clothes, all so people could say “we have a full-time pastor and he has kids” The most I ever made in the ministry, counting housing, salary and reimbursements, was $26,000. While everyone else progressed economically, my family was supposed to settle for welfare wages and a chicken or two. I never pastored a church that took it upon themselves to offer me a raise. I had to ask, and often plead and beg, to get a raise. I saw their cars and houses. I saw their material stores, yet I was just supposed to sing “Oh how I love Jesus, thank you for keeping me poor.”

The most prosperous times of my life came when I was bi-vocational. I managed restaurants, sold insurance, delivered newspapers, pumped gas, and managed government grant programs. In retrospect, I should have always been bi-vocational. I should not have allowed the church to keep me poor. My problem was that I could never do anything half-way. I still can’t. So while I worked a full-time secular job, I also worked the church job full-time. I often worked 60 or 70 hours a week, rarely taking a day off. Vacations? We only took them if I was preaching a conference somewhere. Dates with my wife? Only if there was a church outing to go to.

I realize some of this sounds like the grousing of a bitter old man. I shall plead guilty to that charge. I am bitter at times, and as the Dixie Chicks said “I am not ready to make nice.” I fully accept my own culpability in the affairs of my life. I write for the sake of my family and for the sake of my own mental health. I also write this as a warning to young pastors who are tempted to take the same path I took.

I will stop writing this with the sharing of the biggest breakthrough in my life over the past few months. I spent my life “living for Jesus and Living for Others.” I bought into the mantra of Jesus First, Others Second, and Bruce doesn’t matter. I spent far too much time worrying about what others thought of me, of how they viewed my ministry and family.

My big breakthrough is pretty simple. I have come to the place where I don’t give a shit about what others think of me or what I believe. I don’t give a shit that you are upset that I wrote the word shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. I simply don’t care. Things matter to me, but what someone thinks of me personally or what they think of my beliefs, I don’t care. It has been liberating to be delivered from the judgments of others.

Have you said WOW yet? I heard you!  Let me paraphrase Thomas Merton. People were upset with Merton because his beliefs were always changing, always in motion. He said he frustrated his critics because just when they thought they had him pinned down on an issue, they found out he had already move on to something else.

That’s me, always moving, until the heart stops beating.

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 contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

How a Dislocated Finger Almost Got Me Kicked Out of Bible College

midwestern baptist college freshman class 1976
Midwestern Baptist College Freshman Class 1976. Polly Shope, first person on left, first row. Bruce Gerencser, eighth person from left, third row. Weren’t we cute?

In late August, 1976, I packed up my meager earthly goods, put them in my Plymouth Valiant, and trekked two and half hours north from Bryan, Ohio to Pontiac, Michigan so I could enroll for ministerial classes at Midwestern Baptist College. I parked my dilapidated car in front of the dorm (which housed two floors of men and one of women) and unloaded my clothing, books, food stuffs, and a few pictures. My first roommates were Toby Todd and an older man named Dale Wilson. Several months I later moved to another room. My roommates were the only black man in the dormitory: Fred Gilyard, Jack Workman, and Wendell Uhl, who was a rambunctious, thrill-seeking man who would later be expelled from school for writing his unique initials in a school monument’s freshly poured cement.

I had three goals I hoped to achieve while attending Midwestern:

  • Prepare for the ministry
  • Date a lot of girls
  • Play sports

Now, when I say play sports, I am not talking about college sports as most readers think of when thinking about collegiate sports. The enrollment at Midwestern was around four hundred students. The college had an astronomical drop-out rate — over seventy-percent. There was a constant stream of new talent for the college’s basketball program. I was one such player. I was six feet tall and weighed one hundred sixty pounds. I loved playing basketball, having played high school city league basketball three years for Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. The team was coached by the chairman of the drama department. He was fired my sophomore year of college for having an affair with the wife of the dean of men.

The coach was a player-coach. Many of the players were older men, some in their thirties. Midwestern’s basketball team was very much a collection of misfits — at best an intramural team. Regardless of the quality of the team, I very much wanted to play basketball for Midwestern Baptist College. The college’s founder, Dr. Tom Malone, was an avid basketball player. He was in his 60s at the time. I played many a pick-up game with Dr. Malone. He was a hard-nosed player. He sent many a student packing over complaints about fouls. No blood, no foul, was Dr. Malone’s style of play; a style, by the way, that agreed with me. I loved playing rough, physical basketball.

Midwestern’s team was made up of all comers. I expressed my interest in playing and began attending practices. I thoroughly enjoyed playing with my fellow teammates, and I was looking forward to helping Midwestern vanquish other nearby Fundamentalist Baptist college basketball teams. Unfortunately, something happened that would permanently derail my college basketball career.

car I took to college
A 1970 (I think) Plymouth Valiant. A month before I left for college, a drunk pulled out from the Glass Bar in Stryker, Ohio and hit me, damaging the grill and ruining the radiator. I installed a new radiator, but Ieft the grill area as is.

One early evening at practice, I jumped up to block the shot of a fellow teammate. As I forcefully slapped the ball, I dislocated the middle finger of my left hand, jamming the finger into my knuckle. I was taken to the emergency room where the doctor attempted to reset my finger. After several careful attempts to do so, the doctor said, well, this is going to hurt! He made sure the bed wheels were locked, put his foot on the bar along the bottom on the bed, and with my mangled finger in his hand, forcefully yanked my dislocated finger back into place. He was right about the pain. I screamed and said a few Christian swear words (See Christian Swear Words), but I was grateful my finger was back in place. I left the hospital with a splint on my hand. This injury put an end to my college basketball career.

Midwestern had a strict dress code. Male students were required to wear ties to classes. One early morning, I met Polly in the dorm common room and asked her to tie my tie for me. No big deal, right? One fellow Christian helping another one, I thought at the time. I found it impossible to tie my tie with one hand, and I didn’t think anyone would mind if my girlfriend helped me out. Boy, was I wrong. Sitting in the common room was a Pharisaical couple who deemed our tie-tying endeavor a violation of the college’s six-inch rule — a decree that said unmarried male and female dorm students couldn’t have any physical contact. (See Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six Inch Rule)

Come the following Tuesday, Polly and I were called before the college’s disciplinary committee to answer for our “sin.” There were three men on the disciplinary committee, Gary Mayberry, the dean of men, Don Zahurance, and another man whose name I can’t remember. Polly and I were excoriated for breaking the six-inch rule. Zahurance, in particular, grilled us, asking if we “enjoyed” touching one another; if we got a “thrill” out of physical contact. Today, I would have said, YES, DUMB ASS, WE DID!  However, not wanting to be expelled, Polly and I endured their intrusive, offensive inquisition. We were given twenty-five demerits and told that if we had any physical contact again we would be expelled.

Their attempt to put the fear of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) God into us failed. We would spend the next eighteen months finding ways to engage in damnable sins such as holding hands, kissing, and hugging. On weekends, we would double-date with likeminded students. I won’t tell if you won’t, was the rule. We hugged and kissed our way to July 15, 1978, our wedding day. Finally, no more demerits for getting too close to the love of my life!

I know this story sounds almost unbelievable to some of you, but it did happen. Attending Midwestern Baptist College was like living in an alternate universe. Polly and I now laugh about our days as Midwestern students, but there was a day when we feared being exposed for acting like normal, heterosexual humans act. We feared being reported to the disciplinary committee for daring to touch one another. The cruelty of Midwestern’s disciplinary system was that it allowed anonymous students to report offenders. There was a box outside of the dean of men’s office for disciplinary slips. Only certain students were allowed to write someone up. Generally, freshmen were not permitted to write anyone up. Ironically the upperclassmen who reported us for breaking the six-inch rule? It was later rumored that they were going all-in on breaking the six-inch rule and having sex. Hypocrisy abounded at Midwestern. The couple who reported us is now faithfully pastoring an IFB church. I am sure they preach against teens and unmarried adults having physical contact with each other before marriage, conveniently burying their own sexual indiscretion in the dust of the past.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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

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

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

Bruce Gerencser